Having succeeded in his quest for Catholic emancipation, and having played a crucial role in the struggle over tithes, Daniel O’Connell stood as the pre-eminent Irish Catholic politician of his day. While his support base had been greatly eroded in an electoral sense, with the loss of the “40 shilling freeholders”, his mass appeal was undaunted, and this was demonstrated vividly in the early years of the 1840’s, to the extent that O’Connell began to be viewed as a threat by British authorities.
O’Connell’s new target was one he had long thought on: the union between Ireland and Britain itself. The Irish Parliament had ceased to exist all the way back in 1801, dissolving itself in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. O’Connell, and many others, saw this moment as the crucial one, far more than any failed rebellion before or after: the loss of a national Parliament had ceded too much control to a London legislature that Irish MP’s simply did not have enough influence in. Having allied himself to the Liberal faction in Westminster, O’Connell an his like-minded MP’s were left adrift when the Robert Peel led Conservatives won power in 1842.
Realising that their lack of influence in London would mean any chance to change Ireland would be lost, O’Connell and others fixated on re-establishing the Irish Parliament. To that end, they founded the Repeal Association, to mobilise mass support in Ireland for the destruction of the union. This was not a revolutionary society set on independence, merely a return to the state of affairs that had been the case in Ireland in the 17th century.
O’Connell and the Repeal Association, endorsed by the Catholic Church, became incredibly popular incredibly fast, raising enormous funds that O’Connell aimed to use to put ever increasing pressure on the British authorities. But beyond anything else, this Repeal agitation is famous for O’Connell’s so called “monster meetings”.
From 1842 to 1843, O’Connell organised huge meetings of supporters, at sites up down and the country, but most notably in places of extreme historical significance, such as Tara Hill. The crowds that would assemble at these meetings, where speeches would be given, ceremonies enacted and monies raised, were truly enormous for the day, considering the rudimentary transport options and unreliable weather. While it is important to always take contemporarily reported figures with a grain of salt, the impact of the meetings show clearly that something remarkable occurred: in line with Ireland’s population at the time, over 8 million, the figures of over 800’000 for the Tara meeting in August 1843, may not be all that far-fetched. The “smaller” ones were still reported to attract numbers in excess of 100’000.
These meeting were more than just a method of propagating the Repeal Association. In line with other events of the previous decades, like the rise of Ribbonism, Catholic Emancipation, and the solidarity shown during the Tithe War, the monster meetings were another potent demonstration of Catholic Ireland’s awakening to their true power, to pressure politically and organise effectively. O’Connell’s whole aim was to impress on London that the tide was overwhelming and unrelenting: to demonstrate that it would be easier to give into the building pressure than force the issue by refusal. That is not to say that O’Connell was prepared to turn the popular support into violent action – quite the opposite – but he was an experienced enough politician that he must have known the implied threat of such a thing could be a useful tool in influencing those in positions of power. To make clear that point, one of the meetings, held in Clare, included a large banner emblazoned with the words “ The Liberator of Ireland Will Cut Asunder The Chains of Slavery We Labour Under”, hardly the words of a passive movement. At another, O’Connell uttered the famous phrase: “Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men”.
O’Connell, a master of utilising symbols and playing to crowds, made sure that he covered as much of Ireland as he could, consistently showcasing imagery associated with Irish freedom and the old parliament structure. Comparisons were made to the recent abolition of slavery in contrast to Ireland, with O’Connell encouraged to free the Irish “slave” just as he has helped free Africans.
Such meetings, politicising such huge parts of the Irish population, could not go unresponded to by the authorities for long, and it was in the latter half of 1843 that Prime Minister Robert Peel did finally do something. The impetus was a newly announced meeting, called in early September, to be held at Clontarf, north of Dublin City itself, at the site of the battle where Brian Boru had been killed. O’Connell promised to bring more people than he had brought to any meeting yet, predicting a million attendees.
While the monster meetings had been almost uniformly peaceful – something that prevented a large-scale crackdown earlier in their history – this was a step too far for increasingly worried authorities. Peel ordered arms confiscated in Ireland and began removing magistrates with repeal tendencies. Additional army personnel were posted to Dublin. And on the night of the 7th of October, the day before the Clontarf meeting was due to take place, Dublin Castle issued a proclamation banning the meeting outright.
The final straw appears to have been an encouragement from the more radial elements of the repeal association – the “Young Irelanders” who I will get to in time – for mounted cavalry to be included as part of the procession in Clontarf. While we’ll never know if O’Connell would have allowed this, it was enough for the authorities to believe a militarisation, or at least the beginnings of one, was taking place within the repeal movement. Peel’s message on the topic was unequivocal, calling the meeting “an attempt to overthrow the constitution of the British Empire as by law established”.
O’Connell was faced with a choice. He could have gone through with the meeting and faced up to whatever counter-response Dublin Castle was willing to implement, which could have been as much as military intervention. Thousands of armed soldiers bearing down on the massed crowds was not an image that appealed to O’Connell, who had always insisted, despite the brushes with a slightly different message from time to time, that the movement was a non-violent one.
So, O’Connell made the fateful decision to call off the meetings, posting messages to that effect around the city, turning assembling crowds away and dismantling the stand he was to speak from. The effect was immediate, with a split occurring in the Repeal movements, between those who backed O’Connell’s stance and those who felt that he had made a humiliating climbdown from a position of power. Unfortunately for O’Connell and the Repeal Association, that moment essentially destroyed the movement. With the association riven with discord and Protestant circles crowing in triumph, no more monster meetings would take place.
A few days later O’Connell was arrested and charged with conspiracy. Convicted, O’Connell served three months of a year sentence before the House of Lords overturned the result on the grounds of a shoddily run trial. But the damage was done. No longer a young man, O’Connell’s health deteriorated in the aftermath, and he was unable to rescue anything from the mess that the Repeal Association had become, and that was before much larger and more tragic events overtook the political scene in Ireland.
O’Connell died in 1847, in Genoa while on a pilgrimage to Rome. He was 71. His political career included some immense achievements, and he would be a major inspiration for hordes of others, Irish and non-Irish, for many years to come. His work at achieving Catholic emancipation arguably did more for Irish Catholics than several centuries of fruitless rebellion, and his movements brought a greater politicisation to Ireland than ever before, a politicisation that would be utilised to the utmost by many who would follow him. But the Repeal movement was a failure, and one that heralded future failures: such entities, organised around the personal charisma and persuasive power of one man, would fall when that leader fell.
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