Visitors to Limerick will note, almost immediately, that the beating heart of the city lies in O’Connell Street. The centrepiece of Georgian
Newtown Pery, it was first called George’s Street (probably after King George III) until 1898, when it was renamed during the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion.
The new name was given in recognition of the work of Daniel O’Connell, variously known as the Great Emancipator or the Great Liberator. A bronze statue of the man stands in the Crescent, facing the street named in his honour. The sculpture depicts O’Connell in contemporary dress, with a Roman toga added, his left hand holding the text of the Act that gave us Catholic Emancipation.
It was erected in the 1850s, making it the first outdoor public statue of Daniel O’Connell in the country. The Munster man was clearly important to Limerick and its people.
He was born not far away, near Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, in August 1775. His family were Catholic gentry, and had once been affluent landowners – their family’s seat was Derrynane House – before they were stripped of their lands and fortune. Although precluded by the Penal Laws from gaining an education or serving in the military, many of the O’Connell men studied abroad and served (with distinction) in foreign armies.
As a boy, he was taken under the wing of a wealthy unmarried uncle, Maurice ‘Hunting Cap’ O’Connell, and raised in Derrynane House, where he grew up speaking Irish and absorbing the rural life and traditional culture of the area.
With the financial patronage of his uncle, he was sent to study in St. Omer and Douai in France in 1791. While there, he witnessed some of the bloodshed of the French Revolution, an experience which was said to have affected him for the rest of his life. Access to the legal profession was granted to Catholics with the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 and O’Connell wasted no time in taking advantage: in 1794 he read law at Lincoln’s Inn in London, and transferred to King’s Inns in Dublin in 1796.
This was a difficult time for the trainee barrister. As a Catholic man educated in France he was drawn to the ideals of freedom, equality and tolerance that the United Irishmen espoused, but as a respected member of the professional class in Dublin, he was expected to join the militia to defend his country from the insurgency.
In 1797 he succumbed to the pressure in the capital and volunteered for military service, joining the Lawyers’ Artillery Corps. He was called to the bar in May 1798, and the Irish Rebellion erupted four days later. He was vehemently opposed to violence, later writing that “the altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood”.
The Rebellion was quickly followed by the Acts of Union of 1800, which had a dramatic effect on Limerick. The Acts subsumed Ireland into the Kingdom of Great Britain, meaning that the Parliament of Ireland was dissolved and the country was ruled directly by the British government in London. The British flag was updated to its current incarnation, which includes the crosses of St. Patrick, St. George and St. Andrew.
The Acts were highly controversial, met by much opposition on both sides of the religious divide. The British Prime Minister William Pitt had intended for the legislation to be followed by political reform, including Catholic Emancipation – thereby allowing Catholics to serve as MPs in London – but his efforts were thwarted by King George III, who refused to sign this element into law. He would continue to block its passage right up until his death in 1820. This represented a broken promise to many members of the Catholic gentry who had lent their support to the Acts of Union. Prime Minister Pitt and most of his cabinet resigned in protest.
The economic boom of Dublin and Limerick waned, as the political, financial and social centre of contemporary Irish society moved to London. This represented the beginning of the end for the great Georgian houses of both cities, which were gradually abandoned by their wealthy owners in favour of a fashionable London pied-à-terre or country seat.
O’Connell’s legal career was a successful one, and he was renowned in Munster as a highly skilled barrister, employed by many Limerick litigants to argue their cases. He was no sycophant either, earning the ire of many judges with his irreverent attitude. He found himself at the centre of some of the best-known cases of 19th century Ireland: he acted in the defence of John Scanlan, the murderer of Colleen Bawn in Clare in 1820. He also defended, with more success, the co-accused in the Doneraile conspiracy, which had its origins in the Whiteboy movement.
By 1810, however, his attention had turned to politics, in particular the restoration of the rights of Catholics in Ireland, which had been decimated by the Penal Laws following the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. He established the Catholic Board in 1811, the primary purpose of which was to allow Catholics to stand as members of parliament. He regularly travelled throughout Ireland, making use of the Dublin-Limerick stagecoach or private chaise, and staying in houses including that of the merchant William Roche at 99 O’Connell Street, now the location of the offices of Limerick Life.
In 1815, O’Connell was making one of his customary antagonistic speeches against the Ascendancy-led Dublin Corporation, in which he referred to it as a “beggarly” group (possibly due to the financial instability of some of its members). One of the members, John d’Esterre – himself in precarious finances – took great umbrage to this slight, and demanded an apology. O’Connell refused. The young alderman of the Corporation was incensed and sought a duel, which d’Esterre was probably confident of winning, with his Royal Marine training. It has been reported that he was encouraged by supporters, who hoped the lethal meeting would dispense of the thorn in their side which was O’Connell.
When the two men met at Bishop’s Court, in Kildare, they found themselves watched by a large crowd who had travelled to watch the dramatic events on a bitterly cold January morning. Each had named seconds (O’Connell’s was said to be a Protestant Major from Co. Clare) and each were afforded one pistol shot only.
D’Esterre let loose the first bullet, but miscalculated the height of his target and missed. O’Connell followed with a quick, low shot, striking his opponent in the hip, causing him to fall to the snow-covered ground. Two days later, D’Esterre bled to death.
Far from revelling in his victory, O’Connell was wracked with guilt. He offered his opponent’s widow half his income, which she refused, although she was left in dire financial circumstances. She later accepted a small allowance for her daughter, which was paid regularly until O’Connell’s death. He resolved to never duel again, and when he attended mass, always wore a glove or wrapped handkerchief on the hand that fired the fatal shot.
In 1823 O’Connell set up the Catholic Association, a form of lobby group whose remit was to generally improve the political conditions for Catholics, including tenants’ rights and electoral reform. It was supported by the Catholic Church and funded – not unlike the campaign to elect US President Barrack Obama almost two centuries later – by small dues, asked of many people. Even the poorest sharecropper could afford the “Catholic rent” of a penny a month and the Association’s coffers were soon full.
Sensing that the movement was gaining national traction, the government sought to suppress it using legislation enacted in the wake of the 1798 Rebellion. O’Connell’s training as a barrister served him well in this regard, as he frequently argued successfully for the Association. He referred to the Treaty of Limerick regularly, arguing that its broken terms had laid the bedrock for the current injustice. He clashed frequently with William Saurin, the Attorney General, whom O’Connell referred to as a “stupid and vulgar” man, “our mortal foe.” Indeed, Saurin had been so openly sectarian in his views that it has been said that he actually pushed public opinion towards Catholic emancipation.
While the Catholic Association was deemed a radical organisation, it was also considered relatively ‘safe’, i.e., with moderate aims, peaceful policies and gentlemen leaders. It was also ostensibly loyal to the British monarchy. Through O’Connell’s leadership, they directed their efforts in a measured, organised way, throwing their considerate weight behind pro-emancipation MPs.
The Clare elections of 1828 are deemed by many historians to represent a turning point. Daniel O’Connell won a landslide victory against his pro-government opponent, with the support of land-owning voters and the Catholic clergy in the county. As a Catholic, he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required of him when taking his seat in London, leaving a large electorate without representation. He intimated that he would replicate this process throughout Ireland, helping other Catholic candidates to win elections. Through non-violent means, he was forcing the hand of the authorities, writing at the time that “they must crush us or conciliate us”.
His election dealt a significant blow against Ascendancy rule. The former barrister was growing in international repute as a radical reformer and liberal thinker. Millions of Irish were uniting under his leadership, and the British government were nervous of another uprising.
One contemporary visitor to Limerick, a British soldier named George Calladine, gave some insight, in notes from his stay in Rathkeale (where he was posted to put down a Whiteboy rebellion). He wrote that “it had been circulated through the country that in this year (1825) Protestantism was to be entirely done away with, and all who escaped the extermination that was expected to take place by the poor deluded Roman Catholics were supposed to turn to Mother Church.” He laid the blame for this unrest at the feet of Daniel O’Connell, the Roman Priesthood and the “seditious and agitating” Catholic Association which, he alleged, had brought the country to a “dangerous pass”.
The young militiaman’s sentiments were echoed in the highest echelons of society: the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel spoke with some trepidation of the “powerful combination” of the Catholic Association and the Catholic Church. Together with the Duke of Wellington (Prime Minister at the time) he convinced George IV to accept what his father could not: Catholics in the parliament. The monarch is said to have been acutely aware of O’Connell’s immense popularity, complaining once that “Wellington is the King of England, O’Connell is King of Ireland, and I am onl y the dean of Windsor.”
Bowing to this pressure, the government granted Catholic Emancipation in February 1829. It was a huge victory for Catholics in Ireland, although in practice, at least initially, it didn’t have much of an effect on the majority. The franchise had been raised at the same time, leaving only comfortably wealthy Catholics with the vote. The Act wasn’t retrospective and O’Connell was forced to seek re-election. This he won, unopposed, in July of that year.
Old Limerick Chamber of Commerce correspondence – available in the Limerick Archives – show that the newly-elected MP had a keen interest in the bustling port city, and its powerful Chamber of Commerce in particular. He offers his service to the body, saying that he has “the most anxious wish to be of use to the trades, manufacturers and commerce of Limerick.” He goes on to describe Thomas Spring Rice, former MP for Limerick, as “one of the most efficient members of the House of Commons”: while ideologically different, the two men were joined in their support for Catholic Emancipation.
He wrote about his plans for reform of local corporations and a common desire to see coal duties reduced. He also intimated his desire for the repeal of the Acts of Union, writing “I daily more and more feel and deplore the want of a resident legislature in Ireland.”
His efforts in this regard were funded through the usual methods, and his Repeal ‘rent’ (subscriptions) grew to almost £50,000. He clashed with Thomas Spring Rice regularly on this issue: in 1834 the unionist politician delivered a six-hour speech in opposition of his one-time ally, suggesting that Ireland should be renamed “West Britain”.
O’Connell’s popularity as the ‘Great Emancipator’ was at an all-time high and he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1841, the first Roman Catholic to hold the position since the 1600s.
His pro-repeal rallies attracted thousands of attendees, becoming known as ‘monster meetings’. The wellspring of support represented a serious threat to the government and became overwhelming even for O’Connell – in 1843, fearful of violence unfolding, he called off a planned meeting at the Hill of Tara in Clontarf, Co. Dublin to be attended by some 750,000 people.
The authorities had tried to charge O’Connell with unlawful assembly in December 1830 (in the lead-up to the Tithe War – more on which at a later date) but the prosecution failed. They had more success in 1843, however, and after the cancelled rally at Tara, he was charged with conspiracy and sentenced to a year in prison. He only served three months, but he was now in his late sixties, and the period of incarceration took its toll on his health. His political career was also lagging, as he was unable to achieve his goal of repealing the Acts of Union.
In 1847, having appealed to the parliament for aid for Ireland’s starving citizens, he set off for Rome. He died en route, in Genoa, imploring his companion to ensure “my body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to heaven.” He was buried in Glasnevin, alongside many of the signatories to the Anglo-Irish Act of 1921, which finally granted him his long-held wish: the Repeal of the Acts of Union.