Friday 22 November 2019

How ghost of Ireland's Liberator inspired his spiritual son Obama

The US president shares O'Connell's distrust of overly abstract approaches to politics, writes John-Paul McCarthy

AFTER an ugly and humiliating Senate interrogation, the first African-American lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, assumed his seat on the US Supreme Court in 1967.

A couple of days after the Senate ratified his appointment, Marshall took an old pal for lunch in his new 20ft Cadillac. The friend was aghast, but Marshall said: "See this, I haven't gotten me my first paycheck yet, but that's the nigger in me."

It would be difficult to imagine the radiant figure who spoke at College Green last Monday thinking like this.

Obama's happy Hawaiian childhood largely inoculated him against the bitterness that Marshall acquired during his tough apprenticeship in the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Obama never faced anything like Marshall did, year-in year-out, when he would trek to racist Southern courtrooms and risk death threats as he tried to free thousands of wretched black men from menacing, lilywhite juries. (As a justice, he once told a clerk that there was an obvious answer to America's race problem: "Kill all white people.")

In intellectual terms, Obama is a relatively conservative figure by contrast, and he came of age in the Seventies when many educated blacks began to back away from Marshall's emphasis on using the federal courts to improve race relations.

Obama quoted Frederick Douglass last Monday, the clarion voice of abolitionism. But in his heart one suspects that Obama is probably closer to WEB Du Bois, who held to a radical conservatism and emphasised black self-reliance over WASP charity.

I say this because of Oba-

ma's moving tribute to Daniel O'Connell, much the most interesting part of an otherwise vacuous and manipulative jingle of words. (Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan deserves a lot of credit for putting O'Connell front and centre since taking office.)

Even the most cynical of observers must have been moved to hear the first black US leader doff his hat to Ireland's first world-historical political personality just outside the old parliament which O'Connell longed to revive.

That Dan caught Obama's eye should not surprise us as O'Connell himself was another radical conservative who was a tantalising hybrid figure, a lawyer who combined Douglass's insistence that his followers not crouch or be afraid, with Du Bois's low cunning.

Like Obama, O'Connell was perfectly happy to tack endlessly to keep the political winds in his sails.

One week he could challenge the chief secretary to a duel, and the next he could berate revellers at a Tralee Pattern festival for their indulgence of the local Ribbonmen.

While O'Connell was fairly promiscuous in his desiderata, he never wavered in his rejection of revolutionary violence after his brush with the United Irishmen in 1797.

As such, he may be an odd avatar for the titan of Abbottabad, but Mr Deenihan knows that he is a stout shield for an Irish Government that must do battle against a dissident threat that freely appeals to the grisly precedents set by Pearse and Collins.


O'Connell's ghost must also have magnetised Obama not just because of his anti-slavery credentials, but because both share a fundamental distrust of overly abstract approaches to politics. O'Connell's most acute biographer, Oliver MacDonagh, referred to the "lawyer's ineluctable concern with the correctness of forms and formulae, with legal effects rather than moral stances or satisfactions".

He might have been describing the animating spirit of Obama's first term in office here rather than O'Connell's shrewd management of multiple pressures in the pre-1829 wilderness.

Obama has referred admiringly to the celebrated American jurist, Benjamin Cardozo, who suggested in his much cited The Nature of the Judicial Process, that legal analysis brings with it "something of Pascal's spirit of self-search and self-reproach".

Dan preferred Godwin's Political Justice, but he was on the same page here.

O'Connell is sometimes dismissed as an historical failure because of his failure to void the Act of Union. This is a breezy verdict worthy of those who have never competed for power, or withdrawn from it, or failed in its pursuit.

O'Connell's critique of revolutionary violence as self-indulgent and reckless is more relevant than the Germanic-hand-me-downs of Young Ireland, who promoted an austere Romantic definition of the nation, but who could not speak the native language their German idols thought so important.

No-Drama-Obama chose the right man in Dan, perhaps in the hope that Ireland would say of him what they once said of the Liberator, having "Elected him our absence to supply, Lent him our terror, and dressed him with our love."

JP McCarthy holds a PhD in history from Oxford.

Sunday Independent

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