Hidden Connections: Catholic Emancipation

The campaign for Catholic emancipation was led by prominent barrister Daniel O'Connell

The anti-slavery movement in Britain and America coincided with the campaign in Ireland for Catholic Emancipation, that is, the admission of Catholics to positions from which they were still excluded such as the right to hold senior government office, become members of the Privy Council (the main executive and administrative organ of state in Ireland between 1534-1800), become a judge, a king’s counsel, a sheriff of a county, or to sit in parliament.

The campaign for Catholic Emancipation was led by Daniel O’Connell, a prominent barrister who had become a popular Catholic champion by the early 1820s. He had succeeded in his crusade and was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison, a renowned American abolitionist who, in the 1830s, called for ‘the immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves’. Garrison persuaded O’Connell to speak in favour of the cause of American abolitionism, likening slavery to the status of the disenfranchised Irish.

However, O’Connell’s sentiments were not matched by those of many of his contemporaries in the Repeal Associations in the United States who took a largely pro-slavery stance. This may have been because in many cases the Irish were competing with black people for jobs,or objected to having the same arguments used for Irish and for black freedom.

Radical Irish nationalists, who disagreed with O’Connell’s non-violent approach to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland, had differing opinions about slavery. John Mitchell, who had lived in America, was passionately in favour of slavery – three of his sons fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. On the other hand, his former close associate Thomas Francis Meagher, served as a brigadier general on the Union side in the same conflict.

Engraving from portrait by T Carrick (date unknown) 

Daniel O'Connell

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Illustration showing Daniel O’Connell and his followers 

Daniel O'Connell and his followers

(Artist and date unknown)

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Letter from John Mitchell, to his sister Matilda in Ireland, April 1859 

Letter from John Mitchell

Writing from Washington DC, two years before the American Civil War, he informs his sister that ‘We are rapidly advancing here to the accomplishment of our great measure the revival of the African Slave-trade. Wm. O’Brien, though he seems well content with the institution of slavery, hesitates as yet about the actual importation. He will be properly indoctrinated however’.

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