Daniel O’Connell, the last… – O’Connell’s Schooldays

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By the time he was nine years old he had progressed to books like Captain Cook’s ‘Voyages round the World’. He used to run away and take his book to the window, where he would sit with his legs crossed, tailor-like, devouring the adventures of Cook. In the big wide world outside, this was the time of Grattan and the repeal of Poyning’s Laws, the first palpable fruits of the mood of reform sweeping through Ireland. It was the beginning of what became known as Grattan’s Constitution. Heady stuff it was too, but hardly for a nine year old boy. Much more exciting were the adventures at home.

For the O’Connells were in ‘trade’. They had great salt pans and tanneries on the coast, and Daniel loved watching the pans bubbling away down on the strand. By some magic they bubbled until there was no water left, and there in the bottom of the pan was salt! Even better he enjoyed helping with the loading of the salt and the cured hides onto small ships that came into Derrynane harbour at night, and left before the dawn. It was all very mysterious and exciting, and great fun. In truth, the O’Connell ‘trade’ would have been called ‘smuggling’ in many other places, but there in Kerry it was, to all the locals anyhow, just trade. The fact that the English objected added spice to the trade, and in any case the English were far away, over the mountains.

‘Trade’, of course, went beyond salt. Salt was an export, although mainly as part of other products like butter, fish or hides, all preserved with salt. The boats which came to collect these things didn’t come in empty. They had full cargoes of tea, both “bohea” (as any black tea was called at the time, not just inferior tea as now) and green tea, sugar, tobacco, brandy and wine, in that order. The stereotype drinking Irishman beloved of foreign papers did not exist in Kerry then, although drink was becoming a major problem in some parts of Ireland, especially Dublin. It was to remain so until the days of Father Matthew’s Temperance movement half a century later. All these imports and exports would have been heavily taxed from Galway, say, or Waterford, and the salt tax in particular was still much resented.

In Kerry, the ‘Trade’ involved almost everybody within a mile of the sea, including the O’Connells. Especially the O’Connells, in fact, and Hunting Cap was the smuggling chief of the county, indeed of the whole west coast, and he grew very rich on the trade. Much richer than Morgan. Many of the members of the local ‘Grand Jury’, the body of local landowners who still had a dual government and judicial role, were on his books. All, of course, turned a blind eye to the trading activities which supplied them with tea and brandy. Hunting Cap’s outward consignments would usually comprise large sacks of wool, firkins of butter, salt and salted hides. Butter was a major influence on the lives of Kerry people, and they produced tons of it. Mostly it was sold in the great Butter Market in Cork, and long roads were built to get it there. “Butter Roads” they were called, and still are. But the O’Connell’s butter was not sold in Cork. It was exported from Derrynane.

The proceeds of all these exports would be used to buy tea for which demand was very strong then, and wines for the family’s consumption – Claret, Rhenish[i], and brandies mostly, and sugar. Apart from the tea and brandy trade, they imported silks and velvets for the ladies, gilt frames for paintings and prints, as well as mirrors and a host of small household items. They would expect to double their money on each consignment, and they ran small boats, usually fifty feet or so, partly so that they could get in and out of the creeks where they traded, and partly to limit the risk to small sums. Derrynane harbour is very hard to spot from the sea, and the local Revenue men were almost partners and were routinely bought off. The O’Connell books record payments like ‘To the boat-man’ (meaning Revenue boatman), ‘who came here seeking a prey, 5s. 5d.’  Derrynane is very hard to find from the land too, and in those days there was no road suitable for wheeled traffic anywhere near.

They weren’t entirely beyond the reach of the county law officers, though, and there was one incident which came close to bringing down the entire family. It was a tale often repeated over the years, that of the surprise descent on the unloading of a ‘trade’ ship by a Captain Whitwell Butler and the Revenue Force. One September morning Morgan, Hunting Cap, and various cousins and nephews, helped by the usual crowd of locals, were happily engaged in landing a valuable cargo. Captain Butler swooped down on them with the King’s men, and seized the lot. Hunting Cap submitted to the inevitable, and politely invited the Captain to breakfast. Hunting Cap’s wife had some French silk for a gown in the cargo, and she mentioned that she would like, if possible, to ‘ransom’ it.

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“You shall have it free, madam, if it costs me my commission,” he gallantly replied, and sent for the piece of silk for her. After breakfast, he was getting ready to leave, travelling to Waterville across country on foot, with a very small escort. Hunting Cap knew the people were furious at the raid, and feared mischief, so he persuaded Captain Butler to let him send with him a nephew, Marcus O’Sullivan, as otherwise he felt that he might well be in some danger. He handed Marcus a token, a curious crooked knife well known to the people round about, and told him to escort the officer to the river bank at Waterville. Thus guarded, the representative of law and order set out.

In passing through the village of Cahirdaniel they were only too conscious of the hostile gestures of the people, but at the sight of the crooked knife they stood back and allowed them to pass. Some distance beyond the village, Captain Butler told Marcus to go back, and himself struck across the high mountain for his home. But while he was crossing one shoulder of the mountain, a mob of angry peasants from Cahirdaniel had skirted the other. They fell on the officer, routed his men, and beat him to within an inch of his life. Well, a foot perhaps, for in a few weeks Captain Butler was well again, but that was not the end of the story, for a warrant was issued and legal proceedings were commenced which could well have cost the O’Connell brothers  their lives had the case been heard in Dublin even a year back.

But it was 1782, the year in which Grattan inside Parliament and the Volunteers, led by Lord Charlemont and Napper Tandy outside it, had between them achieved nothing less than the complete reversal of all the Poynings’ and Declaratory laws, so obnoxious to the Irish. It was called Yelverton’s Act (because the MP charged with introducing it, appointed Attorney General that year, was named Barry Yelverton, the usual way of identifying acts at the time). It gave the Irish Parliament back to the Irish – even if only the Protestant Irish at this stage. It was the beginning of a long series of steps towards Catholic emancipation in which Daniel was to play such a huge part, and it signalled a sea-change in attitudes towards Catholics. It was against this background that the local MP, Dominic Trant, realised that things had got out of hand, and intervened. The charge was not directly to do with the smuggling but rather with the assault on Captain Butler, on the grounds that it must have been ordered by one of the O’Connells. He wrote to Dublin a long letter explaining the circumstances, requesting that the case be heard locally, and concluding by pointing out that the O’Connells were  esteemed men of probity and honour, and of a very ancient Roman Catholic family, possessed of considerable personal property. And besides they were his clients. Lord Annaly granted the request, the O’Connells appeared at their own, local, assizes, and the Grand Jury in their judicial role – O’Connell trade customers to a man − threw out the charges. So the O’Connell brothers returned home without a slur on their names, but it had been a close run thing!

Amid all this excitement Daniel was growing up. It may have been because of Hunting Cap’s money, or because of his position as patriarch of the O’Connells, or maybe just because he had no children of his own and took a liking to young Daniel. Whatever the case, he virtually adopted him, arranging all his schooling and becoming a second father to him. So Daniel spent much of his time at Derrynane, which was nicer than Carhen anyhow. It was a wonderful place for an active boy. The house was set in a garden known as ‘the shrubbery’, in the middle of which was an ancient turret with views over the sea, the trees and the hills. This was a favourite hideaway for young Daniel, and indeed remained so long after the house had become his own, forty years later. The house was then a rambling, higgledy-piggledy sort of place, where rooms had been added on as needed by succeeding generations. Daniel was particularly fascinated by a memento of the old evil days, a piece of the skull of a friar who had been cut down by one of Cromwell’s soldiers with a sword, while saying mass. In later years he had it interred in the grounds of the old Abbey.

In due course he outgrew his tutor old David Mahoney, who was succeeded by a man named John Burke. His teaching was unremarkable, and he was chiefly remembered by Daniel as the one who played a part in  the Bull Hunt. Daniel had been asked by his cousin Marcus (O’Sullivan, of the ‘smugglers and the revenue men’ story) to join a ‘bull hunt’. Marcus’s family came from Couliagh, just over the estuary of the Kenmare river in County Cork, less than two hours by boat. His mother Honoria, known as Nonny in the family, was Hunting Cap’s sister, and  the wild young Marcus always seemed to be at Derrynane. And now he was organising a ‘bull hunt’ with Burke.

Burke was not particularly popular with his charges, but when Daniel was asked would he like to come along too, he jumped at the chance, even though he had no idea what a bull hunt was. He assumed it was something like hare hunting, but with bigger prey. In fact what had happened was that a herd of bulls had gone wild on the small island of Deenish, some five miles offshore. They were effectively preventing local people from landing there, and it had been decided to remove them. Hence the hunt.

It wasn’t really a hunt, of course. They were to load the bulls on to boats if they could, and only if that proved impossible were they to shoot them. But their approach must have been somewhat inept. They were certainly inexperienced − a schoolboy, a school master, the 18 year old Marcus O’Sullivan, and four boatmen who were more used to fishes than bulls. Burke and Marcus proceeded to try to herd the bulls towards the landing place. However the bulls panicked, and ran in the opposite direction, towards the cliff and their tormentors Burke and Marcus. The panicked bulls  themselves killed quite a few of each other, and towards the end when there were only six left, Marcus fired at the largest of them, but only wounded it. The enraged animal rushed at him, and he saved himself only by jumping a high rock overhanging the sea, to which he clung by holding on to the long grass which grew in the crevices on the seaward side. The bull dashed headlong over the precipice, narrowly missing Marcus in his refuge, and was killed by his fall on the rock two hundred feet below. Now there were only five bulls. Burke took aim, but his bull came on with a rush, and Burke panicked and took refuge in a crevice where the bull could not follow him. Burke’s dignity did not survive the incident, although his person did, but it was clear that Daniel needed a more formal education.

Fortuitously this was a time when the Penal Laws were being relaxed enough to allow the establishment of Catholic Schools. And now in 1789 Daniel was 14, and as the bull hunt incident has underlined, he was ready for a proper School. That would normally have been in France. But 1789, of course, was the year the French Revolution broke out and the Bastille, the Royal stronghold in Paris, was stormed and taken by the insurgents.

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[i][i] Hock.


[ii] Modern Belgium.

[iii] French Latinist .

[iv] The Recollects were a branch of the Franciscans in France.

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