Irish Stamps: Catholic Emancipation Centenary (1929, Daniel O’Connell)


Catholic Emancipation

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 was the culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout Great Britain and Ireland.  In Ireland it repealed both the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Irish Parliament of 1728.

Its passage followed a vigorous campaign on the issue by, amongst others, leading Irish politician and lawyer Daniel O’Connell.  It is not a well-known fact that O’Connell had firm support from the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, as well as from the Whigs and liberal Tories.

The Act permitted Roman Catholics to sit in the parliament at Westminster.  O’Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican.  Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell (as a Roman Catholic) was forbidden to take his seat in Parliament.

Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who had until then always opposed emancipation concluded: “though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.”  Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel drew up the Catholic Relief Bill and guided it through the House of Commons.

To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington worked tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatened to resign as Prime Minister if the King did not give Royal Assent.


As Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1822 to 1828, the Marquess Wellesley (brother of the Duke of Wellington) played a critical role in setting the stage for the Catholic Emancipation Bill.  His policy was one of reconciliation that sought to have the civil rights of Catholics restored while preserving those rights and considerations important to Protestants.  He used force in securing law and order when riots threatened the peace, and he discouraged the public agitation of the sectarian Protestant Orange Society and equally sectarian Catholic Society of Ribbonmen.

Bishop John Milner was an English Catholic cleric and writer highly active in promoting Catholic emancipation, prior to his death in 1826.  He was a leader in anti-Enlightenment thought and had a significant influence in England as well as Ireland, and was involved in shaping the Catholic response to earlier efforts in Parliament to enact Catholic emancipation measures.

Meanwhile Ulster Protestants mobilised, after a delayed start, to stop emancipation.  By late 1828 Protestants of all classes began to organise after the arrival of O’Connellite Jack Lawless who planned a series of pro-emancipation meetings and activities across Ulster. His move galvanised the Protestants to form clubs, distribute pamphlets and set up petition drives.  However, the Protestant protests were not well funded or coordinated and lacked critical support from the British government.

After Catholic relief had been granted, the Protestant opposition divided along class lines.  The aristocracy and gentry accepted the situation whereas the middle and working classes showed dominance over Ulster’s Catholics through sectarian Orange Order parades.


The Parliamentary Elections (Ireland) Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8) effectively dis-enfranchised the minor landholders of Ireland, the so-called Forty Shilling Freeholders and raised five-fold the economic qualifications for voting.  Starting in the initial relief granting the vote by the Irish Parliament in 1793, any man renting or owning land worth at least forty shillings (the equivalent of £2), had been permitted to vote.  Under the Act, this was raised to £10 (ten pounds).

Political results 

The main political importance of Catholic emancipation was that it split the anti-reformers beyond repair and diminished their ability to block future reform laws, especially the great Reform Act of 1832.  Paradoxically, Wellington’s success in forcing through emancipation converted many Ultra-Tories to demand reform of Parliament.

For example, they saw that the votes of the rotten boroughs had given the government its majority and an ultra-Tory, the Marquis of Blandford (in February 1830) introduced the first major reform bill, calling for the transfer of rotten borough seats to the counties and large towns, the disfranchisement of non-resident voters, preventing Crown office-holders from sitting in Parliament, the payment of a salary to MPs, and the general franchise for men who owned property.  The ultras believed that a widely based electorate could be relied upon to rally around anti-Catholicism.

Daniel O’Connell – A biography

Daniel O’Connell is considered one of Ireland’s greatest statesmen and he exerted great influence on the relations between the Irish people and their English rulers in the first half of the 19th century.  He was able to rally the Irish people, agitate for some degree of civil rights in Ireland, and was widely revered by the common people in Ireland.


Daniel O’Connell’s Childhood in Kerry

O’Connell was born on 6th August 1775, in Co Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland.  Although his family were Roman Catholics, they were considered members of the gentry and they owned land.  The family practiced an ancient tradition of “fosterage” whereby a child of wealthy parents would be raised in the household of a peasant family. This was said to make the child deal with hardships, and other advantages would be that the child learn the Irish language as well as local traditions and folklore practices.

In his later youth, an uncle nicknamed “Hunting Cap” O’Connell doted on young Daniel, and often took him hunting in the rough hills of Kerry. The hunters used hounds, but as the landscape was too rough for horses, the men and boys would have to run after the hounds.  The sport was rough and could be dangerous, but young O’Connell loved it.

Daniel O’Connell Studies in Ireland and France

Following classes taught by a local priest in Kerry, O’Connell was sent to a Catholic school in the city of Cork for two years.  As a Catholic, he couldn’t enter the universities in England or Ireland at the time, so his family sent him and his younger brother Maurice to France for further studies.  While in France, the French Revolution broke out.  In 1793 O’Connell and his brother were forced to flee the violence.  They made their way to London safely, but with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The passing of Catholic Relief Acts in Ireland made it possible for O’Connell to study for the bar, and in the mid-1790s he studied at schools in London and Dublin.  In 1798 O’Connell was admitted to the Irish bar.

Radical Attitudes

While a student, O’Connell read widely and absorbed current ideas of the Enlightenment, including such authors as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine.  He later became friendly with the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, an eccentric character known for advocating a philosophy of “utilitarianism.”  While O’Connell remained a Catholic for the rest of his life, he also always thought of himself as a radical and a reformer.  He was also a Freemason but left the organisation in

The Revolution of 1798

A revolutionary fervour was sweeping Ireland in the late 1790s, and Irish intellectuals such as Wolfe Tone were dealing with the French in hopes that French involvement could lead to Ireland’s liberation from England.  O’Connell, however, having escaped from France, was not inclined to align himself with groups seeking French aid since he had seen the excesses of the French Revolution at first hand.

When the Irish countryside erupted in rebellions in the spring and summer of 1798, O’Connell was not directly involved.  His allegiance was actually to the side of law and order, so in that sense he sided with British rule.  However, he later said that he wasn’t approving of the British rule of Ireland, but he felt that open revolt would be disastrous.

The 1798 uprising was particularly bloody, and the butchery in Ireland (on both sides) hardened his opposition to violent revolution.  Having witnessed the carnage of the French Revolution, O’Connell’s Irish experience merely reinforced his fear of what might happen in the political vacuum of the aftermath.

Legal Career of Daniel O’Connell

Marrying a distant cousin in July 1802, O’Connell soon had a young family to support. And though his law practice was successful and constantly growing, he was also always in debt. As O’Connell became one of the most successful lawyers in Ireland, and was known for winning cases with his sharp wit and extensive knowledge of the law.

In the 1820s O’Connell was deeply involved with the Catholic Association, which promoted the political interests of the Catholics in Ireland. The organization was funded by very small donations which any poor farmer could afford. Local priests often urged those in the peasant class to contribute and become involved, and the Catholic Association became a widespread political organization.

The famous duel

A duel fought by O’Connell always filled him with remorse, yet it added to his political stature.  Some of O’Connell’s political enemies suspected he was a coward as he had challenged another lawyer to a duel in 1813, but shots had never been fired.

In a speech O’Connell gave in January 1815 as part of his Catholic Emancipation movement, he referred to the Dublin city government as “beggarly.”  A minor political figure on the Protestant side, John Norcott D’Esterre, interpreted the remark as a personal insult, and began to challenge O’Connell.  D’Esterre was a captain of the Royal Marines, placed on half-pay in 1810 and became a provision merchant to Dublin Castle.  He also had a deadly reputation as a duellist.

O’Connell, when warned that duelling was illegal, stated that he would not be the aggressor, yet he would defend his honour. D’Esterre’s challenges continued, and he and O’Connell, along with their seconds, met at a duelling ground in Bishop’s Court Demesne, Co Kildare.


As the two men fired their first shot, O’Connell’s shot struck D’Esterre in the hip.  It was first believed that D’Esterre had been slightly wounded.  But after he was carried to his house and examined by doctors it was discovered that the shot had entered his abdomen. D’Esterre died two days later.

O’Connell was deeply shaken by having killed his opponent.  It was said that O’Connell, for the rest of his life, would wrap his right hand in a handkerchief when entering a Catholic church, for he didn’t want the hand that had killed a man to offend God.  Less well known is the fact that O’Connell paid an annuity to his adversary’s widow, Jane Lucretia D’Esterre, to support herself and her child.  Lady Jane later went on to marry John Grattan Guinness (1783–1850), Arthur’s youngest son, who was an officer in the East India Company army.

Despite feeling genuine remorse, O’Connell’s refusal to back down in the face of an insult from a Protestant antagonist increased his stature politically.  Daniel O’Connell became the dominant political figure in Ireland in the early 19th century, and there’s no doubt that his bravery in facing D’Esterre enhanced his image.

O’Connell as a Freemason

In 1826, the papal Bull of Leo XII against secret societies was widely promulgated in Ireland unlike the previous bulls issued against Freemasonry in the 18th century.  Catholic members of the Order were threatened with excommunication if they failed to resign from their Lodges.  One of the most prominent figures in Irish history to have been a Freemason, Daniel O’Connell (Past Master, Masonic Lodge No. 189, Dublin), resigned after pressure was put on him by Archbishop Troy of Dublin.

Daniel O’Connell Runs for Parliament

In 1828, O’Connell ran for a seat in the British Parliament as the member from County Clare, Ireland.  This was controversial as he would be barred from taking his seat if he won, as he was Catholic and Members of Parliament were required to take a Protestant oath.

O’Connell, with the support of poor tenant farmers who often walked miles to vote for him, won the election.  As a Catholic Emancipation bill had recently passed, due in large measure to agitation from the Catholic Association, O’Connell was eventually able to take his seat.

As might be expected, O’Connell was a reformer in Parliament, and some called him by the nickname, “The Agitator”.  His great goal was to repeal the Act of Union, the 1801 law which had dissolved the Irish Parliament and united Ireland with Great Britain.  Much to his despair, he was never able to see “Repeal” become a reality.


Daniel O’Connell, Lord Mayor of Dublin (1841)

The Municipal Reform Act of 1840 broke the traditional Protestant stranglehold on Dublin Corporation and O’Connell, after a tough campaign, was duly elected to Dublin Corporation in 1841 and became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin since 1690.  With a huge Tory majority at Westminster, O’Connell decided to embrace new development in local Irish politics, including taking an interest in the temperence crusade of Fr Matthew – to the point of becoming an ardent teetotaller himself, writing articles in newspapers praising abstinence and fundraising for the new cause..

Monster Meetings Organized by Daniel O’Connell

In 1843, O’Connell mounted a great campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union, and held enormous gatherings, called “Monster Meetings,” across Ireland.  Some of the rallies drew crowds of up to 100,000 people.  The British authorities, of course, were greatly alarmed.

In October 1843 O’Connell planned a huge meeting in Dublin, which British troops were ordered to suppress.  With his aversion to violence, O’Connell cancelled the meeting.  Not only did he lose prestige with some followers, but the authorities arrested and jailed him for conspiracy against the government.

Return to Parliament

O’Connell returned to his seat in Parliament just as the potato famine ravaged Ireland.  He gave a speech in the House of Commons urging aid for Ireland, and was mocked by the British.

In poor health, O’Connell travelled to Europe in hopes of recuperating, and while en route to Rome he died in Genoa, Italy on 17th May 1847 – the height of the famine in Ireland.

He remained a great hero to the Irish people, and many Irish families in the late 1800s would have had a print of O’Connell hanging in their house.  A grand statue of O’Connell was placed on the main street of Dublin (Sackville Street), which was later re-named O’Connell Street in his honour.  Since 1922, many streets in rural towns and cities were re-named O’Connell Street.

Famous O’Connell quotes

“The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood.”

“Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men.”

“Good God, what a brute man becomes when ignorant and oppressed.  Oh Liberty!  What horrors are committed in thy name!  May every virtuous revolutionist remember the horrors of Wexford!”

“My days—the blossom of my youth and the flower of my manhood—have been darkened by the dreariness of servitude. In this my native land—in the land of my sires—I am degraded without fault as an alien and an outcast.”

“How cruel the Penal Laws are which exclude me from a fair trial with men whom I look upon as so much my inferiors…”

“… I want to make all Europe and America know it—I want to make England feel her weakness if she refuses to give the justice we [the Irish] require—the restoration of our domestic parliament…”

“There is an utter ignorance of, and indifference to, our sufferings and privations…  What care they for us, provided we be submissive, pay the taxes, furnish recruits for the Army and Navy and bless the masters who either despise or oppress or combine both?  The apathy that exists respecting Ireland is worse than the national antipathy they bear us.”

“No person knows better than you do that the domination of England is the sole and blighting curse of this country.  It is the incubus that sits on our energies, stops the pulsation of the nation’s heart and leaves to Ireland not gay vitality but horrid the convulsions of a troubled dream.”

“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 they found it.”

“No man was ever a good soldier but the man who goes into the battle determined to conquer, or not to come back from the battle field (cheers).  No other principle makes a good soldier.”

“The poor old Duke [of Wellington]!  What shall I say of him?  To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”

“Every religion is good—every religion is true to him who in his good caution and conscience believes it.”

“Ireland is too poor for a poor law.”

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