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Dan, The Rise of Daniel O’Connell 1775-1829 by Patrick M. Geoghegan Liberator, The Life and Death of Daniel O’Connell 1830-1847 by Patrick M. Geoghegan

Reviewer: Stephen Collins*

Why has Daniel O’Connell, one of the most important figures in Irish history, remained unfashionable for so long, while lesser figures attract disproportionate attention? This pertinent question is posed by Patrick Geoghegan in the introduction to the first volume of his life of O’Connell now issued in paperback. O’Connell probably deserves greater credit than anybody else for the creation of the modern Irish state which, despite all its faults, has remained a liberal democracy since its foundation in 1922. Yet it is the gunmen of various hues, rather than the founder of Irish democracy, who command attention from serious historians as well as popular writers.

Geoghegan has done something to rectify the fault in these two lively, provocative and well-written volumes. The fist is an account of O’Connell’s life up to his election as MP for Clare in 1828 and the long overdue concession of Catholic Emancipation by the British Government in the following year. The second volume takes the story from O’Connell’s heyday as a leading figure in the House of Commons to the failure of his Repeal campaign and his death in 1847. Geoghegan’s respect for O’Connell and his legacy is the clear motivating force of the book but its strength is due to the fact that the author is never reverential. He portrays the Liberator in all his human frailty and in doing so makes him an attractive figure for a modern audience.

It says a lot about O’Connell the man that he married his cousin Mary for love and in doing so knowingly infuriated his rich uncle and forfeited both considerable income and part of his expected inheritance. Geoghegan suggests that in later years O’Connell was unfaithful to his wife but he does not provide conclusive proof. His judgement is based on a reassessment of old allegations and, while he correctly examines them in detail, the conclusion rests on the case of Ellen Courtenay, a Cork woman who accused O’Connell of being the father of her illegitimate son. The claims were made at the instigation of O’Connell’s political enemies in the 1830s and were hotly disputed by him at the time. Earlier biographers of O’Connell have tended to dismiss the claims because of their tainted political source and also because the almost daily exchange of letters between the Liberator and his wife are evidence of a close and loving relationship. As the author notes, however: “If frequent expressions of love precluded adultery, affairs would be a novelty”. We will never know for sure whether there was substance in the Courtenay allegations but there is no doubting the bond between O’Connell and his wife.

In the first volume the author examines O’Connell’s career as a barrister in detail and looks at a number of his big cases. He emerges as a fine lawyer and not simply the clever showman of folk memory. An early sign of the formidable politician which he later became was O’Connell’s belief that winning the case for his client was far more important than impressing judges or his fellow barristers with his knowledge of the law or his powers of oratory. The really impressive aspect of both volumes is the way in which they trace O’Connell’s development as a politician from the days when, as a young man, he made his first political speech attacking the Act of Union in 1800. We follow his gradual takeover as the leader of the Catholic cause in Ireland from more cautious campaigners such as John Keogh and Lord Fingall on to his commanding role in the House of Commons. In his early years O’Connell demonstrated a ruthlessness which was to characterise his leadership of the Catholic cause. He denounced and out-manoeuvred anybody on his own side who opposed his increasingly militant stance even though he was to show a remarkable ability to compromise with the enemy when he was in charge.

Fundamental to O’Connell’s approach after 1810 was the belief that moderation had failed and that the only thing which the British establishment understood was the uncompromising pursuit of Catholic emancipation through constant agitation. When the Vatican backed the more moderate stance being adopted by aristocratic Catholics like Lord Fingall, O’Connell declared defiantly that he “would as soon take my politics from Constantinople as Rome”. Geoghegan traces the lows in O’Connell’s political career in the mid 1820s to his triumph a few years later at the Clare election followed by the achievement of emancipation. The book demonstrates the scale of that achievement, given the powerful forces in the British state starting with the Crown which were implacably opposed to the measure. O’Connell remained steadfast in his adherence to moral force rather than physical force no matter how forlorn his cause looked at times. Emancipation was won through democratic political mobilisation and that ultimately helped to create the democracy which we have today.

The British establishment and O’Connell’s political opponents expected him to fail as a serious politician when he took his seat in the Commons. Instead he became one of the great political figures of his era, not alone in the United Kingdom but across Europe. His commitment to the abolition of black slavery and the emancipation of the Jews demonstrated his genuine commitment to the cause of universal liberty and not just to the Irish cause.

These volumes have added to our understanding of O’Connell and make his life and struggle accessible to a modern audience.