The Emancipist: Daniel O’Connell, 1830-1847 
by Oliver Mac Donagh.
Weidenfeld, 372 pp., £20, October 1989, 0 297 79637 2
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A full-scale biography of Daniel O’Connell deserves close attention, if only because the subject was such a colossus in his own time. This particular biography calls for even greater respect because its author, Oliver Mac Donagh, has established himself as the most incisive and (with the late F.S.L. Lyons) the most prolific Irish-born historian of his generation. The compound is preferred over the simple adjective to describe Mac Donagh not because there is any doubt about his Irishness, but because most of his working life has been spent outside Ireland – at Cambridge and in Australia – and because the Ireland which features so prominently in his various studies of Late Georgian and Early Victorian society is represented by Mac Donagh as but one unit in a wider Hiberno-British world which, on the global level, stretched from Botany Bay to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and, at the more local level, from Westport to Gosport. Moreover, the prominence which Ireland enjoys in Professor Mac Donagh’s earlier writings is justified by him, first, because the administrative solutions devised for the acute social problems in that country were subsequently given wider application, and, second, because many statesmen and administrators who came to enjoy prominence and reputation in Britain had served their apprenticeship in Ireland.

Oliver Mac Donagh has long been a practitioner of the now voguish New British History, although he has never used that phrase or advanced claims to being the progenitor of a school. An understanding of Mac Donagh’s approach to historical writing is necessary to an adequate appreciation of his O’Connell biography. Much of the first volume, The Hereditary Bondsman, described the social and physical environment from which O’Connell came: while Mac Donagh emphasised the sharp contrast between conditions in Kerry and in the Home Counties, he never lost sight of the fact that they were together part of a Hiberno-British world distinguished by its social and physical diversity rather than its homogeneity. Furthermore, throughout the first volume Mac Donagh demonstrated that O’Connell’s guiding purpose during the early part of his career was to extend that world by admitting propertied and professional Catholics to the ranks of privilege as equals with their Protestant counterparts. The early O’Connell was thus a revolutionary only to the extent that he mobilised wide popular support in Ireland and invoked Enlightenment principles to make good his case. Far more striking was the conservative side to O’Connell’s character, which was revealed by his persistent refusal to countenance violent or any extra-legal methods to attain his ends, and by his stated ambition to join the privileged orders rather than to destroy them.

The first volume of Mac Donagh’s biography closed at the point where O’Connell had achieved this, his primary ambition, with the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and his own entry to the Westminster Parliament as an elected representative. This brought an end to O’Connell’s and his fellow-countrymen’s period of bondage, and Mac Donagh describes the use to which O’Connell put his new-found liberty. To explain his purpose, Mac Donagh has chosen as his title The Emancipist, which, he tells us, is a word of Australian usage describing one who, having been released from servitude, is still burdened with the task of converting ‘formal into real civic equality’ and obtaining ‘parity of social esteem’.

As Mac Donagh reads the evidence, O’Connell set about the achievement of this ultimate liberation in a variety of ways. First he endeavoured to master the art of Parliamentary debate so that it would become manifest that it was principally Parliament that had lost by excluding Catholics. Mac Donagh establishes that O’Connell succeeded to the point where he was recognised by all neutral observers as one of the leading orators in the House: he could speak with authority on a wide range of issues besides those that concerned Ireland – especially those that had a bearing on Parliamentary reform and on social and political amelioration at home and abroad. O’Connell’s success as a Parliamentarian obliquely made the case for the appointment of Catholics to legal and administrative positions in Ireland from which they had previously been excluded. The nomination of any Catholic for a position of responsibility at the local or national levels in Ireland was first viewed positively by O’Connell, who strove to influence the course of events only to the extent of deliberately running rival candidates for election against Irish Tory Members of Parliament who obstructed the advancement of Catholics. As a consequence of such interference at constituency level, O’Connell had soon become a Parliamentary broker who enjoyed the general but not the invariable loyalty in Parliament of those Irish Parliamentary Members who had enjoyed his support at election time. This control of Parliamentary votes placed O’Connell in a position to demand ‘Justice for Ireland’ from the Whigs on the occasions when they were in government. By this phrase O’Connell meant a fair share of official appointments in Ireland for qualified Catholics, but now he also presumed to suggest or even nominate those who should be appointed, and he became increasingly insistent upon the dismissal from office of those senior officials who would uphold the interests of the Orange élite. Such demonstrations of O’Connell’s influence over patronage placed him in a position to suggest to Catholics in Ireland – including the Catholic bishops – that they should be less craven in their dealings with the administration and more ready to articulate demands through their elected representatives. In this way O’Connell moulded the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland to become a more independent and self-assured body, while at the same time he became increasingly reliant upon Catholic clerical support to mobilise the Catholic electorate in his favour and away from the patriarchal control of their Protestant landlords.

These strategies derived from O’Connell’s belief that the Whigs could be persuaded to improve the position of Catholics in Ireland whenever they were threatened either with the withdrawal of crucial Irish votes in the Commons or with popular agitation in Ireland. Agitation during the 1830s was always associated with a demand for the repeal of the Act of Union and the provision of some form of self-government for Ireland as a separate kingdom under the British Crown. However, as Mac Donagh makes clear, O’Connell’s threat of agitation was largely tactical during the 1830s when the Whigs were in power, and O’Connell became Europe’s agitator supreme only in the following decade, when the Tories returned to power and the line of patronage to O’Connell was summarily closed off. In these circumstances, O’Connell’s continued attendance at Westminster appeared to serve no further purpose where Ireland was concerned, and he concentrated instead upon mobilising the Catholic population of Ireland into a series of monster meetings which sometimes drew audiences in excess of half a million people. At these populist assemblies, which resembled revivalist gatherings more than festive carnivals, the crowd joined with O’Connell in decrying the wickedness of successive British governments towards Ireland and in calling for the return of an Irish parliament to College Green as the only possible redress for past injustices. Despite their vibrancy, the meetings were carefully organised and tightly controlled affairs and were proof – at least for O’Connell – of the ability of Irish Catholics to govern and discipline themselves. Moreover, they enjoyed the fulsome support of a now liberated Catholic clergy in Ireland – a fact that made it all the more necessary for the Tory Government to make some placatory gestures towards the Catholics in Ireland if they were to retain any authority among the bulk of the population.

The fact that a Tory government was forced to bring forward a package of reforms for Ireland is convincing proof of the formidable force that O’Connell’s repeal movement represented in the eyes of that government. However, the reforms which they did bring forward – and especially those relating to education – produced divisions among those in Ireland who had previously been united behind O’Connell, and served to weaken him as a political leader. His authority was further weakened when he conceded to the Government’s demand that he desist from further agitation. This concession, as Mac Donagh makes clear, derived from O’Connell’s abhorrence of the violence which would certainly have ensued if he had attempted to proceed with any proscribed public meeting. What seemed reasonable and pragmatic to O’Connell was described as capitulation by his more radical opponents, who now charged that he had never been genuine about his demand for repeal. Such accusations multiplied after mid-1846, when, with a change of government in Britain, O’Connell attempted to resume the cosy relationship with the Whigs that had obtained during the 1830s. At this stage, whatever favours the ageing O’Connell could negotiate from the Whigs were represented by his Irish critics as proof that he was as corrupt and as sectarian as the Orangemen who had been the prime target of his early political forays. The bitterness of the ensuing series of charge and counter-charge brought a sad end to what had been an exciting and dignified episode in Irish as in British political history. Worse was to follow when the catastrophe of the Great Famine pointed to the irrelevance for the vast majority of the Irish population of the issues that had preoccupied O’Connell throughout his long career. His pathetic last appearance before the House of Commons was as a dying man begging alms for a dying people.

The Emancipist is thus a political biography which follows familiar contours: the years covered by the biography are the two decades in Anglo-Irish relations which have probably been most closely studied by historians. The work of his fellow toilers in the field is generously acknowledged, as is the splendid edition of O’Connell’s correspondence recently completed by Maurice O’Connell, upon which this biography is principally based. The new insights provided by Mac Donagh relate, as one would expect, to the organisational side of the repeal movement, but he also brings new life to a well-known story because he is a superb stylist who presents problems as they appeared to O’Connell. There is a sense of drama and excitement; we are brought to rejoice in every achievement of O’Connell and to suffer over every reverse he endured. Readers are gently persuaded to overlook his foibles and vigorously encouraged to acknowledge the righteousness of his purpose.

The slights cast upon O’Connell’s character by British politicians and Irish Protestant adversaries do not require any specific counters by Mac Donagh because the entire book is a celebration of the glorious cause – the uplift of educated and propertied Catholics – to which O’Connell devoted his life, and beside which the narrow interests of vindictive Tories and pusillanimous Whigs cannot but appear tawdry. The taunts of the Young Irelanders who dogged O’Connell’s path during his declining years are, however, taken seriously and responded to by Mac Donagh, presumably because debate over these issues has since reverberated in Irish historiography.

It has already been noted that Mac Donagh defends O’Connell against the charge of insincerity over repeal by reference to O’Connell’s absolute opposition to physical confrontation as a means of achieving political ends. This opposition derived in part from his personal loyalty to the British Crown and to British institutions, but also from his concern as an emancipist to prove that, if given the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty, Irish Catholics would prove as good subjects as their Protestant counterparts. In thus emphasising O’Connell’s loyalty, Mac Donagh reveals that O’Connell would not have countenanced the constitutional separation of Ireland from Britain. What he had in mind when he advocated repeal was the establishment in Dublin of some localised government, something akin to State government in the United States system, while elected representatives from Ireland would still attend the Imperial Parliament at Westminster. Mac Donagh contends that O’Connell considered such an arrangement necessary because he was convinced that British-appointed officials would never provide justice for Ireland, and because he believed that Irish Catholics would never overcome the consequences of their bondage until they had the opportunity, together with their Protestant countrymen, of governing themselves. To prove this second point Mac Donagh provides fulsome treatment of O’Connell’s year as Lord Mayor of Dublin, which he believes was of particular importance because it gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that Catholic uprightness could obtain where Orange corruption had previously held sway.

The fact that O’Connell frequently assumed the guise of a revenging angel against corruption makes it all the more necessary for Mac Donagh to defend him from the charge that he was himself corrupt, and therefore also a hypocrite. He does so by suggesting that the income which O’Connell derived from the repeal ‘rent’ was less than he would have enjoyed if he had continued to practise law, and by pointing to O’Connell’s persistent refusal to accept high office, even when the offers were tempting. When it comes to O’Connell negotiating office for several of his immediate relatives, Mac Donagh suggests that O’Connell would have preferred not to have had to engage in such bargaining but that he had no other option: his straitened economic circumstances did not allow him to provide for his dependants, as would have been expected of somebody of his social standing. O’Connell’s more general involvement with patronage is represented as essential to establishing himself as a patriarch after the manner of the Protestant grandees whose monopoly he had broken. Furthermore, his peddling of influence was sometimes exercised on behalf of relatively lowly Protestants who had little claim on his munificence. His willingness to extend favour to Protestants as well as to Catholics, together with his broad-minded attitude towards ‘mixed marriage’, redeem him from the charge of religious bigotry. A defence against the charge that he had become sectarian in his politics proves more difficult, especially at the point where he had become a virtual prisoner of the more doctrinaire Catholic bishops over the university question. Mac Donagh’s adoption of Sister Coldrick’s idea that O’Connell’s view on this matter derived from his 18th-century concept of religious freedom seems like grasping at straws, and evades the point that anybody who challenged the status quo as it existed in Ireland in the first half of the 19th century could not but have become sectarian.

One of the advantages of the biographical approach is that it permits Mac Donagh to become as vigorous an advocate for O’Connell as ever O’Connell was for his clients. History that is written biographically also has its limitations, and these are evident in the present volume. There is scant reference to social and economic developments, and the Great Famine comes like a bolt out of the blue, although Mac Donagh is an authority on the demographic spiral that preceded it. Again, issues are viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, with a resultant absence of sympathy for the motives or ambitions of his opponents. Those who suffer particularly in the present volume are the Protestant landed élite who had dominated the establishment which O’Connell sought to overthrow and who are here represented, as O’Connell would have wished it, as arrogant, benighted bigots. While not asking that they should be redeemed from these charges, I think greater effort should have been made to show that (as we have learned from the recent work of Anthony Malcolmson and Theo Hoppen) Irish Protestant landlords and politicians believed themselves to be fulfilling a vital ameliorative role in Irish society, and considered, for reasons that had as much to do with social deference as with religious bigotry, that O’Connell was leading the country to perdition. And a final criticism might be that Mac Donagh, like all biographers, attributes too much to the creative ability of his subject and makes insufficient allowance for the extent to which the way had been prepared for him by his predecessors. In this instance, more attention should have been given to the Catholic revival in late 18th-century Ireland, which has been studied and traced geographically in recent works by Louis Cullen and Kevin Whelan. Had Mac Donagh looked to their work, he would have seen that O’Connell’s political support was always strongest in those parts of the south and east of the country where a renewed Catholicism, under firm secular control, had been in existence for decades. It was from this base that O’Connell launched his first campaign and retained his staunchest support: he failed dismally, for obvious reasons, to gain any significant following in the province of Ulster, and when he did extend his influence into the province of Connacht with his repeal movement, he became heavily reliant upon the Catholic bishops there who were more the creators than the products of a Catholic revival. The fact that only three criticisms of consequence can be made of this biography is perhaps the best commentary on its outstanding quality.

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