Having got him there, Clifden was not going to let Daniel O’Connell go easily. The meeting, on the edge of the town had been an unparalleled success, and the excitement prevailed. The organisers had constructed a huge pavilion ‘on the highest point of the town’, covered with canvass. It must have been of considerable size as 300 men sat at long tables, while 200 ladies sat in the adjoining galleries. At 8pm that Sunday evening, September 17 1843, O’Connell and other guests entered the pavilion with one of the Galway Temperance bands preceding him with lively tunes. His arrival was greeted with the ‘ most deafening cheers’, while the ladies waved scarves and handkerchiefs.
Rev Peter Fitzmaurice PP, who had initiated the invitation to O’Connell to come to Clifden, presided over the proceedings.* O’Connell sat on his right; and Archbishop MacHale on his left. Other dignitaries included the Right Hon Martin J fFrench, Daniel O’Connell, junior, Rev Dr Kirwan, Dr Grey (Freeman’s Journal ), Robert Dillion Brown MP, and Thomas Steele.
The constant heavy rain and high winds throughout the evening did little to dampen the spirits of everyone there. After the meal, ‘ which was most excellent, and exceedingly well served’ by Paul Carr, the proprietor of the Royal Mail Car Hotel (as Carr’s hotel was then known ), there were toasts, and more speeches. Rev Fitzmaurice complimented the people of Connemara on their conduct that day. He raised his glass to‘ the bone and sinew of every nation, the only true source of legitimate power’, the people. There were speeches from MacHale and MJ fFrench covering similar topics to those raised at the meeting earlier that day.
The Galway Vindicator concluded its report on the entire proceedings with the words:
‘The hour was about 12, and the banquet broke up. Thus concluded one of the most delightful and characteristic demonstrations for fatherland and liberty we have ever witnessed. So much for the Wild Spirit of the West.’
Opposed to violence
Yet despite the success of the Clifden and subsequent meetings, O’Connell was rapidly coming to the end of his power. The British government was now seriously alarmed at the huge crowds attracted to his ‘Monster’ meetings. One year after Clifden, O’Connell called for a great rally at Clontarf, the site of an ancient battle where in the 11th century the Irish king Brian Boru broke Viking power in Ireland. Dublin Castle immediately moved into action. It feared that associations with Boru’s victory over an invader could tip the balance from a meeting to a bloody confrontation.
The Clontarf meeting was proscribed, but that didn’t stop the crowds coming in their hundreds of thousands. It is said that one million people gathered at Clontarf on October 8 1844, only to be faced with a line of red coats, cannon and a demand for immediate disbandment, or face the consequences.
The young men around O’Connell urged him to hold the meeting, and defy the ban. There was confusion. But in the end O’Connell could not risk a massacre. He reluctantly ordered that the meeting be abandoned. Sensing it had tripped up O’Connell at last, Dublin Castle ordered his arrest. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and fined £2,000.
There was a national and international outcry at the treatment of O’Connell. He served three months in Richmond jail. On his release, on September 1844, Rev Peter Fitzmaurice began to prepare a series of celebrations in Clifden. With the people of the town he began to build a triumphal arch in the town’s square. Bonfires were being prepared, and the local Temperance band began to march up and down. But the authorities had sensed that O’Connell’s power was waning. The unpopular Hyacinth Darcy, the local magistrate, immediately forbade any such display of celebration. He patrolled the town with police enforcements, and ordered the crowds to return to their homes. In defiance, one bonfire was lit on the hill overlooking the town, probably on the site where Hyancinth’s father, John Darcy, is buried.
The radical young men who had supported O’Connell up to Clontarf, now deserted him. A desertion that wounded O’Connell more than his imprisonment. Even though he was treated well in prison, O’Connell’s spirit was broken. With his health failing, he set out on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1847. O’Connell died in Genoa on May 15, aged 71 years. According to his dying wish his heart was buried in Rome at Sant’Agata dei Goti, then the chapel of the Irish College. The remainder of his body was returned to Ireland the following August, and buried in Glasnevin cemetery, in a magnificent crypt beneath a round tower.
O’Connell’s death had echoes of the departure of the ancient knight Lohengrin in Wagner’s opera. He left behind a country weeping for what might have been.
There is one final irony. When on that glorious occasion O’Connell addressed the meeting at Clifden, and was fated in a large pavilion in the town that evening, Archbishop MacHale of Tuam spoke after the dinner. During his speech he praised the fact that the Clifden workhouse, although newly finished, had remained closed. The archbishop referred to the workhouse system as ‘inhumane’, and ‘ prisons for the poor’.
Little did he realise that two or three years later the Clifden workhouse, along with every workhouse in Ireland, would be unable to cope with the numbers of despairing people who sought refuge there. In 1845 the first signs of potato blight began to appear. During the next five years Ireland would be changed forever by the Great Famine.
*NOTES: I am taking this from the excellent A Colony of Strangers - The founding and early history of Clifden, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, published earlier this year.