News Eoghan Harris

Thursday 2 October 2014

Creighton and O'Connell agree on conscience

Published 07/07/2013 | 05:00

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Lucinda Creighton and myself do not agree about abortion. But I support her belief in the primacy of conscience. Daniel O'Connell, the greatest of all Irishmen, would have done so too.

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Here I am trailing my coat on two contentious matters. First, on whether it is right to rebel against a government which wants to give relief to women in need of abortion. Second, whether Daniel O'Connell deserves to be described as our greatest leader. Let me take them in turn.

Regarding the right to rebel in conscience, I have one important reservation. Such a rebellion should not bring political or other material benefits. As the Fianna Fail rebels have everything to gain by rebelling, I reserve the right to regard them with scepticism, just as I regard the Fine Gael rebels with respect.

Lucinda Creighton, in particular, has everything to lose. If she follows her conscience I will tip my hat in tribute. Alas, Kenny will not find it hard to fill her shoes. Alex White, that ready replacer, might even be asked to fill the post by leaving Labour for Fine Gael – after all his mentor, Pat Rabbitte, has done so in all but name.

This weekend, as she wrestles with conscience and career, Creighton could do worse than consult the writings of Daniel O'Connell. Although he was totally committed to the separation of church and State, he was also a doughty defender of the individual's liberty of conscience.

O'Connell wrote that nobody had the "right to to judge his neighbour's conscience". Accordingly, while I believe the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill needs to be pushed through the Dail, I also believe Lucinda Creighton's conviction should have been respected.

Furthermore, I am convinced the Bill could have been carried, albeit closely, by a free vote, had Kenny consulted closely with the Opposition and campaigned with a Dail consensus. But a Fine Gael leader who talks about an "axis of collusion" has no hope of fostering such a spirit of civility.

Let me turn now to my second contentious claim. Although John Hume came first in an RTE poll, and Michael Collins will beat him by 2016, why do I believe Daniel O'Connell has no rival to the title of greatest Irishman?

The fact that I have to argue O'Connell's case at all shows why we need to retain compulsory history at Junior Cert level. Without the balancing weight of a good history teacher, Daniel O'Connell will be displaced by psychotic gunmen on the gormless internet sites where rabid republicans rule the roost.

As a teenager I was that kind of rabid republican myself. Like all republicans, I despised O'Connell as a cowardly old compromiser. Luckily I had good history teachers. Although they did not totally shift my prejudices against O'Connell, they certainly sowed some seeds of doubt.

These seeds began to struggle towards the sun in my first year at university when I read Sean O Faolain's King Of The Beggars and came across the striking phrase that captured O'Connell's genius in that capsule form we now call a soundbite. "He thought a democracy, and it rose."

Sean O Faolain's admiration of O'Connell somewhat confused me. After all O Faolain was not some crawthumping Free State Catholic. He was my kind of radical republican. But at least he seemed to share some of my contempt for O'Connell's decision to call off the monster meeting at Clontarf.

As that time I was studying Irish history under professional historians. This also helped me keep a half open mind. Much as I admired the polemical power of King Of The Beggars, it lacked the kind of scholarly authority that would compel me to fully change my mind.

Accordingly I left university with an ambivalent attitude to O'Connell. Soon I was moving in republican socialist circles which loathed O'Connell. So it wasn't until 1988 that my reservations about O'Connell were given a radical reality check.

It took a professional historian to put my prejudices under pressure. The historian was Oliver McDonagh and he shook my bias with two brilliant books on O Connell, Hereditary Bondsman (1988) followed by The Emancipist (1989), which he later brought together in his classic O'Connell, The Life Of Daniel O'Connell, 1775-1847 (1991).

McDonagh painted a huge canvas. He had what, in the context of film, David Puttnam calls "cinematic width". But he also had enormous depth, the distilled wisdom of a life spent reflecting on the titanic achievements of the transparent enigma that was Daniel O'Connell. Reading him forced me to re-visit my last reservations about the Liberator – and dump them forever.

Plato says you have to compose yourself to learn as well as to teach. By 1988, having rejected all forms of republican nationalism, I was ready to read an historian as meaty as McDonagh. It also helped that I had recently researched a play, Souper Sullivan, about the peasant world of O'Connellite Ireland. Finally, I had been around long enough not to make priggish judgments about the peccadillos of great men.

McDonagh made me realise that nobody but O'Connell could have straddled two worlds – piercing the fog of fatalism that shrouded the Irish peasantry – could have filled these poor starvlings with such confidence, could have raised these ragged masses to a consciousness of collective power and then bring that energy to bear on British democracy in a way that would fuel every subsequent Irish mass political movement, from the Land League to Parnell to Sinn Fein.

But while McDonagh helped me see that O'Connell was the sole creator of modern Irish democracy, I still felt something was missing. McDonagh had changed my mind, but I needed something to touch my heart. Although I had learned to admire O'Connell, I had not yet learned to love him.

Happily I was helped in taking that last step by a a younger historian, Patrick M Geoghegan. Like McDonagh, Geoghegan has written a two-volume history of Connell, King Dan (2008) and Liberator (2010). Let us hope he will soon follow McDonagh's example and combine them in one badly needed modern biography.

Geoghegan has an elegant and engaging style, and wears his scholarship lightly. But what makes him the best biographer of O'Connell for a new generation is his focus on O'Connell's hatred of slavery and anti-semitism. This was remarkable in a period when polite society condoned both.

Reading Geoghegan I finally realised O'Connell was more radical than the Young Irelanders. They correctly feared his attacks on slavery would alienate potential American allies. But O'Connell carried on regardless. And I apologised abjectly to his shade for my past stupidity when I read that he refused to shake the hand of any man who would even verbally condone slavery.

Geoghegan also has a good eye for dramatic and comic detail. I still smile at his portrait of O'Connell's faithful Head Pacificator, the Protestant Tom Steele, whose missing teeth caused him to spray spittle when chastising critics of his chief. Lots for Lucinda Creighton to read and reflect on, should she decide on a longish break from EU affairs.

Irish Independent

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