The M.P. for Tralee Who Became Prime Minister – By J.A. Evans

Not a Great Start in Life.

Although he represented the borough in parliament it is likely that he never set foot in the place. It was an age when things were done in a different fashion. George Canning wished to show his independence and chose his own constituency. Up to that time he held a seat under suffrage. He wanted to have a seat that would ‘cause him the minimum of trouble either before or after an election.’ He considered buying a seat for some 4,000 guineas somewhere in England. In any case when the general election of 1802 came about he had a very safe seat at Tralee. There were only thirteen votes. He would have liked to have represented Oxford University in Parliament but he was unacceptable there as he supported Catholic emancipation. To the enduring credit of Canning was his support of Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery.

George Canning, a namesake and ancestor, was granted the manor of Garvagh in Derry by James 1st in 1616. The grandfather of the future PM was Staford Canning, a stern man, who disinherited two of his children. The father of the future PM fell in love with a lady his father did not like and found himself exiled to London. In time the exiled son met Mary Ann Costello whom he married.

In a year after the birth of their son George he died and at the age of twenty four Mary Ann Canning faced a very bleak prospect. Dickens could hardly have contrived a more suitable start for a hero’s life. She was a handsome lady and decided to try her hand at being an actress. Garrick helped her and she made her debut in Drury Lane with the master in 1773. She did not hold her place in Drury Lane and began to play in the provinces. She met an actor called

too elaborately chiselled, too finished, too scholarly, immense care was taken of them and you feel it. The Duke of Wellington said of him ‘Canning was readier at writing than even at speaking and I never in my life knew so great a master of oratory’. Lefevere said “Canning sacrificed the best years of his life for Catholic Emancipation. Otherwise he may have passed those years in office.”

Pitt tried to have the emancipation bill passed but the king considered that his coronation oath to promote the protestant religion did not allow him to consider such a measure. The king was ill. The madness of King George is now considered to be due to an organic disease. George is reputed to have informed his physician that his illness was caused by Pitt.

In 1812 during the fifteen year premiership of Lord Liverpool the ministers were told to regard the Catholic Emancipation as an open question and the government or ministers of the government were not concerned with the matter. Canning, who was not a member of the government, introduced a motion to consider the catholic disabilities, in 1812. The House of Commons had a majority of over a hundred for this motion. Next year when a Catholic Relief bill was introduced it was unpopular with the Irish Catholics as the ultra Protestants had included ‘securities’ to remove Protestant fears. Henry Grattan, who originally introduced the bill, was so disgusted that he abandoned it in despair. Again such a bill was introduced in 1821 but it was thrown out by the Lords.

In 1822 Canning introduced a bill to enable Catholic peers to sit in the House of Lords. It was defeated. He said ‘I solemnly declare I would not have brought this question forward had I not felt assured that the reparation which I ask for Catholic peers is in name and policy and expedient in the name of humanity, it is charitable, and in the name of God, just.’ Canning had a nickname

O’Connell stood for election in Clare against Vesey Fitzgerald. His rival was a landlord whose tenants marched into the square headed by pipers and they listened to their landlord. When he had finished Fr. Tom Maguire got up and gave the tenants a choice. ‘Let every renegade to his God and his country follow Vesey Fitzgerald, and every true Catholic Irishman follow me’. All but a few followed Fr. Maguire. One priest, a Fr. Coffey, was a supporter of Vesey Fitzgerald but when he brought his parishioners in to vote a stronger character, Fr. John Murphy, who had already directed his own parishioners in a certain way demanded of the Fr. Coffey’s care ‘Men are ye going to betray your God and your country’. A cheer was raised for O’Connell and the tenants marched after Fr. John Murphy.

The result of the election was 2,082 votes for O’Connell and 982 for Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s agent suggest-ed that as O’Connell could not take his seat in the House of Commons the election should be declared invalid. The Sheriff and returning officer was obliged to declare O’Connell elected and said that it was up to the House of Commons to sort out the position. The victor had a triumphal parade where he led 20,000 followers. He had a journey back to Dublin that lasted three days. He addressed the Catholic Association in the Corn Exchange Building.

“I ask what is to be done with Ireland? What is to be done with the Catholics?
One or two things. They must either crush us or conciliate us. There is no going on as we are. I could forgive England for oppressing this country, for crushing our ancient chieftains and making them breakers of stones and
drawers of water. I could forgive her violation of the Treaty of Limerick. I
could pardon her broken promises at the Union, and I say now, all, all shall be pardoned, forgiven, forgotten upon giving us Emancipation, unconditional,unqualified, free and unshackled.”

substituted a new oath. Catholics were now obliged to swear allegiance to the crown in its Protestant succession and to disavow the deposing power of the Pope as well as his assumption of any temporal jurisdiction in the United Kingdom.

Let Me Speak With the Wind-A Leader like Moses

A German visitor wrote; ‘1843 Dundalk – Never did I see anything like it. I have seen princes make their solemn entry into Cologne. All was child’s play to this. There is no walking in the streets; all were either borne or pushed. I looked down and I saw nothing but heads – not even shoulders were visible. Never did I hear anything like that prolonged, that never ending hurrah. He descended from his carriage and instantly a large broad path opened for him, and as instantly closed when he had passed. It was the passage of Moses through the Red Sea to the very life.’

These great displays were not accidental O’Connell wrote to Rev. W. Wilson.

‘If there be any (civic) procession (prior to the speeches) the principle managers three or four, should meet in an open carriage with four horses, I would leave my own and go into that carriage when I meet the people. With four horses a force is obtained just sufficient to get through the crowd. A messenger on horseback might be sent to ascertain my approach so as not to keep the people waiting in the streets. At the close of the procession I would
address the people from any well arranged public Vantage ground. Let me speak with the wind. You will smile at these minuteness but I know the value of attention to details.’

When the dying O’Connell set off for Rome in 1847, he gave FitzPatrick his blessing and described him as ‘The best of all his friends.’ At Paris on that faithful journey a deputation visited him and said ‘We are come to salute in you the

advised against his eldest son entering politics, suggesting the church or an academic career. On the morning of the duel he was awoken at 1am by Ellis the second for his rival to inform him of the time of the encounter. Canning went back to sleep and got up at 5am. Castlereagh is said to have insulted Canning and he was challenged. Canning’s shot hit a button on Castlereagh’s coat and although Canning was wounded on the thigh he was able to walk away after the attention of a surgeon who was in attendance.

O’Connell was to fight a second duel. This time it was against Peel. When his wife heard of the challenge she sent for the sheriff and had O’Connell arrested. Never short of a stratagem he had Mary and his children sent to Kerry and he made his way to the Continent where honour was to be satisfied at Ostend. As O’Connell made his way to the continent detectives were placed at the ports in England and France. O’Connell was arrested in London and he was informed by a magistrate that if he killed Peel he would be tried for murder and likely executed. He had to make his way back to Ireland and wrote to Mary from Dublin.

‘My darling Heart I left London on Monday and posted to Shrewsbury, and travelled thence in day-coach to Hollyhead. We reached the head on Thursday at one o’clock and sailed at three.

The night came to blow tremendously and the packet was crowded to excess. Not a berth could be had for love or money. I lay on the cabin floor as sick as a dog, with three gentlemen’s legs on my breast and stomach, and the sea-water dripping in on my knees and feet. I was never so completely punished.”

This was an inglorious end to the challenge. Later it could be claimed that he dislodged Peel’s government.

To the credit of Canning he took a stand against slavery. He acted in an

Unfortunately O’Connell had debts of about £20,000 in ten years.

In 1827 he wrote to Mary who was in Kerry. “I am most anxious to be with you and yet my affairs are so deranged that I do not know what to do”, and later he was to add, “How bitterly do I regret that I was not sooner more vigilant and attentive. There is in fact one resource and that is strict and unremitting economy. I have borrowed much money since I came to Dublin in October and so cleared my way for the present, and I am now labouring to make provision for the money so borrowed. What I want is to keep all my income for that purpose. One or, at the utmost two, years of my present economy would clear off all my debts and accumulate Kate’s fortune. My duty would then be performed because the rest would be easy. But, darling, why should I tease you with these croakings and yet into what bosom should I pour my sorrows but yours? To whom should I look for comfort, consolation and assistance but to you”.

The writer of this letter to his wife was to found a bank. Today some banks in London trade under signs such as Irish wolfhounds and round towers, a relic of the days that those branches were part of the National Bank founded by O’Connell. The original bank in the meantime merged with its arch rival.

Canning described ‘The event most essential to my happiness’ as his meeting with Miss Scott. He met this lady at a great house called Walmer. Years later he revisited that house and wrote to Pitt, “Here I am in the very room in which I first touched my own love’s hand and put my arm around her and drew her to me. She was not very angry – not very angry I think – though it was saucy of me to do what I did”.

Canning went on a holiday to the lake country in 1825. He was foreign minister at the time and he received a great reception reminiscent of the welcomes of

foreshadowing of the ‘Catholic Rent’. Events in history are often foreshadowed as in science or art. To give Canning credit for his efforts does not take from the fact that O’Connell’s harnessing of people power brought about Emancipation.

In Paris he was called the liberator. When they applied the same name to a famous racehorse – they hoped it would be a winner. The name was given to a newspaper in the hope that it would speak with the wind. The word became common currency and suggestive of Virgil’s permanent epithet

Their Last Bow

Canning was said by his nephew to have died of a broken heart. He suggested that Peel was responsible for the strain the man felt. It was popularly believed that Daniel O’Connell died of a broken heart when he was aware of the famine. O’Connell called on the people of influence to put pressure on the government in December 1846.

“Ireland was only at the threshold of her horrors’. He pleaded ‘A nation is starving. If there be any exceptions, they are so few and so far between that they are not worth mentioning or being noticed. I repeat, the nation is starving, and to the all prevalent famine is now superadded dysentry and typhus in their worst shapes. Nothing can be more appalling than the spread of these diseases. The typhus is setting in its worst shape.”

There is a very detailed report of the post-mortem on Daniel O’Connell. It was suggested that as a result of an operation some infection set in that gave rise to a lesion in his brain. The coverings were glued together and the meningitis was fatal. On his way to Rome he suffered from violent headaches, the voice that once carried to the edge of his monster meetings was reduced to a whisper. His gait was unsteady and eventually he was in a state of delirium.

Samuel Reddish who proved to be a bad lot. It would appear that the son of a failed actress who had contracted a disastrous marriage would hardly achieve the ultimate ambition of an upper-class English gentleman – to become the prime minister, to marry an heiress, and win the Derby. Canning achieved two of the objectives and his nephew became associated with the Derby in a unique way.

Young George was removed from the unstable environment of his mother and step father and was living with his uncle Stratford Canning who was now a wealthy merchant. He was sent to a prep school at Hyde Abbey and at twelve was sent to Eton. At Eton Canning had no interest in sport. Today his statue stands beside the playing fields and receives a twack from an errant ball. At Oxford he won the Chancellor’s prize for a poem in Latin. He was to become the most cultured of the British statesmen.

Canning urged Pitt to drop the Union until a period arrived when it would be possible to carry the two measures. Canning’s speeches as a contribution to English literature, are perhaps superior to those of any other orator of the nineteenth century. Polished as a mirror, faultless in taste, they might have been fashioned in the workshop of ancient Athens. Noble thoughts are clothed in noble images, and so fine is the texture of the language that it impossible to add or withdraw even a word without detracting from its elegance. His dialectical skill in on a level with his literary excellence, and the track of a subordinate argument may frequently be traced throughout a whole speech from the subtle windings of its first suggestion, to the final demonstration of its truth. If Canning’s speeches have a fault it is that they are

‘the pope’ and in a letter to his wife stated I am still a Catholic, implying that he still was trying to introduce emancipation. When Canning died O’Connell said to his wife “Mr Canning is dead. There is another blow to wretched Ireland. No man can become of vital importance to her but he is immediately snatched off”.

Arrival of O’Connell on the Scene

‘O’Connell was a law student in Dublin in 1797 and could visit the Irish Parliament that was still meeting in College Green and hear people like Henry Grattan and Flood. This experience caused him to resolve to become a politician. He was horrified by the insurrection of 1798 and by the fate of the school he had attended in France which was destroyed by the French revolutionaries.

‘O’Connell was to declare ‘I have seen Ireland a kingdom – I reproach myself with having lived to behold her a province. I have an ulterior objective; it is the Repeal of the Union and the restoration to Old Ireland of her independence. I do not desire to restore a Parliament as she had before. No, the act of Restoration necessarily implies a Reformation…Let them delay Emancipation but yet a little while, and they will find that they have roused the sleeping Lion of Ireland… till Ireland is herself again a Nation’.

The Clare Election

A few days before the election in Clare, O’Connell got a message of encouragement from Bishop Doyle of Carlow (JKL). This man had previously privately criticised him for his conciliatory attitude towards Canning’s government. On receipt of the welcome message O’Connell said ‘The approbation of Doctor Doyle will bring in our cause the united voice of Ireland- I trust it will be the vox populi – vox dei.’

After his victory O’Connell wrote in a theme that reminds one of Martin Luther King.

“I had dreamed a day dream – was it a dream? – that Ireland still wanted me,
that although the Catholic aristocracy and gentry of Ireland had obtained most valuable advantages from Emancipation, yet the benefits of good government had not reached the great mass of the Irish people, and could not reach them unless the Union should be either made a reality – or unless that hideous measure should be abrogated.”

In April 1835 he helped to overthrow the government of Sir Robert Peel. He kept the administration of Melbourne in office.

The Veto

The English Aristocracy were now manoeuvring in the Vatican. They were anxious to give the British Government the power of veto over the appointment of bishops. Napoleon held Italy and the pope was a virtual prisoner. In 1814 the vice-prefect at Rome, Monsignor Quarantotti, signed a letter addressed to the vicar apostolic at London, Dr. Poynter. It ordered Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland to yield to royal approval (or rejection) of Episcopal nominations, and the clergy to permit careful inspection and examination of all papers, other than those appertaining to matters of conscience, passing between Rome and Great Britain. O’Connell called this a message of a slave to slaves.

O’Connell’s right hand man O’Gorman said ‘If the pope himself, with all the cardinals, uttered a bull to back the rescript I should not obey’. The Catholic bishops met in Maynooth and rejected the letter from Rome.

The Catholic Emancipation Act, passed in April 1829, abolished the old oaths of allegiance, abjuration and supremacy as qualifications for parliament and ‘any office, franchise, or civil right’ and it

Liberator of Ireland – of that nation that has always excited in France fraternal feelings. But you are not only the Man of one Nation you are the man of all Christendom.‘ O’Connell was too weak to make a proper reply…..The name Liberator was such common currency and public property that it was given to a racehorse who fulfilled the faith placed in him and to a newspaper that they hoped would ‘speak with the wind’.

‘I never will get half credit enough for carrying Emancipation, because posterity never can believe the species of animals with which I had to carry on warfare with the common enemy. It is the crawling slaves like them that prevent our country being a nation’.

Similarity between Canning and O’Connell

Both men were landlords. Canning’s grandfather gave him some land in Co. Kilkenny. He had an income of a few hundred pounds per year out of this and O’Connell inherited some land from his uncle (Hunting Cap).

Both men fought duels. O’Connell fought a duel with a man called D’Esterre. O’Connell had described the Dublin Corporation as bankrupt. The duel is said to have taken place on the hill at Lyons estate and there are many other alleged locations for the event. The encounter resulted in the death of D’Estere. D’Esterre was reputed to have been a crack shot. Perhaps O’Connell used psychology as some contestants use on a golf or tennis opponent, or as Dan often used in the courts, O’Connell is said to have had remorse for the rest of his life.

Canning’s duel was fought on Putneam Green and there in comparison with the other duel. The outcome was the stuff of music halls. Canning feared for his life. He wrote to his wife: ‘Could not do otherwise than I have done – God bless my very best and dearest love, better and dearest never did God give to man’. He

international way. He had the British navy search ships found off the West coast of Africa for signs of being involved in the vile trade. They regarded a positive evidence if the ship had food and water that was more than sufficient for the crew, or if there were leg irons or such evidence on board. O’Connell also spoke against slavery. O’Connell is said to have lost some support in the United States because of his stand against slavery. Two American presidents of the United States, Washington and Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. Both men were lawyers. Canning does not go down in history for giving ultra cute opinions.

O’Connell did not marry an heiress. In 1802 he secretly married a distant cousin Mary O’Connell. When O’Connell met Mary her father who was a physician in Tralee had been dead for fifteen years and the family was penniless. O’Connell forty years after the event recalled their meeting “I said to her: Are you engaged Miss O’Connell”? She answered “I am not”. “Then” said I “will you engage yourself to me”? “I will” was her reply – And I said I would devote my life to make her happy. She deserved that I should – she gave me thirty four years of the purest happiness that man ever enjoyed’. Mary was a sister-in-law to O’Connor, a Traleeman, who was a professional friend of O’Connell. The wedding of Daniel O’Connell took place in secret in the Dublin lodgings of O’Connor.

This engagement was in opposition to the wishes of his rich uncle and patron Hunting Cap (and upon whose favour O’Connell’s inheritance depended). He married for love and had financial worries. His change from Westland Row to Merrion Square stretched his budget and caused him to write to Mary in 1807 – “I am really getting a load of money. At this rate you shall soon have not only carriages but a country house. It is an infinite pleasure to me to succeed thus as it enables me to give my sweetest little woman all the luxuries of life.”

O’Connell. There was a great procession on the lake. In the barge with Canning were Sir Walter Scott and Wordsworth. ‘The Pro-cession was accompanied by the roar of cannon, the sound of bells, and the harmonious strains of two bands of music’. Scott noted that Canning’s health had changed greatly for the worse. That year Scott had visited Ireland and described what he saw as “being on the extreme verge of human misery.” In spite of his bad health he tried to introduce a ‘Catholic Relief Bill’ that was thrown out by the lords.

An objection that the son of an actress was an unfit person to be the king’s first minister did not find support. Some of the ministers of the same party deserted Canning and he was helped to form a government by Lansdowne and a group of moderate whigs. A contemporary cartoon in May 1827 depicted St. George and the dragon. In that case St. George represented George IV and George Canning. The dragon had seven heads representing seven ministers who resigned when Canning became prime minister. For one hundred days he was prime minister.

O’Connell wrote in a letter too that he may not be given credit for the work he did in procuring Catholic Emancipation, as quoted above. In the field of science and art it is true that the great scientists or artists were anticipated. Years before Fleming received the Nobel Prize for penicillin it was observed that the substance had potential to heal, a German had noted the behaviour of wireless waves before Marconi, a railway engineer described the pneumatic tyre before Dunlop. In 1811 William Parnell, grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell, suggested a scheme to ‘call every nerve and sinew of the Catholic body into action by quarterly meetings of all Parishes throughout Ireland’. It would be easy to call such meetings to control the people and give union to the Catholic body by raising generally and annually a very small voluntary contribution’. This was a

His once strong body was reduced so. He had spent its strength in the service to his dream.

Canning’s nephew said he died of a broken heart. In 1899 as the Times summed up the achievements of the prime ministers of the century it suggested that he was killed by the stress of the office. His friend Sir Walter Scott said ‘He strived for the position for thirty years and after four months of acrimony he died.’

The Father of Modern Democracy?

Was O’Connell the father of modern democracy? Certainly he harnessed the people power and succeeded in that way to introduce emancipation. During his lifetime the franchise was extended to a greater number of people but it was still a slow process before all the population had a secret vote and he was long departed. That question can be left with the jury as O’Connell himself often did, and the result was favourable to him.

As a boy Gladstone visited Canning’s grave and Disraeli considered Canning as a role model. Many Irish leaders would be delighted to be compared with O’Connell. O’Connell did not produce a political philosophy that was inclusive and would attract all Irishmen. No one since has done it either. Perhaps like that other race who have a great diaspora we have to wait for a prophet to be born.

Michael Davitt has said ‘Ireland has never produced a greater man than O’Connell, and Europe very few that can truly be called his equal in the work of uplifting a people from the degrading status of religious and political serfdom to conditions of national life which necessarily created changes and chances of progress that were bound to lead on to gain of further liberty”.


George Canning, Wendy Hyde, Collins
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George Canning, P.V. Rolo, Macmillan
People Power: Third Annual Daniel O’Connell Workshop Ed. Maurice O’Connell
King of Beggars Sean O Faolain, Thomas Nelson
Daniel O’Connell, Fergus O’Farrall, Gill and Macmillan
Catholic Emancipation, Wendy Heath, Backwell
The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, Michael Davitt
Canning Peter Dixon Weidenfild and Nicholson
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The Hereditary Bondsman, Oliver MacDonagh, W & Nicholson