RTÉ’s O’Connell documentary did a disservice to Catholicism

(September 2019)

RTÉ’s recent two-part documentary ‘Daniel O’Connell: Forgotten King of Ireland’ did a great service in highlighting O’Connell’s contribution to Irish history, and in particular, the role he played in laying the foundations for our parliamentary democracy.

However, it also did a great disservice to The Liberator’s religious beliefs and those of his co-religionists.

Let us start with the positives. ‘Forgotten King of Ireland’ was a wide-ranging, well-researched and skillfully produced documentary series.

The presenter Olivia O’Leary did an excellent job of taking the viewer through O’Connell’s life, from his birth in Kerry in 1775 to his death in Genoa in 1847 while on a pilgrimage to Rome.

The historians who were interviewed were in the main excellent.

Gifted academics such as Trinity College’s Professor Patrick Geoghegan provided fascinating insights into O’Connell’s life and times.

Many highlights stood out, as when O’Leary stood in the House of Commons chamber and recounted the dramatic moment almost two centuries ago when the newly-elected MP for Clare calmly perused the anti-Catholic oath, before shocking the British politicians gathered there by boldly stating he would never recite it.

As O’Leary rightly pointed out, the Irish education system does a poor job of teaching students about O’Connell’s enormous importance.

And as Ireland continues to slowly make its way through a long list of controversial centenaries, there could not be a better time to focus attention on a political leader who proved that national progress could be achieved without violence.

O’Connell’s achievements are impossible to overlook. From the Treaty of Limerick onwards, the position of Ireland’s dispossessed and disenfranchised Catholics appeared as if it would never change.  

The Penal Laws enforced a system of anti-Catholic bigotry designed to degrade the majority population, whose only prospects of material advancement depended on rejection of their faith.

O’Connell was born into the old Catholic gentry which had lost its titles but preserved its nobility. He was not made to bow.

His Catholic Association was a mass movement that brought great pressure on the British government, and his election as an MP cemented his status as the chosen leader of a risen people.

Afterwards, his campaign to repeal the Act of Union and re-establish an Irish parliament marked the first real step on the road to eventual independence.

O’Connell’s successes pointed the way towards further reforms in the late 19th century which undid many of the worst legacies of British misrule in Ireland.

Without him, there could have been no Home Rule movement, no Parnell, no holding the balance of power in Westminster.

Above all else, he accomplished all this without violence.

Recognising Ireland’s numerical inferiority and material poverty compared to Britain, O’Connell wasted no time on vain hopes of armed rebellion.

Blood sacrifice held no appeal for him. He would risk his life, but no one else’s.

Not for all the universe contains would I, in the struggle for what I conceive my country’s cause, consent to the effusion of a single drop of blood except my own.”

Later generations of republican militants would pour scorn upon this approach, and in the documentary, Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin criticises O’Connell for cancelling a planned mass demonstration at Clontarf which the British government were preparing to prevent using force.

But the mere fact that Ó Broin (currently) rejects the use of violence in pursuit of Irish freedom is an implicit endorsement of O’Connell’s approach, one which serves as a more morally defensible model for modern-day Irish politics.

The attitude of the main Irish political parties to political violence is rather muddled after all.

Fine Gael believes that physical force republicanism in defiance of the will of the majority of Irish people was right up until 1921 or so.

Fianna Fáil believes that physical force republicanism in defiance of the will of the majority of Irish people was right up until around 1923.

Sinn Féin believes that physical force republicanism in defiance of the will of the majority of Irish people was right up until 1998 or thereabouts.

The parties differ on this point, but only by degree: killing people was right until they suddenly decided it was wrong.

A Fine Gaeler standing under a portrait of Michael Collins will denounce Gerry Adams. A Sinn Féiner will reply by denouncing Michael Collins and De Valera for abandoning the struggle, forgetting of course that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness did the exact same thing.

O’Connell’s consistent strategy of incremental progress through non-violent means stands as a challenge to the militants who followed him.

Just as O’Leary rightly suggests, it was little wonder then that the founders of the Irish state were not eager to remember him, or to afford The Liberator the place in the national pantheon which he deserves.

We are nearing the centenary of the foundation of the Irish state, and it is long past time that this wrong was righted and RTÉ and Olivia O’Leary deserve enormous praise for (hopefully) starting this necessary process of revisionism.

Unfortunately though, there was another far less creditable agenda at play in this programme, one that is becoming a hallmark of an increasing amount of the state broadcaster’s historical output.

At the outset, O’Leary acknowledged the widespread view that O’Connell’s importance has been diminished by modern society’s secularism: a Catholic Liberator has little appeal in post-Catholic Ireland.

There is nothing especially problematic about this from the standpoint of an historian, even one who does not share the beliefs of the subject of their historical study and investigation.

The challenge for a serious historian is to put aside one’s own personal beliefs and to attempt to fully understand the past, without distorting the beliefs or motivations of those who have gone before us.  

On virtually all of these points, the producers of this documentary fail miserably.

The driving force behind a great deal of O’Connell’s political actions was Catholicism. Whether we are post-Catholic or not, this is the historical truth of the matter.

As a young man, Daniel O’Connell could have profited – as many others did – from renouncing the Catholic religion and conforming to the established Anglican church. He did not.

Catholic Emancipation need not have occurred at all had O’Connell simply denied his religion on the floor of House of Commons before taking his seat. He did not.

Ireland’s lowly position in the United Kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries – and the structure of institutional bigotry which prevented ordinary Irish Catholics from playing a full part in politics, commerce and education and much else besides – did not stem from cultural or ethnic difference.

It stemmed from the stubborn 300 year refusal of the Irish people to substitute the religion of Henry VIII for the religion of Saint Patrick. Every form of pressure was exerted on them to do so, and they had every incentive to renounce Catholicism, and yet they did not.

Throughout both episodes of ‘Forgotten King of Ireland,’ the show’s presenter went to great lengths to minimise, ignore or twist the record of Daniel O’Connell in this respect.

In the first episode, O’Leary visits O’Connell’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery where his dying requests are immortalised on the wall: My body to Ireland, my soul to Heaven and my heart to Rome.

A Catholic who dies on a religious pilgrimage to Rome in the company of his personal chaplain, and who wills that his heart be removed so that it at least can reach the city, is surely committed. It is hard to negate his own words, but this longtime RTÉ journalist did her best.

“I always thought his heart probably was dedicated to Ireland, to be quite frank, rather than to Rome,” she says, while standing over his coffin. “But then we would claim that, wouldn’t we?”

Indeed they would.

The remainder of the documentary is marked by repeated references to a sort of vague anti-clericalism on O’Connell’s part, as if the strategy to rejuvenate The Liberator’s reputation required his post-mortem conversion to the ideals of Irish liberalism, circa 2019.

The viewer is told with great solemnity that O’Connell was a supporter of the separation of Church and State.

He certainly was, but not in the modern-day sense of opposing any role for religion in public life.

The established church of the day – the Irish branch of the Church of England – forced Irish Catholics to pay heavy tithes for the maintenance of a religion not their own.

O’Connell worked with others to chip away at this injustice, and used his legal skills to successfully defend many Catholics who were caught up in the raucous Tithe War.

O’Leary lamented the fact that after his death the Church became the main upholder of O’Connell’s legacy, and informed those watching that O’Connell said he was a Catholic, but not a Papist. This too requires a good deal more clarification than it received here.

During O’Connell’s lifetime, the Pope was also ruler of a large portion of what is now Italy.

Catholics elsewhere were subjected to the false (but given the circumstances, somewhat understandable) charge that they were loyal to a foreign ruler.

Like most other Irish people then, O’Connell separated temporal issues from spiritual ones, but never at the expense of rejecting his own Church.

As a child, his family had gone to great efforts to ensure he would receive a proper Catholic education, and he supported religious schooling, going as far as to insist that denominational education exist at university level as well.

In the coming years, RTÉ is likely to focus a great deal of energy on minimising the rights of Catholics to educate their children in the Faith, but they cannot suggest that Daniel O’Connell was on their side.

O’Leary’s emphasis on the positive nature of O’Connell’s religion verged between condescension and offensiveness when she attempted to explain away the circumstances of his death on the road to Rome.

Now it may have been at the very end of his life, afraid of death, fearful…”

(Because all religious people are terribly afraid)

…when he was clinging to his chaplain that he would have become very much more the obedient servant of the Church…

(Clinging and obedient…)

I think the evidence is there that he was a man of independent mind. While being a Catholic, he was a man of independent mind.”

(A noble exception to all the other sheep)

Oversensitivity is to be avoided when discussing history. Ultimately, everyone has biases and these impact on how we perceive the past, just as they affect how we look at the world around us today.

The issue here is that this was not an isolated incident, as in recent years RTÉ has repeatedly attempted to weaponise the past through anti-Catholic distortions.

In 2016, RTÉ spent €6 million of taxpayers’ money on a five-part historical drama about the 1916 Rising called ‘Rebellion.’

RTÉ’s portrayal of Easter Week downplayed the religious faith of those who fought, exaggerated the socialist element, depicted a young women going to England after becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock (what on Earth could they have been alluding to?) and featured a bishop telling a priest that the main concerns of the Church were in preserving its property and treasure amidst the destruction.

In 2019, the station broadcast ‘Resistance,’ a drama about the War of Independence that involved a made-up account of a child being taken from its parents and sold by nuns to rich Americans (the episode was based on a real-life incident which involved a custody battle, but in which cold-hearted nuns did not feature, at all).

Spotting a pattern, at a time a wag speculated online that a future RTÉ drama about Bloody Sunday could well involve nuns shooting into the crowd at Croke Park.

Time will tell what lengths RTÉ might go in future to insult an enormous number of people whose taxes and television licence fees are spent on allowing them to function.

Daniel O’Connell deserves to be remembered as he was: his country’s uncrowned King. A Catholic Irishman, who would not abandon his faith or his country.

His life and deeds should be reflected upon, and not distorted by a broadcaster seeking to control not just the present but the past as well.

At a time when RTÉ is pleading for €55 million more in annual funding from the taxpayer, the station should reflect on whether Catholics are a valued part of their target audience, or whether they are a part of the audience to be relentlessly targeted.