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Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas

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Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

Daniel O’Connell

The Fight for Catholic Emancipation


Daniel O’Connell was born in 1775 in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. 
Although he was born into the native ascendancy, he was raised 
among the Catholic peasantry and thus learned not only the Gaelic 
language, but also the many tribulations faced by the poorer class.
As a teenager he was sent to France for further education but 
traveled to London in 1793 on foot from the French revolution. 
His experience of the violence that was part of the revolution 
forged his lifelong commitment to peaceful means to achieve 
social change.
He qualified as a barrister and built a successful practice in 
Dublin. O’Connell abhorred the violence of the Wolfe Tone led 
1798 rebellion but agreed with the overall aims of the United 
Irishmen.
In 1802 O’Connell married his cousin Mary. The marriage was a 
good one with 12 children being born, although only 7 survived.
The 1800 Act of Union had raised hopes of Catholic emancipation 
but these remained unfulfilled.  O’Connell soon got involved 
in political activities and in 1823 founded the Catholic 
Association with the express aim of securing emancipation.
O’Connell was known a famous orator, debater and a sharp wit. 
He was a regular thorn in the side of the Dublin authorities 
and when in 1815, he called Dublin Corporation a ‘beggarly 
corporation’; the authorities thought they had a chance to 
discredit him. One member of the Corporation, D’Esterre, a 
noted duelist, challenged him to a duel. If O’Connell accepted 
the challenge then it was thought he would certainly be killed. 
If he backed down then he would be politically damaged and 
discredited.
To everyone’s surprise O’Connell accepted the challenge and 
fatally wounded D’Esterre. O’Connell always regretted his 
death, and later assisted the D’Estere family financially.
With the backing of the clergy O’Connell stood for election to 
the English parliament in County Clare in 1828. A massive 
victory for O’Connell followed as the momentum for reform 
gathered pace.  O’Connell refused to take the Oath of 
Allegiance to the English crown and the crisis point had been 
reached. With 6 M-million supporters backing O’Connell the 
English government feared an uprising was on the cards and 
eventually granted Catholic emancipation in 1829. O’Connell 
was now the undisputed hero of Ireland and a year later 
became the first Catholic in modern history to be take his 
seat at the English parliament.
By this time O’Connell had given up his legal practice and 
was concentrating fully on politics.  He set his sight on 
repealing the Act of Union and the establishment of an Irish 
parliament. His Repeal Association organized monster meetings 
that attracted hundreds of thousands. An estimated three-
quarters of a million people attended the Hill of Tara meeting. 
The authorities responded by banning a similar meeting 
scheduled for Clontarf in 1843. Despite canceling the meeting 
O’Connell was arrested and charged with conspiracy.  He served 
3 months in prison before being released but the damage had 
been done. The tactics that had achieved emancipation could 
not be used to achieve an Irish parliament. His stay in prison 
had also adversely affected his health.
The more radical ‘Young Irelanders’ withdrew from the Repeal 
Association. In the countryside the potato crop was already 
beginning to fail. The Great Famine of 1847 devastated the 
Irish countryside. O’Connell tried to help and spoke in the 
London parliament, appealing for aid for his desperate 
starving countrymen.
O’Connell will always be known as the ‘Liberator’ and Catholic 
emancipation was indeed his greatest success. It is unknown if 
his peaceful mass protests could have achieved any further 
concessions on the road to Irish independence. The famine 
that resulted in over 1 million deaths from starvation and 
a further million taking the emigrants boat stopped any 
political momentum dead in its tracks.
At 70 years of age O’Connell was advised to move to a warmer 
climate to placate his ailing health.  He set off for Rome 
but only made it as far as Genoa. He died in May 1847 and 
was buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. His funeral was 
among the largest ever seen in Ireland.