Front Page Titles (by Subject) Section II.—: O'Connell. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Section II.—: O’Connell. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The movement of the association is that of all Ireland; but this great work of the nation has special agents, and it possesses one so eminent and so celebrated, that I cannot pass him over in silence: I mean O’Connell. If the association guides Ireland, O’Connell rules the association. O’Connell exercises so extraordinary an influence over his country, and over England itself, that to omit him would be to neglect something more than a man, and almost a principle. It seems necessary, therefore, in order to give some details respecting him, that I should digress for an instant from the regular course of ideas with which I am engaged, but to which I shall be naturally brought back by this subject.
Every day, in our age, great men become more scarce; not because less great things are effected than of old time; but whatever great deed is now effected by the people, is the work not of one man, but of several, and in proportion as many agents contribute to a work, the glory of each individual agent is diminished. When in any country I do not find any single man elevated above his fellows, I do not conclude that all the men of this country are mean; I should rather infer, that they have all a certain degree of greatness. Nowhere are great individualities more rare than in a country of general equality. Look at the United States; where will you find the common level so high with so few individual prominences? Ireland, with its immense miseries, its contrasts of luxury and indigence, with its large masses animated by homogeneous passions, was perhaps the soil best prepared to nurture the glory of a single man.
Is not the power of O’Connell one of the most extraordinary that can be conceived? Here is a man who exercises a sort of dictatorship over seven millions; he directs the affairs of his country almost alone; he gives advice which is obeyed as a command, and this man has never been invested with any civil authority or military power. I do not know if, in the history of nations, a single example of such a destiny could be found: examine, from Cæsar to Napoleon, the men who have ruled over nations by their genius or their virtue, how many will you find who, to establish their power, did not first possess the majesty of civil station, or the glory of arms? Would the name of Washington have reached us if that great man had not been a warrior before he became a legislator? What would Mirabeau have been without the tribune of the constituent assembly; or Burke, Pitt, and Fox, without their seat in the British parliament? O’Connell is, indeed, a member of the British parliament, but his great power goes back to a time when he was not so—it dates from the famous election of Clare; it is not parliament that has given him strength; it is on account of his strength that he is in parliament.
What, then, is the secret of this power obtained without any of the means which are usually its only source? To comprehend the singular fortune of this man, it is necessary to go back to the political situation which was its starting point, and which is still its foundation.
After the fatal catastrophe of 1798, Ireland, cloven down, expiring under the feet of England, who crushed her without mercy, believed that henceforward she should renounce all hope of obtaining by arms the blessings, for the conquest of which she had so fatally revolted. She was then in the strange position of a nation, which, possessing some political rights, is menaced with their loss for having attempted to obtain by force those rights which were wanting; which, by an imprudent zeal to obtain complete independence, risks falling into complete slavery, and which, for the future, had no chance of obtaining new liberties, save contenting itself with those it possessed, and no longer disputing the rights of its master. Finally, after the union in 1800, it was more closely linked to England, which, holding Ireland as a rebellious slave, was greatly tempted to punish her, but could not do so without violating the engagements and guarantees, respect for which is so strongly inculcated by the British constitution.
In this conjuncture, what was necessary to Ireland? It wanted not a general fit to lead an army, but a citizen capable of directing a people; it wanted a man whose ascendency could be established by peaceable means, fit to gain the confidence of Ireland, without, in the first instance, giving alarm to England; who, deeply impressed with the state of the country, comprehending equally its necessities and its perils, would have the great art of devoting himself entirely to the one, and incessantly avoid the other; a lawyer sufficiently skilful to distinguish what had been repealed in the code of tyranny, and what still remained in force—an orator sufficiently powerful to excite the ardent passions of the people against, and sufficiently wise to check their zeal when it verged on insurrection—a clever pleader, as well as a fiery tribune, employed in keeping awake at the same time the anger and the prudence of the people; impetuous enough to excite, strong enough to restrain, capable of managing at will a public assembly, stimulating or soothing popular passion; and who, having taught the people to hate the laws without violating them, was also able, when excesses were committed, to defend them at law, to excuse the authors, and to fascinate a jury as if it were a popular assembly. Ireland wanted a man who, while he bestowed his whole heart on her, did not cease to keep his eyes fixed on England, knew how to behave with the master as well as the slave, to stimulate the one without alarming the other, to press forward the progress of the former without troubling the security of the latter; who, strong in existing institutions, made them his shield for defence, and his sword for attack; showed how one right summoned another right, one liberty another liberty; imprinted on the heart of every Irishman the deep conviction, that his want of independence exposed him to the severest tyranny, but was sufficient to conquer his complete emancipation; and after having thus disciplined Ireland, could one day present her to England as a nation constitutionally insurgent, agitated but not rebellious, standing up as one man, resolved not to sit down again until justice had been done. This man, for whom Ireland called, was revealed to her in 1810; it was Daniel O’Connell.1 He could not appear sooner or later; for his production a country was required already free, and yet still a slave: there was wanting sufficient oppression to render authority odious, and sufficient liberty for the tribune of the people to be heard; there was wanting that singular accident of a tyranny supported by law, to give such empire to a man familiar with the laws, and who, from their skilful interpretation, could derive the liberty of the people and the independence of his country. Had O’Connell come fifty years before, he would probably have perished on the scaffold; half a century later, his voice would not be listened to in a country that had become more free and more prosperous.
Doubtless a providential interference assured to Ireland some great interpreter for her great misfortunes; but it was a fortunate accident for her that she met one so extraordinary as O’Connell. I am not one of those who believe that Ireland owes her being roused from slavery to O’Connell alone. No; the passions, the inclinations, the destiny of an entire people, do not belong to a single man. No; it is not granted to a single individual, whatever may be his genius and his power, to be everything for his country. The great men who seem to conduct the age very often only give it expression; it is believed that they lead the world, they only comprehend it; they have perceived the necessities of which they constitute themselves the defenders, and divined the passions of which they make themselves the organs. We are astonished, when they speak, that their voice sounds so loud, and do not reflect that their voice is not that of a man, but of a people. If O’Connell and the secret of his power be studied closely, it will be seen that his principal merit is having undertaken the defence of seven millions who were suffering, and whose misery was an injustice. It is pleasant to think that resistance to iniquity is so noble a source of glory. But if O’Connell has not created emancipated Catholic Ireland, what other person could so well have represented it? If he has not alone imprinted on Ireland the great movement which has stirred it so deeply, and still agitates it, how can it be denied that he has prodigiously hastened and developed it? He has not, it is true, forged the weapons of liberty that Ireland possesses, but who could have wielded them so well as he has done? Who, in the presence of the necessities of Ireland, would have studied them so wisely, embraced with such profound intelligence, and employed in their service such vast powers of mind?
I have said that the interests of Ireland required a constitutional war, a peace incessantly agitated, an intermediate state between the rule of the laws and insurrection.
Consider with what art O’Connell organised the plan of this association, which was to become the mistress of Ireland, and had to be formed in the midst of laws desigued to prevent its birth. It is at present confessed by all, that the Irish association owed its life and its daily preservation only to the sagacity of O’Connell, who having preserved it in the cradle from the attacks of the laws then in force, protected it subsequently from the new laws by which it was incessantly menaced, and finally extorted from his adversaries the confession, that “it was very easy to talk about arresting Mr. O’Connell, and bringing him to trial, but the difficulty was to catch him tripping, and to find a law which he could be formally accused of violating.”2 Finally, the association triumphed over all attacks; it was predominant; O’Connell became its leader; and what a leader!—what zeal!—what prudence!—what impetuous wisdom!—what fertility of expedients!—what variety of means!
Look at O’Connell when he appeared in 1825 before a committee of the House of Commons for investigating the state of Ireland; you must admire the lucid simplicity, the ingenuous candour, with which he explained the rigours that then pressed upon Catholic Ireland; not mingling a single word of bitterness with his recitals, speaking only of peace, union, and harmony, assuring his hearers that when once parliamentary emancipation had been granted, Protestants and Catholics, hitherto divided amongst themselves, but not enemies, would love each other like brethren; answering all objections, declaring all grievances, indicating a remedy for all evils, not leaving a single one of the miseries of Ireland in obscurity, nor one of its persecutions, and pronouncing, in the midst of a thousand designed snares and a thousand inevitable interruptions, if not the finest, at least the most useful appeal that was ever made on the part of an oppressed people.3
But this timid and modest man, who held such conciliating language before a committee of the English parliament, was the same whose formidable voice echoed through the county of Clare, and said to the people,4 “The law forbids you to send a Catholic to parliament! Well, I am a Catholic—nominate me.” This man, so recently moderate and calm, appeals to all the passions of the people, rouses all their sympathies, excites their most ardent enthusiasm, breaks with one blow the bonds by which the aristocracy held their dependents in subjection, separates Catholic from Protestant, tenant from landlord, servant from master, procures every vote, and leaves in profound and unforeseen isolation this aristocracy, quite stupified by the audacity and success of its enemy.5
The principal arms used by O’Connell in this constitutional war, of which he is the leader, are his speeches in parliament, the association, and meetings, his election addresses, and his letters in the newspapers. His parliamentary labours engage him half of the year; he speaks on almost every occasion of public importance; when parliament is closed, he opens the sessions of the association, and supports the principal toil of debate; and yet these are not sufficient aliment for his inconceivable activity. Meetings, which, in Ireland as in England, are held for almost every purpose, and in which O’Connell rules, because he excels there, cannot satiate the thirst for action by which he is consumed. He never allows an opportunity to escape of declaring his opinion to the people, and exercising his power. Is there a general election? O’Connell directs it almost as a sovereign. He says to a constituency, “Vote for such a candidate;” to another, “Do not return such a one,” and he is always obeyed. Informed that an election is doubtful in the north, he hastes thither, raises his voice, all-powerful with the Irish multitude, and ensures the triumph of the candidate he has supported; thence, without a moment’s repose, he speeds to the south, where he has learned that another election is perilled; he fascinates and binds his hearers with a spell, procures the election of his son, his son-in-law, or some of his friends, and, resuming his journey as he steps down from the hustings, he arrives in Dublin precisely at the hour the association is sitting, in the midst of which his voice is heard more fresh and sonorous than ever. O’Connell is endowed with indefatigable ardour; when he has not occasion to act, he speaks; if he does not speak, he writes; his acts, words, and writings, are all directed to one common object—the people, and attain their end by the same way—publicity. There is scarcely a single day in the whole year that the press does not publish a resolution, a speech, or a letter, from O’Connell.
What distinguishes O’Connell is not the splendour of any particular quality; it is rather the assemblage of several common qualities, whose union is singularly rare. It would not be difficult to find a more eloquent orator, a more skilful man of business, or a more distinguished writer; but the more brilliant orator could not manage public affairs; the man of business could not write; the superior writer could neither speak nor act. O’Connell, who probably would never have become distinguished by his writings, his speeches, or his political actions, taken separately, is at present the most illustrious of his contemporaries, because he is capable, though in a secondary degree, of all three at the same time. It is, however, only just to say that O’Connell was superior at the bar, and that in popular assemblies he is without a rival.
There is in O’Connell’s fortune something still more surprising than its origin, and the means by which it was established,—that is, the duration of his power, a power entirely founded on the frail base of popular favour. Men may be seen who are great for a day, the heroes of a brilliant deed, the expression of some considerable event accomplished by them, or by the nation whose efforts they direct, and whose power usually vanishes with the great circumstance of which they are the representative; but what we find nowhere else is the continued empire of a single man, who during twenty years has reigned over his country without any title, save popular assent, every day required, and every day given. This is, perhaps, the greatest and most glorious of all existences, but it is also the most laborious. The life of O’Connell is one perpetual enterprise, a never ending combat. Were he to abstain from writing, speaking, or acting, for a single day, his power would instantly crumble into dust. The man, whom his country has invested with the supreme magistracy, continues strong, and is obeyed; after he has become president or king, he may remain so in complete inactivity. But O’Connell at rest is nothing; his power is only maintained on the condition of incessant action; hence that feverish agitation by which he is distinguished, and which, it must be said, is the source of his happiness as well as his glory, for repose is inconsistent with his indefatigable nature.
If it be easy to conceive how continuous efforts are necessary to perpetuate this power, which dies and is born again every day, it is far less easy to comprehend how the person, to whom the necessity of incessant action is imperatively prescribed, should always find abundant elements of action ready to his hand. O’Connell excels as much in their discovery as in their management. Scarcely is one grievance of Ireland removed, when his vigilant eye discovers a new grievance, which is to become the text of his complaints; his tact in divining and anticipating the popular passions is quite marvellous; it is not that he forms thought differently from the rest of the world, but he thinks quicker, and he says what everybody was going to say. Of all his faculties, the most eminent, no doubt, is the good sense with which he is endowed, by the aid of which he measures a difficulty at a glance, sees at once the best course to adopt, and judges so surely of the present, that no one is so close to the future. Such profound intelligence is clearly genius, and, of all forms of genius, the most beneficial to the people, when selfishness does not corrupt it at its source.
Many represent O’Connell in the character of an ardent and devout Catholic, excited by fanaticism to the defence of liberty. To judge how far this opinion is true, we should be able to read the interior of hearts, a power that belongs to God alone. Still, if it were permitted to hazard a judgment on the most impenetrable secrets of the soul, I would say that in this respect O’Connell displays more good sense than passion, more intelligence than faith. O’Connell speaks to Ireland the only language that Ireland comprehends; he judges Ireland too well not to know that nothing can be done except by the influence of Catholicism; and he would probably be an ardent Catholic from calculation, were he not so from religious faith.
Others, who only regard O’Connell in his political life, ask whether he plays a part, or acts from conviction. It is a doubt that seems very difficult to be admitted. There is not a mere hired advocate who, after having pleaded for some hours, well or ill, the worst of causes for the worst of clients, does not become almost convinced of the sanctity of his cause, and is roused to zeal, and sometimes even to disinterestedness; and is it asked, if there be good faith and sincere devotedness in a man who for thirty years has defended the same cause—the cause of an entire people of a country which is his own,—a cause to which he has devoted all his life, and to which he owes all his glory,—the most equitable cause that has ever existed, and which he would believe just, even if it were not really so?
O’Connell is exposed to attacks which, if not better merited, are more easily understood. The declared partisans of passive obedience cannot pardon his liberal proceedings and his revolutionary tendencies; and those who regard an armed insurrection as the only remedy for the misery of the people, impute to him all the evils of Ireland, which suffers without revolting. It is plain that O’Connell’s conduct cannot satisfy these classes. There is in the political principle which serves him as a guide in that intermediate doctrine between respect for the laws and aggression, a mixture that renders his character difficult of explanation, making O’Connell at one time a loyal subject, at another a factious partisan; one day humbled before the sovereign, the next, sovereign himself in some public meeting, half demagogue, half priest. To understand O’Connell, his character must be examined in this double point of view at the same time. O’Connell is neither a member of a pure parliamentary opposition, nor a revolutionist; he is one or the other in turn, according to circumstances. His principle in this matter is formed by events; all consists in obeying or resisting with discernment. O’Connell, whose good sense always masters his passions, never aims bat at that which is possible. Does he find public opinion cold on the subject of reform, he will pursue parliamentary reform with no weapons but those of pure logic and reason. On the contrary, if a subject be agitated which excites popular passions, and in which the nation feels a deep interest, O’Connell no longer limits himself to reasoning; he acts. He no longer simply invokes a principle; he makes an appeal to physical strength. Thus, in the time preceding emancipation in 1829, he had all Ireland on foot; thus, in 1831, he raised the entire country against the payment of tithes; observe, he raised, but did not arm it; he displayed menacing preparations, and waited until irritated power, by attacking him, would give him the privileges and advantages of defence. O’Connell knows wondrously the advantage to be derived from the shelter of law, and how far violence may be pushed without passing its limits; he deems it a folly for a people possessing liberties to abandon those potent arms, whose usage is legal and exempt from danger, to have recourse to insurrection, whose employment is so dangerous, and whose result is so uncertain. If O’Connell thought that a fair, open revolt would succeed, and render Ireland free and happy, he would assuredly become a revolutionist. He would have applauded the movement of the volunteers in 1778; but I doubt whether, in 1792, he would have engaged in the more national movement of the United Irishmen. O’Connell has his soul and his memory stored with all the miseries that violent efforts for independence have brought upon Ireland; hence his constant effort to create what he calls constitutional agitation; that undecided system between peace and war, between submission and revolt, between legal opposition and revolt,—a system which, without doubt, does not confer on the people the benefits of a sudden and prosperous revolution, but which also does not expose the country to the awful responsibilities of an unsuccessful insurrection.
But whether O’Connell be considered as an ardent sectary or as the great leader of a party, a politician or an enthusiast, a parliamentary orator or a revolutionist, in every case we are obliged to recognise his extraordinary power; and what is especially remarkable in this power is, that it is essentially democratic. O’Connell is naturally, and by the mere fact of his political position in Ireland, the enemy of the aristocracy; he could not be the man of the Irish and Catholic people without being the adversary of the Anglican oligarchy. Perhaps in no country is the representative of popular interests and passions so necessarily the fierce enemy of the upper classes as O’Connell, because there is not perhaps a country in the world where the separation between the aristocracy and the people is so open and complete as in Ireland.
We must not then be astonished if O’Connell wages an eternal war against the aristocracy of Ireland. Nothing can restrain him in those attacks which his passions suggest, and which his interests do not forbid. Nor must we be astonished if O’Connell, the idol of the people, provokes the bitter hostility of the higher ranks of society. There is not perhaps another man so much loved and so much hated. The resentment of the aristocracy against him is very natural; but woe to the Irish nobleman who, unable to disguise his hatred, provokes this formidable enemy!
Once at a public dinner, a noble lord, alluding to the tribute which O’Connell receives from Ireland,5 called him “the big beggarman;” the next day O’Connell, at the association, spoke to the following effect: ‘I have to tell you of a new attack made upon me by the Marquis of ——, who has dared to call me a mendicant. I should like to know what right he has to treat me in this way? Is it because I have sacrificed an income equal at least to the best of his estates, in order to devote myself more completely to the defence of my countrymen, and defend them better against an aristocracy whose only desire is to trample them in the dust? My fortune, perhaps, is different from that of any other man, and Ireland has done for me what no other nation has ever done for a private individual. Yes, it is true that I receive a tribute and high wages for my feeble services. I am proud of it. I reject with disdain, as I hear with contempt, the insults of this cowardly aristocracy, which would march over the body of the people, if it did not find me on the road. What are the claims of this Marquis of —— to public consideration? How did he get the large estates he possesses in Scotland? I will tell you. His ancestor was Lord ——, abbot of ——, in the time of Knox. Betraying the trust reposed in him, he surrendered the vast possessions dependent on his abbey, after having first secured for himself a grant of two-thirds. Let us look at the origin of his estates in Ireland. How did they get into his family? Why, by the usual way in those times—by perjury, robbery, and murder. And here is a man, inheriting the fruit of such crimes, who dares to attack a person whose only crime is, that he has been chosen the defender of his country against the monsters who have crushed it for ages beneath the weight of their tyranny.”
It is not merely by bitter sarcasms, invectives, and violent declamations, that O’Counell attacks the upper classes in Ireland, and upsets their authority; he overthrows their empire by the ascendency he has acquired over those who owe them obedience; he destroys their power by the dominion that he personally exercises over Ireland. By placing the people under a single central influence, derived from the assent of each, O’Connell has taught them to count as nothing the legal and traditional privileges which in an aristocratic government are supposed to be attached to name, birth, and social condition.
[1.]O’Connell succeded Keogh.
[2.]This was said by Mr. Plunkett, then Attorney-General, now Lord Plunkett.
[3.]See Parliamentary Report on the State of Ireland, 1825.
[4.]This step was suggested by the late Mr. Leader.
[5.]The representation of the Irish counties has been almost wholly wrested from the landlords.
[5.]The notion has been abandoned.