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Daniel O'Connell

Updated: Apr 30



Daniel O’Connell, born in 1775 in County Kerry, Ireland was the preeminent Irish figure of the 19th century. After leaving the Roman Catholic college at Douai due to the French Revolution, O’Connell pursued law studies in London, where he was called to the Irish bar in 1798. Despite his early involvement with the Society of United Irishmen, a revolutionary group, he abstained from participating in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and was vocally hostile to it.


The Act of Union in 1801, which dissolved the Irish Parliament, prompted O’Connell to demand the repeal of anti-Catholic laws by the British Parliament to validate its representation of Ireland. He opposed several Catholic relief proposals from 1813 onwards, fearing that they would grant the government veto powers over Catholic bishoprics in Britain and Ireland. Despite the illegality of permanent Catholic political organizations, O’Connell organized mass meetings across Ireland to advocate for Catholic emancipation.


In 1823, O’Connell and Richard Lalor Sheil founded the Catholic Association, gaining support from the Irish clergy, educated Catholic laymen, and lawyers. The Association’s membership grew rapidly, making it difficult for the government to suppress it. In 1828, O’Connell, though ineligible to sit in the House of Commons as a Catholic, won the County Clare election, pressuring the British Prime Minister, Arthur Wellesley, to concede to Catholic emancipation. Following the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, O’Connell took his seat in Westminster.


In 1835, O’Connell played a role in toppling Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative ministry and entered the “Lichfield House compact” with the Whig Party leaders, promising a period of calm in Ireland in exchange for reform measures. His support, along with his Irish followers known as “O’Connell’s tail,” helped keep the Whig administration in power until 1841. However, disillusioned by the Whigs’ limited efforts for Ireland, O’Connell founded the Repeal Association in 1840, aiming to dissolve the Anglo-Irish legislative union.


O’Connell’s campaign for repeal culminated in his arrest for seditious conspiracy in 1843, following a series of mass meetings across Ireland. Although he was released on appeal after three months’ imprisonment, his health deteriorated rapidly afterward, and leadership of the nationalist movement passed to the Young Ireland group.


Daniel O’Connell’s legacy as a pioneering Irish nationalist leader endures, marked by his advocacy for Catholic emancipation and his efforts to repeal the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland. His opposition to violence and slavery distinguished him from some of his nationalist successors however his vision of an explicitly Catholic Irish identity has aged less well. 


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  • more of a ‘force for good’

  • Less of a ‘force for good’


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