Symbols of Freedom
January 22, 2013

Among the Education staff here at the Museum, we think a lot about connecting nineteenth-century history with more recent cultural memory. In the parlor of the Moore apartment, featured on our “Irish Outsiders” tour, hangs a framed print of the nineteenth-century Irish politician and activist Daniel O’Connell, known today as the “Great Emancipator.” This week in particular, we’re inspired by the connections between O’Connell and another great champion of freedom: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Moore parlor at 97 Orchard Street. Photo by Keiko Niwa.

Daniel O’Connell was born to Irish-Catholic aristocrats in Cahirciveen, County Kerry, Ireland in 1775. He went to law school and became active in politics. In 1823, O’Connell helped organize the Catholic Association to repeal the exclusion of Catholics from government. Six years later the group succeeded, with the Roman Catholic Relief Act, also known as Catholic Emancipation, and in 1830 O’Connell took a seat in Parliament representing County Kerry. He proved to be a formidable lawyer and a powerful speaker.

O’Connell lived through three violent political Revolutions—in America in 1776, France in 1789, and Ireland in 1798—and this history affected him profoundly. He understood the need to reform systems of oppression worldwide, but he committed himself (the way Martin Luther King, Jr. would, a century-and-a-half later) to nonviolent action and systemic political changes through progressive laws. In the print in the Moore apartment, O’Connell holds a scroll, symbolic of his commitment to legal and constitutional methods of reform. It’s also no coincidence that O’Connell is depicted with a hound dog standing behind him. In nineteenth-century portraits, dogs represented courage, loyalty, and vigilance; O’Connell was a fierce protector of liberty, dedicated to his cause.

Close-up of the Daniel O’Connell print in the Moore apartment.

O’Connell became involved in Abolitionism in the 1820s. He called for the immediate emancipation and total enfranchisement of slaves—then a radical position, even among Abolitionists. But O’Connell’s activism succeeded in bringing the Catholic voice to what had previously been an exclusively middle-class Protestant movement. He brought public attention to the plight of African slaves—and made their plight relevant to the Irish majority of Catholic peasants.

O’Connell’s activism resonated in the United States, too. John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker abolitionist, said in 1839: “There is a charm in the name Daniel O’Connell all over the universe, and…Mr. O’Connell could do more for the suppression of slavery in the U.S. than any other man could do.” After traveling to Ireland and hearing O’Connell speak, an inspired Frederick Douglass said: “I feel grateful to him, for his voice has made American slavery shake to its center.”

Other American Abolitionists, like their British counterparts, were concerned by O’Connell’s radical position. O’Connell called the continued institution of slavery in America “a blot on their democracy,” and he suggested that there were “laws higher than those contained in the American Constitution,” thus moving the issue from a political realm, into a moral one.

Many of the Irish immigrants in America were apprehensive that O’Connell’s critiques of America would give cause for anti-Irish discrimination. Meanwhile, the Catholic Irish at home in Ireland began to feel betrayed by O’Connell’s activism abroad and wanted him to focus more on domestic progress.

Irish immigrants leaving Cahirciveen, County Kerry, Ireland, for America, 1866. Courtesy the New York Public Library.

After Daniel O’Connell’s death in 1847, however, Irish ambivalence toward him disappeared, and he became a symbol of pride and freedom, with his image widely disseminated. O’Connell represented the possibility of change as much as he symbolized freedom. The print in the Moores’ parlor might have inspired hope for a better, more just future. The image may also have reminded the family of their Irish heritage.

Moore children's shoes. Photo by Keiko Niwa.

We can connect Dr. King very clearly to the activism of O’Connell: Both were religious, passionate, outspoken figures devoted to freedom and nonviolence. Both were controversial in their day but beloved after their death. What does Dr. King’s image represent to us? This month, our Museum educators consider this connection on their tours as a way to honor both men.

—Posted by Jason Eisner