He delivered his last speech in the House of Commons on the 8th of February, 1847. His subject was the Famine. The sight of the confused old man evoked pity in every MP who saw him, friend and foe alike, especially those who had known him at the peak of his power. The voice that had once been forceful and vigorous was now weak and listless. Because of his enfeebled condition he could only make a short speech. He pleaded with the government to save the people of Ireland who were being decimated by sickness and want. He put forward a very sensible proposal, that instead of spending thousands of pounds on building roads, not half of which were needed, the government should pay the people to cultivate the soil and plant oats and barley for the following year. “Ireland is in your hands and in your power”, he said. “If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. And I solemnly call on you to bear in mind what I am telling you now in advance, something of which I am absolutely certain, that one out of every four of her people will soon die unless you come to her aid.”
Soon afterwards he was struck by a severe bout of illness and became quite poorly. “Take me home,” he said to his friends. He was examined by some of the best known physicians in London. Their advice was that he should visit the south of France. They were of the opinion that the change of air would dispel his melancholy and prolong his life. However, the Liberator did not wish to turn his back on Ireland in its hour of need. What finally persuaded him to accept the doctors’ counsel was the advice of his chaplain, Father John Miley from Dublin, that he should embark on a pilgrimage to Rome to obtain the blessing of the Holy Father, Pius IX.
While he was preparing to go abroad he wrote to the Chancellor of Ireland asking him to give fair play to Catholics when appointing magistrates, since, although in law they had had that right for many years, it was in practice a worthless provision. Before he departed from London the sick man called on the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, and begged him to do something for his friend Fitzpatrick (Patrick Vincent Fitzpatrick, 1792-1865) that would save him from penury in his old age. It was Fitzpatrick who was in charge of the Repeal Annuity/ ‘Rent’. (the annual contribution to the funds of O’Connell’s Repeal Association paid by hundreds of thousands of supporters - Trans.) Russell granted the request and arranged that the Assistant Registrar of Deeds in Dublin should be pensioned off and that Fitzpatrick should be given the vacant post.
At the same time Daniel wrote to Fitzpatrick telling him he was sure that he was close to death and that the doctors were only deceiving him when they said there was still hope for his recovery. He also told him what he wanted done with his papers and his life insurance.
Lord George Bentinck had put forward a proposal that the Treasury should raise a loan of £16 million to build railways to provide relief for the people of Ireland. O’Connell had backed this proposal as far as he could, though he did not think that the amount of money involved would be enough to relieve the situation. However, the government, happy to let things drift, had rejected the proposal.
O’Connell wrote in despair to Ray (Thomas M. Ray, a prominent member of the Repeal Association) in Dublin: “If the generosity of individuals could save a nation, the generosity of the English would do it now; but it cannot be done without the generosity of Parliament and it seems that the desire of Parliament to be generous is small indeed. It is my belief that I am obliged to warn the people of Ireland that Parliament has no wish to go far enough, that sufficient relief will not be given, and that no regret will be aroused that more was not done to save a nation that was sinking until hundreds of thousands have perished. How different would things be if we had our own Parliament to take care of our own people and resources!”
That had been his constant refrain since he had first begun to speak in public. And irrefutable supportive evidence in support of that point of view had come along in a way no one could have anticipated, a tragic and costly confirmation. Thousands were perishing from disease and famine and thousands more were fleeing from sickness and want to exile overseas. But Irish wretchedness and distress failed to move those opposed to Repeal. Some even believed, and said so quite openly, that it was the will of God that the Famine had come along to wipe out the Irish people and to bring England’s difficulties in the Emerald Isle to an end. “The Irish are going and their departure is timely,” said The Times in its reports about the emigration of countless thousands, and that paper even proclaimed that an Irishman would become as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a Red Indian on the island of Manhattan.
Archbishop Murrey (1768-1852, Archbishop of Dublin) instructed Father Miley to go to London and to accompany Daniel O’Connell on the pilgrimage to Rome. In a letter from London the priest said of O’Connell: “He has no concern but prayer. He is fully prepared for death, and it is his wish that he should not be persuaded from thinking about it.”
O’Connell was reluctant to undertake the long journey. For that reason Fitzpatrick hurried to London to help Father Miley to persuade him that he should set out right away. O’Connell left London by coach on the 6th of March, 1847, and made a stopover at Hastings to rest. From there he went on to Folkestone where he spent a further week. He boarded the mail boat for Boulogne on the 22nd of March. He was accompanied by his son Daniel, Father Miley, and John Duggan, his personal servant.
The local ‘quality’ came to see him in Boulogne. On he went through Abbeville and Amiens on his way to Paris. While he was in Paris the Archbishop, as well as other important people, called on him. There was a Catholic society in Paris called, “The Society for the Preservation of Religious Freedom”. Members of that society came and presented him with an ‘Address of Friendship’. The Address was composed and read by the Count of Montelambert. The brief response that O’Connell made to that demonstration of respect were to be his last words in public. He spoke in French, and although overcome by age and sickness, he had lost none of the fluency and accent he had acquired more than fifty years before.
He had been making good progress up to then, and since it was springtime his travelling companions began to hope that he would soon recover as they approached the warm southern regions. But that was not the way it turned out. Bitter wintry weather followed them the whole way as they travelled through the centre of France from Paris to Lyons. Father Miley wrote to Fitzpatrick from Lyons to say that snow was falling as heavily as if it was winter. “Winter follows us wherever we go,” he said, “and if we leave it behind us for a day or two, it turns up again in front of us.”
The Liberator was stricken by rheumatism and he was so sure that he would die at any moment that he hardly let his chaplain out of his sight. They had to call a doctor urgently when they reached Lyons. They left Lyons on the 22nd of April and they proceeded to Marseilles at a gentle pace. From that city they set sail for Genoa on the 5th of May. The weather had greatly improved since the coming of May and the patient had improved accordingly, or so it seemed. When they arrived in Genoa, however, it became clear that O’Connell was failing rapidly. There was no energy or vigour left in him and neither plea nor command would induce him to go further. In point of fact he was not able to for he was now a mental and physical wreck.
There was no denying that what the doctors had feared from the start, a complete mental breakdown, had finally happened. He had no wish to discuss even his own personal affairs never mind attend to political matters. He had settled everything, as far as he had been able, before leaving London. He spent a week without touching food or drink. He became delirious from time to time and his mental confusion grew as his strength faded. In his lucid moments he was greatly distressed by loneliness and disappointment. “I’ve got Repeal,” he would shout in his delirium. “Hurray! I have it here in a box under lock and key.” At other times he imagined that he was playing with his grandchildren in Merrion Square and in Derrynane (O’Connell’s ancestral home in County Kerry - Trans.), or that he was challenging Peel in the House of Commons or speaking at some ‘monster meeting’. The doctors bled him frequently in order to give him some relief. He would say to his own servant, John Duggan, that he trusted no one else and not to let them bury him until he was quite dead.
He was getting weaker by the day, and by the 15th of May – the day of his death – it was clear to all that he didn’t have long to go. Father Miley decided it was time to anoint him. At two o’clock in the morning he sent for the Holy Viaticum and the Sacred Oil. The Cardinal Archbishop was at the bedside at that time. He was 88 years old. But his Vicar arrived, accompanied by many more of the clergy, to give the Holy Viaticum to the patient. All the people of the city were praying for the Liberator and they were eagerly waiting for news about his condition. Daniel was fully conscious as he received the Last Sacraments. It cannot be put into words what a solace and a joy it gave him that God had granted that he should receive the Last Rites of the Church, that Church to which he had given his heart’s love and devotion and which he had done so much to promote.
He had not uttered a syllable for forty eight hours except to pray. He was entirely content with God’s will. Father Miley heard him saying the Acts in Irish. The language of his early childhood had returned to him as he was dying. The final, faint words that he uttered were, “A Íosa, a Íosa” (“Jesus, Jesus”) as he tried to respond to the prayers being recited by those around his bed. Shortly before his death all the confusion and troubles of mind left him and his bodily pains also. And that was the way the Liberator died, a holy death, anointed and confessed. He was seventy one years old.
As he was dying he asked that his heart be preserved and sent to Rome and his body taken back to Ireland. His wishes were carried out exactly. His heart is preserved in a silver casket in the Irish College in Rome. His body was brought back to Ireland and was buried on the 5th of August (he had been born near Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry, on 6 August, 1775 - Ed.) in Glasnevin Cemetery, a cemetery which he had helped to make into a place of burial for the people of Dublin. He was given a funeral worthy of such a leader. The people of Ireland mourned the loss of their champion, their grief being all the greater for their poor country being in the throes of famine and disease. And so it was that as the body of the Liberator was being returned to his native land, its people, whom he had loved and cherished, were fleeing from it in their thousands, terrorised by fever and hunger.
The people of Ireland never forgot O’Connell nor what he had done to promote that troubled isle, to remove its chains of bondage, and to give it its rightful place among the nations.
In proof of this one finds numerous monuments in his honour throughout the country. The beautiful statue of the Liberator by John Henry Foley (1818 - 1874) adorns the main street of the Capital. And it is fitting that that street should be named after him as a token of honour and respect and to show to the world at large the gratitude of the people of Ireland.
The noblest and most appropriate monument of them all, however, is the tall round tower above his crypt in Glasnevin. It is a fitting symbol, for every Irish generation, of the place in the history of the nation of Daniel O’Connell and his eloquence.
The above is from the closing pages of his Irish language biography of O’Connell, Dónal Ó Conaill, first published in 1949.
It is in stock at Cardiff Central Library as part of the collection of books in Irish.