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  • Daniel O'Connell in Comparative Perspective, 1800-50
  • Sean McGraw (bio) and Kevin Whelan (bio)


The First Quarter of the nineteenth century proved a difficult time for Irish Catholics. The Act of Union immediately raised the issue of Catholic Emancipation. On a-nod-and-a-wink basis Catholic opinion had been seduced into believing that the Act of Union would be accompanied by emancipation. In the new dispensation an enlightened legislature, an impartial rather than sectarian-based administration, and a cordial relationship between the islands would pave the way for a peaceful resolution of the Catholic problem, in which Catholics would participate fully as citizens of the United Kingdom. The failure to grant emancipation until 1829 soured Catholics against the union—which represented for them not a new beginning but a copper-fastening of Protestant Ascendancy. Their neutrality toward union mutated slowly to hostility as Catholics continued to be excluded from parliament; the higher offices of the state (lord lieutenant, lord chancellor, chief secretary, attorney general); the army and navy (admirals or generals); and the legal profession (judges, privy councillors, kings counsel, sheriffs). Restrictions remained in place on education, on the religious orders, and on the style of church architecture (no campaniles were permitted). The weight of élite and popular antipopery (with a strong xenophobic dimension), established-church and parliamentary opposition (from an exclusively Protestant House of Commons and [End Page 60] House of Lords), and the intermittently mad George III's personal hostility were sufficient to block its passage.1 Catholic hopes were alternately raised and dashed: emancipation seemed close under the "ministry of all the talents" in 1806–07; it was tantalizingly close again in 1812-13. Even when they had the backing of government, Catholic schemes proved abortive. Three British prime ministers—Pitt (1801), Grenville (1807), and Wellington (1830)—were defeated or resigned over the Catholic issue.2

In the face of this British atavism, perplexed and spurned Irish Catholics renewed political agitation but found it impossible to maintain a unified response. The veto issue (i.e., the power of the British state to vet candidates for Irish Catholic bishoprics), seemingly a means of soothing inflamed British sensibilities, actually served as an internecine irritant, dissipating hard-won unity. The aristocratic leaders like Fingal and Trimleston and senior bishops accepted it: the Catholic rank and file, led ably by the young Daniel O'Connell, did not.


All his political life, Daniel O'Connell claimed to act on utilitarian principles—"the greatest good for the greatest number." The two leading influences were Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and William Godwin (1756–1836). Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) derived the principle of utility from Hume, Helvetius, Beccaria, and Priestley; he balanced the English tradition of rational dissent with the continental Enlightenment. He insisted that political rights rested fundamentally with the individual: although utility could be calibrated for community as well as the individual, it could be done only within a framework where the community is conceived as simply the sum of the individuals who compose it. Utilitarian politics were democratic and an instrument for social reform: everyone should count as one, and no one as more [End Page 61] than one. In this sense it was clearly opposed to "Old Corruption," and its political import was radical. Utilitarianism stressed the emancipation of citizens from monarchic and aristocratic oppression, and from the dead weight of church and state, notably the unearned privilege of the established church. Government should promote the happiness of individuals through the provision of a secure legal and social environment, and ensure the highest possible degree of individual liberty compatible with that security. There should be transparent personal parity before the law.3 All this necessitated the development of representative democracy, universal suffrage, and accountable democratic institutions. Bentham especially admired the American constitution as crucial pragmatic evidence that radical reform and democratic institutions could be developed de novo.4

While O'Connell's debt to Bentham is obvious, he was also profoundly influenced in his London years (1794–96) by William Godwin, especially the three editions of Political Justice (1793, 1796, 1798).5 Godwin's version of utilitarianism is more...


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pp. 60-89
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