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Monday, September 25, 2017
Date Posted:

How Rome seized power in Ireland in the 19th Century: O’Connell and the Crown

The Enslavement of a Nation: the Romanising of Ireland
Dr Clive Gillis

The Irish, Roman Catholic politician, Daniel O’Connell (1775 to 1847), took on the British monarchy in a fight for the repeal of the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

Young Daniel was Jesuit educated in France.  His renowned pacifism showed “convenient amnesia … erasing his own past as a sworn United Irish member in the 1790’s”.  British Intelligence officer Francis Higgins said O’Connell was “one of the most abominable and bloodthirsty republicans I ever heard.  He is open and avowed in the most daring language.”  O’Connell’s pacifism was a sham.

Tom Paine

By 1814, O’Connell was earning £8,000 a year as a barrister.  He imbibed the writings of Tom Paine and other radicals.  Rome claims that this rationalism did not weaken “his life long devotion as a fervent Catholic”.

Gerry Adams comment probably applies here: “To be a Catholic is still a political thing … (Roman Catholic Irishmen) have an affinity with the Church which is to do with its history in Ireland …. The Church was part of the peoples struggle.”

O’Connell’s power base was the priests and their people.  His campaigns were never very effective in Ulster.  This was masked by huge popularity elsewhere.  A true national reform movement would have been embraced by both Protestant and Roman Catholic alike.  O’Connell could never “transcend his Catholic support base”, which inevitably yoked him to Rome.

The ‘Catholic rent’

The monarchy’s popularity in the nineteenth century was too great for O’Connell to oppose head on.  So O’Connell formed the Catholic Association in 1823 to fight for Emancipation.  The “Catholic rent” was instituted in 1826.  This was a “minimum penny” payable after mass on the first Sunday of each month by every Roman Catholic, outside the chapel (RC church building) to organise an emancipation campaign.  It gave ordinary folk ownership of the struggle through membership of a Catholic Association.

O’Connell achieved Emancipation by winning the 1828 County Clare election.  The government had to rush an Emancipation act through or face gigantic unrest in Ireland.  George IV at least made O’Connell re-fight Country Clare before taking his seat in Westminster.  The “Catholic rent” continued to be paid not only from Ireland but later from American and Australia, even by transported convicts, as the “O’Connell tribute”.

O’Connell was know as the “Liberator”.  A modern writer has him to have been “the Chieftain, the King of Beggars” who “held up the palpable vision of Irish independence as the priest held aloft at the climax of the liturgy the all-healing all-consoling Bread of life.  His rhetoric evoked images of the humblest inheriting the earth.”  But the British monarchs were his match.

George IV visited Ireland in 1821.  The O’Connellite Freemans Journal grudgingly reported that the King was “dressed in full military uniform, decorated with the Order and Ribbon of St Patrick.  His hat was ornamented with a rosette composed of shamrock of more than twice the size of a military cockade”.  When O’Connell was presented to the George IV, the King protested by breathing, “God damn him” sufficiently loud for the politician to hear.  But O’Connell exhibited “fulsome loyalty”.

Wellesley flattered

His obsequiousness was deliberate.  When pro-Rome Lord Lieutenant Wellesley, was installed over a Protestant Chief Secretary at Dublin Castle, O’Connell’s effusive welcome declared Wellesley to be the official embodiment of “the kindle disposition of our beloved sovereign”.  Flattered, Wellesley blocked a 4th November Orange demonstration at the statue of William III.  As O’Connell had hoped, infuriated Orangemen were goaded into riotous pelting of Wellesley’s box at the theatre.  O’Connell “expressed outrage at the treatment of the king’s representative,” showing that, “he was a true loyalist to the crown and those that had insulted the Lord lieutenant were the disloyal ones.  His plan was to reverse the ideological polarities – as he told his wife – to have Catholics admitted to be the only genuine loyalists.”  This was “a strategy he would rely on to a considerable extent in Queen Victoria’s reign”.

In 1830 William IV became king.   O’Connell was now a powerful MP seeking Repeal of the Union with 39 others.  The Irish were feverish in expectation.  In 1834 the King, who traditionally delivered a government written speech from the throne at the opening and closing of parliament.  He abandoned protocol and clearly expressed his own view.  “I have seen with feelings of deep regret and just indignation the continuance of attempts to excite the people of that country (Ireland) to demand a Repeal of the Legislative Union.  This bond of our national strength and safety I have already declared my fixed and unalterable resolution, under the blessing of Divine Providence, to maintain inviolate by all the means in my power.”  Somewhat later the King found himself at an official function with O’Connell.  Outraged, he enquired of aides why, only to be told that, “times have changed and that O’Connell and the government were now allies”.

Young Queen Victoria

Young Queen Victoria faced great danger when she came to the throne in 1837.  O’Connell’s spin proclaimed her the champion of his cause.  He joined the throng at St James “waving his hat with conspicuous energy”.

The Freemans Journal of 3rd July quoted the London newspapers out of context: “Thanksgivings are offered up from the popish altars that our young Queen is inclined to embrace the old religion of her forbears,” and she, “is already made a saint by the Romish priests of Ireland”.  O’Connell so charmed Victoria that she left unpalatable decisions concerning him to the government.  This played into “the Liberator’s” hands as he made her his champion and poured odium on Westminster.

In 1843 the two met head on.  Victoria scored a decisive victory from which “the Liberator” never recovered.  By now the poor people had been funding him for 12 years, while they were starving, and Repeal was no nearer.  They were growing restless.  Early in the year O’Connell, after dedicating the first part of his history of Ireland to Victoria in flattering language, announced that 1843 would be the Year of Repeal.

Monster meetings

He would mobilise three million people in a series of what The Times called “monster meetings”.  Hundreds of thousands were said to have attended each, herded from the peripheral stalls selling food and supposedly non-alcoholic drink towards “the Liberator’s” podium by “O’Connell’s cavalry” to stop them “drifting home” after visiting the stalls and seeing a prior procession.  The statistics are suspect.  For instance “The meeting in Castlebar in Mayo was stated by the Repeal press to be somewhere from 150-400 thousand although a British army officer put the same crowd at 15 thousand”.

There were seas of banners of “red stitched on green” proclaiming Ireland for the Irish. A glittering procession of floats with give themes passed O’Connell before he spoke. In Cork for instance, one of two boys was painted black with a label ‘Free’, referring to the recent abolition of slavery in the West Indies, while the White boy was labelled ‘A Slave Still’ to huge applause.”

Lord Roden

Peel, then prime minister, was warned, “You can hardly overrate the gravity of the present moment”. On 9th May he anxiously attended the Lords to hear Orange Leader Lord Roden ask a question which gave procedural way for Wellington to state “that it was the settled will of parliament that repeal not be granted”. Peel then reiterated this in the Commons. In reply to a question from Lord Roden's son, he repeated William IV’s speech quoted above.

Incautiously Peel added that he did this on the “part of her Majesty” without having discussed it with the Queen. Victoria apparently never referred to the matter, which was unspoken, tacit support for the government. Nevertheless O’Connell seized his opportunity to drive his wedge further between Victoria and the government saying, “I don't believe a word of it ... How dare Peel make such use of her name,” and went on implying the Queen was his ally at the “monster meetings”. He even mooted an illegal Irish House of Commons.

The Queen countered in a speech from the throne on 24th August: “I have observed with the deepest concern the persevering efforts which are made to stir up Discontent and Disaffection among my subjects in Ireland and to excite them to Demand a Repeal of the Legislative Union . . . I feel assured that those of my faithful Subjects who have influence and authority in Ireland will discourage, to the utmost of their Power, a system of pernicious Agitation which Disturbs the Industry and retards the Improvement of that Country, and excites feelings of mutual Distrust and Animosity between different classes of my people”.

O’Connell's indiscretion

O’Connell took indiscretion a step too far. He publicly stated: “Peel makes the Queen scold me,” calling the Queen’s speech, “the excess of stupidity and impudence”. At Athlone “monster meeting” on 24th June O’Connell “attacked Peel who had the audacity to assert that Her Majesty had expressed herself against Repeal ... It was a lie ... Oh! God Bless the Queen”.  A requested three cheers was thunderous.  British war ships took anchor off the Irish coast.

Irish‑American demonstrations commenced. One in New York attended by the Governor passed the motion, “That it is the opinion of this meeting that, if England invades Ireland, she will do it by the assured loss of Canada by American arms”.  British Intelligence arrested O’Connell on 10th October following a public mock crowning ceremony with a shamrock cap.  He was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment only lifted on appeal after he had served some months.

But times had changed for O’Connell.  He never again posed such a threat.  A new militant generation, disenchanted with O’Connell, called Young Ireland, had just emerged.  They hoped to free the nationalist movement from Rome and appeal to all Irishmen “Catholic, Protestant, Milesian [Gaelic] and Cromwellian” alike.  Meanwhile Queen Victoria continued to grow serene in wisdom as a bulwark against Rome, yet filled with concern for her Roman Catholic subjects as people until she died in 1901.

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