Even in the House of Commons, which he entered after he had accomplished his greatest triumph, and where he found an audience for the most part bitterly hostile, O'Connell conquered that audience, and compelled those to admire the orator who most cordially disliked the political leader. O'Connell was for a long time hated in England, at least by the anti-reformers of England, more bitterly than any other man of his day. Some of the great London papers seemed to have lost all sense of justice and even of decency when they came to criticise him. He had been a foremost advocate at the Irish Bar, and was making a positive fortune by his practice. In order to devote himself to the Catholic agitation he had given up his work at the Law Courts, and reduced himself from the position of a man earning a large annual income to the position of a man earning no income at all. Yet these newspapers denounced him and calumniated him as if he had been an impostor who got up the whole Catholic agitation as a means of putting money in his own pocket. The Irish people raised a fund to enable him to live, and to enable him also to carry on the agitation; and the leading London journal forthwith designated him "the big beggar-man." The Irish people had before that time raised a national fund for Grattan, and no Englishman ever founded on that fact any question as to Grattan's unselfishness and sincerity. The English Free Trade party, in days nearer to our own, raised a very large fund to enable Richard Cobden to maintain himself while carrying on the Anti-Corn Law movement; and even Cobden's most bitter enemies never described him as a beggar-man.
O'Connell soon raised himself into a position of something like dictatorship over the vast majority of the Irish people. His genius was peculiarly Celtic - he had the imagination, the suffusion of the poetic, the rich humour, and the fitful changes of expression which belong to the temperament of the Celt. He could move his audiences to tears or laughter, to passion or to good humour just as he willed. Then he had all the astuteness of the lawyer, all the inexhaustible resources of the born politician to aid him in carrying on the work to which he had devoted his heart and soul. He soon entered into an alliance, more or less avowed, with the leaders of the Democratic party in England and in Scotland. His sympathies went with every movement for religious equality and for political reform; and we shall have occasion to see, a little later on, how thoroughly he was in tone and in harmony with the most advanced of the English Liberals. The English Liberals soon found that he was a man who had to be reckoned with; and they soon found, too, that he was a man who could be trusted to co-operate faithfully with them in the advocacy of every great reform. He had been one of those who cordially welcomed George IV. on the occasion of that memorable visit to Ireland, and it was some time before he could thoroughly rouse himself to face the fact that George cared nothing about Catholic Emancipation, and just as little about Ireland. A sudden chance, almost an accident, gave O'Connell an opportunity of testing his power in his own country.
One of the members of the Government resigned his position as head of the Board of Trade, and another man was appointed to the office. The new-comer, Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald, who represented an Irish constituency, had to go back to Clare and be re-elected, before he could enter on the duties of his new position. O'Connell seized the opportunity and boldly came forward as a rival for the suffrages of the electors of Clare, such, electors as there were then under the old-fashioned system of restrictions. O'Connell, as a Roman Catholic, was excluded by law from taking a seat in the House of Commons. His bold step in coming forward as candidate created the wildest excitement all over the country. Many, even of those who thoroughly sympathised with his cause, were convinced that the step he had taken was too daring an outrage upon existing law, to do anything but harm to the movement for Catholic Emancipation. From all sides, except alone from the side of his ardent followers, he received warnings; but the warnings were happily unheeded. O'Connell went to the poll, and was elected member for Clare by an overwhelming majority of votes. It was one thing, however, to be elected for Clare, and quite another thing to take his seat in the House of Commons. The oath which was then administered to all new members who came to take their seats, was one which no Roman Catholic could possibly have accepted, and one which was framed expressly with the purpose of excluding Roman Catholics from any part in the deliberations of Parliament. The oath was tendered to O'Connell, and of course he could not accept it, and he stated his reasons, and was ordered to withdraw. He did withdraw; and he left the House knowing full well that the time could not be far distant when he and other Catholics, legally elected as he had been, would find a seat in that House unchallenged by any prohibitory test. O'Connell went back to Clare, and was re-elected without opposition.
Daniel O'Connell, M.P. (1775-1847).
Perhaps the most interesting study for the reader of the history of those days is the manner in which the development of the whole controversy worked upon the mind of Sir Robert Peel. As every one knows, Peel had been for long years a steady opponent of the Catholic claims. He was born and brought up in an atmosphere of the most dense and rigid Toryism. He was always too enlightened a man to persuade himself into the belief that the Catholics ought to be kept in a position of political inequality and degradation, merely because he and his friends did not approve of the Roman Catholic religion. Peel, however, had succeeded in persuading himself that to admit the Catholics to political equality would only open the way for them to damage or destroy the State Church in England and in Ireland. Now as regarded the State Church in Ireland, Peel was unquestionably a man of foresight. The moment the Catholics were admitted to full political equality, the moment they could send representatives to speak up for their cause in the House of Commons, that moment the State Church in Ireland was foredoomed. Peel could not see that the doom of the State Church in Ireland was no reason for the doom of the State Church in England; in fact, that every reasonable argument in favour of the English Establishment was an argument against the Irish State Church. The Irish Church was a Church of a miserably small minority; a Church of which the threshold was never crossed, never would be crossed, by any of the vast majority of the Irish people. Five-sixths, at least, of the Irish population were Catholics, whom the whole system of the penal laws had utterly failed to compel to any recognition of the Irish State Church.