Dónal Ó Conaill (6 August 1775 – 15 May 1847; English: Daniel O'Connell), known as The Liberator, or The Emancipator, was an Irish political leader in the first half of the 19th century. He campaigned for Catholic Emancipation—the right for Catholics to sit in the Westminster Parliament, denied for over 100 years—and repeal of the Act of Union which combined Ireland and Great Britain.
O'Connell was born near Caherciveen, County Kerry, to a once-wealthy Roman Catholic family, of the O'Connells of Derrynane, which had been dispossessed of its lands. Among his uncles was Daniel Charles, Count O'Connell, an officer in the Irish Brigades of the French army, and a famous aunt was Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Under the patronage of his wealthy bachelor uncle Maurice "Hunting Cap" O'Connell, he studied at Douai in France, and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1794, transferring to Dublin's King's Inns two years later. In his early years, he became acquainted with the pro-democracy radicals of the time, and committed himself to bringing equal rights and religious tolerance to his own country.
While in Dublin studying for the law, O'Connell was under his Uncle Maurice's instructions not to become involved in any shady militia activity. When Wolfe Tone's French invasion fleet entered Bantry Bay in December 1796, O'Connell found himself in a quandary. Politics was the cause of his unsettlement. Dennis Gwynn in his Daniel O'Connell: The Irish Liberator suggests that the unsettlement was because he was enrolled as a volunteer in defence of Government, yet the Government was intensifying its persecution of the Catholic people—of which he was one. He desired to enter Parliament, yet every allowance that the Catholics had been led to anticipate, two years previously, was now flatly vetoed.
As a law student, O'Connell was aware of his own talents, but the higher ranks of the Bar were closed to him. He read the Jockey Club as a picture of the governing class in England, and was persuaded by it that, "vice reigns triumphant in the English court at this day. The spirit of liberty shrinks to protect property from the attacks of French innovators. The corrupt higher orders tremble for their vicious enjoyments."
O'Connell's studies at the time had concentrated upon the legal and political history of Ireland, and the debates of the Historical Society concerned the records of governments, and from this he was to conclude, according to one of his biographers, "in Ireland the whole policy of the Government was to repress the people and to maintain the ascendancy of a privileged and corrupt minority."
On 3 January 1797, he wrote to his uncle saying that he was the last of his colleagues to join a volunteer corps and 'being young, active, healthy and single' he could offer no plausible excuse. Later that month, for the sake of expediency, he joined the Lawyer's Artillery Corps.
On 19 May 1798, O'Connell was called to the Irish Bar and became a barrister. Four days later the United Irishmen staged their rebellion which was put down by the British with great bloodshed. O'Connell did not support the rebellion; he believed that the Irish would have to assert themselves politically rather than by force. He went on the Munster circuit, and for over a decade he went into a fairly quiet period of private law practice in the south of Ireland. He also condemned Robert Emmet's rebellion of 1803. Of Emmet, a Protestant, he wrote: 'A man who could coolly prepare so much bloodshed, so many murders—and such horrors of every kind has ceased to be an object of compassion.'