Skip to main content

The international O’Connell: parliamentarian, liberal, reformer – Daniel O’Connell Commemorative Lecture, Glasnevin, 18 May 2014

During his memorable State Visit last month, President Higgins spoke at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster where he paid a fitting tribute to the greatest Irish parliamentarian of the 19th century. The President said that:

O’Connell’s nationalism set no border to his concern for human rights; his advocacy also extended to causes and movements for justice around the world, including the struggle to end slavery. He was totally dedicated to seeking freedom, as he put it: “attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men.”
During a visit full of powerful, positive symbolism, I was pleased that our President was able to acknowledge the contribution of generations of parliamentarians who served Ireland at Westminster between 1800 and 1918, doing their best in difficult circumstances to ameliorate the situation of the people they represented. Picking up on the President’s theme, let us recall that: the Liberator was also a liberal; the Repealer was also a reformer; and the patriotic O’Connell was also an effective parliamentarian. In 1831, for example, in his second year as an M.P., O’Connell spoke an impressive 283 times in 77 sitting days.

Comparatively speaking: Living abroad, as I have done for much of my adult life, has its drawbacks. One of its advantages, however, is that it facilitates comparisons between Ireland and the various other countries where I have lived. It provides a sense of perspective and offers opportunities for comparisons with regard to our history that can sometimes be missing from more introspective commentaries.

In a recent article in The Financial Times, for instance, Kevin Toolis described post-independence Ireland as ‘a parochial disaster’, seeming - in a crude, polemical outburst masquerading as commentary - to forget that the 1920s and 1930s were tough times for people everywhere and that being a stable democracy throughout the 1930s and 1940s was no mean feat for a country that had recently emerged from the turmoil of a war of independence and a civil war.

The performance of individuals, societies and States should not be judged against some mythical gold standard of economic and political excellence, but against the achievements of others that found themselves in similar circumstances. That is why our international standing (how we appear to those who observe us from afar) is often better than what we would give ourselves credit for, because outside observers are more likely to adopt a comparative approach. We ought to judge Daniel O’Connell not as we would judge a contemporary of ours, but as a politician of the first half of the 19th century, a setting in which, as I judge it, he shines luminously.

The value of looking at how others assess us came home to me in India during the 1980s when I became familiar with the esteem in which Ireland was held in its capacity as an inspiration for countries that had (then) relatively recently emerged from colonial domination. I recall meeting a distinguished Indian lady in the early 1980s whose family had been deeply linked with the Indian independence movement. When she heard I was Irish, she immediately recited a number of Yeats’s poems by heart and told me how deeply she had, as a very young woman, been affected by Ireland’s struggle for independence and especially by the death of Terence MacSwiney.

The International O’Connell: What, you may ask, has this got to do with Daniel O’Connell? Had the conversation I had in India in the 1980s happened during the 19th century, it is quite likely that Daniel O’Connell would have been the Irish figure providing the inspiration to people outside of Ireland.

I grew up with what I suppose was the standard Irish-Ireland view of O’Connell based on his alleged culpability for the decline of the Irish language in 19th century Ireland. I was 11 years of age at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising and there was no room for O’Connell in the pantheon of heroes who, in Yeats’s words, ‘stilled’ my ‘childish play’.

At University I acquired a more rounded appreciation of O’Connell’s achievements, but he still had to take his place behind Parnell whose standing was boosted by the coupling of his effective parliamentary performance with his enigmatic personality and the romantic appeal of his tragic, personal story. O’Connell lacked mythmakers of the calibre of Joyce and Yeats to sustain his mystique. In O’Connell’s case, there was no ‘tragic story’ to be told of betrayal by ‘the Bishops and the Party’ or of a proud man who ‘loved his country’ and ‘loved his lass.’ (These quotes come from Yeats’s poem, ‘Come gather round me, Parnellites.’ There is no comparable poem about O’Connell and nor does he make much, if any, of an appearance in Joyce’s work).

In the late 1970s, I read Sean O’Faolain’s King of the Beggars and noted his assessment that O’Connell had given the Irish something priceless, ‘the principle of life as a democracy’ and had ‘moulded many divergent elements into something approaching a unity.’ (p. 329)

Ironically, it was in Germany that my appreciation of O’Connell matured. It happened like this. In November 2010, I received an invitation from the Mayor of the City of Cottbus to attend a function commemorating the 225th anniversary of the birth of Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau. Cottbus is a city in the German State of Brandenburg with a population of around 100,000 where the Prince spent many years of his long and eventful life.

When the Mayor wrote inviting me to Cottbus, he mentioned that the Prince had once visited Ireland where he had met with the famous Irish political leader, Daniel O’Connell. I was intrigued by this connection with Ireland and made the journey to Cottbus for the ceremony, which included a tour of the Schloss Branitz and its impressive gardens designed by the Prince who was an enthusiastic landscape gardener.

Some months later, I returned to Cottbus to deliver a lecture on Prince von Pückler-Muskau's visit to Ireland and the great man he met here in Derrynane, Daniel O'Connell.

When I spoke at Cottbus, I quoted from President Obama's speech in Dublin, in which he recalled O'Connell's influence on one of the President's own heroes from history, Frederick Douglass. The President’s speech included the following passage:

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship right here in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O’Connell. His time here, Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would return home to wage.
The point I wanted to make in Cottbus was that Daniel O’Connell was not just a 19th century Irish political figure, but a politician of international standing and importance, including in Germany, and that is the argument I want to put to you today.

A country of Ireland’s size can normally expect to be an importer of political ideas, but in O’Connell we had a political export champion, a man whose reputation travelled far beyond Ireland, a true European figure. O’Connell was probably the only 19th century personality from nationalist Ireland to achieve such Europe-wide renown during his lifetime.

O’Connell’s German reputation: Why then did this German Prince choose to seek out the Irish lawyer/politician, Daniel O’Connell. To explain this, I need to say a little about Germany, and indeed other parts of Europe, in the opening decades of the 19th century. Much of Germany had been occupied by Napoleon and after his defeat there were high hopes that a new, united nation might emerge from the patchwork of petty principalities into which the country had long been divided. Germany was also a country where religion remained a bone of political contention especially in the Catholic Rhineland which, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was ruled by Protestant Prussia. Rhinelanders sometimes viewed themselves as Prussia’s Irish.

In an era when memories of the French revolution still haunted Europe’s establishment and sustained a reactionary political climate, O’Connell’s achievement in developing a peaceful popular movement for political change made him especially interesting to European observers who wanted reform but feared a descent into chaotic revolution. The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, has credited O’Connell with a unique achievement of organising the only coherent western national movement in the period before 1848. He was the first ‘of those charismatic popular leaders who mark the awakening of (mass) political consciousness’ (Age of Revolution, p. 172). The visiting German Prince commented that O'Connell could at anytime have unleashed an uprising but had wisely committed himself to non-violent means of achieving political change.

In his biography of Robert Peel, Douglas Hurd describes the political atmosphere at the time when O’Connell arrived in parliament: when conservatives ‘heard reformers talk, they also heard the tumbrels rattle over the cobbles and saw the guillotine fall, this time on them and all they respected. But that generation was passing. Catholic Emancipation had shown that change was possible without revolution, and that change could be forced on Parliament by outside pressures.’ (Robert Peel: a biography, p. 132).

This reveals how Catholic Emancipation had been a game-changer, and not just for Ireland. In Britain, Catholic Emancipation was the first serious reform of parliament, making it marginally more representative of the people it purported to serve by enabling 6 million Irish Catholics to be represented by one of their own. When O’Connell signed into the Westminster Parliament in February 1830, the other five political debutantes were all members of British aristocratic families. O’Connell was an outsider with an uphill struggle in front of him if he wanted to make his mark. Hot on the heels of Emancipation came the Great Reform Act of 1832 which O’Connell supported but, even after 1832, parliament was not a particularly fertile ground for a man of O’Connell’s advanced political outlook.

A clue to how well-known O'Connell was during the 1830s is provided by a comment made by the great German writer, Goethe (Germany's Shakespeare) who wrote that von Pückler-Muskau 'visits the famous O'Connell in his remote and scarcely accessible residence and completes the picture we had formed from previous descriptions of this wonderful man.'

An unusual German Prince: Prince von Pückler-Muskau was born in 1785 in Muskau, which was then part of Saxony. After spending some carefree years travelling around Europe, he fought in the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars and was for a time Governor of Bruges. The Prince inherited his family estates and devoted his time to developing landscaped gardens, which are now a UNESCO world heritage site.

In 1826, Prince Pückler-Muskau decided to travel to London for an unusual reason. Money had become scarce and he needed to find a wealthy wife in order to maintain his estates. Fashionable London was the place to go and he set out with his wife’s blessing, who had agreed to an amicable divorce to facilitate her husband’s quest for financial security. The Prince failed in his mission, but started writing letters back to Germany which revealed a considerable literary gift. After two years of unsuccessful bride-hunting in London, the Prince set out on a journey across the Irish Sea.

Von Pückler-Muskau arrived in Ireland on the 11th of August 1828 after a wretched sea crossing from Holyhead that had lasted 10 hours on rough seas. His Briefe eines Gestorbenen (Letters of a Deceased Person), which was first published anonymously in 1830, contains detailed accounts of his travels in Ireland. Goethe praised him for describing Ireland in a ‘masterly manner’.

The visiting prince was appalled by the poor living conditions he witnessed and blamed these on bad Government and intolerance. Ireland, he believed, had experienced from England ‘a step mother’s care’. It contributed to the power and splendour of the English nobility without receiving advantages in return. Amongst the Irish, he noticed the singular honesty of the people despite their poverty.

The Prince also admired the gaiety, humour and good nature of the Irish character. He considered that the Irish combined the frank honesty and poetical temper of the Germans with the vivacity and quickness of conception of the French.

The extent of Prince von Pückler-Muskau‘s identification with Ireland’s political aspirations is striking, especially for he was at that time a well-known figure on the London social scene. The people he knew in London would have seen O’Connell as a reckless agitator, devoted to overturning the established social order and fomenting rebellion.

It is to the credit of the visiting German prince that he seems not to have been swayed by the characteristic class or religious prejudices of his time. Indeed, he praised O’Connell for being free from religious bigotry and for his tolerant views. During his visit, the Prince had a number of encounters with Catholic clergy who invariably impressed him.

It is no surprise that the Prince is known to have held liberal political views during the 1840s and 1850s. Goethe correctly described him as ‘a thorough liberal-minded German versed in literature and art’.

Von Pückler-Muskau visited the sites of Dublin and County Wicklow, before travelling to the west of Ireland where he enjoyed attending the Galway races. In late September 1828, he made his way to County Kerry in order to pay his respects to Daniel O’Connell.

After a difficult journey in inclement weather, he arrived at O’Connell’s home at Derrynane House late at night. His description of O’Connell makes fascinating reading. It offers genuine insights into one of Ireland’s most intriguing political personalities. During his lifetime, O’Connell was hero-worshipped by his followers and demonised by his opponents, but von Pückler-Muskau offers an invaluable outsider’s assessment.

The German visitor was impressed by his Irish host, and not least by the excellent wine served at O’Connell’s table. After dinner, they settled into a long conversation about Ireland. The prince was taken by O’Connell’s winning personality, ‘although there was something of the stage actor about him.’ He reflected that O’Connell could raise a rebellion in Ireland at any time, but chose to pursue his aims by strictly non-violent means.

The Prince thought that O’Connell looked more like a General in Napoleon’s army than a Dublin advocate. He found him to be witty and persuasive in manner, rather than loftily eloquent. He added that he had an invaluable gift for a Party leader, in the form of a powerful voice and a strong constitution! He observed that O’Connell held a high opinion of himself and sometimes showed a touch of vulgarity, but as the prince wisely added – ‘where is there ever a treasure without blemish.’

The following morning, O’Connell accompanied his guest as he left Derrynane House. Here is how he recorded his final impressions of O’Connell:

‘At the ruins of a bridge carried away by the swelling of a mountain stream, O’Connell stopped to take a final leave of me. I could not help expressing to the champion of the rights of his countrymen, my wish that, when we next met, the dungeons and fortresses of English intolerance might be overthrown by him and his allies, as completely as these ruined walls had been by the swollen and overflowing torrent.’

The Prince expressed confidence that O’Connell would achieve Catholic Emancipation and correctly predicted that this would not bring an end to O’Connell’ s political career, as it would not resolve the problems of Ireland or the defects of the British Constitution.

Almost two centuries after they were written, Prince Pückler-Muskau’s writings from Ireland are a pleasure to read. They contain an endearing combination of travel writing and personal reflection. The author comes across as an intriguing character, a lover of the good things in life and a passionate nature enthusiast. A feature of his work is his sympathetic curiosity about every aspect of life in Ireland. An example of this is where he comes across a famous Irish piper and invites him to play for him over breakfast one morning. He appreciates this strange instrument and the music the blind piper plays even though it must have sounded very different from music he would have heard in stately drawing rooms in London and Berlin. He describes the piper as a true representative of Irish nationality.

O’Connell’s European reputation: Von Pückler-Muskau was not the only early 19th century German to come under O’Connell’s spell. According to Gisela Holfter of the University of Limerick, von Puckler-Muskau's work sparked off a surge of German interest in Ireland. Eoin Burke has identified 28 separate accounts of Ireland by German travel writers published between the late 18th century and the 1860s. Most of these were published in the 20 years after the achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

Many German Catholic writers admired O’Connell’s achievements in bringing about Catholic emancipation in a peaceful manner. The Kölnische Zeitung, from Cologne, followed O’Connell’s career avidly, with very regular reports on his activities. After his death, the paper described O’Connell’s achievement as a liberation of Europe without bloodshed (James M. Brophy, ‘Die Rezeption Daniel O’Connells und der irischen Emanzipationsbewegungen im vormärzlichen Deutschland, in Marx-Engels Jahrbuch 2011, pp. 74-93). It has been estimated that there were some 1,400 German books that appeared between 1836 and 1846 that had reference to O’Connell. Overall, there was an extraordinary amount of German writing on O’Connell reflecting his very positive reputation among German liberals and Catholics. For such people, O’Connell offered a solution to the great conundrum of that time, how to engineer peaceful political progress.

It was not only in Germany that O’Connell’s reputation flourished. French Catholic liberals saw him, not just as an Irish figure but as ‘the man of the whole of Christendom.’ (Maurice O’Connell (ed.), Daniel O’Connell: political pioneer, p. 99). Balzac said that O'Connell and Napoleon were the two greatest men of the 19th century. The French Catholic liberal, Montalembert, credited O’Connell with 'the immortal glory of having liberated his religion and given new life to his country by the sole means of legal action without having spilled a single drop of blood in the process' (Political Pioneer, p. 106)

O' Connell's combination of liberalism, nationalism, political Catholicism and reforming radicalism turned him into a figure of European stature. For continental observers, O'Connell stood for the promise of political change without violence and revolutionary upheaval. Not everyone in Europe approved of O’Connell and there were many conservatives and traditional Catholics for whom his politics were a bridge too far. Yet, O’Connell was a name to be reckoned with in European politics from the mid-1820s to the end of his life.

The case against O’Connell: The case against O’Connell rests on the charge of timidity in failing to lead the Irish people into the promised land of self-government. There are those who believe that he ought to have been able to face down the British authorities with a continuation of the kind of defiance that had delivered Catholic Emancipation. To my mind, this was not an achievable objective during O’Connell’s lifetime or for decades afterwards. There was probably no power on earth, parliamentary or revolutionary, that could have prised Ireland away from British control during the 19th century when Britain was a continually rising Imperial power. While there were many in Britain, including in parliament, who supported Catholic Emancipation, those prepared to contemplate some form of self-government for Ireland were few and far between until much later in the century.

Our misfortune was that we lived in the shadow of the 19th century’s most powerful State, which was determined to retain control of Ireland and enjoyed sufficient local support to make this possible. The only option available to Ireland was to seek redress by availing of the institutions of the powerful British State to pursue Irish interests. This was what O’Connell and those who followed him did. The prime venue for this pursuit was the Westminster Parliament.

Ireland’s advantage was that the British State was also a pioneer in the evolution of representative democracy which gradually increased the scope available to Irish members to build parliamentary alliances, especially when competition between the major British Parties intensified in the second half of the century.

My appreciation of O’Connell and his successors does not mean that I in any way denigrate or underrate the contribution of people like Thomas Davis who is also being honoured here today. The key achievement of nationalist Ireland in the 19th century was to keep the flame of a separate Irish political identity alive until such time as it could be successfully embodied in an independent Irish State. There were many who played their part in this effort: O’Connell in his lawyerly manner using mass mobilisation and robust rhetoric to pursue Ireland’s case; and Davis through his inspirational writing. There was no guarantee that this separate Irish identity would have survived the 19th century. We owe a debt to all of those who, in various ways, contributed to its survival.

Conclusion: This brings me back to Frederick Douglass. When he met Daniel O’Connell in Dublin in 1845, O’Connell was an elder statesman close to the end of his political career. Douglass was deeply impressed. Writing to a friend in the US, Douglass recalled an O’Connell speech he had attended. He quotes O’Connell’s words:
My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island. No – it extends itself to every corner of the earth. My heart walks abroad, and wherever the miserable are to be succoured, or the slave to be set free, there my spirit is at home, and I delight to dwell there. (Don Mullan (ed.), Frederick Douglas: an American slave, p. 13)

This is why O'Connell – opponent of slavery, political liberal, advocate of reform, Irish patriot and effective parliamentarian - enjoyed such a stellar international reputation during his lifetime.

Dan Mulhall, Ambassador, Embassy of Ireland, London
May 2014