On Friday evening, September 15 1843, Daniel O’Connell, with a small group of close friends, including his son Daniel and Dr John Grey, proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, arrived in Galway. The excitement was intense. O’Connell, at 68 years of age, was at the height of his powers. Fourteen years previously he had succeeded in removing the oaths that had prevented Catholics from becoming members of parliament. He took his seat as MP for Clare, the first Irish Catholic to do so. His charismatic personality, brilliant oratory, and powerful intellect, had won him an enormous following, not only throughout Ireland but in Europe as well. His achievement earned him the title of The Liberator, which had all the resonance of an ancient and powerful king who had raised the sword of freedom.
In the 1840s, however, he was turning his attention on the Repeal of the Union. This was to win back the right of the Irish people to have their own parliament which it surrendered to England in 1800. He maintained that a Dublin parliament would not only revive the nation’s pride, but would generate wealth. Among other benefits O’Connell maintained that it would decide its own taxation for an Irish people. It would enable laws to be passed to tax absentee landlords, and to give greater security of tenure for tenants.
These were very popular sentiments with the majority of the people.
But not everyone, of course, agreed with his ambitious plan. His tactic was to address massive crowds, and the huge attendance at these so called ‘Monster Meetings’ was causing alarm in Dublin Castle. Such vast crowds, excited by O’Connell’s dream, could easily become a revolutionary force. In 1843 O’Connell addressed more than 40 such meetings. His non-violent campaign was gathering momentum, but was attracting more radical young men to its leadership such as Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon, Charles Gavin Duffy, and later John Mitchell. The authorities decided to watch and wait for the appropriate moment to stem this threatening mass movement.
O’Connell had addressed a large public meeting at Shantalla, Galway, the previous June*. Now he was on his way to address the people of Connemara who were to rally outside Clifden.
The two heroes
Understandably O’Connell was the darling of the Catholic church. Despite objections from the local magistrate Hyacinth Darcy (the unpopular son of the late John Darcy, the founder of Clifden in 1812 ), the invitation to speak at Clifden came from the local parish priest Rev Peter Fitzmaurice, supported by local shopkeepers, farmers and professionals of the district.**
O’Connell left Galway for Oughterard to spend the rest of the evening with its PP, Rev Kirwan; setting out early on Sunday morning at a smart pace in an open carriage. He was accompanied by two other priests, and the controversial Archbishop John McHale of Tuam. The Archbishop and O’Connell were locked into mutual admiration. O’Connell called McHale ‘The Lion of the West’; while McHale clearly had affection for O’Connell. Their open carriage was ‘ followed by a number of private cars and horsemen’.
The sight of the two heroes in their open carriage caused a sensation along the route to Clifden. People ran alongside O’Connell’s carriage, sometimes for miles, until they were ‘relieved by fresh groups who, in like manner, dropped off as others joined, thus forming a perpetual bodyguard of perhaps the most active and hardy peasantry in the world’.
Every cottage along the route had hung out a flag, made‘ from the shawls and handkerchiefs’ of the ‘peasant girls’, which flew in the breeze. Now the runners were joined by ‘troops of peasant cavalry’ who fell in behind the carriage in regular formation. At one point someone told O’Connell that as many as 500 horsemen were there. O’Connell made a joke that his visit had done something good for saddle makers.
Erupted with joy
In the meantime Clifden was going daft with excitement. All the previous day, The Galway Vindicator tells us, ‘ The town was illuminated in expectation of his arrival, and its streets crowded with those who flocked from all parts to meet him. All was anxiety and bustle, and the most cordial welcome awaited every one who arrived to be present at the demonstration the next day.’
The Galway Temperance bands (one in green, the other in blue and white uniforms ), paraded through the town all that Saturday night‘ arousing the town from its slumbers by some spirit-stirring national music’. On Sunday morning they led huge crowds to the meeting place on fields close to the waterfall.
A platform for the speakers had been raised. The vast crowds took up their positions‘ on the broad breast of the mountains’. The different craftsmen and trades planted their flags on the high ground and‘ the bands from their very summits playing God save the Queen, and the Conquering Hero’. A little before four in the afternoon the procession reached the outskirts of the town, going directly to the meeting place. The crowd erupted with joy. The Galway Vindicator wrote ,‘ a more exhilarating or magnificent scene could not be witnessed’...
And guess what? The rain came down, not the soft drizzle of the west, but in saturating torrents.
Next week: A washout or triumph?
NOTES: * Paul McGinley wrote about that meeting on this page, available on archive or on Google, January 8 2009.
** I am leaning heavily on Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s excellent A Colony of Strangers - The founding and early history of Clifden, published earlier this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the town.