Daniel O'Connell - The Barrister

AuthorPaul Gallagher
PositionSenior Counsel
[2017] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 1 70
Paul Gallagher, Senior Counsel
Introduction Daniel O’Connell and his causes
Daniel O'Connell was a truly remarkable man. I remember in national school in the 1960s we
regarded Daniel O'Connell as a failure a failure because he did not succeed in achieving
Repeal. Underlying this perspective was the sense, sometimes, unspoken, that he was a failure,
because he refused to resort to violence to achieve his aims and because he cancelled the Great
Clontarf Repeal meeting, in October 1843, following its proscription by the British
Government, rather than stand up to the threat of British violence. An Irish History Reader by
the Christian Brothers which was popular in the 20thcentury criticised O’Connell for thinking
that Britain’s hold over Ireland could be damaged by cheers and speeches. History has not
always been kind to Daniel O'Connell and his extraordinary achievements have often been
overlooked. Patrick Geoghegan’s two volume biography provides some deep insights into his
achievements and helps redress this omission.
Apart from his extraordinary career at the Bar Daniel O'Connell had three great causes, namely,
Catholic Emancipation, Repeal and the ending of slavery. He succeeded fully only in the first
of these but it would be wrong to assess his achievements solely by the metrics of a successful
outcome particularly given the almost insuperable odds he faced. I believe his greatest
achievement was his almost intuitive understanding of the Irish People (greatly enhanced by
his career at the Bar) and his ability to transform that understanding into a gravitational force
that channelled opposition to British injustice into a constitutional process.
O’Connell worked within the law, and gave hope to a downtrodden and helpless people. He
was a champion for those who never had a champion. He was a voice for those who never had
a voice. He gave self-respect to those who enjoyed no respect. He taught the People to disown
servility and to develop the courage to oppose. In a real sense all the Catholic population of
Ireland were his clients. It was this universal appeal and instinctive connection to his own
countrymen while always working within the law, which made him such a unique force in Irish
history. He left a legacy of opposition to injustice, the benefit of which extended beyond these
shores. He did not consider his people expendable in the cause of some great ideology or
cause. He always remembered they were his cause.
Such was his international fame that in 1830 when the Belgian parliamentarians voted on their
new King, three of them voted for O'Connell. William Makepeace Thackery said that no man
had done so much for his nation since the great George Washington. Bismarck praised him in
the 1830’s but when he became a dictator, he said O’Connell was a man who ought to be shot.
Honoré de Balzac included him among a list of four men, (including Napoleon) in the first
half of the 19thcentury who had an immense influence. Captain Nemo in Jules Vernes 20,000
Leagues under the Sea had a portrait of O’Connell hanging in his cabin. James Joyce referred to
O’Connell in Ulysses paying glorious tribute to his oratory
“the Tribune’s words howled and scattered to the four winds. A people sheltered within his voice”.
[2017] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 1 71
Daniel O’Connell’s international reputation was enhanced by his opposition to slavery. He was
one of the most influential and outspoken critics of slavery in the world. He opposed slavery
because he firmly believed that men and women could not reach their potential until they were
free. He brought a more inclusive and humanitarian dimension to the anti-slavery movement.
William Lloyd Garrison called him the most wonderful of the statesmen and orators of the age”. Charles
Lenox Remond, like Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist said “No country or
people possess a superior to Daniel O'Connell”.
In 1845 Frederick Douglass accepted an invitation from Daniel O'Connell to speak at the
Conciliation Hall in Dublin. A great orator himself he believed that all the stories of
O'Connell’s great oratory were surely exaggerated and O'Connell could not live up to his
reputation. He said O'Connell rose and delivered his speech, about an hour and a quarter long,
it was a great speech, skilfully delivered, powerful in its logic and majestic in its rhetoric, biting
in its sarcasm, melting in its pathos and burning in its rebukes, those attributes could be
applied to so many of O'Connell’s great speeches in the law courts and without. Douglass
quoted O'Connell as saying
“I have been assailed for attacking the American Institution as it is called - negro slavery. I am not
ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty, all
over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant; Wherever oppression shows
itself I am the foe of the oppressor. Wherever slavery rears its head I am the enemy of the system or
the institution, call it by what name you will. I am the friend of liberty in every clime, class and
colour. 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 do like to
The magnificence of those words resonates with us today and articulates a sophisticated and
extremely developed understanding of human rights and of the dignity of human beings that
was almost a century ahead of its time. His stance on slavery reflected his stance on human
rights in general and he did not view human rights as merely a national issue. He condemned
the treatment of the Aborigines in Australia, of the Maoris in New Zealand and of slaves
throughout the world. He played an important role in ending slavery in the British Empire in
1833. He strongly believed in the dignity of the human person and the inalienable rights of that
dignity. Those were amazing achievements for the early part of the 19thcentury and the beliefs
expressed by him were truly revolutionary.
O'Connell’s opposition to slavery continued unabated despite the damage it did to the Repeal
movement. He did not hesitate to rebuke slaveholders even those who wished to support the
Repeal movement. Indeed O’Connell’s stance on slavery damaged support for Repeal in the
United States. Douglass recalled that a gentleman from America had been introduced to the
Liberator and was about to extend his hand when he suddenly stopped because O’Connell said
to him
“Pardon me, sir, but I make it a rule never to give my hand to an American without asking if he
is a slaveholder?”
The gentleman attempted to placate O’Connell by saying

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