O’Connell’s last visit to Meath, Tara and Navan, 22nd May 1845

By Seán Condon

Of all the counties in Ireland, Meath was the most supportive of O’Connell and Repeal. Aneas Mac Donnell wrote to the Times (London) 9 August 1843 from his house in Westport which illustrated this trend. [1]

Date                                          Place                     Attendance

19th March                                  Trim                        30,000

2nd April                                     Bellewstown             20,000

23rd April                                    Kells                      150,000

6th June                                     Drogheda *            170,000

15th August                                Tara                     1,000,000

Table 1 Attendance at O’Connell meetings * (half of Drogheda is in Meath) [2]

Mac Donnell was no friend of Repeal and called on Britain to put down the movement, not with ‘broken spear and half a shield, but rather aided and armed with united and vigorous exertions of the loyal and well-affected.’ [3] Of all the meetings held in 1843, Tara, 15 August was the greatest. Some newspaper accounts put the number in attendance at one and a half million. The Boston Pilot, 9 September 1843, stated that by its calculations that over half a million attended. The Freeman’s Journal, 16 August, calculated that over half a million attended. The Times stated one hundred thousand. The local resident magistrate, Captain George Despard in his preliminary account to Dublin Castle stated ‘There was a larger meeting than I had anticipated.’ [4]

O’Connell who was so overwhelmed by the occasion that he later christened the mound of grass in the garden of Richmond ‘Tara’. [5] After the display of public support for Repeal at Tara, O’Connell expected Peel’s failure to call him to the negotiating table. Peel’s failure to negotiate forced O’Connell to call for one final meeting at Clontarf, 8 October 1843. The challenge to Peel’s authority was too great and Britian responded by banning Clontarf. [6] O’Connell was subsequently arrested. He feared that he might be indicted for high treason and that he might well be hanged. [7] He was greatly relieved when the lesser charge of seditious conspiracy was laid against him.

On 16 October 1843, warrants were also served on John O’Connell, T.M. Ray, Dr. Gray of the Freeman’s Journal, Richard Barrett, editor of the Pilot, Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of the Nation, Reverend Fr. Peter Tyrell, Lusk and Fr. Thomas Tierney of Clontibret. [8] The arrest of Tyrell and Tierney sent shock waves through the ranks of the clergy. [9] Richard Lawlor Shiel taunted the Attorney-General for not serving warrants on more senior members of the priesthood, ‘it would have been more manly … to have indicted Dr. Higgins or Dr. Cantwell.’ [10]

In Meath Reverend Nicholas McEvoy dared Captain Despard R.M. to arrest him. [11] At a race meeting held at the Headford estate in Kells, November 1843, Reverend McEvoy caused pandemonium by bringing his own band to the races and insisted on playing ’Patrick’s Day’ while the official band played ‘God save the Queen’.  Despard in his report to Dublin Castle stated that the priest’s behaviour ‘was well calculated to excite the evil passions of the peasantry against the gentry and non-Repealers’. [12] It was clear that the Reverend Nicholas McEvoy and the Meath Repealers were not intimidated by the court case against O’Connell.

repeal poster

















Fig. 1. Repeal Poster for Tara Meeting.

For O’Connell, the debacle at Clontarf was to have major consequences for Repeal. The charges, trial and imprisonment meant that he had been removed from the political scene for almost one whole year. On 30th May 1844, he was sentenced to one year in prison, fined two thousand pounds and had to enter a bond of five thousand pounds to be of good behaviour for seven years. [13] Peel and his government quickly hastened to fill the political vacuum left by O’Connell’s imprisonment. Peel indicated that he was prepared to look at land reform and set up the Devon Commission. On the 2nd July 1844 the Commission came to Navan and accepted evidence from a number of people.[14]

Other initiatives by Peel to undermine O’Connell were, the Charitable Bequests Act, the Maynooth Grant, and the Colleges Bill 1845. [15] The greatest threat of all to O’Connell was his own health. Unknown to himself he was suffering from ‘ramollissment’, - congestion of the brai .[16] On the 6th September 1844 O’Connell was released from the Richmond. On Saturday, 7th Spetember, he returned to prison so that his followers could mark his release with a huge parade. In Navan news of his release was received by Mr. J. O’Reilly solicitor. [17] Although it was 11.25 p.m. the streets were soon thronged with people rejoicing at the Liberator’s release. In Kells and Slane, similar celebrations took place. [18] Despite Peel’s efforts, Meath was still supportive of O’Connell.

Early in 1845 O’Connell decided to return to mass demonstrations to revive his support. Nervous of Peel’s reaction, these occasions were disguised as banquets for the recently released ‘Martyrs’.  A return to Tara, the scene of his greatest triumph, was planned. The meeting was described as a ‘politico-religious festival’. [19] It was a combined visit to Tara and Navan. On 19 May 1845, O’Connell addressed his followers in the Conciliation Hall about the upcoming events in Meath. [20] His fear of being arrested was palpable. He warned the Repealers that they were not to bring placards, hand-bills of songs. T.M. Ray was to write to the wardens in Navan to see that the Liberator’s instructions were carried out. On the 29th May 1845 a notice appeared in the newspapers calling for a meeting in Navan on 22nd May for a repeal of the Legislative Union. [21] Bishop Cantwell headed the list of names along with fifty of his priests. [22] On 21 May 1845, O’Connell quietly left Dublin for Tara and spent the night at Tara Hall.[23] Charles Gavan Duffy and the Nation were ecstatic at the prospect of a return to Tara. It declared boldly –

The place was vital with the spirit of Irish legislation and therefore they chose it as the spot whereon to pledge themselves that Irishmen should again legislate for Ireland.[24]

Did O’Connell deliberately plan the visit to Tara to coincide with the anniversary of the United Irishmen’s Rising there on 26 May 1798? [25] The occasion was not lost on those present and many visited the Croppies’ grave where forty five United Irishmen were buried. [26]

tara hall Early on the morning of 22nd May, Tom Steele was ordered into Navan. [27] His mission was to  warn the people against Ribbonmen causing trouble.[28]To add weight to his authority Steele declared ‘Men of Meath I have been sent expressly from Tara Hall by O’Connell, the father of this country, to give you warning against the traitorous villains, the Ribbonmen of Skreen’.[29] Having delivered his message Steele returned to Tara Hall.


Fig.2 Tara Hall (Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

The only priest recorded as being present was his old friend Reverend Nicholas McEvoy who celebrated mass on the ‘Hill’. A moody O’Connell made his way from the Hall towards the temporary sanctuary without speaking or addressing his followers. Was he disappointed at the turn-out? Captain George Despard who monitored the events of the day sent what he described as an’ immediate report’ to Dublin Castle –

I attended this day of the meeting at Tara Hill - - - I do but estimate that the number was more than eight thousand. [30]

The Drogheda Conservative Journal described the meeting as Tara as a dismal failure and estimated  ‘that the umber present was between ten thousand and fifteen thousand.’ [31] The Nation was more ambitious about the attendance and declared that ‘tens of thousands’ were present. [32] After the conclusion of the religious ceremony the march to Navan began. Bored policemen who were on duty on instructions from Captain Despard had little to occupy the day with. [33] The crowd moved down to old Sligh Módhluachra from Tara to join the Dublin-Navan road. [34] So peaceful was the march that the only interesting information for historians was the account of the musicians. The Navan muscians ‘had nothing remarkable save a uniform cap.’[35] ‘The Celbridge band was clothed in blue frock and caps with lace bands’.[36] Drogheda had complete uniformity of dress, green coats faced with red, blue trousers with yellow stripes, caps similar to the hussars with [a] harp in front. [37] The Trim band was commended for its complete uniformity of dress, white coats with green epaulettes, white trousers, green caps.[38]

Despard in his ‘immediate report’ to Dublin Castle stated that the crowd had dwindled to 2,000 to the time the march reached Navan.[39] The Nation declared that 200,000 were present in Navan. [40] Constable Roe was on duty in Navan stated that O’Connell arrived in the town around 4p.m. and the meeting concluded at 5.5p.m .[41] Roe stated in his report that the meeting took place at the Market Square.[42] As this venue is quite compact, the crowd must have been of modest proportions. O’Connell had little new for his listeners.

If O’Connell had little to say at the meeting in Market Square, the speeches at the banquet were to shake Repeal to its very foundations. Places were set for 900 guests which took place in a pavilion erected in the grounds if the seminary. [43] Bishop Cantwell was the only bishop present.  Archbishop John MacHale sent his apologies.[44] Robert Mullen was appointed secretary. The early part of the banquet passed in harmony. The health of Queen Victoria was toasted and the assembled guests sang ‘God save the Queen’. Reverened Nicholas McEvoy then called on the Liberator to speak. O’Connell, aware that the bishops were in conclave in Dublin debating their approach to the Queen’s Colleges, he chose to talk on education. [45] O’Connell’s own views since 1825 seemed to favour mixed education. [46] He flattered the bishop and expressed the belief that he and his fellow bishops would do the right thing:

‘there are such shields that will uphold and protect the youth of nation, as if an angel’s wings spread over the land.’ [47]

Dr. Cantwell in his reply must have stunned O’Connell.  He praised Sir Robert Peel’s policy towards Ireland:

‘The policy of government with regard to Ireland is changed and Ireland is grateful for the disposition which it evinces. The government have intended some good measures and have announced others.’ [48]

Such praise from the bishop must have been anathema to O’Connell.  O’Connell had placed his faith in Sir John Russell and the Whigs to ameliorate the conditions of Ireland. [49] The chairman Mr Mullen, then called on O’Connell to propose a toast to their guest, Bishop Cantwell.  As if still smarting from the bishop’s previous remarks, he again returned to the question of the Queen’s Colleges. The topic was so divisive among the Repealers that on 19 May 1845, all members agreed to refrain from public discussion in the matter. [50] O’Connell was party to the promise, but either he was above his fellow Repealers or his mind had failed him, he could not resist putting forward his views on education. He declared that Catholic education was safe in the hands of the bishop. [51] He then announced that he also favoured separate education for Protestants and Presbyterians. [52] O’Connell, a lifelong supporter of civil liberty now laid himself open to a charge of sectarianism. [53] Mr Mullen, chairman and a lawyer by profession, stated that he regretted that religious topics had been introduced into the meeting. He also had a word of warning for the bishops

‘he wished they (bishops) would decide on every religious question and leave the Repealers to deal with political matters, and not have them torn asunder by religious differences.’[54]

Mullen’s parting shot to O’Connell and the prelates that ‘as they were pledged to the principal of the national system of education – he felt that they now could not depart from it with consistency and honour? ’[55] The genie had escaped from the bottle. Navan exposed publicly the rift, not only in the ranks of the Repealers, but also in the ranks of the bishops.[56]

Four days later, on 26 May 1845, the University question was debated in the Conciliation Hall.  This time O’Connell and Davis clashed – the Repeal Association split into two factions – Old Ireland and Young Ireland. The result was inevitable – O’Connell and his massive organisation faded into extinction.

O’Connell’s second visit to Tara and Navan proved to be a disaster. It failed to produce the desired effect – to restore him to the previous heights never before arraigned by an Irish statesman, In many ways it tarnished his reputation and exposed him to have charges of sectarianism levelled against him. Should he have retired in 1843 and handed over the leadership to younger people? If he left the stage in 1843 he could have basked in the glory of Tara, 15th August, rather than the forgotten Tara of 22nd May 1845.

[1] Times (London), 19 Aug 1843

[2][2] Drogheda was in the unenviable position of being in two dioceses, St. Mary’s, south of the Boyne was in Meath, St. Peter’s, north of the Boyne was in the Diocese of Armagh.

[3] Times (London), 19 Aug 1843

[4] Despard to Dublin Castle, 15 August 1843, Outrage Papers, Meath 1843.

[5] Cyril Pearl, The three lives of Gavin Duffy, (N.S.W. University Press, 1979), p. 34

[6] Olive Mac Donagh, O’Connell, the life of Daniel O’Connell 1775 – 1847, (London, 1991), pp.520-524

[7] Ibid, p.526.

[8] Illustrated London News, 21st October 1843.

[9] Reverend P. Tyrell (1792-1843). Educated in Paris. Did parish work in England before returning to Ireland. Went to Lusk in 1841 where he served as Parish Priest. Fr. Tierney served in St. Michael’s, Annayalla, Co. Monaghan. Built the parochial house in the ‘Repeal Field’. He employed the sister of Terence Bellew McManus as his housekeeper (Wikipedia).

[10] Thomas MacNevin, The speeches of the right honourable Richard Lalor Shiel, (Dublin, 1853), p. 281.

[11] Nicholas McEvoy, b: Johnstown 25/2/1800, d: 17/5/1860. He spent all his life in Kells, (Cogan, The diocese of Meath, Ancient and Modern, (3 Vols., Dublin, 1862-7) 1, p. 329.

[12] Paul Connell, The diocese of Meath under Bishop John Cantwell 1830-66, (Dublin 2004), p. 161

[13] Drogheda Conservative Journal, 1 June 1844.

[14] Devon Commission, (Dublin, 1845), pp.59-60.

[15] Peter Kerr, Peel, Priests and Politics, (Oxford,v1982), pp.300-34

[16] Angus Mac Intyre, The Liberator, (London, 1965), p. 277. Dr. Lacour carried out a post-mortem on O’Connell and determined that O’Connell died from softening of the brain and blockages to his aorta.

[17] Nation, 14 Sept 1844.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Times, (London), 23 May 1845.

[20] Freeman’s Journal, 20 May 1845.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Lewis Topographical Dictionary, (London 1839), p. 596. Tara Hall was the residence of Mrs. Barlow who was no longer resident there. At the time of O’Connell’s visit, Mr. Lynch was the tenant.

[24] Nation, 24 May 1845.

[25] Séamus O’Loinsigh, The 1798 Rebellion in Meath, (M.A.H.S. 1997) gives an account in Meath and the events at Tara)

[26] Pilot, 23 May 1845

[27] Thomas Steele (1788-1848). Son of a Protestant landlord from Clare. He devoted his life and wealth to Repeal. O’Connell gave him the title ‘head pacificator’. He died in poverty in London. Later his body was brought back to Glasnevin where he is interred with the Repealers.

[28] Pilot, 23 May 1845.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Captain George Despard to Dublin Castle, Outrage Papers, Meath 1845, N.A.I. Dublin

[31] Drogheda Conservative Journal, 24 May 1845

[32] Nation, 24 May 1845

[33] Captain George Despard to Dublin Castle, 19 May 1945. N.A.I. Dublin.

[34] George Petrie, History and Antiquities of Tara Hill (illustration), (Dublin 1839).

[35] Constable Keating to Despard, Outrage Papers, Meath 1845. N.A.I. Dublin

[36] Sub-Inspector Bryn to Captain Despard, Outrage Papers, Meath 1845

[37] Constable Keating to Despard.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Captain Despard to Dublin Castle.

[40] Nation, 24 May 1845.

[41] Constable Roe to Despard.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Pilot, 23 May 1845

[44] Ibid.

[45] Donal A. Kerr, Peel, priests and politics (Oxford, 1982) p. 303.

[46][46] Ibid. pp. 309-12.

[47] Pilot, 23 May 1845.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Angus MacIntyre, The Liberator, (London, 1965), pp. 135-9.

[50] Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion 1848, (Dublin, 2000)

[51] Pilot, 23 May 1843.

[52] Ibid.

[53] W. E. Vaughan, A new history of Ireland under the Union, (Oxford, 1989) Vol. V., p. 162

[54] Pilot

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ambrose MacAulay, William Crolly, Archbishop of Armagh 1835-44, (Dublin, 1994), pp. 361-4.