The Liberator Daniel O'Connell and Anti-Slavery

By Kinealy, Christine | History Today, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Liberator Daniel O'Connell and Anti-Slavery


Kinealy, Christine, History Today


The story of the British anti-slavery and abolitionist movements has been dominated by the twin figures of Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Yet, the success of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 benefited from the votes of Irish MPs who, since the Act of Union of 1800, had sat in the Westminster Parliament. Here, Christine Kinealy shows how Daniel O'Connell (above), Irish campaigner for Catholic Emancipation and Repeal of the Act of Union, played a prominent role in the anti-slavery movement, both in the British empire and in the United States.

ONE OF THE GREATEST contributions to the anti-slavery debate was made by the flamboyant and controversial Irish nationalist, Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847). Yet his role and that of Irish activists generally has been little recognized even by Irish historians. In the case of O'Connell, from as early as 1840 American abolitionists were claiming that his involvement in the debate exceeded that of either Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) or William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Twenty years later, as the United States hurtled towards civil war, the writings of O'Connell were reprinted, influencing a new audience of even more militant abolitionists.

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Opposition to slavery in Ireland had a long pedigree. As was the case in Britain, its most prominent Irish supporters were Protestant, notably Methodists, Quakers and Unitarians, and meetings were generally held in Nonconformist churches. When Olaudah Equino (1745-1797), a freed slave who lived in England, visited Ireland in 1791, he was warmly welcomed and an edition of his biography was published there in the same year. In 1831, a Negroes' Fund was established in Dublin, which was absorbed by the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1837. The founders were Richard Allen (1787-1873) and Richard Davis Webb (1805-72), who were both Quakers, and James Haughton (1795-1873), a Unitarian. They increasingly favoured the approach of the American Anti-Slavery Society, led by William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79), and which sought an immediate end to slavery, unlike the more gradual approach favoured by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Many ordinary Irish men and women also opposed slavery, leading Frederick Douglass (1818-95), the escaped slave, to describe Irish abolitionists as 'the most ardent' in Europe during his visit there in 1845. Richard Madden, an Irish doctor, for example, was an expert witness in the Amistad trial in 1839 and 1840, and his evidence proved compelling on behalf of the slaves. However, the participation of Daniel O'Connell in the Irish anti-slavery movement propelled it into international prominence.

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O'Connell's involvement in the anti-slavery issue furthermore brought a Catholic voice to a debate that had long been associated with Protestantism in Ireland, and especially Nonconformism. Traditionally both Catholics and Nonconformists had been excluded from the political arena, with power resting in the hands of a small Protestant (Anglican) Ascendancy. Why was the contribution of O'Connell, who for most of his political life was an outsider and a dissident, so important?

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An Irish Catholic lawyer, O'Connell was one of the first generation of Irish Catholics to benefit from a relaxation of the repressive Penal Laws, which among other things, had debarred Catholics from voting or practising law. He experienced first hand the impact of three revolutions, in America in 1776, France in 1789 and Ireland in 1798. These events gave him a life-long abhorrence of the use of violence to achieve political ends, despite the frequent intemperance of his rhetoric. Throughout his long political career O'Connell remained committed to using only constitutional and legal methods to make his case, and was adept at exploiting his legal skills to out manoeuvre his opponents. …

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