King Dan: the Rise of Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 by Patrick M Geoghegan, Gill & Macmillan, 320 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717143931
Towards the beginning of this challenging book, the first part of a projected two-volume biography of Daniel O’Connell, Patrick Geoghegan quotes O’Connell’s declaration that future generations would have no idea of the scale of his achievement in emancipating the Catholics because they could have no idea of the difficulties and opposition he had to contend with. This has indeed been the case, partly because the defenders of the Protestant confessional state and its corporate appendages were so utterly routed during the nineteenth century that today it is difficult to grasp their former power or even their rationale (though during the controversies of the 1980s some liberal eulogists of O’Connell, such as Conor Cruise O’Brien, mischievously compared it to the role of the Catholic Church in post-independence Ireland).
Geoghegan proclaims O’Connell as the founder of modern Ireland, whose channelling of popular discontent into political agitation set the precedent for later nationalist movements in disseminating the language and expectations of parliamentary politics and thereby making possible the creation and survival of a democratic Irish state in the twentieth century. O’Connell’s only possible rival for this role is Parnell. De Valera and other figures of the post-independence state built upon the foundations they established; one reason why Parnell and O’Connell have attracted less scholarly attention in recent years may be a tendency to take for granted the existence of Irish democracy and to pay greater attention to the development and working of its political and administrative institutions.
Yet Parnell’s world seems relatively familiar compared with O’Connell’s, so that it is easy to forget how recent a memory O’Connell was in Parnell’s day. Between them lay the Famine and its accompanying depopulation, the massive decline of Irish as a spoken language and the dissemination of English literacy through the national schools (newspaper propaganda was much more important for Parnell than O’Connell, and personal presence less necessary thereby), the assertion of state control over previously unpoliced areas by a centralised and semi-militarised police force and the transport revolution represented by the railways. A recurring theme of Geoghegan’s sparkling narrative is the difficulty, delays, and danger of travel on assizes – for example, we see the young O’Connell advising a fellow lawyer on how to flatter soldiers into selling them ammunition and gunpowder which they could use to defend themselves against robbers and brigands while travelling through the Kilworth mountains on the main road from Cork to Dublin.
One criticism which might be made of this workmanlike book is that in its focus on O’Connell’s personality it does not do enough to bring out the wider social and political context, the strangeness of his Ireland for a twenty-first century reader, though it does explain certain terms such as “gig” (a light one-horse carriage) or “nisi prius” (a court of first instance before judge and jury) which nineteenth century accounts take for granted.
Commentators have always found it difficult to make up their minds about Daniel O’Connell. This perplexity has not been confined to Ireland (Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit gives a satirical account of Americans rallying in support of O’Connell’s Repeal movement as an expression of Anglophobia, but breaking up in indignation at the discovery that “that gentleman is, and always has been the advocate of Negro emancipation”), but the argument has been fiercest in Ireland because disputes over O’Connell are linked to the question of what Ireland is and should become.
O’Connell was the last great folk-hero of Gaelic Ireland; yet he famously thought that Gaelic scholarship was a waste of time and accepted the demise of the language on utilitarian grounds. He famously advocated non-violent politics and in later life declared his abhorrence of the thought of shedding “one drop of blood”, yet Tory opponents (and even some Whig allies) accused him of engaging in incitement to agrarian violence which made him morally responsible for the blood shed in such conflicts as the 1830s Tithe War (O’Connell would have replied that it was the abuses and not his denunciations of them which caused the bloodshed), while separatists later accused him of hypocrisy, arguing that his political effectiveness had rested on a implicit threat of violence.
Some separatists even claimed that he had sacrificed Ireland to a morbid personal scruple, derived from his killing of John Norcot D’Esterre in an 1815 duel. (The duel and its importance in giving O’Connell political credibility by the contemporary “code of honour” are vividly described by Geoghegan on the basis of contemporary accounts.) Later still O’Connell was hailed for this very stance by commentators reacting against the blood-drenched cycle of paramilitary violence and state counterviolence, just as O’Connell had reacted against the violent rebellion and repression of 1798. (In a fine piece of historical detective work Geoghegan convincingly argues, on the basis both of state records and of later private admissions by O’Connell, that he had been an United Irishman while simultaneously serving in the Lawyers’ Corps of yeomanry, and knew how narrowly he had escaped destruction in the loyalist white terror.)
While he may have been an opponent of physical force, O’Connell has been accused of corrupting Irish public discourse by irresponsible verbal violence. For WB Yeats O’Connell was “the Great Comedian”, the crowd-pleasing rhetorician staging a theatre of political melodrama, more concerned with provoking an immediate popular response than with personal integrity or long-term consequences, wholeheartedly professing Catholic piety in public while seducing housemaids in private without any sense of incongruity, not because he was insincere but because he didn’t understand sincerity. Yeats contrasted this version of O’Connell with an idealised image of Parnell as embodiment of tragic integrity in public and private life – speaking sparely but with substance, consciously dignified, channelling his passions but taking full responsibility for them. Yeats’s Catholic-populist enemies TM Healy and DP Moran would have accepted and gloried in the claim that their calculated flouting use of invective to demystify Protestant privilege and appeal to Catholic self-interest derived from O’Connell (though they would have regarded the claim about the housemaids as Protestant lies).
In old age O’Connell grew pious, making high-profile visits to convents during political campaigns, going on a well-publicised retreat at the Cistercian monastery at Mount Mellaray, and even expressing hopes that some time soon England would return to the Catholic fold. Pope Gregory XVI granted him special privileges, including the maintenance of a private chapel at Derrynane – yet O’Connell, in contrast to later Irish Catholic politicians such as Healy and Moran, was prepared to join with his bitterest Evangelical Tory enemies in publicly criticising such Catholic infringements of the principle of religious freedom as Pope Gregory’s treatment of the Jews in the Papal States, and he was hero-worshipped by many contemporary Continental Catholic intellectuals because his popular and liberal version of Catholic politics seemed to offer an alternative to the authoritarian throne-and-altar alliance favoured by the pope. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the unveiling of his Dublin statue on the centenary of his birth and the massive nationwide commemorations of the Emancipation centenary in 1929, O’Connell was celebrated primarily as a Catholic champion – yet the publication of his youthful diary in 1906 revealed that he had gone through a lengthy period of religious scepticism, and his correspondence reveals that this scepticism lasted well into his marriage.
Geoghegan incisively charts O’Connell’s reversion to Catholicism, attributable to the influence of his devout wife (when she experienced difficulties during her first pregnancy in 1802 O’Connell lamented that whereas if he were a believer he would spend every moment praying, “this miserable philosophy which I have taken up and been proud of – in the room of religion – affords me no comfort in my misery”), reinforced by feelings of guilt over D’Esterre’s death and confirmed by remorse at the financial crisis his recklessness brought upon his family in 1816 (though this did not cause him to abandon his extravagance).
Prior to this reversion, O’Connell’s Enlightenment principles found expression in membership of the Masonic Order, a connection carefully reconstructed by Geoghegan. O’Connell joined in 1797 (it appears to have brought him into contact with United Irish leaders such as Thomas Addis Emmet and may have precipitated his membership of the United Irishmen; there are clear affinities between the view he expressed in 1796 that the Irish people as a whole were not ready for liberty and Emmet’s leadership of the conservative section of the United Irishmen, who thought a rising should only be attempted when a French army arrived to ensure military victory and restrain popular excess). His Masonic career outlasted the revolutionary period; at different periods he belonged to lodges in Dublin (latterly as master), Tralee and Limerick, and served as counsel to the grand lodge. Although he was not formally expelled until 1837, he had ceased to be active many years previously because of his reviving Catholic belief and renewed Papal condemnations. (Geoghegan dates his departure at around 1816.)
An odd sidelight on this is concealed in Geoghegan’s otherwise insightful book by a possible error of transmission. In 1812 O’Connell took up the case of a Catholic youth killed under suspicious circumstances by a Protestant yeoman. He even delivered a speech denouncing the recently assassinated anti-Emancipationist prime minister Spencer Perceval with such fury that O’Connell seemed to some commentators almost to justify the assassination (he suggested it represented divine punishment for the murder). In this speech O’Connell used an expression which Geoghegan gives as “Is there no vengeance for the blood of the mother’s son?” Other sources, such as MF Cusack’s The Liberator: His Life and Times – Political, Social and Religious (Kenmare Publications, 1872) give his words as “the widow’s son”. Much Masonic symbolism revolves around the legendary murder of the architect of Solomon’s Temple, supposed to have been a widow’s son; any Mason to whom an appeal is made in the name of the widow’s son is supposed to lend assistance to the brother who makes it. If “widow’s son” is correct, O’Connell, even as he flung decorum to the winds, with a characteristic and incongruous subtlety uttered a hidden appeal to Protestant fellow-Masons to set aside sectarian loyalties and uphold justice.
This tension between the violent mob orator and the advocate of liberal and democratic principles is another feature of O’Connell’s reputation. Geoghegan can be quite frank on O’Connell’s tendency to lose control in the enthusiasm of the moment, often overlooked in less scholarly eulogies. In 1813 he wrote privately to chief secretary Peel offering to raise 100,000 Catholic soldiers to fight Napoleon in return for immediate Emancipation, though both before and afterwards he incautiously predicted, in public as well as in private, that Napoleon would never be beaten; for decades opponents reminded him of these predictions. When George IV visited Ireland in 1821 O’Connell went to extravagant lengths – exaggerated further in satirical retellings – to welcome the monarch, although everyone knew that he had denounced the king’s private as well as public behaviour for years in the most wounding terms. (Admittedly this tactical loyalism was aimed at denying Orangemen the opportunity to claim a monopoly of loyalty, but O’Connell overdid it.)
Geoghegan’s O’Connell is more opportunistic and ruthless than in other more reverential accounts, willing to inflict verbal savaging on those who differed from him even if he had admired them in the past and was to do so in the future. The veteran Whig Protestant Patriot Henry Grattan had been the hero of O’Connell’s boyhood, and they were on friendly social terms; when they differed over the issue of allowing a government veto on Catholic clerical appointments in order to obtain Emancipation O’Connell denounced him so unmercifully that some commentators (including the Irish Whig journalist William Cooke Taylor) blamed O’Connell for the injuries inflicted on the aged Grattan in an election riot. After Grattan’s death O’Connell (perhaps influenced by the loyal support he received from his son and biographer Henry junior) always spoke of him admiringly as “the greatest Irishman after myself”. (This overshadowing continued after both men’s deaths; when Grattan’s College Green statue was unveiled in 1876 the ultra-Tory Dublin Evening Mail sardonically noted that none of the numerous priests who attended the recent unveiling of O’Connell’s statue were present, although Grattan devoted the last years of his life to the parliamentary struggle for Catholic Emancipation.)
As Geoghegan notes, the great liberal unionist historian WEH Lecky, nostalgic for the aristocratic patriotism of a Grattan, thought O’Connell’s demagoguery had inflicted lasting damage on Irish society by taking the leadership of public opinion out of the hands of the Protestant gentry and bringing the Catholic priesthood into politics; yet as he revised his Leaders of Irish Public Opinion for the last time at the end of his life, Lecky admitted that his respect for O’Connell had grown with the years. Compared to the Land Leaguers and Parnellites of his own day, the Kerry landlord O’Connell’s disavowals of violence and defence of property rights seemed positively exemplary to the Carlow landlord Lecky, who also recognised that O’Connell advocated many of the principles of religious liberty and moderate reform to which Lecky himself adhered. O’Connell’s fiercest enemies, after all, were the anti-emancipationist Church of Ireland Tory backwoodsmen whose ideological descendants opposed Lecky’s election as MP for Trinity College because of his suspected agnosticism.
For the separatist tradition most forcefully expressed by the Young Irelander John Mitchel (and uttered in more measured terms by Charles Gavan Duffy) O’Connell’s problem was that he had been too liberal; that he had sacrificed Ireland’s well-being, which these critics believed could have been secured by a more determined threat – or more than a threat – of armed insurrection, to an alliance with British Whigs which rested on professed liberal principles – in fact no more than hypocritical platitudes – and, more concretely, on Whig government appointments of O’Connell’s friends and relations to official posts. Some separatists – perhaps the last being Frank Ryan in 1929 – even complained that the Emancipation campaign, still generally regarded as O’Connell’s great achievement, had been misguided and simply allowed a certain number of middle class Catholic place-hunters to pressurise the government to buy them off at the expense of their plebeian Catholic followers. If O’Connell really believed – as he often said – that an Irish parliament would grant Emancipation, why did he not agitate for Repeal first and Emancipation afterwards? The answer, of course, is that these separatists had forgotten what O’Connell well knew – the residual power of the defenders of Protestant Ascendancy. However much he may have meant it when he said it, O’Connell no more expected his statement to be taken literally than he did when he horrified pro-emancipation Whig Unionists like Cooke Taylor by declaring that he would sooner have an Irish parliament which re-enacted the Penal Laws than Emancipation as the price of Union, or declared that he was glad the Catholics had not received Emancipation (as they expected) at the Union since those who betrayed their country deserved to be cheated.
The Parnellite generation of parliamentary politicians (who broke the O’Connell family’s political dominance of Kerry) to a certain extent endorsed this critique. Parnell himself – if his lieutenant William O’Brien is to be believed – was more cautious, telling O’Brien that the Young Irelanders had no idea of the responsibilities a leader in O’Connell’s position had to bear. The displacement of the Irish Parliamentary Party by physical-force republicanism after 1916 brought O’Connell’s reputation to its nadir. (One Irish-language War of Independence memoir signalled its repudiation of O’Connell with the title B’Fhiu an Braon Fhola – “The Drop of Blood Was Worth It”.)
As late as 1938 the Ulster Presbyterian IRA veteran Seumas MacCall could contrast John Mitchel’s fiery social concern with O’Connell’s temporising leadership and essentially blamed O’Connell for the Famine. At the same time, Sean O’Faolain began O’Connell’s modern rehabilitation with King of the Beggars. O’Faolain had his own polemical axes to grind (his claim for O’Connell as a modern figure owing nothing to the effete Gaelic past was taken to absurd lengths; like the cultural nationalists against whom O’Faolain reacted, O’Connell developed his own idealised and selective image of the Gaelic and Catholic past even if his image of that past was not that of an Edwardian Gaelic Leaguer and he treated his resident praise-poet Tomás Rua Ó Suilleabháin as a sort of amusing pet) but O’Faolain saw, what some later liberal Catholic eulogists glossed over, O’Connell’s ruthless verbal violence and opportunism.
Geoghegan understates the ambivalence with which O’Faolain complained that O’Connell had done much to kill politeness and good manners. O Faolain’s successive revolts – against his deferential parents (involving violence against his father’s RIC colleagues and sometimes against those parents themselves) and against what he came to see as the myopic purist republicanism and Gaelic romanticism of mentors such as de Valera and Daniel Corkery – required their own form of ruthlessness: O’Faolain’s criticism is tempered by a sense that if Irish political life had always been governed by the cultivated good manners exemplified by his lover Elizabeth Bowen the landed elite and imperial administrators might still be in charge and O’Faolain himself a mere peasant. (He might have added that the power-wielding elites O’Connell opposed were considerably less civilised than Lecky or Elizabeth Bowen.)
The predominant interpretation of O’Connell in the last generation has been the liberal Catholic one monumentalised in Oliver MacDonagh’s 1988 biography and Maurice O’Connell’s eight-volume edition of his ancestor’s correspondence. This emphasises O’Connell as family man, loving and loved by his wife Mary, as democratic reformer who saw the potential for popular mobilisation and as visionary Catholic whose extrapolation from the Catholic claim for emancipation to universal human rights led him to campaign for Jewish emancipation and an end to black slavery and received final vindication in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. It is the more excessive pieties of this interpretation which Patrick Geoghegan, further enhancing his reputation as one of the leaders of the new generation of Irish historians, sets himself to challenge. Geoghegan admirably combines the published O’Connell correspondence with contemporary newspapers and journals, the extensive nineteenth-century memoir literature, and selected manuscript material. (There are some interesting discoveries here – for example the prominent Dublin Whig journalist Frederick William Conway, one of O’Connell’s best-known Liberal unionist critics in later years, is revealed to have supplied secret reports on the Catholic Committee to Dublin Castle.)
O’Connell’s domesticity and personal loyalties lie at the core of MacDonagh’s account, whereas Geoghegan’s central theme is the making of a leader through an acquired mastery of theatrical self-projection. MacDonagh’s O’Connell is deeply grounded in rural Kerry, the Iveragh peninsula, and his extended family (his wife, Mary, was his third cousin once removed; they had seven children who lived to adulthood, five others died in childhood or infancy). These loyalties are contrasted with the anguished and nostalgic quest for identity of his Young Ireland critics. Even O’Connell’s financial recklessness is presented as being due to a considerable extent to family obligations and the chieftainly lifestyle of a Kerry Catholic landowner.
Although Geoghegan pays due attention to O’Connell’s Iveragh background, his book presents a more metropolitan figure, revelling in the law-courts and the political and professional world of Dublin. While the role of family contacts and obligations in his financial problems is not disguised, Geoghegan’s well-balanced assessment emphasises the demands of keeping up O’Connell’s status in metropolitan society as well as sheer personal irresponsibility and egotism. (He also notes, however, that O’Connell had to pay much of the expense of the Catholic campaign himself.) MacDonagh’s account of O’Connell’s financial problems, centred on his attempts to explain himself to Mary, presents the Liberator as fundamentally affectionate and protective; Geoghegan gives greater weight to the complaints of relatives about the prospect that O’Connell’s borrowings will involve them in “the ruin which you have long been preparing for your interesting family” and the central figure seems decidedly more squalid and selfish.
Geoghegan presents an O’Connell who from a very early age had ambitions to achieve great things; O’Connell’s childhood memories may have been retrospectively embellished, but it is significant that he always talked at such length about his childhood. Geoghegan scrupulously assesses the extent to which his experience of French revolutionary violence (while a student in the Jesuit college at Douai) encouraged O’Connell’s later horror of bloodshed; he concludes that this has been retrospectively exaggerated and that the bloody Irish debacles of the late 1790s were more influential in this respect. He then carefully traces how O’Connell developed his skill in self-presentation, first deployed as a means of manipulating “Hunting Cap” (the wealthy bachelor uncle who treated O’Connell as a potential heir but also tried to keep him in a state of dependence; Hunting Cap partially disinherited O’Connell because he would have preferred the young man to marry an heiress, and though O’Connell eventually received the Derrynane estate and a cash legacy this did not meet his expectations of clearing his debts).
Earlier biographers have used O’Connell’s youthful journal to explore his religious development and the beginnings of his lifelong enthusiasm for the ideas of the Philosophical Radicals, begun in reaction against the anti-radical crackdown which produced the London political trials of 1794 and confirmed by reading William Godwin and similar authors. Geoghegan instead mines the journal for details of the young O’Connell’s self-fashioning – his lazy, quasi-bohemian student lifestyle, his love of the theatre and amateur acting, his participation in convivial debating societies, his careful study of parliamentary orators. O’Connell revered the Whig leader Charles James Fox and detested Pitt the Younger as author of the Union (throughout his life he reiterated the claim made by the United Irishmen in his youth that Pitt deliberately provoked the bloodshed of 1798 to pass the Union) but after seeing them in the House of Commons decided Pitt was the better orator, and it was from Pitt that O’Connell copied the technique of projecting his voice without strain over long distances which was so important to his political career. Geoghegan also notes how the journal reveals an interest in female psychology, encouraged by his ambitions as a seducer.
Geoghegan next traces O’Connell’s activities as a young lawyer in Dublin, including his United Irish activities and narrow escape from the law, and his early and outspoken commitment to the Patriot opposition to the Union (although the conservative Hunting Cap thought more could be expected, both personally and as a Catholic, by supporting that measure). O’Connell always asserted that he supported Catholic Emancipation as the first step towards repealing the Union, and that that he could not be accused of concealing this because he had proclaimed it from his first public speech in 1799.
Geoghegan emphasises the role of the courts in forging O’Connell’s persona and in building his reputation as public man and defender of the accused against state power; the book begins with a description of O’Connell’s intervention in the famous 1829 Doneraile Conspiracy trial where he single-handedly saved a number of men accused of agrarian conspiracy from the gallows by exposing contradictions in the statements of prosecution witnesses. (It might have been advisable to emphasise how the assizes provided one of the major forms of popular entertainment in nineteenth-century provincial Ireland and how much popular attention a successful advocate could attract.)
Geoghegan’s unremitting focus on the making of the leader gives this account a critical edge which distinguishes it from the nineteenth century anecdotal collections on which it draws. He points out how O’Connell’s words and gestures, while appearing spontaneous, were in fact carefully calculated. (Was this always the case? It certainly was not so in politics, but then O’Connell was marginalised in the political world to a far greater extent than he was at the bar, and was correspondingly less at ease with the club rules.) At the bar, as in politics, O’Connell strove to prevail by publicly refusing deference to judges whom he saw as instinctively biased against him and his clients in favour of officialdom; he challenged questionable decisions even when to do so trespassed on generally accepted norms of legal decorum, and he displayed as little compunction in studying and manipulating the personal and intellectual vulnerabilities of judges as he did in handling the hostile witnesses he cross-examined. In a point showing the difference between this scholarly account and the nineteenth-century compilations which it superficially resembles, Geoghegan notes that the anecdote collections’ focus on straightforward and comparatively simple tricks and manoeuvres fails to bring home the extent to which deep mastery of the law’s complications underlay O’Connell’s legal achievement. (Geoghegan also points, as such collections generally do not, to cases where O’Connell failed to win a verdict for his client, and states bluntly what these collections often obscure – that many clients whose acquittal he secured were indeed guilty.)
It is instructive to note O’Connell’s contempt for Thomas Lefroy, with whom the world is now familiar as Jane Austen’s youthful beau. His contemporaries knew Lefroy as a very public Evangelical Tory and anti-Catholic Emancipationist who believed worldly success was a sign of divine favour – a view which opens its adherents to accusations of self-serving hypocrisy. O’Connell referred to Lefroy “preaching bad sermons and displaying as little law as possible … the most complete failure [of] any times”, and as the years passed by regarded him as a consummate example of a less talented Protestant ascending to rank and fortune through political influence while O’Connell himself was held back because of his religion. O’Connell could not even become a Queen’s Counsel until this status was opened to Catholics well into his career, and even then he ranked below Protestant QCs of less experience but promoted earlier until he could obtain from the government a patent of precedence conferring seniority on him.
Geoghegan neglects one aspect of O’Connell’s courtroom persona attested by contemporaries – his charm. Lecky recalled asking an old woman who had met O’Connell at a tea-party how the Liberator had behaved; she said that she had expected him to be rough, rude and blustering but was amazed to discover that he had the elaborate politeness of an old-style French abbé (a relic of Douai?). Similarly, the Mitchelite journalist Dennis Holland, looking back from impoverished American exile after the defeat of the Fenian Rising at youthful memories of reporting on the Liberator’s campaigns, spoke of O’Connell in a manner bordering on infatuation, despite their political differences:
A more lovable old man I never knew … O’Connell had an extraordinary graciousness of manner: his voice in conversation was very soft and gentle: at all times it was beautifully rich and mellow … So musical a speaking voice as that of Daniel O’Connell I never heard from the mouth of man or woman … he had a peculiar caressing manner which wonderfully attracted young people; and he was fond of having the young about him … O’Connell had a beautiful, sweet, womanly smile, and when he told a humorous anecdote the twinkle of his gray eye made you laugh before you heard a sentence he was uttering.
(Denis Holland “Daniel O’Connell” Emerald (New York) vol 4 no 82 (August 28, 1869) pp 58-59.
Holland also mentions from personal experience that when speaking at the monster meetings of the 1840s O’Connell kept his hands occupied by gently twisting and untwisting the long hair of journalists seated in front of him.
Even John Mitchel, while blaming O’Connell’s alleged cowardice for the Famine, spoke of this charm as an important part of his character, and one which made it all the more disturbing. These descriptions help to explain O’Connell’s effectiveness as a cross-examiner; surely counsel must have had some means of ensnaring witnesses in his initial cross-examinations before shutting the trap.
If Ellen Courtenay’s account of her experiences is to be believed, O’Connell also deployed this charm in the seduction of women. In a significant break with the MacDonagh approach, Geoghegan follows a trend, begun by Erin Bishop, of suggesting that there is more substance to contemporary accusations of O’Connell’s postmarital womanising than later writers (especially admiring Catholics) have been prepared to admit, and that his intense, loving and well-documented relationship with his wife, Mary, does not disprove accusations that he was unfaithful to her. This view rests on alternative readings of material already available, but carries considerable conviction. For example, when O’Connell informed Mary in 1820 that since his religious conversion “I would not, darling, now be unfaithful to you even by a look” Geoghegan emphasises the “now” more than previous writers have done. He interprets a reference in an 1823 letter from O’Connell’s brother James lamenting the “heavy expenses [£600 a year] of your former indiscretions” as referring to pensioned-off mistresses. He finds in the published O’Connell correspondence a letter in which Mary responds to reports that O’Connell had a child by another woman not with interrogation or denial, but with the comment that such a woman can have no claim on him as his family must come first. (Geoghegan oddly does not put this into context by noting, as MacDonagh does, Mary’s knowledge of and consent to O’Connell’s payment of a pension to “Mrs. Y.”, who had been his mistress before his marriage, though Geoghegan does mention the relationship; presumably she felt such a woman had legitimate claims on her seducer whereas a woman who became involved with a man she knew to be married had no claim on the support rightfully due to his legitimate family.)
Geoghegan analyses Ellen Courtenay’s account of her alleged seduction by O’Connell in detail, and concludes that while it is self-serving and displays a yen for publicity, and Courtenay’s known career suggests she was not above lying to advance her own interests, its detail (and the evasive nature of the denials offered by O’Connell and his friends) suggests she did indeed have a brief relationship with him in 1817-18.
It might have been worthwhile to point out as MacDonagh does that by the standards of the time (perhaps even more so than our own) the most damaging aspect of the accusation was not the existence of such a relationship but the alleged breach of the expectations that “gentlemen should look after their bastards”, and the denials may have been primarily directed against this claim. If Courtenay was correct in claiming her son Henry Simpson was O’Connell’s child (contemporary accounts differ on whether there was any physical resemblance) then O’Connell must share the responsibility for the neglect suffered by the hapless boy, deserted by his mother for long periods and growing up lame, deaf, and semi-literate. When heaping invective on O’Connell as an ultra-Tory polemicist in the late 1830s, Disraeli mentioned as symptomatic of general criminality that he “starved his child”, and the possibility that this might have been true casts a shadow over the memory that as an idealistic young man O’Connell planned (but never completed) a Godwinian novel tracing the adventures and political enlightenment of an unacknowledged natural son of George III.
Geoghegan emphasises what some earlier panegyrists failed to grasp, that O’Connell’s clashes with more cautious elements within the Catholic Committee were inspired and directed as much by desire to assert his own leadership and crush potential rivals as by tactical and ideological differences. The same ruthlessness is visible in his use of the courts as a political forum: like earlier biographers, Geoghegan notes how as defence counsel to the journalist John Magee (accused of sedition for reporting the proceedings of the Catholic Committee, in which O’Connell had taken a leading part), O’Connell unhesitatingly sacrificed his client’s interests by using the court as a forum to attack judge, jury and government, subsequently expressing nothing but contempt for the hapless Magee’s unsuccessful attempt to avoid a swingeing prison sentence by dissociating himself from O’Connell. Similarly, when describing O’Connell’s December 1827 defence of the Catholic controversialist Fr Tom Maguire against a lawsuit by the Leitrim Protestant innkeeper Bartholemew McGarrahan, who accused Maguire of seducing his daughter Anne while lodging with the family, Geoghegan notes that though the lawsuit was inspired and financed by anti-Catholic elements, the balance of probability suggests that Maguire was indeed guilty. He provides a disturbing description of O’Connell’s viscerally brutal cross-examination of Anne McGarahan. Either through self-deception or with a deliberate purpose of sacrificing individual justice to the triumph of the Catholic cause, we see O’Connell deliberately crush a seduced woman by publicly reviling her as a whore.
Geoghegan emphasises that O’Connell’s eventual triumph should not lead us to exaggerate his foresight; anger at continued exclusion from the heights of his profession and of public life and ambition to receive a patent of precedence from a sympathetic government contributed to some of his tactical missteps. Geoghegan emphasises the extent to which O’Connell’s leadership was shaken in 1825 when he unsuccessfully tried to secure Catholic Emancipation by accepting restrictions which he previously opposed, and the intensity of the opposition this provoked from activists such as Edward Lawless and sympathetic English radicals such as William Cobbett. He also notes that O’Connell’s willingness at this time to accept the disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders reflected blindness to the possibilities for popular political mobilisation. These possibilities were first grasped by Thomas Wyse in the Waterford constituency during the 1826 general election, and Geoghegan quotes O’Connell’s later declaration that only when his carriage was drawn from Lismore to Cappoquin by excited supporters did he first grasp the full possibilities of agitation. (Geoghegan notes, however, that O’Connell spoke of standing for Clare before he was approached by the associates who later claimed to have inspired his candidacy.)
This book closes with the surrender of British Crown and Tory government to Catholic Emancipation, and O’Connell at what in retrospect has been seen as the height of his achievement. We look forward to seeing how Geoghegan’s second volume traces O’Connell’s later career, through his relations with English radicals and the highly limited sympathies of Whig governments, parliamentary struggles and setbacks, controversies over religion and education, the great flare-up of the 1843-4 Repeal campaign, the whittling away of support by carefully calculated government reform measures, and the final days as O’Connell’s Ireland perished in the Great Famine. It will be interesting also to see how much space is given to the critiques of O’Connell’s opponents; the ultra-Tories who saw the tithe war as proof that he was a second Phelim O’Neill re-enacting the 1641 massacres, the Irish Whig Unionists (many of them former collaborators in the Emancipation campaign) who accused O’Connell of betraying by his tactics the liberal principles he professed to uphold (Geoghegan’s title derives from the novelist Lady Morgan’s sarcastic comments on O’Connell, but he does not make it clear to uninstructed readers that she was an Enlightenment-inspired Whig, not a Tory diehard), and (most damaging for his later reputation) his erstwhile Young Ireland allies of the 1840s. Against the theatrical self-fashioning and style whose development Geoghegan traces, the Young Irelanders opposed an ideal of introspective self-formation based on education and on an inner consistency derived from ideological commitment and contrasted with O’Connell’s authoritarianism and opportunism (or leadership and pragmatism).
Later generations of Irish nationalists professed to admire the Young Irelanders, but in practice resembled O’Connell; the catch-all parties which secured the support of Irish majorities before and after independence, and the boss politics which Irish emigrants brought to Britain, America and Australia are O’Connell’s legacy: whatever the shortcomings highlighted by more ideologically aware majorities, they have enjoyed considerable success in integrating their followers within the democratic process. This is the basis of Geoghegan’s claim for O’Connell as founder of modern Ireland.
Perhaps academic assessments will always be more uneasy with theatrical, opportunistic populist politicians with pretensions to grandeur and an inability to live within their means than with more analytically-driven figures; perhaps Geoghegan’s challenging reassessment could usefully be supplemented by greater recourse to MacDonagh’s portrayal of a more deeply-grounded man. O’Connell has yet to receive the incisive, deeply researched and fiercely engaged reassessment Frank Callanan gave to Parnell; but Geoghegan’s well-thought-out, refreshing iconoclasm disturbs some stagnant pieties and enhances his already considerable reputation as a historian.
Paul Bew is Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of The Politics Of Enmity: Ireland 1782-2006 (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Patrick Maume is a researcher with the Dictionary of Irish Biography. He has published numerous books and articles on nineteenth and twentieth century Irish history and has edited eleven titles in the UCD Press Classics of Irish History series, several of which concern Daniel O’Connell and his times.