Bishopscourt, County Kildare, 1815. Daniel O’Connell was only a split-second slower than John D’Esterre. Ordinarily that should have cost the 40-year-old Kerry barrister his life. But D’Esterre pulled his trigger too soon and, to the astonishment of the witnesses, the crack shot’s bullet clumped harmlessly into the earth.
D’Esterre had the briefest moment to register his dismay before O’Connell’s reply tore into his groin. As the bullet seared into the base of his spine, D’Esterre dropped to the ground. It would take two days for the Royal Marine to die.
Daniel O’Connell was haunted by D’Esterre’s death for the rest of his life.[i] He had never meant to kill the man. His guilt was compounded when he discovered that the dead man was bankrupt. That explained why D’Esterre, a member of Dublin Corporation, had taken it so personally when O’Connell publicly accused the Corporation of being ‘beggarly’.
Dublin Castle, the seat of British administration in Ireland, was elated when they heard that D’Esterre had challenged O’Connell to a duel. D’Esterre was famed as a man who could shoot the wick off a candle from nine yards. With a bit of luck, his pistol would terminate the life of the troublesome O’Connell.
It didn’t pan out that way.
While he may have suffered inner turmoil, the duel enshrined O’Connell’s reputation as a man not to be trifled with. Variously known as the Liberator and the Emancipator, this towering figure would go on to become the greatest democratic campaigner of his generation, inspiring such 20th century icons as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
The duel with D’Esterre should make for quite a scene should anyone ever make a movie about O’Connell. [1b] As subjects go, there’s plenty to work with.
Daniel O’Connell was born near Caherciveen, County Kerry, in 1775. Saltpans, tanneries, butter – and a few oars in the smuggling industry – ensured his family were amongst the region’s wealthiest
As a child, Daniel was effectively adopted by his father’s older brother Maurice, a wealthy bachelor, who sponsored his education at a Cork boarding school, gave him an allowance and made him heir to his home at Derrynane.
In 1790, Maurice dispatched Daniel and his younger brother to one of the best Catholic schools in France. Daniel’s first school report was promising. ‘Unless I am very much mistaken, this boy is destined to be a remarkable figure in society’, wrote his very prophetic headmaster.
Shortly after Louis XVI was guillotined, the O’Connell boys fled to London, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs. Their experience of the anarchy of French Revolution gave Daniel a lifelong abhorrence of mob violence.
Daniel trained as a barrister and was called to the Bar in Dublin in 1798, just four days before Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen launched their ill-fated rebellion. Although an ardent supporter of democracy, O’Connell did not support the rebels. He believed politics was the only way his fellow countrymen could realistically achieve equal rights and religious tolerance.[ii]
In 1802, O’Connell married his cousin Mary O’Connell, with whom he had eleven children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.[iii] The marriage was a genuine love match but, even during their lifetime, it was said that you could not throw a stick over an orphanage wall without hitting one of O’Connell’s illegitimate children.
The allegations of serial infidelity remain unproven but it seems likely he fathered at least one child, a son born to a Cork woman called Ellen Courtenay.[iv] He was certainly considered a ladies man. W. B. Yeats heard a story from a man who once visited the O’Connells. Marvelling at so many attractive servant-girls, he remarked: ‘What a lot of pretty maids you have! Where are they to be had?’ To which O’Connell apparently replied, ‘Upon the fur rug in the dining-room.’
Over a thousand letters written between Daniel and Mary survive. In one, dated 1820, O’Connell assured his wife that, on account of his new religious beliefs, he ‘would not, darling, now be unfaithful to you even by a look’. After Mary’s death in 1836, O’Connell stated that ‘she gave me thirty-four years of the purest happiness that man ever enjoyed.’
During his 20s and 30s, O’Connell established himself as one of the most brilliant barristers on the Munster Circuit.[v] He was deeply frustrated by the limitations his Catholicism placed on his career prospects. The Penal Laws prohibited his entry into politics. Nor could he expect to rise up through the judicial system. Like most Catholics, he had hoped – in vain – that the Act of Union of 1801 would lead to a lessening of the restrictions on Catholics.[vi]
Wealthy Catholics had been permitted to vote since 1795 but no Catholic was permitted to take a seat in Parliament, so all Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster were Protestant. In 1811, O’Connell began his fight to allow Catholics to sit as MPs. In 1823, he established the Catholic Association, calling for electoral reform, tenant rights and economic development. [vii]
The Catholic Association was soon drawing hundreds of thousands of members, who each subscribed a penny a month to the cause. (It became known as Catholic Rent). London could ill-afford to ignore such a massive grassroots campaign, especially when the leading Catholic powers of continental Europe threw their support behind it.[viii]
In 1828, O’Connell landed a powerful punch when he was elected MP for County Clare. In order to take up his seat at Westminster, he was required to swear an Oath of Supremacy, accepting George IV as head of the church. This was utterly incompatible with his Catholicism and he refused.
The British Prime Minister at this time was the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington whose claims to be Irish were famously ridiculed by O’Connell’s assertion that ‘being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.’
Although opposed to Emancipation, the victor of Waterloo recognised the potential for revolution in Ireland if O’Connell was denied his seat.[ix]
In 1829, a compromise was reached when the Catholic Emancipation Act permitted Catholics to become MPs without having to take the oath of supremacy. [x] The considerable downside was that Westminster simultaneously raised the electoral bar so that only people who owned or rented land worth over £10 could vote. For the previous 35 years, the bar had been a much more reasonable £2. The new £10 bar ruled out the vast majority of Irish Catholics so that, in 1831, just 19,000– aka, the wealthiest ones – were eligible to vote.
O’Connell’s supporters nonetheless hailed him as the Emancipator and perhaps he saw it as a stepping-stone.
He now turned his attention to other matters, primarily seeking to Repeal – or abolish – the Act of Union.[xi] On the back of the success of the Catholic Association, he founded the Repeal Association in 1830 to achieve his new goal.
By 1837, he was proposing an independent Kingdom of Ireland, with Queen Victoria as its monarch, but otherwise entitled to govern itself. The British press would lampoon him as King Dan.
He also became one of the world’s most outspoken critics of slavery, prompting a visit to Ireland by the African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass who declared O’Connell the most captivating speaker he ever heard.
In 1841, O’Connell was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, the first Catholic to hold the office since 1688.
Arguably his most important legacy was the extraordinary campaign of civil disobedience he orchestrated in 1843. This was defined by a series of ‘Monster Meetings’, each attended by upwards of 100,000 unarmed people who came out in support of his campaigns.[xii] These were the biggest political spectacles ever held in Ireland, with elaborate stages, sideshows, flags, banners, marching bands and warm up acts before O’Connell took to the main stage.[xiii] Virtually every word he spoke was copied into the morning papers.
The authorities became deeply alarmed by the prospect of such a movement spreading across the United Kingdom to Scotland and Wales. When O’Connell sought to hold a monster meeting at Clontarf, they banned the event. To the dismay of his supporters, O’Connell complied, unwilling to risk shedding ‘a single drop of human blood’.
Despite this, O’Connell was arrested, charged with conspiracy, fined £2,000 and sentenced to 12 months in Richmond Prison. He was released upon appeal three months later but emerged from prison with failing health. Much of the magic he exerted over the Irish people during the ‘Monster Meeting’ era had evaporated when he kow-towed over the Clontarf meeting.
Meanwhile, a new, more aggressive, element entered the arena. In 1846, the Young Irelanders launched their own campaign to win self-government for Ireland. Unlike O’Connell, they were prepared to use physical force if necessary.
By the time he gave his last speech in Westminster, Ireland had begun its plunge into the nightmare of the Great Famine. O’Connell warned fellow MPs that unless more aid was forthcoming, ‘one quarter of Ireland’s population will perish’. Those who listened noted how the Emancipator appeared shrunken and bent over as he spoke.
In 1847, the 71-year-old set off to see the Pope, with a cerebral haemorrhage in his brain. Travelling through bitter cold, he got as far as Genoa where he died on 15 May. According to his last wish, his heart was buried in Rome, while his body was pickled, brined and sent home to Ireland. The uncrowned King of Ireland was buried in a 10-foot coffin in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
The Repeal Association was dissolved in 1848.
[i] Charles Chenevix Trench puts the date of the duel as 1st February in his biography of O’Connell, The Great Dan. p.93 “but by 30th January no challenge (from D’Esterre) had come … Although bound over (by Judge Day who married a Miss McGillycuddy), O’Connell could still accept a challenge which was brought next day (31st) by Sir Edward Stanley, D’Esterre’s second. The time and place agreed was “three-thirty the next day (1st Feb), at Bishop’s Court” (Thanks to Donough McGillycuddy).
O’Connell was haunted by d’Esterre for the remainder of his days. He is said to have worn a handkerchief over his “guilty” pistol-firing hand whenever he went to church thereafter. He refused to fight another duel. D’Esterre’s widow declined his offer to share his income with her but he did manage to provide the dead man’s daughter with an allowance for the next thirty years.
[1b] The possibility of a Hollywood blockbuster about O’Connell’s life came to light again in the autumn of 2013 when Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, presented Stephen Spielberg with a copy of ‘King Dan’, Patrick Geoghegan’s acclaimed biography of O’Connell. The veteran director told the minister he had more than a passing interest in O’Connell’s story and had talked with Daniel Day-Lewis about producing a full-length biopic. Indeed, an O’Connell film would have been a perfect excuse for Spielberg to make amends for his failure to include Frederick Douglass in his Oscar-laden ‘Lincoln’ biopic.
[ii] Nor did he shed any tears when Robert Emmet was hanged in 1803. ‘A man who could coolly prepare so much bloodshed, so many murders—and such horrors of every kind has ceased to be an object of compassion,’ he wrote. He was staunchly opposed to the Whiteboys; he described them as ‘miscreants’ and urged for them to be wiped out. But he did defend the Doneraile Conspiracy.
“I am sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual abandonment. A diversity of languages is no benefit; it was first imposed on mankind as a curse, at the building of Babel. It would be of vast advantage to mankind if all the inhabitants spoke the same language. Therefore, although the Irish language is connected with many recollections that twine around the hearts of Irishmen, yet the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of modern communication, is so great, that I can witness without sigh the gradual disuse of the Irish.”
– Daniel O’Connell, 1833
[iii] Maurice had hoped for a bride of greater wealth and status. When the couple were married in secret, a furious Maurice slashed his 25-year-old nephew’s allowance in half. He seemingly relented when they named their first child after him.
[iv] The rumours may have been brewed by political enemies to discredit him. Others suggest they were circulated by O’Connell’s allies to pitch him as a man of ultra-magnetic charm.
A popular ballad summed up Daniel O’Connell’s reputation as the father of a slew of illegitimate children. The song takes the form of a discussion between an old woman and a tinker who meet on the side of the road:
It’s that damnable rogue of a Daniel O’Connell,
He’s now making children in Dublin by steam.”
“Oh, children, aroo,” replied the old woman.
“ainm an diabhal! [by the devil!], is he crazy at last?
Is there sign of a war or a sudden rebellion
Or what is the reason he wants them so fast?”
George Yeats recounts a tale told to her husband William Butler Yeats by ‘a good Catholic’: ‘A man went to O’Connells house & found many pretty servant-girls waiting upon O’Connell. The man said “What a lot of pretty maids you have. Where are they to be had? And O’Connell’s reply ‘Upon the fur rug in the dining-room”.’
[v] While he earned a good deal of money, his extravagant lifestyle ensured he was always on the cusp of bankruptcy. He kept a house in Dublin – on Westland Row from 1802 to 1809 and then, following his father’s demise, at 58 Merrion Square. He undoubtedly lived in the knowledge that he was heir to his wealthy uncle Maurice – but Maurice lived to be nearly 100 and the inheritance was not enough to clear O’Connell’s debts. When the National Bank of Ireland was founded in 1835, O’Connell playing a major role in its creation. His personal borrowings from the bank amounted to nearly £30,000 a year in the late 1830s and early 1840s.
[vi] Introduced in 1801, the Act of Union dissolved the Irish Parliament in Dublin, leaving Ireland to be ruled directly from Westminster. It was supposed to be a massive boost for Ireland but, when the initial investment dried up, ultimately proved disastrous. Nor did the promised Catholic Emancipation come about.
[vii] Dublin Castle lambasted him for being ‘worse than a public nuisance’ but their best legal brains were no match for O’Connell and he duly established the right for Catholics to at least argue for Emancipation. It was during this period that O’Connell killed D’Esterre in the duel.
When George IV visited Ireland in 1821, O’Connell sought to greet him in the hope that such etiquette would boost his campaign for Catholic Emancipation. He went a little overboard by suggesting ‘every peasant’ in Ireland contribute towards the building of a Royal palace in Dublin because ‘the joy’ of George’s visit had ‘penetrated the humblest cabin as well as the most resplendent mansion.’ The subscription did not raise enough for a palace but it did pay for the city’s present-day Seán Heuston BridgeWhen he was finally presented to the debauched monarch at Dublin Castle, the king muttered ‘God damn him’ under his breath but O’Connell did not rise to it.
[viii] O’Connell was simultaneously completing his break with the establishment. He had been a Freemason for many years, defended them as a philanthropic order ‘unconfined by sect, colour or religion’. However, he resigned in 1826 when Pope Leo XII issued a papal bull threatening to excommunicate Catholics who continued to be members.
[ix] Public opinion in Britain was also widely in favour of emancipation and the government sensed that continuing to impose such sanctions on Irish Catholics could stir up a revolution in Ireland, with the French – once again helmed by the Catholic Bourbon kings – in support. “Wellington is the King of England”, George IV complained, “O’Connell is King of Ireland, and I am only the dean of Windsor.”
[x] Catholics were henceforth allowed to be elected to the House of Commons without having to take the oath of supremacy (although still obliged to deny the Popes’ civil authority in the UK). Indeed, they could hold all offices of state excluding those of regent, lord lieutenant and lord chancellor.
This was a much-watered down version of what O’Connell sought. London deliberately raised the bar for who could actually vote to those who owned or rented land worth £10 or more. Up until then, the vote had been open to anyone owning or renting £2, a group known as the Forty Shilling freeholders whom the government perceived as potentially the most subversive. By disenfranchising them, the number of persons allowed to vote plummeted from 216,000 to, at most, 37,000. In 1831, it transpired that less than 19,000 Irish Catholics could meet that criteria. No doubt O’Connell saw it as a stepping stone, and the affluent middle class members of Catholic Ireland were appeased, but it would take another 56 years before the Forty-Shilling freeholders regained the vote.
Prior to 1829, masses were often held in the open due to insufficient churches. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 reduced some restrictions, enabling Catholics to build new churches although they still had to be made of wood rather than stone, and kept away from the roads.
[xi] George IV’s reluctant signature was hardly dry upon the Emancipation Act when the Tithe Wars kicked off. Tithes were the most hated tax of that era. In essence, it meant that one tenth of the produce of every farm had to be handed over to the local Protestant clergyman. O’Connell was amongst those who denounced the tithes as unjust.
However, when opposition to the tax turned violent in 1831, O’Connell became fearful of the impact upon his new campaign to repeal the Act of Union and called for a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience.
In 1834 O’Connell called on Ireland to try a six-year “experiment” to let Repeal remain in abeyance for that time and trust the Whig majority in the English Parliament to see that Irish interests were protected. Those who supported him were greatly disappointed when the only laws passed in this period appeared to simply worsen conditions in Ireland.
[xii] The biggest Monster Meeting was held on the Hill of Tara, site of the palace of the High Kings of Ireland, in August 1843. His supporters often exaggerated – a million were said to have turned up for at Tara. Others were held in Trim, Mullaghmast, Clifden, Ennis (circa 250,000 people), Shantalla, Glencullen, Co. Dublin … where else?
[xiii] These were massive events, no matter how big the crowds actually were, especially given that this was the days before general transport. It wasn’t so much about what O’Connell said and who heard him, but what the journalists the reported, and creating a buzz. The showmanship was magnificent. Huge timber stages. Warm up acts. Flags and banners. Tom Steele’s hearse. The church in support … Spielberg should certainly allow room for Tom Steele, a Protestant gentleman from County Clare who, as well as being an inventor of diving bells and a veteran of the Spanish Republican army, served as O’Connell’s right-hand man for 24 years. O’Connell understood that the entire campaign could come to a shuddering halt if faction-fighting and secret societies within the Catholic organization became too intense. As well as pouring large sums of money into O’Connell’s campaign, Steele’s absolute sincerity and utter disregard for money made him the ideal person to fill the post of ‘Head Pacificator’.