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WAS O’CONNELL FAITHFUL? ELLEN COURTENAY REVISITED ERIN I. BISHOP upon learning that I am conducting research on Mary O’Connell, wife of Daniel, the Liberator, the first response of many is to question Daniel O’Connell ’s fidelity. Of course everyone has heard the ribald comment that if you were to throw a rock over a work-house wall in early nineteenthcentury Kerry you would hit an O’Connell bastard. It is not my purpose in this article to pass judgment on the truth or falsehood of these accusations . However, I have found that the tendency to discount O’Connell’s purported sexual adventures a rather alarming trend. It would seem recent works on O’Connell go to desperate lengths to assure that he was indeed a faithful and good husband; yet the arguments laid out to support this theory are lacking in many respects. Most historians, struggling to prove O’Connell’s faithfulness, have fallen upon two ready explanations to account for the lore surrounding the Liberator’s supposed adulterous lifestyle. One recent answer was provided by Helen Mulvey who, commenting on the subject of O’Connell’s marital fidelity, looked to the numerous letters between O’Connell and Mary in order to establish “the substance and tone” of their relationship. Mulvey found that the generally affectionate nature of the letters “are powerful evidence of O’Connell’s fidelity and devotion to his wife and of his deep happiness in every aspect of his relationship with her.”1 Unfortunately , Mulvey based her careful and insightful analysis only on those letters chosen and edited for publication. While this line of reasoning has found acceptance by many O’Connell historians and has merit,2 the few WAS O’CONNELL FAITHFUL? ELLEN COURTENAY REVISITED 58 1 Helen Mulvey, “The Correspondence of Daniel and Mary O’Connell,” The Correspondence of Daniel O’Connell, vol. 1, ed. M.R. O’Connell (Shannon, 1972), xx. 2 See M.R. O’Connell, “O’Connell and his Family,” in The World of Daniel O’Connell, ed. Donal McCartney (Dublin, 1980), 22; R. Dudley Edwards, Daniel O’Connell and His World (London, 1975), 23–24. affectionate excerpts on which Mulvey bases her argument, many of which were edited and taken out of context, cannot fully exonerate O’Connell from the charges of adultery.3 More recently, studies in Irish folk traditions provide another possible explanation for the popular belief in O’Connell’s sexual (mis)conduct. In an article on O’Connell and traditional lore, Diarmaid O’Muirithe, a leading authority on the folklore of O’Connell, suggested that, as a principal folk hero in Irish history, the Liberator was destined to fall victim to “a product of the folk-mind.” In short, O’Muirithe argues that “the heroes of old were ever famous for their sexual energy.”4 J.J. Lee goes one step further : Gaelic folk-heroes had rendered a psychic service to the vivid imagination of the plain people by having attributed to them tales of insatiable sexual prowess. It is a tribute to O’Connell’s popular stature that he was the first in centuries to adequately service the popular imagination in this respect. . . . The stories of O’Connell’s philandering tell us far more about the need of the popular imagination than they do about the historic O’Connell.5 Fergus O’Ferrall agrees, using Helen Mulvey’s exact words, in fact, that while the correspondence between Mary and Daniel “is powerful evidence of O’Connell’s fidelity and devotion,” it is “naive to argue this as conclusive .” He thus supplements his reading with the assertion that the origin of popular lore concerning O’Connell’s fidelity finds its base in the Irish folk tradition of attributing heroes with sexual prowess. On this point, O’Connell biographer Oliver MacDonagh concurs.6 Ellen Courtenay’s account of her affair with O’Connell is perhaps the most damaging “evidence” against the Liberator’s fidelity. Her attempts to collect money from O’Connell included a letter to Henry Hunt, a famous radical reformer known for his oratory skills and, from 1830–1832, M.P. WAS O’CONNELL FAITHFUL? ELLEN COURTENAY REVISITED 59 3 Sean Connolly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 58-75
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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