For any visitor to Dublin in the early 19th century, to miss seeing the great Daniel O’Connell would have made their visit almost worthless. William Makepeace Thackeray, on the threshold of becoming one of the greatest writers of the English language, spent three months touring Ireland in 1842 collecting his impressions of the ‘manners and the scenery’ of the country and its people, for his successful Irish Sketch Book published some years later. Back in Dublin at the conclusion of his tour he lost no time heading to the Mansion House to see the Liberator in person.*
O’Connell was the Lord Mayor at the time. At the Mansion House (a ‘dingy abode’ according to Thackeray, whose opinion of the great man was not much better but more subtly put ), O’Connell officiated at a full council meeting ‘in a brilliant robe of crimson velvet, ornamented with white satin bows and sable collar, in an enormous cocked-hat, like a slice of an eclipsed moon….Seated around ‘a dingy green table’ where the aldermen and councillors who were involved ‘in a debate of thrilling interest, related I think to water pipes…’
Thackeray observes that ‘the great man did not speak publicly, but was occupied at the end of the table, giving audiences to at least a score of clients and petitioners.’
The next day Thackeray sees him again at the famous Corn Exchange, a building ‘that without has a substantial look, but the hall within is rude, dirty and ill-kept.’ This time O’Connell was addressing a large crowd on the progress of his Repeal Bill, which he surmised that when Repeal takes place ‘commerce and prosperity would instantly flow into the country, its innumerable harbours would fill with countless ships, its immense water-power would be directed to the turning of myriad of mills, its vast energies and resources brought into full action’. His speech was constantly interrupted by cheers and cries of ‘Hear! Hear!’
At the end of the report: ‘three cheers were given for Repeal, and in the midst of great shouting Mr O’Connell leaves the room’.
“Mr Quiglan, Mr Quiglan,” roars an active aide-de-camp to the door-keeper, “a covered kyar for the Lard Mayre.” The covered car came; I saw his lordship get into it.’
Thackeray’s visit to Dublin also coincided with O’Connell’s ‘rent day,’ money collected for the promotion of his cause, this time his Repeal of the Act of Union. The walls of the city had been placarded with huge notices announcing that the O’Connell’s rent-day was on Sunday.
Thackeray did the rounds of all the churches to see for himself this wonder, that ‘at every door plate-holders received heaps of pence, at humble entrances; and bank-notes at the front gates,’ told the willingness of the people to reward their champion.
Even the car-boy who drove him around had paid his ‘little tribute of four-pence at morning Mass,’ and the waiter, who had brought him his breakfast ‘had added to the national subscription with his humble shilling’. The Catholic gentleman with whom Thackeray dined that evening, and ‘between whom and Mr O’Connell there is no great love lost, paid his annual donation, out of gratitude for old services, and to the man who won Catholic Emancipation for Ireland.’ Thackeray had to be impressed.
Thackeray left Galway for Mayo though the ‘little hamlet of Leenane,’ and at the end of his book he prepares to leave Ireland, and to come to terms with the kaleidoscopic impressions the country made upon him. In summing up his opinion about Ireland he wants to tell the truth, but admits that there are two truths in Ireland: a Protestant truth and a Catholic truth, each swearing that what each side says is true.
But from his observations Thackeray offers his opinion that ‘wretched as it is, the country is steadily advancing … and let us hope that the ‘middle class’, which this increase of prosperity must generate (and of which our laws have hitherto forbidden the existence of in Ireland, making there a population of Protestant aristocracy and Catholic peasantry ), will exercise the greatest and most beneficial influence over the country….
‘It is rather the want of the middle class that has rendered the squire so arrogant, and the clerical or political demagogue so powerful; and I think Mr O’Connell himself would say that the existence of such a body would do more for the steady acquirement of orderly freedom, than the occasional outbreak of any crowd, influenced by any eloquence from altar or tribune.’
Even if Ireland, however, was ‘steadily advancing,’ as Thackeray hopes, his magnificent sweep through pre- Famine Ireland gives us a valuable and vivid picture of some of its character, landscapes and some little improvements; but above all we see its fragility in the face of the coming Great Famine which would claim the lives of at least 1 million people, and prompt an emigration trail that continued well into the next century.
* Daniel O’Connell (1775 - 1847 ) is one of the great giants of Irish History, if not the greatest. He succeeded in breaking the Penal Law barrier which for 150 years had denied Catholics from acceding to any worthwhile profession, education or land-ownership.
The eldest of ten children, Daniel came from a well-off farming family in Kerry, whose wealth was greatly supplemented by the patriarch of the family his uncle Muirís a Chaipín (hunticap ), who, despite political constraints of the time, had amassed considerable wealth as a farmer, merchant and smuggler.
Because of the Penal Laws restricting the education of Catholics, Muirís sponsored Daniel’s education in France. Although prevented from entering the higher echelons of the law he became a brilliant barrister, and the kind of cross-examiner you want to have on your side in court.
O’Connell became involved in politics and quickly decided to attack the heart of the matter, by challenging the embargo on Catholics from taking a seat in the House of Commons. In a brilliant move to unite Catholics behind his challenge, the Catholic Association, formed to help his cause, asked its members to contribute one penny per month. This appeal was widely supported, which transformed O’Connell’s crusade into a mass movement. Practically every Catholic had a sense of involvement.
After an extraordinary election campaign, during which popular excitement rose to fever pitch, and enormous crowds marched and demonstrated, yet remained remarkably disciplined, in 1829 O’Connell won the parliamentary seat for Co Clare against the out-going Protestant member.
It immediately presented the British government with a problem as all MPs were required to take an oath acknowledging the monarch as the supreme head of the church, to which Catholics would not acknowledge. With such widespread support throughout Ireland the British government, looking over its shoulder at France, was aware that to refuse O’Connell could lead to revolution. Much to the dismay of King George IV the oath of admission was changed.
O’Connell became known throughout Ireland as the Liberator, and became an inspiration for Catholic liberals throughout Europe. He was an unwavering ally of American slaves, and of the disenfranchised British Jews. He had bitter enemies, but was adored by Catholic Ireland.
O’Connell’s next challenge was to repeal the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, and restore parliament to Dublin. His ‘Repeal’ campaign, which again involved enormous meetings including one at Shantalla, Galway, and at Clifden, ultimately, was not successful. Catholics rich and poor, continued to contribute to his fund, which Thackeray witnessed. O’Connell died aged 72 years on May 15 1847.
According to the French novelist and playwright, Honoré de Balzac, O’Connell and Napoleon were the only great men of the 19th century. In contrast to Napoleon, however, O’Connell’s achievement was, in the words of Aodh Mac Domhnaill, won by ‘ Ní le gunnaí nó púdar / Ach le briathra breá cumhra / Mar bholadh na n-úlla (Not with guns or gunpowder/But with fine, sweet words/Like the scent of apples ).