Nicholas Canny

  • The Emancipist: Daniel O’Connell, 1830-1847 by Oliver Mac Donagh
    Weidenfeld, 372 pp, £20.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79637 2

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’.

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