Clare Champion, Friday, July 25, 2003
The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Fidelma Mc Donnell writes about political letters sent by Daniel O’Connell to influential Clare people.
During the 1828 Westminster elections, Daniel O’Connell wrote letters to influential Clare people to gain support for his campaign in the constituency. One of these letters was written to Andrew Stackpool and an analysis of its content sheds some light on the political issues of the day.
Andrew Stackpool was an influential man in Clare, as he was a burgess in Ennis Corporation and had enormous influence over the voting populace. To successfully canvass, Stackpool therefore, was O’Connell’s best method of gaining votes.
Dated 17 June 1828, the letter relates entirely to O’Connell’s opponent in the election, Mr Vesey-Fitzgerald. Throughout the letter O’Connell tries to convince Andrew Stackpool of the unsuitability of Vesey-Fitzgerald as an election candidate. To this end, O’Connell details the various incidents in Vesey-Fitzgerald’s parliamentary career to date that would undermine him in the estimation of not only Stackpool, but the population in general. He points out in the letter that Vesey-Fitzgerald’s one vote a year to promote Catholic causes is merely a sham, saying that it’s just ‘enough to make it be believed that he is our friend whilst for all practical purposes he is decidedly opposed to our rights’.
His public campaign included writing to the Clare Journal newspaper. In one edition, O’Connell claimed that Mr. Vesey-Fitzgerald was supporting an administration ‘decidedly and bitterly hostile to the Catholic religion and Catholic liberties – can, therefore, any Catholic conscientiously vote for a candidate who forms part of such a ministry’. In another letter to the Clare Journal, he openly attacked Vesey-Fitzgerald’s record in Parliament calling him ‘that minion of Orange Ascendancy’. He goes on to state that ‘any Catholic who voted for Vesey-Fitzgerald would be a traitor to his religion’. O’Connell often used powerful rhetoric, both verbal and written, showing all the skills of a practising barrister. Vesey-Fitzgerald replied to the comments and in a letter to the newspaper he acknowledged that he represented the Protestant ascendancy class but equally so, the Catholic community.
Prior to his campaign, O’Connell had founded the Catholic Association in 1823 and all citizens were encouraged, particularly by the clergy, to pay 1d a month, collected after mass on Sunday, known as the ‘Catholic Rent’. The aim of this non-violent association was to effect change in the Penal Laws that had excluded Catholics from voting, holding high office, buying land or bearing arms.
O’Connell decided that the more pro-emancipation candidates there were in the House of Commons, the better. Following earlier successes of pro-emancipation candidates at Louth and Waterford in 1826, he saw it as the natural progression to go forward himself as an MP for Clare.
On polling day Vesey-Fitzgerald was proposed by Sir Edward O’Brien, Baronet of Dromoland and seconded by Sir Augustine Fitzgerald, Baronet of Carrigoran. O’Connell was proposed by The O’Gorman-Mahon esq , and was seconded by Tom Steele esq. On the day of the election it was the 40 shilling freeholders who comprised the vast majority of the voters that supported O’Connell. Vesey-Fitzgerald was supported by the gentry class only and so it was not a surprise when O’Connell won by a huge majority of about 11,000 votes.
The 1828 election was a turning point in Clare politics and showed that people power could overwhelm the established Ascendancy Party and wrestle control from them. O’Connell had become the first Catholic to sit in the House of Commons, but in a cynical response, the British government subsequently raised the valuation for voting purposes and effectively disenfranchised many of O’Connell’s voters soon after. His Catholic Association’s greatest triumph came when Wellington’s government passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Having achieved Emancipation, the Catholic Association was soon suppressed by the authorities.
By this time O’Connell had moved on to his new goal of achieving the repeal of the Act of Union, and to this end, he formed the Repeal Association and devoted the remainder of his political career towards its aim.
Daniel O’Connell’s letter to Andrew Stackpool is very eloquent, beautifully written in his own hand and is in remarkable condition. It can be viewed in the Faith section of the Riches of Clare exhibition at Clare Museum.