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O’Connell’s Rebel Emancipation, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Modern Irish history is dominated by the name Daniel O’ Connell. His status as a reformer and a fervent nationalist is well-founded. As a leading figure in the early days of of the movement for Irish independence from Britain, O’ Connell’s greatest triumphs and most bitter failures each emerged from his deep desire for Irish autonomy and his conviction in the need for the liberation of Irish Catholics from Protestant led oppression. In many ways, O’ Connnell must be regarded as both a rebel and a visionary. His career must also be regarded as both a grand success and dubious failure because while he was able to achieve many of his ambitions for Catholic Emancipation, his sustained and impassioned  attempt to repeal the Union between Ireland and Britain failed to gain Irish independence. That said, much of what is commonly understood to underlie the modern Irish identity can be traced to O’ Connell’s political, social, and cultural influences. That said, the perception O’ Connell’s influence has also evolved over time and has undergone many revisions.

As Nowlan and O’ Connell point out in their study  Daniel O’Connell, Portrait of a Radical (1985) the changing perceptions of O’ Connell’s influence on Irish history range from those which view him as the Great Liberator of Ireland to those which regard him as a negative influence on Irish identity and the cause for Irish liberation. The authors observe that “Daniel O’Connell probably more than any other major figure in modern Irish history has been the victim of the shifts in popular attitudes to nationalism and its significance.”1 The changing perceptions of O’ Connell are, no doubt, tied at least partially to two significant aspects of his career. The first aspect is that while O’ Connell was a reformer and most certainly a radical, his methods were rooted in non-violence. The second significant aspect is that, as previously mentioned, O’ Connell succeeded with his ambitions for Catholic Emancipation while falling short of gaining repeal of the Union. Therefore as the historical emphasis shifted from religious to political freedom, O’ Connell’s reputation naturally ebbed during those times when his failure seemed more acute than his success.

In fact, it can be accurately stated that even in O’ Connel’s own mind, the ideas of Catholic Emancipation and Repeal were one and the same.  Bruce Nelson, in  his book Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (2012) writes that the campaign that O’ Connell led on behalf of the liberation of Catholics from oppression was directly tied to his ultimate plan for Irish independence. Nelson notes that “The campaign for Catholic Emancipation prefigured a second major initiative, for repeal of the Act of Union.”2 It is important to understand, fully, that the two ambitions were so closely connected in O’ Connell’s vision in order to fully assess two fundamental questions about O’ Connell’s career and his influence over Irish history. The first question is, of course, whether or not O’ Connell should be considered a successful revolutionary who produced positive results for Ireland, or whether his influence only resulted in stoking the oppression of the Irish and the partial occupation of Ireland by Great Britain for decades. The second question is why, exactly, his campaign for Catholic Emancipation succeeded while his effort to gain repeal failed. This latter question is far more difficult to answer than the first because it involves examining a complex set of influences that framed the two issues.

To state the case simply: the issue as to whether or not O’ Connell  should be considered a successful revolutionary in Irish history is more or less elf-evident due to the fact that O’ Connell’s ambition to free Catholics from oppressive laws was accomplished. The simple reality is that O’ Connell must not only be viewed as a successful revolutionary and reformer, but as potentially one of the most important and influential reformer and revolutionary in modern Irish history. Historians are more or less agreed on the fact that O’ Connell’s political and cultural influence was both genuine and practical. nelson observes that “Historians have generally agreed that O’Connell was, first and foremost, a pragmatic reformer whose most salient characteristics were flexibility, opportunism, and a determination.”3 These qualities are without a doubt one of the reasons why O’ Connell’s influence in Irish history became so vast;  they are also good reasons why the question of how and why he failed in terms of gaining repeal is so important and provocative to  historians.

In order to understand why  O’ Connell succeeded with  Catholic Emancipation but failed with the Repeal of the Union, it is necessary to examine two primary historical factors: the social, political, and cultural climate of O’ Connell’s time, and the means and methods that were used by O’ Connell in pursuit of his ambitions.  As the following brief examination will clearly show, the underlying reasons for the dramatic successes and failures of O’ Connell’s career are based in several factors, not the least among them is the organic evolution of public will outside of any formal political influence or ideal. Some of O’ Connell’s success must be attributed to the extant, prevailing sentiments of the Irish during his generation. The will to achieve a measure of religious emancipation already existed and O’ Connell was able to harness this existing energy, organize mass numbers of people, and give a political and cultural structure to the already-broiling desire for reform.

By contrast, in terms of O’ Connell’s attempt to gain the Repeal of the Union, it must be said that the popular will that later developed for such an ambition did not exist in full enough capacity for O’ Connell to take advantage of sweeping popular will. In the minds of some observers, this may give O’ Connell’s career the air of that of a demagogue. This is certainly a misconception. However, there are reasons to believe that specific personality traits and personal beliefs may have contributed to O’ Connell’s inability to fully realize his ambitions.  For example, one of O’ Connell’s techniques was to stage massive rallies of his supporters, gatherings which, despite O’ Connell’s stature as a pacifist,  often seethed with violent overtones.  Nelson writes that O’ Connell’s “monster meetings, with their polarizing rhetoric, created a mass of seething energy that—his critics charged—teetered on the edge of anarchic violence” 5 The fact that O’ Connell connected nationalism and religion also showed that he embody passionate principles that tapped into powerful racial and ideals. The contradiction of is character showed that he rose above the masses while simultaneously claiming that numbers, and not individuals, were the true influence in world affairs. O’ Connell focused on nationalism while also pursuing a personal career of power and charisma.

O’ Connell’s struggle to reach his ambitions involved not only facing down the British Empire and its legal system, but also in combating racial and cultural stereotypes that had been used to frame ongoing oppressive laws and practices. According to Nelson, “In leading the campaign for Repeal, O’Connell took it upon himself to stand the dogma of Catholic inferiority and native Irish savagery on its head,” 6  Therefore both his attempt to bring about Catholic Emancipation and his dedication to the Repeal of the Union must be understood as the practical ends of his philosophy, but the emotional and ethical motivation for his ambitions rested on his desire to overturn ethnic prejudices. This desire was of course was based in a sense of Irish nationalism, but the true sense of O’ Connell’s motivation was humanitarian in nature and not merely grounded in national pride.

So, if O’ Connell was a passionate pragmatist who embodied some — but not all — of the qualities of a demagogue and he as a fierce nationalist who advocated non-violence as a tool for revolution and reform, the picture that emerges of O’ Connell is quite clear. He was a fervent and sincere advocate of Irish independence, of human rights, and of religious autonomy. This sketch of qualities presents a picture of the historical figure. It also presents an adequate framing of the major issues that O’ Connell tackled. The next step in understanding why O’ Connell’s bid for Catholic Emancipation was achievable while his attempt to gain Irish independence failed is to consider the historical context and conditions that factored into O’ Connell’s life and career. The historical conditions are as important as the particulars of O’ Connell’s personality and political strategies for assessing the reasons for his successes and failures. In fact, it could be argued that the historical conditions are the most determinant factor in why  O’ Connell’s attempt at gaining  Catholic Emancipation and Repeal of the Union respectively succeeded and failed. The prevailing historical condition that is relevant to the question is, of course, the particular political climate that was fostered by the union of Britain and Ireland that took place in the first year of the nineteenth century.

One important thing to keep in kind is that the union between Britain and Ireland was enacted as response to the perceived threats of both the Napoleonic revolution and the existing subversive and rebellious groups that existed in Ireland. At the time of the union, advocates argued that the policy would bring about the necessary conditions for Catholic Emancipation and also  a new economic prosperity for the Irish people. Nowlan and O’ Connell mention that this latter promise was not fulfilled “the Union did not bring with it those social and political changes which might have saved Irish society from the chaos and suffering of the Great Famine […] it was in a post-union context that Ireland was to experience great and prolonged social distress.” 7 Therefore one of the most important factors in driving popular dissatisfaction with the union was economic in nature.

The main thing to keep in mind about the kind of high expectations that many people held for the union between Great Britain and Ireland is that the benefits were known quantities that had been advocated and instilled into the basic expectations of the masses. In contrast, the appeal toward full Repeal of the Union was a revolutionary idea given that the union was still relatively new and had not yet been given, in the minds of may people, a chance to prove its value.This is not the case in regard to O’ Connell, of course. his passionate feelings about Repeal were formed very early on and his basic feelings about the union are evident in his early letters and speeches. In one speech he remarks simply that “I consider that the Repeal of the Act of Union would tend to the advantage of my counrty”8. This statement shows the basis of his argument in its most simple light; however, the manner in which O’ Connell typically exerted influence over his followers was through “high” rhetoric and complex articulation.

This brings to mind a fundamental difference in the quest for Catholic Emancipation and the attempt to gain the repeal of Union. O’ Connell’s pursuit of the first ambition can rightly be called an appeal to religious passion and human emotion. At one point, in regard to the desire for Emancipation he remarked in a speech that the issue as primarily based in ethics and morals and that therefore ethical and moral approaches to reform would be most effective. He remarked that “even our enemies must concede to us, that we act from principle and principle only. We prove our sincerity when we refuse to make our emancipation a subject of traffic and barter.” 9 This statement shows that much of O’ Connell’s appeal on the subject of Catholic Emancipation was based in emotional and ethical grounds. On the other hand, the fight for the Repeal of Union was based in political grounds which were less immediately identifiable by the mass public.

For example, when O’ Connell addressed the subject of Irish editorialists who, themselves, took the anti-Catholic perspective he remarked that such a  writer “accuses our religion of being an enemy to liberty, of being an encourager  of treason”10 and then he goes on to accuse the writers themselves of being treasonous against Ireland. In simplistic terms, O’ Connell’s ability to succeed with his ambition to attain catholic Emancipation was based in an emotional  appeal to the masses. He was able to deliver this appeal due to his capacity with oratory and his firm sense of honesty and conviction.  His ability to connect with the average Irish citizen allowed him to accumulate both voting and economic power through the bringing together of millions of people. He chose a route of protest that worked with the legal system and found a way to  legislatively defeat the disorganized Tory party which had witnessed the resignation of one Prime Minister and the death of another within two years.

As Nowlan and O’ Connell point out, the end-result of O’ Connell’ efforts toward Catholic Emancipation was that “ most of the legal restraints on the Catholics had been repealed and now those Catholics, who could afford it and could win a seat in Parliament, were permitted to enjoy the privilege” 11 and that one of the most important lessons that was learned by the reform activists, including O’ Connell himself was that “Mass opinion could be brought to bear effectively even on a Tory administration.”12 These are the influences and aspects of social reform that most relate to o’ Connell’s particular capacities as a lawyer, a mass orator, and an individual who held a charismatic relationship with people on matters of passionate issues such as religious oppression and nationalism. However, much of O’ Connell’s perceived power in the struggle for Catholic Emancipation emerged out of an already existing populist ideal and energy. In other words, while O’ Connell was not, strictly speaking, a demagogue, his power and appeal was definitely based in mass support rather than on “insider” influence.

This is a key point in understanding why his bid for religious emancipation succeeded while his attempt at breaking free, in political terms, from Britain was doomed to fail. One of the first and most significant reasons that the attempt to  attain a Repeal of the Act of Union was not successful was because, although the idea was popular among many Irish citizens, the issue has not reached the same kind of mass cohesion that was the case in regard to Catholic Emancipation. As stated by  Nowlan and O’Connell, due to the fact that the union was still untested by time, many people had not yet reached the same level of passionate dislike for the union that O’Connell evidenced. The authors remark that “the question of repeal in the opening years of the nineteenth century had not the same emotional appeal in Ireland as the demand for Catholic Emancipation. The Union was still new and untried.” 13  This meant that O’ Connell’s efforts at enacting a  repeal of the Union would be based in political strategy more than in a strictly populist movement.

It also meant that O’ Connell would have to educate the populace into accepting his position rather than simply amplifying an already existing populist sentiment. His own motivations for attempting to enact Repeal were spelled out in his own words “Ireland had obtained most valuable advantages from emancipation, yet the benefit of good government had not reached the great mass of the Irish people” 14  Obviously, O’ Connell viewed his ambition for Repeal as being something necessary for the good of the Irish people at large, however, his statement acknowledges that he fails to see a mass appeal or concern in the population at large. The fight for Repeal promised to be the very largest fight of O’ Connell’s  impressive career.

The fact that o’ Connell had previously battled for decades on the issue of Emancipation both helped him prepare for the struggle for Repeal but it also had sapped a great deal of his energy.   Denis Gwyyn points out in  the book Daniel O’Connell (1947) that there is no doubt that O’ Connell had expended a great deal of his vitality and energy in the struggle for Emancipation. Gwyyn writes that “for twenty years he had been almost single-handed in carrying on the contest. His faith had never faltered when others despaired. […]But twenty years of increasing labour had told heavily upon him.”, (Gwynn 181). this means that right along with the less than complete conversion of popular support for repeal, O’ Connell faced his own loss of verve and capacity in relation to the even more formidable hurdle of attaining Irish independence  from Britain.

Because the issue of Repeal was rooted in the complex workings of the British government and particularly in the House of Commons, there was only so much that even a populist  movement could accomplish in terms of gaining independence for Ireland without any kind of violent opposition to British rule. The Catholic Emancipation grew out of an organic populist ideal, as previously mentioned, whereas popular sentiment had not yet reached any consensus on the issue of Repeal. perhaps it was a case of O’ Connell over-estimating his personal power, or perhaps it was purely an outgrowth of his passionate nationalism that motivated O’ Connell to fight for the Repeal of the Union, but history records that his efforts were unsuccessful. As sketched above, the confluence of influences that stood in O’ Connell’s path are both numerous and rooted in economic and political realities that were simply beyond his means to influence or control.

O’ Connell’s failure to gain Repeal is one reason why his influence over Irish history is still controversial among scholars. On the one hand, no leader in Irish history has ever attained the kind of popular support that he managed to gain for his effort to emancipate the Catholic church from persecution; on the other hand, no leader in Irish history has risked so much for the sake of nationalism and failed. The fact that O’ Connell eschewed  violence is no doubt seen by many as a shortcoming on his behalf and as a reason why his goal of Irish independence was unattained. The irony is that the Catholic Emancipation which was gained by O’ Connell was an outgrowth of his legal, and ethically based strategic approaches to reform.

Notes

 

  1. Nowlan, Kevin B., and Maurice R. O’Connell, eds. Daniel O’Connell, Portrait of a Radical. New York: Fordham UP, 1985. p. 9.

 

  1. Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012. p. 59.

 

  1. Ibid. p. 58.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Ibid. p. 59

 

  1. Nowlan, Kevin B., and Maurice R. O’Connell, eds. Daniel O’Connell, Portrait of a Radical. New York: Fordham UP, 1985. p. 9.

 

  1. O’ Connell, John. ed. Life and Speeches of Daniel O’ Connell. London, James Duffy, 1846.
  2. 48.

 

  1. O’ Connell, John. ed. The Selected Speeches of Daniel O’ Connell. Dublin, 1868. p. 12.

 

  1. Ibid. p. 15.

 

  1. Nowlan, Kevin B., and Maurice R. O’Connell, eds. Daniel O’Connell, Portrait of a Radical. New York: Fordham UP, 1985. p. 12

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Ibid. p. 10.

 

  1. O’ Connell, Daniel. Daniel O’ Connell: His Early Life and Journal 1795-1802. Pittman and Sons, 1906. p. xix.

Works Cited

Gwynn, Denis. Daniel O’Connell. Revised ed. Cork: Cork UP, 1947.

Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012.

Nowlan, Kevin B., and Maurice R. O’Connell, eds. Daniel O’Connell, Portrait of a Radical. New York: Fordham UP, 1985.

O’ Connell, Daniel. Daniel O’ Connell: His  Early Life and Journal 1795-1802. Pittman and Sons, 1906.

O’ Connell, John. ed. The Selected Speeches of Daniel O’ Connell. Dublin, 1868.

O’ Connell, John. ed. Life and Speeches of Daniel O’ Connell. London, James Duffy, 1846.

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