Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator

O'Connell came from an aristocratic Catholic family in County Kerry. As a boy, he studied briefly at a hedge school (see Chapter 10), where he learned Gaelic history. He then went to school in France, where he observed the French Revolution firsthand; it's thought that the bloody events he witnessed there contributed to his avoidance of violence later in his political career. He was one of the first Irish Catholics to practice law after Catholics won back that right in the late 1700s.

How did the O'Connells manage to hold on to their estates when the Protestants came to power?

The O'Connells kept their property by smuggling brandy from the Continent for local Anglican gentry, which evidently entitled them to favorable treatment.

O'Connell was strongly opposed to a union between Ireland and Britain. In 1823, O'Connell established the Catholic Association, a political organization whose goal was to force Britain's Parliament to admit Catholics. The association was open to all Catholics, rich or poor, and quickly became very popular. Even the poorest could afford the symbolic dues of one penny a month. O'Connell was a brilliant orator, and his followers loved his style and his rhetoric, in which he claimed that the poor would soon inherit the Earth. He promised that if the Act of Union were repealed, the Irish would have rent security, unjust rents would be ended, votes would become secret, more people would be allowed to vote, and landlords would be taxed to support the poor.

Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator

At this time, people who leased very small parcels of property (paying as little as 40 shillings a year) were allowed to vote. Votes weren't secret, and landlords could and did “influence” the votes of their tenants. This meant that landlords had an interest in keeping lots of tenants on their land, because they could then control blocks of votes. The more tenants they had, the more votes they controlled.

Generally tenants complied with their landlords' wishes. But in 1826, encouraged by O'Connell, poor Catholics stood up to their landlords and elected to Parliament many legislators sympathetic to the Catholic cause. It was a start.

  1. Home
  2. Irish History
  3. The Protestant Ascendancy
  4. Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator
Visit other About.com sites: