The year before he died, Daniel O’Connell ‘The Great Liberator’ was the center of a major scandal.
The Galway Advertiser reports that on Christmas Day 1845, a series of articles written by Thomas Campbell Foster was published in the London Times, criticizing the civil rights leader for his ‘wretched tenantry.’
Foster wrote that ‘amongst the most neglectful landlords who are a curse in Ireland, Daniel O’Connell ranks first.’
The Galway Advertiser writes that O’Connell, “who had championed the rights of tenants for years, who was feared for the ferocity of his attacks on the Protestant ascendancy, who had addressed monster public meetings urging equal rights and religious tolerance for Catholics,” was not without flaws.
Although O’Connell had urged that absentee landlords should own up their responsibilities to their tenants and give them greater security of tenure, the tenants on his own estate in Derrynane, Co Kerry were living in “abject poverty and neglect.”
Irish newspapers defended O’Connell, saying that the reports were politically motivated.
However, engraved pictures were being used in newspapers for the first time and the power of these illustrations convinced readers into believing that what he or she saw was true.
One engraving depicted the Cabin at Ardcara, on O’Connell’s estate,with the Pictorial Times writing on January 31 1846 that it was ‘so pestilential that the inhabitant can only enter his wretched hovel on all fours like a beast going into his den.’
The Times wrote ‘The distress of the people was horrible. There is not a pane of glass in the parish, nor a window of any kind in half the cottages. Some have a hole in the wall for light, with a board to stop it up.’
In the same month the Illustrated London News described how ‘the great majority of the houses are without windows or chimneys, ill thatched and filthy, surrounded by cesspools and semi-liquid manure.’
O’Connell attempted to fight back by inviting William Howitt from Tait’s Magazine to stay at Derrynane. he provided Howitt with ‘lavish hospitality’ but while Howitt’s report boasted the wild romantic scenery he admitted being ‘occupied in a round of family entertainments (such as hare hunting ), and was not invited to visit the poor tenants on the estate.’
At the age of 72, O’Connell’s health and powers were failing. His wife Mary had died some years before and his finances were chaotic. In March 1847 he set out for Rome. He would die in Genoa on May 15.