A gilded cage?

A gilded cage?

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Anne Hodge
Daniel O'Connell
Peter Harbison


Anne Hodge and Peter Harbison examine the visual evidence of Daniel O’Connell’s unusual conditions of imprisonment in the Richmond Bridewell, Dublin

In his memoir Young Ireland: a fragment of Irish history 1840-45 Charles Gavan Duffy remembered that when Daniel O’Connell and the ‘Repeal Martyrs’ were incarcerated in rooms in the Richmond Bridewell in 1844: ‘An artist’s studio and a daguerreotypist’s camera were set up within the precincts to multiply likenesses of the prisoners, and the caricaturists made more amusing ones without the trouble of a sitting.’1

Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) declared 1843 the Repeal Year. He was determined to build public support for his plan to repeal the Act of Union (1801) which was the cause of much oppression and injustice in Ireland. In 1829 O’Connell successfully achieved Catholic Emancipation and was popularly referred to as Counsellor, Liberator and even King Dan. Between March and October 1843, the sixty-eight year old drummed up support for repeal at thirty-one massive outdoor public meetings held all over Ireland, dubbed ‘Monster Meetings’ by The Times. The Westminster government under Robert Peel banned the last meeting, due to be held at Clontarf on 7 October 1843, claiming that O’Connell’s ultimate aim was to ‘overthrow the constitution of the British Empire’.2 Despite the fact that O’Connell complied with Peel’s ban and cancelled the meeting, he, along with six of his closest associates and two Catholic priests, were arrested on charges of conspiracy.3 Following the trial which began on 15 January, 1844 and lasted for twenty-five days, O’Connell, his son John, close political aides Thomas Matthew Ray and Thomas Steel, and newspaper editors Richard Barrett (The Pilot), John Gray (Freeman’s Journal) and Charles Gavan Duffy (The Nation) were fined and sentenced to serve time in prison. After sentencing on 30 May, the prisoners were brought to the Richmond Bridewell Penitentiary on the southern outskirts of Dublin, the site of present-day Griffith College, South Circular Road.

The very word ‘penitentiary’ gives the impression that O’Connell and his fellow prisoners were confined to prison cells devoid of comfort or even ample light. That the very opposite was the case we know thanks to Thomas Matthew Ray (1801-1881) who commissioned a series of watercolours depicting in great detail the luxurious rooms in which the men lived – both bedrooms and sitting rooms. Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin knew of no better record of middle-class interior decoration and furnishings of the period in Ireland.4 The pictures were acquired by the National Museum from James Adam’s Auctioneers in May 1990 and are now preserved in Collins Barracks.

The artist was Henry O’Neill (1798-1880), an antiquarian who made many drawings of castles and round towers in Munster and Leinster (now in the Glenstal Abbey Library), but who is perhaps best known for having written the first great book on Irish high crosses (1857). This book popularized the use of the ringed cross shape as a design for Irish grave-stones. By the 1830s, his mastery of the art of watercolour was clear though, sadly, the great majority of his works can no longer be traced.

For that reason, it is all the more fortunate that we still have his fascinating Bridewell interiors, showing how the Government of the time took great care to house O’Connell and his friends in surroundings which would have made them feel very comfortable and in no way like criminals. The rooms were furnished with exotic beds, four posters often with drapes, the finest carpets and wall-paper, mirrors, arm-chairs, writing desks, pictures of various subjects, even the occasional keyboard instrument, suggesting that the Government ordered the rooms to be decorated long before the men were finally sentenced (Figs 5&7).

One remarkable picture demonstrates the style and liberty allowed the prisoners. This is a representation of a banquet chaired by O’Connell (Fig 8). He is shown wearing his ‘Milesian’ or ‘Repeal’ cap, attended to by a waiter uncorking a bottle of wine, surrounded at table by his followers and their wives and lady-friends. Dressed in evening wear, the crowd listens attentively to the Liberator’s words.

O’Neill was obviously given free access to the Bridewell, for his watercolours show not only the salubrious living rooms, but also the chapel while Mass was being said, and the grounds beyond. One watercolour depicts the Governor’s attractive garden (Fig 6), another that of the Deputy Governor, while a third shows a mound within the grounds complete with watch-tower. This mound was given the nick-name ‘Tara’ by the prisoners, a reference to the location of one of the largest of O’Connell’s ‘Monster Meetings’ which took place on the Hill of Tara in County Meath on 15 August the previous year.

Though unrelated to the watercolours, it is interesting to note that all the internees signed a florally-decorated sheet dedicated to Edmund William Mahony, Esq. ‘our friend and fellow labourer in the cause of Ireland’s Nationality’. In the centre is O’Connell’s signature as M.P. for Cork and his Bridewell address. The other signatories were Charles Gavan Duffy, O’Connell’s son John (MP for Kilkenny City), John Gray, Thomas Matthew Ray (Secretary Loyal National Repeal Association of Ireland), Richard Barrett and Thomas Steele, who styles himself ‘O’Connell’s Head Pacificator of Ireland’. This interesting document, dated 18 July, 1844, is now preserved in the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum. Two months later, all seven men were released, to general public jubilation, and probably relief for the Government.

Throughout his long career, Daniel O’Connell’s image was recorded in a myriad of formats. His likeness appeared in prints of all kinds including etchings, lithographs, and rough woodcuts; in formal oil portraits, and on medals, ceramics and buttons. These images tended to flatter and were an important means of strengthening and preserving, in a tangible visual way, the public perception of O’Connell as charismatic orator and popular leader (See Ruán O’Donnell ‘The Liberator’ Irish Arts Review Autumn 2006). It is unsurprising then that his portrait should be recorded for posterity through the very new invention of photography. Thomas Matthew Ray, who seems to have acted as the Repeal Association’s unofficial archivist, collected prints, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia of all sorts related to O’Connell.5 It is likely that Ray, who as mentioned earlier, commissioned Henry O’Neill’s watercolours, who commissioned Henry O’Neill’s watercolours, also arranged for daguerreotypes of the prisoners to be taken.

Certainly he once owned the set of small portrait daguerreotypes of O’Connell and the ‘Repeal Martyrs’ or ‘Traversers’ as they were known, now in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. They were purchased for £15 in 1905 from Ray’s daughter, along with a hand-coloured lithograph (NGI 11857) by Joseph Patrick Haverty of the Clifden Monster Meeting. These extremely rare photographic images, each measuring approximately 5.5 x 4cm, with the sitters’ signatures inscribed underneath, are mounted and set into a gilt frame. They were taken a mere five years after the new daguerreotype process was announced to the world in January 1839. Daguerreotypes were produced by exposing a thin, highly polished silver plate to various chemicals to make it light sensitive, inserting it into a large, cumbersome daguerreotype camera to take the photograph and finally developing and fixing the image using mercury fumes.

These daguerreotypes are 170 years old and show various signs of decay. The edges have tarnished and the abraded surface of certain portraits indicates that they were improperly ‘cleaned’ at some stage. This damage is particularly visible on the image of O’Connell (Fig 1). Given the reflective nature of the surface, reproducing these early photographs is notoriously difficult.

O’Connell was photographed wearing his famous ‘Repeal Cap’, a green velvet cap embroidered with golden shamrocks, designed by artist Henry MacManus and presented to O’Connell by sculptor John Hogan

Each sitter is shown with head turned slightly to the left or right, their gaze averted from the camera (Figs 2-4). All wear sombre jackets and most sport a stiff-collared white shirt and cravat with a commemorative badge (a harp surrounded by a laurel wreath) pinned on their chests. In contrast to his well-dressed fellow prisoners, Thomas Steele, a Protestant from County Clare, appears collarless and somewhat rough looking (Fig 4). The fixed gaze of each sitter is probably due to the length of time necessary to take a photograph in the 1840s. Depending on available light, the sitter would have to remain perfectly still for up to ten minutes while the plate was being exposed. In order to make maximum use of daylight, early photographic studios were constructed on the roofs of tall buildings. One could imagine that the glass observatory on the top of the mound in the prison grounds might have been used as a temporary photographic studio.

O’Connell himself was photographed wearing his famous ‘Repeal Cap’, a green velvet cap embroidered with golden shamrocks, designed by artist Henry MacManus and presented to O’Connell by sculptor John Hogan at the Monster Meeting at Mullaghmast Co Kildare on 1 October 1843.6 This original daguerreotype of O’Connell appears to be unique, as the only other photographic image known (which shows him wearing a wig but hatless) is a lithograph copy after a daguerreotype taken by Richard Beard (the entrepreneur who bought the licence from Daguerre in 1841), or an associate.7 When O’Connell died in April 1847, Beard took out advertisements in Irish newspapers including the Kerry Examiner and The Pilot trumpeting that copies of ‘This faithful Photographic Likeness of Ireland’s Departed Champion – the only one for which he ever sat’ could be obtained post-free from his premises in London or through named book and print sellers in Cork and Dublin. In the clipping of Beard’s advertisement in his O’Connell scrapbook, Thomas Ray has put an ‘x’ in red pen beside the phrase ‘the only one for which he ever sat’ with a note: ‘Not so – I have a daguerreotype Portrait and a really fine one for which he sat at Richmond Bridewell – it is taken by Monsr. Dubreil [sic]. T.M.Ray’.8 This handwritten note by the ever meticulous Mr Ray, indicates that Chevalier Doussin Dubreuil, the photographer who operated from Dublin’s first commercial photographic studio at the Rotunda, took these daguerreotypes. Edward Chandler suggests that the Rotunda premises was set up by Richard Beard in 1841 and that Dubreuil took it over a year later in April 1842. However, the Frenchman may have been working there from the outset as it is thought Beard did very little photography himself, leaving the actual work to his employees and associates.9

Similar group portraits of the ‘Repeal Martyrs’ exist in printed format. Among the material in Ray’s scrapbook is a lithograph captioned ‘The Conspirators or Repeal Martyrs of 1843′, which features oval portraits (drawn by Henry MacManus who designed the Repeal cap) with signatures of O’Connell and the eight men arrested with him.10 In his memoir Young Ireland, Charles Gavan Duffy includes a reproduction of a large Italian lithograph of the same group captioned ‘Capi e Promotori della Questione’ which he bought while in Turin around 1870. O’Connell was famous internationally and his deeds as a politician and popular leader were well known.11

As secretary of the Repeal Association, Thomas Matthew Ray was an efficient administrator, printing and distributing addresses, promoting the Repeal Libraries countrywide, campaigning for the Association, enrolling members and handling finances including the repeal rents. He was deemed invaluable by O’Connell who wrote to his son John in 1840: ‘Give your best support to Ray who is just the best man in his situation I ever met with, beyond comparison the best.’12 It is thanks to Ray’s awareness of the importance of recording the life of his beloved friend and leader that the only original daguerreotype of Daniel O’Connell exists. Ray’s careful preservation of related visual imagery and ephemera helps make O’Connell’s significance in his own time real to us. In particular, through Henry O’Neill’s watercolours and Dubrueil’s daguerreotypes, we get a sense of what life was like for O’Connell and his associates during their time in the Richmond Bridewell in 1844.
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Acknowledgments: Roy Hewson, Photographer, National Gallery of Ireland;
Sandra Heise, National Museum of Ireland; Mary Broderick, National Library of Ireland; Brian Crowley, OPW, Pearse Museum, Dublin.

Anne Hodge is curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Ireland; Peter Harbison is the author of a forthcoming book on Henry O’Neill.

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