ArticleThe Irish Gandhi
The most obvious and straightforward way to liberate one's country is to defeat the occupiers militarily and throw them out - and that's exactly what Irish people had been trying to do for many centuries. However, it is easier said than done - and that's exactly why it took them all those centuries to finally succeed. In the meantime, they kept suffering one blow after another, both figuratively and quite literally - and some blows were much heavier than others. The worst ones arguably came in the 17th century when passionate but relatively poorly trained and equipped freedom-fighters had to oppose a fully professional army that had never lost a battle. Motivated by greed for land, and led by Oliver Cromwell - a talented military commander but also a ruthless religious extremist, widely abhorred for his utter disregard for human life - the English razed city after city to the ground while painting them red in the defenders' blood… To oppose someone like Cromwell, the Irish Resistance seemed to need a leader whose military prowess would match Cromwell's own, and whose personal charisma multiplied by his patriotism would inspire many thousands to rise and fight. However, when such a leader finally materialized, he turned out to fit less than 50% of that description!
As a very young man, Daniel O'Connell went to France to continue his schooling in a Jesuit college. As fate would have it, it happened in the beginning of 1790s when a bloodbath, otherwise known as the French Revolution, was underway - and the shock was enough for the young Irish to develop a lifelong aversion not only to mob rule but to any violence. Besides, he fled home via England, and - wild as this guess is -that might be the reason he never really perceived England as a hostile country. For example, many years later, he - already a prominent political figure - greeted George IV of England to Dublin. Even more telling, born Donall O'Connaill, he anglicized his name. He also chose English rather than his native Gaelic when addressing crowds of his followers (to make sure that everybody would understand him, O'Connell sent interpreters to the midst of those listening crowds - to translate his words).
The exact opposite of “fighter”, and rather friendly towards the occupying nation, it's hard not to wonder how could such a man possibly move his country any closer towards regaining its freedom? The answer seems to be very complex and quite simple, at the same time. A charismatic patriot (he undoubtedly answered that part of the above description), O'Connell relied on his imagination and turned it into an efficient weapon. He must have imagined endless thousands of people coming together to express an opinion and ask for a change - very politely and not at all threateningly (as a lawyer, he also made sure that none of his gatherings would ever break any current laws). Then he acted upon that vision - first, by founding a Catholic League and encouraging people to join it; then he invited all those people to come to places sacred to every Irish - such as Tara and Clontarf - to talk and listen, to exchange opinions, and simply to be together with like-minded people. When in 1828 O'Connell couldn't take his seat in the English Parliament after being elected there (the so-called Penal Laws explicitly banned Catholics from any political offices), about 100,000 people gathered to ask the authorities to reconsider. In less than a year Irish Catholics were emancipated, and O'Connell did become a Parliament Member after a successful re-election. Such was his fame and significance that George IV lamented in a private letter: “While O'Connell is undoubtedly the King of Ireland, and Wellington is the King of England, I can't see myself as anything more than the Duke of Windsor!”
O'Connell's ways and ideas were so counterintuitive that they must have been perceived not just as a wonder but rather as an outright miracle. When a famous American abolitionist Frederick Douglass heard about that miracle, he couldn't help coming to Ireland to meet its maker - and the echo of that meeting reverberated for more than a century, and over several continents. Douglass had a significant impact on Abraham Lincoln, and from there the path led to India where Mahatma Gandhi led famous non-violent marches (such as the Salt March in 1930), and back to the US where Martin Luther King's dream earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964…