On 5 January 1839 a scandal engulfed the [Precursor] society, and O’Connell suffered one of the greatest betrayals of his life. He had spent the day with [Peter] Purcell [the most important mail-coach operator in Ireland and later founder-chairman of the Great Southern & Western Railway] at the Corn Exchange, attending various committee meetings, and afterwards they walked arm-in-arm in friendly conversation back to O’Connell’s home at Merrion Square.
O’Connell begged Purcell to join him and his family for dinner, but Purcell excused himself and the two men ‘parted at the door as friends part, who expect to meet next day’. There was some time before dinner, so O’Connell entered his study, where he picked up that day’s Freeman’s Journal. He began reading it and was astonished to find a letter from Purcell exposing financial irregularities in the Precursor Society and threatening to resign unless they were resolved.
Purcell had discovered that the funds of the society had been lodged in O’Connell’s name in the National Bank, and implied that O’Connell had turned a political movement to his own pecuniary advantage and had used ‘the garb of patriotism’ for his own ends. Demanding a full investigation, Purcell called for the money to be placed in the hands of publicly appointed treasurers.
The source cited is John O’Connell Recollections and experiences during a parliamentary career from 1833 to 1848 2 vols London 1849 (although O’Connell did not, as far as I could see, give a date for the incident.
In fact, the date given is wrong. The Freeman’s Journal for 5 January 1839 contains no letter from, or information attributed to, Peter Purcell. His letter was written on 5 January, a Saturday, but was published on the following Monday, 7 January 1839.
O’Connell’s account is seriously misleading. The affecting scene in which the Liberator walks home arm in arm, all unconscious that his companion has just betrayed him, and only discovers the betrayal on chancing to read a newspaper shortly afterwards, is utter nonsense. He might have walked home with Purcell (who lived on the north side of Dublin) on Saturday 5 January, but he could not have read the letter on that day. He could, clearly, have read the letter on 7 January, but I think it utterly impossible either that he and Purcell would have been working all that day at the Corn Exchange or that they would have strolled to Merrion Square afterwards.
That’s because Sunday 6 January 1839 was the Night of the Big Wind. Admittedly, by daylight on Monday, the storm had “sunk back into a steady and heavy gale from the SW” but it “continued throughout the remainder of the day” [Freeman’s Journal 8 January 1839]. The whole city was “a scene of general devastation, houses unroofed, and windows broken in every direction”. Chimneys fell into the street or into the buildings; some houses lost their front walls.
In Stephen’s-green, Merrion-square, and Fitzwilliam-square, there were few houses which escaped the general desolation. Those of the two former localities suffered in particular, stacks of chimnies [sic] being thrown down in every direction, and crushing the roofs beneath them, the streets below being literally covered with slates and brick. But it has as yet been impossible for us to ascertain the remotest approximation to the extent of the damages, or the innumerable injuries which must have been inflicted in the interior. […] The stately trees which ornamented the lawn in front of Leinster-house, in Merrion-square, were almost all torn from their roots, leaving but a few of the smaller ones standing, and that enchanting spot has lost its beauty for ever.
If Daniel O’Connell and Peter Purcell were strolling arm in arm through that lot, they were better men than I am, Gunga Din. In fact, unless O’Connell’s house escaped damage, I doubt if he would have been sitting quietly reading the paper in his study while waiting for dinner: I’m sure he’d have been up on the roof with a tarpaulin, a hammer and a bag of nails from B&Q.
But that is the less important, if more amusing, respect in which John O’Connell’s account is inaccurate. He entirely misrepresents the nature of Purcell’s letter. Purcell said nothing to suggest that he believed O’Connell to be guilty of “peculation under the garb of patriotism”; indeed he explicitly said the opposite:
[…] I consider so sacred a fund as that which has been collected from the hard earnings of a confiding peasantry should not only be secure (which I fully believe it to be in the hands of Mr O’Connell), but that it should be so placed as to be above suspicion, even in the minds of our political enemies.
I have placed here a PDF of the text of Purcell’s letter, transcribed from the Freeman’s Journal of 7 January 1839, with paragraphing and punctuation adjusted to suit my tastes.
It seems clear to me that Purcell did not accuse O’Connell of dishonesty. He was instead objecting to two things:
- O’Connell’s blurring of the line between the personal and the organisational
- O’Connell’s refusal to honour his own promises, promises which had led Purcell to mislead others about the future management of the funds.
O’Connellites successfully defended their leader against an accusation that Purcell had not made: they showed that he had not helped himself to the money and pretended that there was therefore nothing to worry about.
Afterwards, O’Connell and his supporters, especially the increasingly insane Thomas Steele, constantly attacked and insulted Purcell. However, Purcell achieved far more in the remaining few years of his life [he died in 1846] than O’Connell did [he died in 1847], and I suggest that the incident of the Freeman’s Journal letter shows why.
O’Connell was a tribal chief, requiring loyalty to himself and seeking to build a dynasty rather than an organisation. In his last years he alienated many who might have made alliances with him, even if they would not have supported him, and when his country’s need was greatest, in the Famine, he had no influence that he could wield to help it.
Purcell, on the other hand, was a modern business man: he had built a huge and successful operation (and ran several ancillary businesses too) and, when he lost his mail-coach business, he built another and even more enduring organisation, the Great Southern and Western Railway. It was the most successful railway in Ireland and its descendant, CIÉ, is still with us. Getting it off the ground (as it were) required cooperation with people of very different backgrounds and views, balancing the advice of a range of technical experts, seeing off competitors and opponents and managing extremely large amounts of money.
O’Connell by 1840 had made himself into a single-issue, single-constituency chief; Purcell was (to echo Brian Farrell’s terminology) a supremely competent chairman. Had O’Connell listened to Purcell in late 1838 and early 1839, they might have built a powerful and lasting organisation that united rather than divided Irish interest groups. But that prospect had blown away before the Night of the Big Wind.