Category: Archive

180 years ago: O’Connell launches Catholic Emancipation effort

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Now, he reasoned, the time had come for bolder action. Although it started out small, O’Connell’s Catholic Association would soon grow into a national movement that ultimately achieved a stunning victory — what its supporters termed Catholic Emancipation — in 1829. But for Daniel O’Connell it was only the beginning.
Daniel O’Connell was born in Kerry in 1775. He was raised by a wealthy uncle, an upbringing that steeped him in the traditions and culture of Ireland. At 16, he was sent to school in France where he witnessed the French Revolution firsthand and was eventually forced to flee back to Ireland (one day after the execution of Louis XIV). He studied law and by 1800 had developed a thriving practice in Munster. By 1805 he was known far and wide across Ireland as a shrewd, quick-witted and altogether brilliant lawyer.
O’Connell began his political career in 1800 when he emerged as an outspoken critic of the Act of Union (interestingly, he was staunchly opposed to the Rebellion of 1798, the uprising that led to the Act of Union). In 1805, he took a leading role in the movement to repeal the remaining laws limiting the rights and freedoms of Ireland’s Catholics. These laws were vestiges of the draconian Penal Laws passed in the 1690s that stripped nearly all civil, legal, religious, and economic rights from Ireland’s Catholic majority. Many subsequently had been repealed over the course of the 18th century. The Catholic Relief Act of 1792, for example, permitted Catholics to study law and join the bar — the very law that freed O’Connell to study law and become one of the greatest legal minds of his day. Still, many laws discriminating against Catholics remained in effect.
Catholics were barred from holding senior government offices, serving in the privy council, or becoming judges or sheriffs.
As his career as an activist developed, O’Connell committed himself to non-violent agitation, a philosophy that derived from the scenes of horror he witnessed in revolutionary France, the violence of the United Irishmen uprising of 1798, and his own involvement in killing an antagonist in a duel in 1815. As he later put it, “Not for all the universe contains would I consent to the effusion of a single drop of human blood, except my own.” He thus became the father of constitutional nationalism, the counterweight to physical force nationalism as represented by the United Irishmen and later the Fenians, Clan na Gael, and the IRA.
The movement for Catholic Emancipation enjoyed growing support in the two decades following the Act of Union. Its initial base of strength came not from the Catholic masses (as would be the case eventually), but from a rising Catholic middle class made up of professionals and shopkeepers very much like O’Connell himself. They had seized upon the limited opportunities afforded Catholics in the 18th century to gain a measure of prosperity, respectability and, most important, rising expectations. Instead of taking satisfaction in their gains, they chafed at the remaining laws that made them second-class citizens. O’Connell, for example, despite being a highly regarded lawyer, could never under the present laws rise to a judgeship.
It’s important to point out that while O’Connell is rightly considered a key figure in the history of Irish nationalism, he was not an advocate of outright Irish independence. Indeed, when King George IV visited Ireland in 1821, O’Connell presented him with a tribute and garland. What he and most of his supporters really wanted was full civil rights for Irish Catholics and greater self-rule in Ireland (i.e., restoration of the Irish Parliament that had been abolished with the Act of Union). Still, while O’Connell’s nationalism seems rather tepid compared to the fiery independence agenda advocated by the Fenians and their successors, it was quite radical for its time — so much so that British authorities would soon brand him as a revolutionary.
O’Connell and his supporters found enough sympathetic Irish MPs to get Catholic Emancipation bills introduced into Parliament in 1805, ’08, ’19, and ’21, but all went down to defeat. The British establishment was divided on the issue. Pragmatists argued in favor of emancipation as a necessary measure to stave off rebellion in Ireland. Some even argued the point on the principle of justice. But the hardliners resisted, declaring that any concession to the Catholic Church would only whet the appetite of Irish nationalists and promote efforts to repeal the Act of Union. In many ways, both were correct, but the pragmatists slowly gained the upper hand. Each time the Catholic Emancipation bill was defeated by smaller and smaller margins. Indeed, the bill in 1821 actually passed in the Commons, but was rejected by the Lords.
This last defeat set O’Connell to thinking that a new strategy was needed to gain Catholic Emancipation. Straightforward political agitation had not proved strong enough to overcome the intransigence of the king and House of Lords. By 1823, O’Connell had his answer. He would take political agitation to a level never seen in Western European history, enlisting the mass of Irish peasants in a grassroots, democratic movement. If it worked, his movement would convince British hardliners that they faced a choice between Catholic Emancipation or revolution.

May 9, 1650: At the Battle of Clonmel, Black Hugh O’Neill defeats Oliver Cromwell’s army.
May 10, 1869: Ceremony takes place in Promontory Summit, Utah, to witness the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a project built in part by Irish labor.
May 12, 1789: The Society of St. Tammany is founded in New York. It later becomes the basis of the Tammany Hall political machine.

May 8, 1895: Archbishop and television priest Fulton Sheen born in El Paso, Ill.
May 10, 1810: Union Gen. and U.S. Sen. James Shields is born in Altmore, Co. Tyrone.
May 13, 1906: Playwright Samuel Beckett is born in Dublin.

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