The 2 Kings – Daniel O’Connell’s childhood

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It was a balmy August Sunday, the 6th. day of that month in 1775, the day Catherine O’Connell was brought to bed of her second child. Morgan and she had chosen the name already, Ellen if it was a girl, and Daniel, after his uncle, if it was a boy. This one was a boy, so it was Daniel, no longer ‘it’. A brother for Mary who was almost three now. Morgan had gone to Mass in the sidecar, but with Mrs. O’Connell were Dr. Moriarty and old Mrs. Murphy the midwife, Mass notwithstanding. It had been a hard birth, but a quick one, and had started almost the minute Morgan had left. It was over now, and she lay back exhausted.

“Will you look at the size of him!” exclaimed Mrs. Murphy as she cleaned the baby.

“He’ll be a grand man, right enough” said the Doctor. “Now can you manage if I leave you? There’s Bridie downstairs and I’ll send her up as I leave”.

“Ah, don’t bother the girl” laughed Mrs. Murphy. “The lady’s strong as a horse, and the wee one looks even stronger. Be off with ye!”

And that was how the great Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, came into the world. The particular bit of the world to welcome him was Carhen, where his father Morgan had built his house. It wasn’t a big, pretentious house like that of Morgan’s older brother beyond at Derrynane, but it suited him and his retiring ways. A quiet man, he was known as. Morgan was the second surviving son of Donal Mór, Big Donal, and the family was one of the very few ancient great families of the native Irish left in the country. But then Carhen was in Kerry.

The County of Kerry was not independent of Ireland, but it might as well have been, in 1775. There were no real roads beyond nearby Cahirciveen, save to the ancient castle of Littur down the lane, so that the O’Connell’s great house of Derrynane a few miles to the south east over the hills was accessible only by sea, horseback, or Shanks’ Mare. It remained so until 1839, when a new road there was completed. And from the sea it was difficult of access, because the entrance to the harbour was all but invisible from half a mile away. The house itself was set a few hundred yards from a small bay, and the bay was separated from the harbour of Ballinskelligs by a rocky promontory, the Abbey Island. It was called ‘Island’ because it was sometimes cut off in particularly high tides. On it were the ruins of an ancient abbey, and the whole area was surrounded by romantic hills and cliffs, with mountains up to 2,000 feet high protecting it from the north and west. To the east there was a chain of high rocks that divided the bay of Derrynane from that of Kenmare. The eternal roar of the mountain streams bounding through rocky defiles provided a continuous background to the ear in that beautiful place.

The clan had been rulers in Kerry since time immemorial, with records going back at least to 1337 when Hugh O’Connell was chief of the ’O’Connell nation’.  Head of the Clan, when Daniel was born, was his Uncle Maurice, Morgan’s elder brother. Maurice was always called ‘Hunting Cap’. He hated paying taxes, and new and inventive ones were always being introduced. A new tax had been introduced on Beaver Hats, almost universally worn by Irish gentry then. Beaver fur was the raw material for a high quality felt suitable for hat making. Felted beaver fur could be processed into an excellent hat that held its shape well even after successive wettings, making it perfect for Ireland. Maurice was so incensed about this tax that he promptly gave up wearing Beaver Hats and instead wore a ‘chaipín’, or hunting cap. Ever after he was known as ‘Muiris an Chaipín’ or Maurice the hunting cap. Or in English, just plain ‘Hunting Cap’. Hunting Cap was 13 years older than Morgan, which gave him an authority over his siblings based more on habit that anything else, but absolute nonetheless. That was to have a huge impact on the development of Daniel O’Connell.

But for now, Daniel had to grow up. His parents had spent hours discussing whether or not to foster him. Catherine, understandably, was against the idea, but could appreciate Morgan’s position.

“It’s an ancient practice you know, my dear,” he would say, “and it’s not as if we’d never see him or send him a hundred miles away. Cahill’s house is only in the hills just above the farm, what, five miles away? And we’d add on an extra room for them, and she’s a very motherly soul. And he’d grow to the age of five or six speaking only Irish before coming home.”

That was the point of it, of course, to ensure that Daniel would always understand the common people, both their language and their way of life. The O’Connells, like all the gentry, spoke English at home, but Irish with the servants, many of whom had no English, here beyond the mountains in the coastlands of Kerry. And so it was arranged. The baby Daniel was fostered out to the Cahills, the family of Morgan’s head Cowman, and he grew to the age of five speaking only Irish. In later years he would remember it as a happy time, and he would remember the Cahills as his ‘Da’ and Nan’. His real parents were Mother and Father.

Surprisingly, he remembered one incident quite clearly, on August 24th. 1779, when he was just four years old. It was the period of the American War of Independence, and the famous American John Paul Jones had arrived off the headlands of Kerry, where he was almost becalmed. The tide was running strongly between the Skelligs and Valentia harbour, but there was little wind that day, so they had to tow themselves off with the boats. Two of the boats’ crews were manned by Irish sailors who had joined as the lesser of two evils – the American Navy or a French gaol. So instead of rejoining the vessel when the wind finally got up, they pulled for shore.

They reached Valentia harbour, and were hospitably entertained by a gentleman of the neighbourhood. However they had picked the wrong sort of gentleman, for while they were drinking in his house, he had sent to the nearest military establishment in Tralee, and they sent a guard to arrest the sailors. Nan Cahill, Dan’s foster mother, took him to see them marched away to Tralee. One of them made a great impression on him. This man complained loudly, from the back of the grey nag he was riding, against the injustice done him and his shipmates. Daniel felt it was unjust, too, and long after used to say that he was sure that it was from that childish memory of a long ago incident that his devotion to justice sprang. Personally, I suspect it must have been a memory of his Nan’s repetition of the story later. I certainly can’t remember anything from when I was four years old!

Daniel learned all about the peasant children’s ways, too. Meat was always scarce, but they all used to catch birds, especially thrushes and blackbirds, for they made the best eating. The Cahills had a son a few years older than Daniel who amongst his other achievements was a very skilful bird catcher, good at making ‘cribs’ and other traps. Many a thrush and blackbird he captured and brought home to liven the evening meal, and many a robin he caught and let go. For the robin (in Irish, the spiddóge) is, as is well known, a blessed bird, and no one, no matter how wild or cruel, would kill or hurt one, partly from love, partly from fear. They believed if they killed a robin a large lump would grow on the palm of their right hand, preventing them from working, and perhaps more importantly from hurling. It is fear alone, however, that saves a swallow from injury, for it is equally well known that every swallow has in him three drops of the devil’s blood. All other birds are fair game.

When a boy visited his crib, and in it, instead of the blackbird or thrush he hoped for, found a robin, his disappointment was naturally great. The robin he dare not kill, but he would bring the bird into the house, get a small bit of paper, put it into the robin’s bill, and hold it there, and say to it: “Now, spiddóge, you must swear an oath on the book in your mouth that you will send a blackbird or a thrush into my crib for me; if you don’t I will kill you the next time I catch you, and I now pull out your tail for a token, and that I may know you from any other robin.” The tail would then be pulled out and the spiddóge let go. The boy well knew that he dare not carry out his threat, and when he caught a tailless robin, as there was nothing to pull out, he merely threatened him again and let him go. In very severe winters a robin with a tail was rarely to be seen.

When he was five, Daniel came home to Carhen. The house was imposing enough to a small boy, situated on top of a hill above the bay overlooking Cahirciveen. He had been there before of course, but today, he knew, was different. He was taken into Morgan’s study by Nan Cahill, who squeezed him and left him there. He was standing there before his father’s desk, looking at the paintings on the wall and waiting while Morgan finished the letter he was writing.  It was his fifth birthday.

“Hello, young Daniel” said Morgan, suddenly interrupting his reverie, speaking Irish of course, for Daniel knew no other language. He recognised English, but didn’t really understand it. “Do you know who that man is, in the picture you’re staring at?”

“I do not, Father, but he looks very like yourself, but his clothes are funny”.

“And so he should!” laughed Morgan O’Connell, “for he’s my grandsire! That’s Captain John O’Connell, and it was he built the Big House beyond in Derrynane where your Uncle Maurice lives. The finest in the County of Kerry.” He paused. “Well, in Iveragh, anyhow, so old Captain John claimed. Now, do you know why you’re here?”

“Nan said I was coming to live here, Sir. But will I see her again?” He was having trouble holding back tears. He loved his foster mother.

“Of course you will, whenever you wish! But now you’ve to get to know myself and your mother better.”

As if on cue, his mother Catherine came in, and picked him up and hugged him. “How I’ve missed you, my little Daniel” she smiled. “And now you’ll be here, for ever and ever. Isn’t that wonderful?”

He soon came to love his mother dearly. She had been a rather remote figure up to now. He was wondering if living here was wonderful or not, when Morgan went on:

“But tell me, now, did you have fresh mutton on the table, beyond at Teiromoile?” Teiromoile was the name of the place where the Cahills lived.

“Yes, Father” he replied.

“Do they have many sheep there, then?” asked Morgan.

“Oh, no,” said Daniel, “but my da’ brought in one of Morgan O’Connell’s sheep, and killed it.” He had never really associated that mysterious phrase “Morgan O’Connell” with his father, for he had not then ever heard anyone address him by his Christian name.

Morgan laughed heartily. “I now know the fate of my missing sheep! But we’ve a surprise for you.” He turned round. “Mrs. O’Donoghue!” he roared into the next room.

A tall, thin young lady came in. Daniel looked up at her, and liked what he saw. She had nice, friendly eyes, he felt.

“Good Afternoon, Your Honour, Ma’am”, said she in English. And to Daniel, in Irish, “Hello, Daniel. I’m to look after you. And we’ve a lovely surprise for you today!”

“Away with you!” laughed Morgan, “and take him to his surprise!”

So off he went, his hand in Maureen O’Donoghue’s, a very quiet and very composed little boy. He was taken off to play with his sister Mary, who was eight, and quite beautiful, like a little porcelain doll. And Maurice, a year younger than himself, and incredibly shy. Then there were two babies, Ellen and John. It was Daniel’s fifth birthday that day, and so they had a big birthday party, with lots of his friends from Nan Cahill’s place, and a huge birthday cake, and lemonade! He’d only ever heard of lemonade before, and thought it wonderful.

The rest of the year passed swiftly, and much more happily than was often the lot of youngsters in grand houses in those days. But then the O’Connells were a highly unusual family. The household was almost totally bilingual, and Daniel seemed to have a knack for absorbing new things. So English he found easy. It came naturally really, because everyone spoke it all the time except with the servants. He had ridden a pony almost before he could walk at Teiromoile, something Morgan  had surreptitiously arranged. So that wasn’t new. But the clothes he had to wear!

He was breeched soon after his arrival. This ceremonial first wearing of trousers, or ‘breeches’, was quite an occasion in grand houses. It was the fashion then for boys, once breeched, to wear miniature versions of smart adult clothing. So there was a shirt with fine muslin ruffles edging both sides of the shirt’s neck slit; the breeches themselves, of course, ones which ended just above the knee for Sundays, with stockings which met the bottom of them. And over all, a petticoat, or small coat, which was becoming known then as just a ‘coat’, for short. It had cut away tails which ran down from the sides rather like a Frock Coat[i], and was worn over a flamboyant embroidered waistcoat. The whole ensemble would be coloured in very bright colours – reds, greens and yellows were popular. Rather a load at first, for a small boy used to nothing but a caulac, or smock-frock, as the children’s garb for both girls and boys was sometimes called.

Eating politely was another skill he had to learn. The Cahills had generally used a knife and fingers, with maybe a spoon for stirabout or skilly. The O’Connells too ate en famille, in the Irish way, with children and guests always at the table. But the O’Connell’s ate off fine porcelain with silver cutlery. Frequently parties assembled under Morgan’s hospitable roof for dinner or dance, a new experience for a small boy who had previously seen dinner and dancing only as part of wedding celebrations. After the third or fourth such event since his arrival at Carhen House, he asked his mother in Irish, “Is there a wedding here every day?”.

With English, he learned to read and write, in English first. A schoolmaster named David Mahony had been engaged, one of the itinerant ‘hedge-school’ masters who roamed Ireland still. This one seems to have been a man with a love of literature and, unusually for his profession, a natural ability to make his pupils love it too. When he met Daniel first, he immediately realised that he was very nervous, so he put him on his knee and proceeded to very gently disentangle the strands of his unruly curly head of hair. Daniel’s previous acquaintance with combs had been irregular and painful, and he was immediately captivated, and couldn’t do enough to please Mr. Mahony. He learned the alphabet in an hour, so he used to say! He seems to have been remarkably quick and persevering. As he put it in later years, his “childish propensity to idleness was overcome by the fear of disgrace”. He “desired to excel, and couldn’t brook the idea of being inferior to others”.

[i] Not unlike a modern Morning Coat..


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