restricted access Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Lawyer in Irish Victorian Fiction
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Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Lawyer in Irish Victorian Fiction

In many ways the law and legal profession remain under-researched areas in the study of nineteenth-century Ireland, though there have been some important recent studies. For instance, W. E. Vaughan’s Murder Trials in Ireland, 1836–1914 shows how different the legal system then was.1 Heather Laird’s Subversive Law in Ireland, 1879–1920 demonstrates the scope of literary texts as a source for attitudes to law. Irish Victorian fiction is itself still radically under-researched. Yet that literature contains rich possibilities for the study of law and the legal profession. Such issues as the overlap between executive and judicial functions; the courtroom as the focus of intensity and dramatic reckoning; law and providentialism; law and moral decision-making; alternative popular forums for law; and law and Whig and Tory political satire would all repay further study. Perhaps one of the richer strains—useful both as an example and encouragement for further work—is the figure of the Catholic lawyer, which haunts much of that Irish Victorian fiction that can broadly be described as coming from a conservative perspective.

Charles Lever (1806–1872) was a Tory writer who lamented the use of the law to erode what he saw as a properly “feudal” Ascendancy way of life in which landlords and tenants supposedly lived in mutually interdependent harmony. In tandem with this anxiety was a fear of the ambitious Catholic lawyer. Lever saw the legal profession as a route for advancement for ambitious parvenu Catholics intent on both economic and social advancement. The newcomers’ use of the law for personal advancement and the advancement of the Catholic tenantry appeared to the Ascendancy as an affront to the accommodating relationships of rural society. The figure of the Catholic lawyer on the make dates from as far back as far as Jason Quirke, an attorney who maneuvers Sir Condy Rackrent out [End Page 119]

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“The Counsellor Castigated,” an illustration by Phiz for The Knight of Gwynne. The lawyer figure clearly resembles Daniel O’Connell. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center, University of St. Thomas.

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of his estate in Castle Rackrent (1800)—though Marie Edgeworth thought of herself as an Enlightenment reformer, rather than a regressive Tory. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the trope was overlaid by a particular personality who seemed both to epitomize the threat and to take it in new directions. That figure was Daniel O’Connell. To the manipulative acquisitiveness of the Catholic lawyer on the make, the character of the O’Connellite lawyer added elements of political calculation, demagoguery, and sometimes outright thugishness.

In the introduction to his 1873 novel The Misadventures of Mr Catlyne, QC, an Autobiography, Martin Francis Mahony, writing under his pen name Matthew Stradling, claimed that Catlyne, the first-person narrator of the novel, is a “generic portrait” of a certain type of Irish lawyer. He is “the fruit produced by three influences which at present affect public life in Ireland—the half emancipation of Catholic society; the evil of the Castle system; and most of all the abiding disease of Whiggery, which has practically never changed in its essence, although ever changing in its outward form and in the detailed application of its forces.”2 Mahony’s linking of the threat from the rising Catholic middle class with the iniquities of Whiggery is typical of Tory diagnoses of Irish ills. The Whigs had become Liberals by the time Mahony was writing—hence the reference to the change of “outward forms”—and the novel was published just at the end of Gladstone’s first government with its agenda of “justice for Ireland,” including disestablishment, that had tried to woo Irish Catholics for Liberalism to the chagrin of Irish Conservatives or Tories. The iniquities of this alliance are signaled at the beginning of the novel, as Catlyne brazenly announces himself as an opportunist, one of the characteristics of the Catholic lawyer:

Through life my method has been to fall in with the exigencies of the hour . . . by consequence, having...