Daniel O'Connell (6 August 1775 – 15 May 1847; often referred to as The Liberator, or The Emancipator, was an Irish political leader in the first half of the 19th century. He campaigned for Catholic Emancipation—the right for Catholics to sit in the Westminster Parliament, denied for over 100 years—and repeal of the Act of Union which combined Great Britain and Ireland.
While in Dublin studying for the law, O'Connell was under his Uncle Maurice's instructions not to become involved in any militia activity.
When Wolfe Tone's French invasion fleet entered Bantry Bay in December 1796, O'Connell found himself in a quandary. Politics was the cause of his unsettlement. Dennis Gwynn in his Daniel O'Connell: The Irish Liberator suggests that the unsettlement was because he was enrolled as a volunteer in defence of Government, yet the Government was intensifying its persecution of the Catholic people - of which he was one. He desired to enter Parliament, yet every allowance that the Catholics had been led to anticipate, two years previously, was now flatly vetoed.
As a law student, O'Connell was aware of his own talents, but the higher ranks of the Bar were closed to him. He read the Jockey Club as a picture of the governing class in England, and was persuaded by it that, "vice reigns triumphant in the English court at this day. The spirit of liberty shrinks to protect property from the attacks of French innovators. The corrupt higher orders tremble for their vicious enjoyments."
O'Connell's studies at the time had concentrated upon the legal and political history of Ireland, and the debates of the Historical Society concerned the records of governments, and from this he was to conclude, according to one of his biographers, "in Ireland the whole policy of the Government was to repress the people and to maintain the ascendancy of a privileged and corrupt minority."
On 3 January, 1797, in an atmosphere of alarm over the French invasion fleet in Bantry Bay, he wrote to his uncle saying that he was the last of his colleagues to join a volunteer corps and 'being young, active, healthy and single' he could offer no plausible excuse. Later that month, for the sake of expediency, he joined the Lawyer's Artillery Corps.
On 19 May, 1798, O'Connell was called to the Irish Bar and became a barrister. Four days later the United Irishmen staged their rebellion which was put down by the British with great bloodshed. O'Connell did not support the rebellion; he believed that the Irish would have to assert themselves politically rather than by force.
He went on the Munster circuit, and for over a decade he went into a fairly quiet period of private law practice in the south of Ireland. He also condemned Robert Emmet's rebellion of 1803. Of Emmet, a Protestant, he wrote: 'A man who could coolly prepare so much bloodshed, so many murders - and such horrors of every kind has ceased to be an object of compassion.
In 1815 a serious event in his life occurred. The Dublin Corporation had always been reactionary and bigoted against Catholics, and served the established Protestant Ascendancy. O'Connell in an 1815 speech referred to "The Corpo", as it was commonly referred to, as a "beggarly corporation".
Its members and leaders were outraged and because O'Connell would not apologise, one of their number, the noted duellist John D'Esterre, challenged him. The duel had filled Dublin Castle (from where the British Government administered Ireland) with tense excitement at the prospect that O'Connell would be killed. They regarded O'Connell as "worse than a public nuisance," and would have welcomed any prospect of seeing him removed at this time.
O'Connell met D'Esterre and mortally wounded him (he was shot in the hip, the bullet then lodging in his stomach), in a duel at Oughterard, County Kildare. His conscience was bitterly sore by the fact that, not only had he killed a man, but he had left his family almost destitute.
O'Connell offered to "share his income" with D'Esterre's widow, but she declined; however, she consented to accept an allowance for her daughter, which O'Connell regularly paid for more than thirty years until his death. The memory of the duel haunted him for the remainder of his life.
As part of his campaign for Catholic Emancipation, O'Connell created the Catholic Association in 1823; this organization acted as a pressure group against the British government so as to achieve emancipation. The Catholic Rent, which was established in 1824 by O'Connell and the Catholic Church raised funds from which O'Connell was able to help finance the Catholic Association in its push for emancipation.
O'Connell stood in a by-election to the British House of Commons in 1828 for County Clare for a seat vacated by William Vesey Fitzgerald, another supporter of the Catholic Association.
After O'Connell won election, he was unable to take his seat as Members of Parliament had to take the Oath of Supremacy, which was incompatible with Catholicism. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, even though they opposed Catholic participation in Parliament, saw that denying O'Connell his seat would cause outrage and could lead to another rebellion or uprising in Ireland, which was about 85% Catholic.
Peel and Wellington managed to convince George IV that Catholic emancipation and the right of Catholics and Presbyterians and members of all Christian faiths other than the established Church of Ireland to sit in Parliament needed to be established; with the help of the Whigs, it became law in 1829.
However, the Emancipation Act was not made retroactive, meaning that O'Connell had either to seek re-election or to attempt to take the oath of supremacy. When O'Connell attempted on 15 May to take his seat without taking the oath of supremacy, Solicitor-General Nicholas Conyngham Tindal moved that his seat be declared vacant and another election ordered; O'Connell was elected unopposed on 30 July 1829.
He took his seat when Parliament resumed in February 1830, by which time Henry Charles Howard, 13th Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Surrey, had already become the first Roman Catholic to have taken advantage of the Emancipation Act and sit in Parliament.
The Catholic Emancipation campaign led by O'Connell served as the precedent and model for the emancipation of British Jews, the subsequent Jews Relief Act 1858 allowing Jewish MPs to omit the words in the Oath of Allegiance "and I make this Declaration upon the true Faith of a Christian"