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Daniel O’Connell was the son of Morgan O’Connell, a Roman Catholic landowner from co. Kerry in Ireland. He trained as a barrister and began practising in Dublin, despite the bars to progress up the profession which were in place for him as a Catholic. He was a popular and successful barrister, and used his celebrity to promote his political views. He was an opponent of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, and a fierce critic of the restrictions imposed on Catholics. This stemmed from his instinctive liberalism. Despite his strong rhetoric, he was no social revolutionary, and could not approve of the use of force to achieve his objectives.
In 1804 O’Connell joined the Catholic Committee, which later became the Catholic Board. In 1808 he led the opposition to Whig proposals for Catholic emancipation, rejecting them because of a proposed government veto over Irish Catholic ecclesiastical appointments. O’Connell continued agitating on this issue throughout the 1810s, in printed articles and public speeches.
In 1823 O’Connell, together with Richard Lalor Sheil, founded a new Catholic Association to campaign for emancipation for all Catholics in every social class. It was established on a nationwide basis and was funded by a membership fee known as the ‘Catholic rent’.
The Catholic Association was hugely popular due to its wide remit and sophisticated organization, and its power was made evident in the general election of 1826 when Catholic 40s freeholders were persuaded by grassroots opinion to vote for candidates who supported Catholic emancipation, instead of following their landlord’s lead. O'Connell stood against Vesey Fitzgerald in the co. Clare by-election of July 1828 and was elected to parliament by a large majority, although he was unable to take his seat due to his Catholicism.
Support for O'Connell was so great in many quarters that the government and King George IV were persuaded that Catholic emancipation would have to be granted to avoid civil unrest. Accordingly in 1829 the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed, without any provision for ecclesiastical veto. O'Connell was re-elected for co. Clare in 1830 and took his seat in parliament.
As an M.P., O’Connell's loyal supporters in parliament were a large enough number to form an important political group of critical importance to the Whig government, and he used this influence to campaign for the reform agenda. When the Tories returned to power in 1841 O’Connell turned his attention again to Repeal, using many of the same tactics as he had used in the agitations for Catholic Emancipation. He set up a Repeal Association and and organised ‘monster’ meetings attended by thousands of people.
When the government banned a proposed meeting at Clontarf in October 1843, O'Connell ensured that the crowds dispersed peacefully. Despite this, in 1844 he was imprisoned on a charge of conspiracy, a sentence which was later quashed on a technicality, but which led to him being regarded as a martyr by his supporters. However, there was little chance of repeal being granted and his popularity was waning among a section of the Repeal Association known as 'Young Ireland'. O'Connell's repudiation of any proposed armed struggle for Irish independence led to their withdrawal from the Association in 1846.
During the famine in 1846-1847, O'Connell urged the government to provide assistance and employment. O'Connell was already ill, and died in Genoa on the way to Rome on 15 May 1847.