|Clare County Library||
The Clare Election of 1828 by Declan Barron
In June 1828 William Vesey Fitzgerald, Conservative M.P for Clare, was forced to run for re–election when he accepted a post in Government. Daniel O’Connell opposed him in the election although, as a Catholic, he could not take his seat in Parliament. O’Connell’s subsequent victory ultimately let to the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. We are grateful to Declan Barron for donating this article, which is taken from his thesis, ''James Patrick 'The O'Gorman Mahon': His early life and influences''. M.A. in Local Studies, University of Limerick, 2004.
The year 1828 was to be a momentous year in the history of democracy due to the by-election in Co. Clare. In May of that year, there was a British Government re-shuffle with William Vesey Fitzgerald, M.P. for Clare, getting the position of president of the Board of Trade. Accepting this position meant that he had to put himself up for re-election. The House of Commons issued an election writ in early June and 30 June was fixed for the first day of polling.
At the time, Catholics were disqualified by law from
sitting in the House of Commons but there was no law preventing them from
running for election. At the outset it looked likely that no one would
go up against Fitzgerald but, at one of the Catholic Association meetings,
Daniel O’Connell reminded them
that they had resolved to oppose any member of the present government.
At this same meeting Nicholas O’Gorman expressed his doubts of their
chances of success due to the huge support Fitzgerald had with Catholics
as well as Protestants. His brother Richard agreed with him. This contrasted
with the feelings of O’Gorman Mahon
and Thomas Steele who felt sure
the people could be roused. This was followed by another meeting in Dublin
where O’Connell reminded those attending of Fitzgerald’s vote
against the East Retford Bill.
In an editorial in the ‘Ennis Chronicle’ of 1828 we can see the depth of resentment towards the current situation, warning that if Fitzgerald was not elected it would show the ‘short-sightedness’ of his father in opposing the Act of Union because, without it, Ireland would now have ‘a complete Priest-chosen and just as complete a Priest-ridden Parliament in Ireland as Mr. O’Connell could wish’. The editorial added that Nicholas O’Gorman was once heard saying that there was no word in the Irish language for gratitude, and stressed that the treatment received by James O’Gorman should not have been received by even his ‘bitterest foe’ and was probably the reason nobody else spoke up at the attack on Fitzgerald. Another letter from ‘A Roman Catholic 40s Freeholder’ was printed in the same issue. He wrote about the reasons why he believed Fitzgerald should be re-elected. He played the sympathy card by mentioning Fitzgerald’s father, who ‘now lies on the bed of Sickness, perhaps of Death’ (he died in 1835), and finished by urging the voters to follow the wishes of their landlords ‘who it is our duty as well as our interest to be guided by’.
Major William Nugent Macnamara looked most likely to be the Association’s candidate but he declined the offer due to his friendship with Fitzgerald. The young William Smith O’Brien was then asked, but he too declined for similar reasons. Mahon and Steele found, from visiting several churches in the county, that the priests and the freeholders were willing to do whatever the Association asked. With this news Mahon headed for Dublin.
It is not clear what persuaded O’Connell to stand for Clare. The idea was suggested to him by P.V. Fitzpatrick after Fitzpatrick had been given the idea by Sir David Roose on 22 June. Mahon arrived in Dublin on the 23 June, and first tried to persuade William Paget (the Lord Lieutenant’s son), but did not succeed.
According to an article in the ‘Clare Journal’, written after Mahon’s death in 1891, Mahon arrived in the capital and went to visit O’Connell. When they met Mahon asked O’Connell to come with him at once to Clare and start the fight. O’Connell at first objected. Behind where they were standing was a large open window. Mahon grabbed O’Connell and, as the newspaper put it, he ‘threatened in a manner not altogether humorous to send him through on to the pavement’ unless he agreed to stand. The report then says that this was too much for O’Connell and he ‘promptly yielded’. No other evidence has been uncovered to corroborate this version of events nor has any that contradicts it either. The following morning, the 24 June, the Association met in Dublin and Mahon put forward the motion that O’Connell should be the candidate. The motion was adopted, O’Connell accepted and he went straight to the office of the Dublin Evening Post and submitted his election address.
After O’Connell’s nomination as the Association candidate O’Gorman Mahon returned to Clare and with Steele began canvassing the electorate. The landlords at that time believed they had the right to control their tenants’ votes and took offence at their being canvassed. Mahon and Steele anticipated this by declaring that they were ready to duel with any of these landlords who felt aggrieved.
The editorial in the ‘Ennis Chronicle’ several days later announced O’Connell’s candidacy and made an all-out attack on his character. He was described as ‘mean, venal and mercenary to the last degree’. It was claimed that it was not worth O’Connell’s time standing because, due to him being a Catholic, the editor believed that even if he were to be elected he would be disqualified. The editor went on to claim that the ‘poor abused Forty Shilling Freeholder’ was not free to make his own choice due to pressure from O’Connell’s side. That same week another editorial from the same paper stated that ‘Mr. James Pat Mahon’ was no longer to use ‘O’Gorman’ because of his ‘reputed political delinquency’ in not defending the character of his uncle James O’Gorman when James had attempted to speak in defence of Fitzgerald at the previous week’s meeting.
The Ennis Catholics met in the chapel on 22 June amidst great excitement. Mahon and Steele arrived at the meeting (they claimed it was the fourth they had attended that day). Their horses had been unhooked from their carriage at the edge of the town and the carriage was drawn by the townspeople to the chapel. Several people (including Mahon and Steele) addressed those assembled ‘using very strong language’ to point out Fitzgerald’s political conduct. James O’Gorman attempted to say a few words on Fitzgerald’s behalf but was forced to quit from the ‘shouting and hissing’.
Richard Lalor Sheil gives us a first hand account of this momentous election in ‘Sketches of the Irish Bar’. Firstly he introduces the characters.
He describes O’Gorman Mahon :-
‘Nature has been peculiarly favourable to him. He has a very striking physiognomy, of the Corsair character, which the Protestant Gulnares, and the Catholic Medoras, find it equally difficult to resist. His figure is tall, and he is peculiarly free and dégagé in all his attitudes and movements. On any other his attire would appear singularly fantastical. His manners are exceedingly frank and natural, and have a character of kindliness as well as of self-reliance, imprinted upon them. He is wholly free from embarrassment and mauvaise honte, and carries a well-founded consciousness of his personal merit; which is, however, so well united with urbanity, that it is not in the slightest degree offensive. His talents as a popular speaker are considerable. He derives from external qualifications an influence over the multitude, which men of diminutive stature are somewhat slow of obtaining. ….. when O’Gorman Mahon throws himself out before the people, and touching his whiskers with one hand, brandishes the other, an enthusiasm is at once produced, to which the fair portion of the spectators lend their contribution. Such a man was exactly adapted to the excitement of the people of Clare; and it must be admitted, that by his indefatigable exertions, his unremitting activity, and his devoted zeal, he most materially assisted in the election of Mr. O’Connell.’
On the day of the election, before the proceedings began, Mahon caused a scene in the courthouse which was related by Sheil :-
‘… instead of sitting like the other auditors on the seats of the gallery, he leaped over it, and, suspending himself above the crowd, afforded what was an object of wonder to the great body of the spectators, and of indignation to the High-Sheriff. The attire of the individual who was thus perched in this dangerous position was sufficiently strange. He had a coat of Irish tabinet, with glossy trousers of the same material; he wore no waistcoat; a blue shirt, lined with streaks of white, was open at the neck, in which the strength of Hercules and the symmetry of Antinous were combined; a broad green sash, with a medal of "the order of Liberators" at the end of it, hung conspicuously over his breast; and a profusion of black curls, curiously festooned about his temples, shadowed a very handsome and expressive countenance, a great part of which was occupied by whiskers of a busy amplitude.’
The ‘Ennis Chronicle’ of 5 July gives an account of the events following :-
‘The Sheriff - I call upon that person there (pointing
to Mr. O’Gorman Mahon …) to remove from his person that party
badge he now displays.
Sheil continues :-
‘The High-Sheriff looked aghast. The expression
of self-satisfaction and magisterial complacency passed off of his visage,
and he looked utterly blank and dejected. After an interval of irresolution,
down he sat. ‘The soul’ of O’Gorman Mahon (to use Curran’s
expression) ‘walked forth in its own majesty’, he looked ‘redeemed,
regenerated, and disenthralled.’ The medal of ‘the Order of
Liberators’ was pressed to his heart. O’Connell surveyed him
with gratitude and admiration; and the first blow was struck, which sent
dismay into the heart of the party of which the Sheriff was considered
to be an adherent.
The canvass and election were widely covered in the press.
‘The Belfast News Letter’ supported Vesey Fitzgerald and was scathing in its attack on O’Connell and his supporters.
They devoted an entire page to the events:
O’Connell’s election victory marked the last
stage of the fight for Catholic Emancipation.