Daniel O'Connell The Great Irish Speaker
When the Act of Union 1801 was passed many influential Catholics had been led to believe that the full restoration of rights for Catholics would be restored, but this did not materialise. There emerged Daniel O'Connell a Kerry born lawyer who had been educated in France. O'Connell, popularly known as “The Liberator” was born on the 6th August 1775 and educated in France where he went on to become a barrister.
He had the good fortune to be born into a prosperous Catholic family and had always been against any form of union. He was a man who did not support violent methods and had been appalled by the bloodshed of the 1798 rebellion. He organised the Irish nation in a mass campaign against the policy of the British government.
It is also probably fair to say that he founded a system of persevering, political agitation and protest that stayed within the law. It is important to note though that O’Connell still believed in loyalty to the king and his thoughts were on Irish independence as a parliament and his acceptance of the British crown and the British connection were never in question. In 1823 following a year of extreme famine, he and another lawyer called Richard Lalor Shiel formed the Catholic Association.
This group had two aims:
1. To seek the repeal of any of the existing Penal Laws left remaining
2. To improve the conditions of the tenant farmers
This association gathered a penny a month (known as Catholic rent) from its members to help finance the operation. That generated a lot of members and all felt equal irrespective of class. O’Connell made sure the organisation stayed legal and thus not affording reason for the British to persecute it and as the group grew in size, so it was able to exert pressure in a new and peaceful way.
They ran candidates for the general election and won its first candidate in 1826, a young man called Villiers Stuart. They went on to win seats in Monaghan, Louth and Westmeath. In 1828 Daniel O’Connell stood as a candidate in County Clare and was elected. This forced the then Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley to push through a Catholic Relief Bill.
This removed almost all of the institutionalised discrimination against Catholics, but still disallowed them holding high office in government and state. Another draw back from this bill was that the British also abolished the voting rights of what were known as 40-shilling freeholders, the small farmers which then reduced the Irish electorate by around 80 percent. It also had the impact of disenfranchising many of O’Connell’s supporters.
In 1830 Catholics were still forced by law to pay a tithe tax to keep the Protestant churches in repair. Should they not be able to pay these tithes then they could have any possessions they owned taken from them. This included animals, furniture, bedding, or anything the collectors could lay their hands on. Police regularly attended such collections to make sure the law was enforced and quite often they were violent encounters and indeed loss of life often happened.
These collections were fought with resistance on a regular basis and in truth the cost of collection far out weighed what was collected. Eventually the tithe was passed from the tenant to the landlord who had to pay. The landlord simply recovered this by increasing the rents and so the cycle continued in one way or another. Eventually after more unrest the government reduced these taxes by 25 percent.
In 1831 a cholera epidemic raged in Europe and reached Ireland, causing panic and death throughout the land. In 1839 another natural disaster hit Ireland and is known as “The Night of the Big Wind”. A hurricane swept across the country and left in its wake death and destruction.
A National School System was introduced making primary education widely available but that was only available in English but the majority of the country still spoke Irish. Children attending were frequently punished and disciplined for speaking in Irish. This along with the famine caused a rapid decline in the Irish Language. In 1838 Ireland had been divided into 137 unions. These had their basis in market towns where a workhouse was built with an infirmary and a fever hospital.
These were funded by a rate collected under The Poor Law Evaluation and usually from people within a ten mile radius of the town. It was brought in to being in 1836 to deal with the many destitute people and each union was advised to cater for 1,000 people. In 1844, one hundred of these were catering for almost 86,000 people. The regimes were harsh, lacked hygiene, with families broken up and overall very grim conditions indeed.
In 1840 Daniel O’Connell took to the streets of Ireland and addressed huge meetings asking the people to demand a repeal of the Union. At one meeting at Tara brought over three quarters of a million people. He did eventually succeed in forcing the government to take action and it was not what had been expected, as they banned all such meetings. He then called off a planned meeting at Clontarf as he feared violence and potential loss of life and the army then took control of Clontarf. O’Connell then disappeared in terms of being an activist and died in 1847, when a younger more radical group took over, known as the Young Irelanders.
I wold now recommend reading about a famous name in Irish history, James Connolly.