In the early nineteenth century, there was still prejudice against those of Catholic origin and they were still not given full political rights. Before OConnell there was a lack of unity and decisiveness of Catholic Ireland so any real chances of success for Catholic Emancipation were always clearly disabled. Yet he came on the scene as a highly educated, and extremely devout Roman Catholic who rejected this lack of enthusiasm. He is remembered as possibly the greatest leader of Irish Nationalism as he was the first to have any real success in elevating the condition of his people. He favoured a more peaceful and compromising approach which led to success with the British Government.
OConnells leadership was key to the success of the movement, especially when compared to the leadership of Grattan. His employment of the monster meeting was one of many ways in which he engaged his supporters, especially as he addressed the open air meetings himself, with Adelman and Pearce remarking that his conversational style of oratory enabled him to build up a rapport with the Catholic masses. Using his oratory skills, OConnell was able to exploit grievances and agitation in order to maximize support and enabling constitutional nationalism to develop.
The introduction of the Catholic Rent with a low subscription in 1824 allowed 80% population to contribute and was the transformer of sentimental support into real commitment for OConnell according to MacDonagh. It allowed the Association to pay for leaflets, posters and run their own newspaper to spread the message throughout Ireland. Constitutional nationalism was transformed, by OConnells ingenuity as a leader, from a small pressure group into a national mass movement.
According to OTuathaigh , he would become the political leader who would articulate Catholic grievances in the most effective way. In order to do this, OConnell exercised brinkmanship to threaten the government that social unrest was imminent unless reforms were granted. This was used in the 1828 County Clare election where OConnell won the seat with 2/3 of the vote. This posed a problem for the government as OConnell would not have been able to take a seat in the commons without a change of law. Peel knew a Catholic Emancipation agreement must be worked out as violence was inevitable so a bill was forced through Parliament, thus creating a success for constitutional nationalism.
OConnells ability to find success in failure meant constitutional nationalism could succeed. This was seen by how the Municipal Corporations Act became an instrument for OConnell; he used it as an effective argument in support of repeal and it helped to generate agitation to the Union among many Irish.
Simply the events at the time were what allowed constitutional nationalism to flourish. Poor harvests in 1842 led to economic distress throughout Ireland. Admittedly, it was, once again, OConnell skill as a leader which meant he was able to exploit the situation in order to create a sense of injustice and supplement support for repeal. Lecky describes how he was able to reconcile Catholic Ireland to the idea that constitutional nationalism would solve Irelands problems, this in turn allowed the movement to develop successfully.
Constitutional nationalisms success also depended on the support of the enfranchised 40 shilling freeholders. Through them, OConnell was able to prove significant electoral support for emancipation and form an embryonic Irish party. Catholic voters had even defied their Protestant landlords to vote for OConnell in the County Clare by-election which is evidence to Leckys belief that OConnell awakened their political conscience, made them believe they could initiate change and encouraged them to vote. Then when their support was lost, after OConnells success during the emancipation campaign led to the disenfranchisement of the 40 shilling freeholders, his electoral following plummeted, forcing him to postpone his goals and compromise. Essentially, OConnells leadership was useless without any initial support.
The Church played a major part in the lives of Catholics, particularly the peasantry, and in turn, in the future of constitutional nationalism. At a local level, the Clergy helped both the emancipation and repeal campaign in the same way, collecting the Rent and becoming local leaders in the movement. They also expanded interest in the organisation within communities. The Catholic Church was the crucial link between cultural and constitutional nationalism which was essential for the success of the latter.
Political circumstances must also be remembered when reviewing what is responsible for the growth of constitutional nationalism. OConnell faced the weak and divided government. Wellingtons administration was in no position to challenge OConnell and was forced to concede defeat on catholic emancipation. Therefore the weakness of the British Government was a major contributor to the success of constitutional nationalism.
The Whig administration was governing with only a moderate majority, providing constitutional nationalism with a valuable opportunity. The movement was in a position to enjoy the balance of power in Westminster. Through a Whig-OConnellite alliance, they managed to secure limited reforms for Ireland on issues of local government, law and order (such as the Constabulary Bill and Judiciary Bill), and poverty. These were of immediate importance to Ireland so while not Repeal, were an undoubted success for Irish nationalists.
After the disaster of the Clontarf meeting, OConnell was jailed for sedition. Along with old age and deteriorating health, this affected OConnells leadership and he became much less radical and more withdrawn. His death meant the movement found itself badly organised, divided and leaderless. The period between the Act of Union and 1820 saw a lack of Catholic political leadership so when he filled that void, he gave hope and constitutional nationalism thrived. The historian Lecky reinforces this idea by claiming that OConnell did more than anyone else did for the development of Irish nationalism. The fact that the movement nosedived after his death is testimony to his importance.
In OConnell, the movement found the leader it wanted, and the leader it had never had. His skill in oratory was, while creating rapport with the Catholic masses, to tacitly threaten the British Government with open rebellion. A dangerous but effective policy of brinksmanship won him support among urban and rural Catholics alike. Yet OConnells leadership skills would not have been enough without the support of the clergy. The political situation in Britain also had a big influence on the movements development, when the government was strong it could limit reform; it had to resort to compromise when weaker. Nonetheless, it can be argued that they only achieved as much as the British government wanted them to achieve. So although the leadership of OConnell was the main reason for constitutional nationalisms success in the mid 19th century, it wasnt the only one.