On the morning of October 1st, 1843, the 68-year-old barrister and Member of Parliament, Daniel O’Connell, stepped outside the main door of the Leinster Arms Hotel, Athy. His appearance was immediately met with a loud and continuous cheer from the men and women who had waited patiently from early morning to see the Liberator. Raising his hat above his head, O’Connell acknowledged the cheers as he stepped into his waiting carriage. Accompanied by members of the Repeal Association travelling in several carriages drawn up behind O’Connells, they made slow progress through Leinster Street, heading in the Dublin direction.
When the leading carriage reached Gallowshill the procession turned right onto the Castledermot road. Now, clear of the crowded streets, the horses increased their pace as they cantered easily over the mud road leading to Mullaghmast. O’Connell and the Repeal Association had held meetings in places as far apart as Baltinglass, Monaghan, Loughrea and Lismore and the monster meeting planned for that day in Mullaghmast was to be followed by a final rally in Clontarf.
The members of the Repeal Association in Co. Kildare had put a considerable amount of planning and work into arranging the Mullaghmast meeting. Up to one million people were expected and a pavilion was erected on the site for the formal dinner which would follow the public meeting. Local men from Athy, Ballytore and the surrounding areas were recruited to act as stewards and each man was given a hat badge which bore the inscription “O’Connell’s Police.” Not that Daniel O’Connell was in any danger or needed protection, but stewards were needed to marshall the huge influx of visitors expected that morning.
Approaching Mullaghmast at 2.00 p.m. in the afternoon O’Connell could see from his carriage the flags and banners carried by his exuberant followers “Ireland for the Irish”, “Remember Mullaghmast” and “Ireland must be a Nation” caught his eye as he slowly made his way to the rear of the platform. Standing nearby, taking pride in his handiwork, was Athy builder, Thomas Fagan of Market Square whose men had brought from Athy the timber required for the platform and who had shaped that same timber into a platform from which the great man would deliver his speech.
Ascending the platform, O’Connell’s arrival was met with a loud roar. It was fully ten minutes before the noise had subsided and then John Hogan, Ireland’s most famous sculptor, accompanied by Henry McManus, the painter, and John O’Callaghan, author of The Irish Brigade in the Service of France placed on O’Connell’s head a cap of green velvet with gold in the form of an Irish crown. Raising his two hands as a signal for silence, O’Connell stood at the front of the platform and spoke with a voice which carried far out into the crowd but which was still unable to reach many of the men and women who had come to hear him speak. “Mullaghmast was selected for this meeting”, he said, “as it was the spot on which English treachery and false Irish treachery consummated the massacre of the Irish people.” The crowd pushed forward as he spoke and his every pause was greeted with a loud sustained cheer.
Dressed in the scarlet robes of Dublin City Council, O’Connell’s speech continued as a document headed “A full and true account of the dreadful slaughter and murder at Mullaghmast on the bodies of 400 Roman Catholics” was handed out amongst the crowd. It was later to be produced as evidence of the treasonable nature of the meeting when O’Connell and his associates were tried for unlawfully and seditiously conspiring to raise and create discontent amongst the Queen’s subjects in January 1844.
At the conclusion of the public meeting and as the crowds of men and women started on their homeward journey O’Connell and members of the Repeal Association adjourned to the pavilion erected for the formal dinner. More speeches were to follow and the resolution “that a petition be prepared and presented to Parliament for a repeal of the Union” was passed. It was in the course of his speech after the dinner that O’Connell made the now famous reference to the Duke of Wellington. “The poor Duke, what shall I say of him. To be sure he was born in Ireland but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.
The Mullaghmast meeting was to be the last monster meeting of the Repeal Association as O’Connell, in the face of possible military intervention, cancelled the Clontarf meeting.
On October 3rd, the 150th anniversary of O’Connell’s visit to Mullaghmast will be marked by a ceremony at the Rath commencing at 2.30 p.m. Go along and swell the crowd as our ancestors did so many years ago when Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, spoke of his hopes and aspirations for the repeal of the Act of Union.