Disillusionment with conservative Catholicism came for the Young Irelanders when McHale of Tuam and the bishops insisted that Roman Catholic students at the newly founded Queen’s Colleges could not attend lectures on history, logic, anatomy, geology, metaphysics or moral philosophy “without exposing their faith and morals to imminent danger”, unless the lecturers were Roman Catholics. Furthermore, O’Connell’s call for a “Catholic parliament for a Catholic people” unfortunately signalled the rebirth of Catholic nationalism, that independent form of Irish Nationalism, alien to the ideals of ’98, which brought back bitter memories of Catholic sectarianism to Ulster’s Protestants. As O’Connell said, Protestants were seen as “foreigners to us since they are of a different religion”. Yet the reality was that he was the foremost constitutional parliamentarian of his age. His mass peaceful mobilisation of the Irish people into the parliamentary process, resulting in Catholic Emancipation, was a template followed by many in later years. Not only was he a Liberator to his own people , he was a leading figure in the development of democracy and human rights in Europe. His commitment to the democratic process was best explained when in The Nation newspaper on the 18th November 1843 he wrote:
“The principle of my political life …. is, that all ameliorations and improvements in political institutions can be obtained by persevering in a perfectly peaceable and legal course, and cannot be obtained by forcible means, or if they could be got by forcible means, such means create more evils than they cure, and leave the country worse than when they found it”
While time may have distanced us from the impact he had on his age, his importance can be judged from those whom he influenced. William Gladstone for instance described him as “the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen.” Balzac said “I would like to have met three men only in this century: Napoleon, Cuvier and O’Connell.” These few words testify in their fashion to the extraordinary impact left by O’Connell on European thought. William Grenville wrote that ” history will speak of him as one of the most remarkable men who ever lived.” Frederick Douglas wrote that “No transatlantic statesman bore a testimony more marked and telling against the curse of slavery than did Daniel O’Connell”.
However, an event was now to occur which was to change the social, economic and ultimately the political history of Ireland. The failure of the staple potato crop led to the Great Famine of 1845-49, probably the single most traumatic event in the island’s history, striking right to the very heart of Irish life . Up to a million of the starving and disease-ridden population would perish. The total demoralisation engendered by the tragedy not only dealt a near-fatal blow to the lingering beliefs in the ‘protective magic’ of the ancient Elder Faiths — which were still patently strong — but lent new impetus to the upsurge of nationalist sentiment. As if the loss of life caused by the Famine was not enough, Ireland was to lose a further million citizens during the massive emigration which followed. Many did not get beyond Glasgow and Liverpool. Other emigrants formed in the U.S.A. an unwanted nation within a nation, the Irish-Americans, whose influence on the further history of Ireland was profound.
Following the American Civil War (1861-65), the Irish-Americans formed a recruiting source for the violent anti-British Fenian movement. Founded in 1858 by James Stephens, who had fought in the Young Ireland rising of 1848, the Fenian Brotherhood saw themselves as the inheritors of the ideals of Tone and Davis. Believing that they could provoke an Anglo-American confrontation which would provide an opportune setting for revolt in Ireland, a party of Fenians made a raid on Canada in 1866. This was unsuccessful, as was an Irish uprising in 1867, and further invasion of Canadian territory in 1870 and 1871.
The bravery and tenacity to the ideals of ’98 shown by the Young Irelanders and Fenians influenced a former Unionist, Isaac Butt, who had spoken against Daniel O’Connell in his youth, to form the Home Government Association. A member of Committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Butt’s conservatism was supplemented by a great love of his country. One of the first Ulstermen to join the Home Government Association was John Madden, brother of a prominent Monaghan Orangeman. Madden felt alienated by Episcopalian disestablishment. The Home Government Association gradually grew in acceptability and size so that it became necessary to reconstitute the movement. The Home Rule League was therefore formed in 1873.
This was a turning point and, as Chris McGimpsey has said, the evolution of Home Government Association to Home Rule League also signalled the movement away from aspects of Orange Home Rule and Protestant élite nationalism into a more O’Connellite, popular, democratic and Roman Catholic movement. After the election of 1874, therefore, Butt led a revamped Home Rule Party in the Westminster parliament.
To be continued