Fergus O'Connor and Independence
DESCRIPTION: Remember O'Connell's victory over Vesey in '29. Don't vote now for "those tithe-eating gentry." "Be advised by the clergy our Lord sent to guide you, And vote for brave Fergus and Sheela na Guira." Send Fergus to London. Repeal the Union.
EARLIEST DATE: 1832 (Zimmermann)
KEYWORDS: Ireland nonballad political
1794-1855 - life of Fergus (Feargus) O'Connor
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Zimmermann 43, "A New Song in Praise of Fergus O'Connor and Independence" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "The Battle of Carrickshock" (subject: The Tithe War) and references there
cf. "Daniel O'Connell (II)" (subject: Daniel O'Connell) and references there
cf. "Saint Patrick's Day" (subject of Fergus O'Connor"
NOTES [676 words]: The context is "The Tithe War": O'Connell's Catholic Association was formed in 1823 to resist the requirement that Irish Catholics pay tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland. The "war" was passive for most of the period 1823-1836, though there were violent incidents in 1831 (source: The Irish Tithe War 1831 at the OnWar.com site)
Zimmermann: "Fergus O'Connor, before becoming the most prominent spokesman of the Chartist movement in England, was elected M.P. for Cork in 1832 and 1835."
The reference to 1829 and Vesey has to do with the July 1828 election in which Daniel O'Connell defeated Vessey Fitzgerald as Westminster MP from County Clare (see "The Shan Van Voght (1828)").
The last line of each verse is a variation of "Vote for brave Fergus and Sheela na Guira" or "Repeal the Union for Sheela na Guira." Zimmermann's tune is "Sighile Ni Ghadra." The following note is from Andrew Kuntz's "The Fiddler's Companion" site: "'Sheela Nee Guira' was one of the numerous allegorical names of Ireland; and this song['Sighile Ni Ghadhra'] was a patriotic one, though it could be sung with safety in the time of the Penal Laws, as it was in the guise of a love song." - BS
When England pushed Ireland into the Parliamentary Union after the 1798 rebellion, William Pitt had wanted to make a great concession: He wanted to permit Catholics to vote. Parliament rejected this out of hand, meaning that the Members for Ireland ended up being all Protestant. Even had a Catholic been elected, he could not in good conscience take the membership oath, which reviled Catholicism (Golway, p. 100).
But there was nothing in the law which prevented Catholics from running.
In 1828, at the height of his popularity, O'Connell decided to do just that. William Vesey Fitzgerald, a Member for Clare, had taken a government position, and so had to contest a by-election for his seat.
The irony is, Vesey Fitzgerald was "an emancipationist [i.e. he stood for giving Catholics voting rights], a kind and popular landlord... and the son of a Patriot in Grattan's parliament." Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely, pp. 219-220, say that "He had been a sitting member for the last ten years. He was a resident landlord, with, apparently, a good reputation among his tenants. He was himself friendly to Catholic emancipation."
In other words, the sort of man Ireland needed. But his was the seat that was available. Attempts to find a Protestant to run against him failed (Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely, p. 220). Eventually O'Connell decided to run against him -- he couldn't take the seat, but he could campaign for it -- and won by 2057 votes to 982. (Fry/Fry, pp. 220-221; Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely, p. 221). In 1829, the British Parliament gave in and passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, opening all but the very highest offices to Catholics (though another act raised the property requirement for voting, meaning that most Catholics were still excluded).
Fergus (or Feargus) O'Connor (1794-1855) was one of the first to take advantage of the new conditions. Ellis, pp. 41-42, says that he was a 'Chartist leader [who] was every Englishman's idea of an Irishman. He liked to claim descent from the Kings of Connaught, and he looked the part, with his brawny figure and his red locks hanging over the tail of his coat. He had the gift of the gab, and more than a touch of the blarney." He also had excellent timing.
In 1832, he was elected to Parliament from County Cork on the Repeal platform (calling for the repeal of the Union of Ireland and Great Britain). He was expelled in 1835 for being too poor, leading him to found a newspaper, the Northern Star, in 1837 (Ellis, p. 42). He is said to have gone insane around 1850 (Ellis, p. 43).
Incidentally, O'Connell would later say that the zeal of men like O'Connor actually hurt the cause of Repeal; they pushed him to bring it up in the British parliament too soon, causing the measure to go down in flames in 1834 (Kee, pp. 190-191).
For a song more obliquely talking about the events of this period, see "The Ass's Complaint." - RBW
Last updated in version 2.8
- Ellis: Roger Ellis, Who's Who in Victorian Britain, 1997 (I use the 2001 Stackpole Books edition)
- Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland, 1988 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Golway: Terry Golway, For the Cause of Liberty, Simon & Schuster, 2000
- Kee: Robert Kee, The Most Distressful Country, being volume I of The Green Flag (covering the period prior to 1848), Penguin, 1972
- Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely: T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and Dermot Keough, with Patrick Kiely, The Course of Irish History, fifth edition, 2011 (page references are to the 2012 paperback edition)
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