Analysis: from a fierce passion for civil rights and huge energy to anger, ego and vanity, an assessment of the Emancipator's strengths and flaws 

Daniel O'Connell: Forgotten King Of Ireland is a two-part documentary which captures the rise and fall of the Great Emancipator. Directed by Alan Gilsenan and presented by Olivia O'Leary, it re-assesses the life and times of O'Connell by travelling from Kerry to Glasnevin to Rome to chronicle the trailblazing life and the contemporary legacy of O'Connell, the man that King George IV of England grudgingly called "the uncrowned king of Ireland". 

O'Leary is joined by various guests over the two shows, including Patrick Geoghegan, Professor in Modern History at TCD. In these edited excerpts from interviews for the series, Geoghegan discusses O'Connell's views on slavery, his approach to civil rights, his flaws, his tendencies to be a bully and what motivated him. 

Olivia O’Leary: Because he was so central to Catholic emancipation, that's the victory that stuck with him, but he had a sense of civil rights that went much wider that that.

Patrick Geoghegan: "Really it was a great civil rights victory because what he was doing was giving the vast majority of the people equal rights in the country. He believed in Jewish emancipation and he fought for Jewish rights in the British Parliament. He believed in the emancipation of of African Americans who are being held in slavery in the United States and became one of the greatest champions of freedom for those people in the 19th century.

From RTÉ One, Olivia O'Leary and Sinn Finn's Eoin Ó Broin debate the legacy of O'Connell

"Many people disapproved of O’Connell’s stance on slavery. Archbishops in America wrote to him. It wasn't that they were in favor of slavery, but they didn't believe that it was appropriate for an Irish politician to be lecturing the Americans on how they should run their own country. It was seen as inappropriate interfering 

"Some of the language O’Connell used was harsh and uncompromising. He said that George Washington was a hypocrite because he owned slaves and he said that he would never set foot on American soil because it was a contaminated country and he believed that slavery was a great sin and will have to be removed.

"O’Connell’s feeling on the slavery issue was personal. He had an empathy there that many other white abolitionists didn't have. He understood what it was like to grow up in a sense of feeling a sense of inferiority, feeling humiliated, feeling like you weren't equal in your own country. 

"The Irish condition wasn't as bad as the slave condition, but he knew what it was like to grow up with that humiliation and so he empathized with the slave mother, with the slate father, with slave children. He would move his audiences to tears when he would speak at anti-slavery rallies in the United Kingdom and in Ireland."

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Miriam O'Callaghan, Olivia O'Leary on why the memory of O'Connell has been left to gather dust in a forgotten corner of Irish history

O’Leary: When Frederick Douglass came to Ireland in 1845, he saw similarities with the plight of his own people

Geoghegan: "Yes, especially the horrible conditions of the peasants and of course this was a country about to go into a terrible famine I suppose the big difference is that American slaves could be sold at any time and children be taken off their parents. That’s the main difference with the peasantry in Ireland. 

When O’Connell anointed Douglas as the black O'Connell of the United States, it was his way of saying that America needed a champion of freedom. It was his way of passing on that torch and was something Douglas never forgot. 

Douglas mourned the fact that when O’Connell died, the Irish nationalist movement was taken over by people who supported slavery and who had expressed their ambition to go over and own a plantation with slaves, like John Mitchell. Whereas O’Connell was someone who who made the walls shake when he denounced the slaveowners. O’Connell was someone who influenced the great men and women who campaigned for abolition of slavery."

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Myles Dungan on how a 1844 spell in prison did wonders for Daniel O'Connell's health and political reputation

O’Leary: What were O’Connell’s flaws? 

Geoghegan: "He had a lot of flaws. I think part of the problem with O’Connell and the way he's remembered is that it's been very much a one-dimensional portrait of either the hero of Ireland, the saint who won Catholic emancipation or else the coward who bottled it at Clontarf.

"The reality is that he was a much more complex figure. He was aggressive, he was aggressive in his language, he shocked his family, he shocked his friends, he shocked his opponents. Sometimes they’d have to intercept the newspapers so that his uncle Maurice wouldn't find out what he was saying in speeches.

"But on the other hand, that was necessary to shake the Irish people out of their apathy and show that this was someone who was fighting for them. Sometimes it could extend over into bullying when it came to his own friends and supporters and there wasn’t a close associate who he hadn’t fallen out with at some point or another. 

"He had a huge ego and his vanity was legendary. When he would travel around the country in the 1830s, he would ask school children if they knew who he was and if they didn't, he’d say 'I'm the person who won your freedom’. When journalists would ask him who was the greatest person in Irish history he would say ‘myself’.

Top of the street: "when journalists would ask O'Connell who was the greatest person in Irish history he would say 'myself'."

"He was terrible with money, he was always borrowing money and he was never saving money. He also wanted people to think he was the great chieftain living in the great house with the great carriage with the great estate in Kerry, the best clothes.

"He couldn't afford these things at the time, his wife was furious about the carriage, Merrion Square. He couldn't tell the difference between public funds for his organisations so there were always questions about whether he was using public funds for his own private dinners.

"He could be a bully, liked things done his own way, insisted that his followers gave him complete allegiance.  If there was ever a difference of opinion, he could fly into a furious rage. But very often, he would forgive people and give them a hug. I think he would have been a nightmare to work with because things could only be done one way and that was his."

I think he was just someone who was really one of these figures who only comes around once in a 200 or 300 year period

O’Leary: what do you think motivated him? Would he have been as energetic a character in a totally different situation?

Geoghegan: "I think sometimes you meet these figures who just seem to have boundless energy, I think he loved what he was doing and I think when you love what you're doing it doesn't seem like work. So he loved getting up at 5 in the morning and taking a shower - he installed this shower contraption in his house in Merrion Square. 

"But he loved going to the law courts and running rings around opposing counsels and intimidating judges. And he loved going to public meetings and campaigning for the civil rights and I think he he got so much energy out of the love and and welcome of the crowd...

"O’Connell once said that whatever job you were given to do, you should always make sure you did it to the best of your ability. He used to boast ‘if I was breaking rocks, I'd be the best breaker of rocks that ever lived’ so he believed in doing a job to the best of his ability.

First part of Daniel O'Connell: Forgotten King of Ireland

"I think he was just someone who was really one of these figures who only comes around once in a 200 or 300 year period. Someone who has an incredible vision and energy and drive, some of it is driven by his own anger. The anger motivated him, that sense of humiliation, the anger at the way Catholics were being treated. 

"Some of it was the ego motivating him, but he had this incredible drive and determination. I think the depression in the later years was probably to do with the death of his wife and probably a despair about how things were going in Ireland."

The second part of Daniel O'Connell: Forgotten King Of Ireland will be broadcast on RTÉ One at 9.35pm tonight. The first part can also be viewed on RTÉ Player


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ