Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Mary O’Connell and Ann Crosby Thomas, Part 1

Eminent Women: Mary O’Connell and Ann Crosby Thomas, Part 1

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - January 23, 2012

When Wilford Woodruff and others did the temple work for the Eminent Men and Women, the list of those who had their temple work done included three Irish politicians, John Curran, Henry Grattan, and Daniel O’Connell, and their wives.

During the lifetimes of these men and women, the Catholic population of Ireland lacked basic civil liberties. Curran, Grattan, O’Connell and others helped Irish Catholics regain the ability to practice their religion, attend school, own personal and real property, belong to various professions, and hold public office.

It is little wonder that Wilford Woodruff, who had experienced decades of hardship as he and other members of the Church were forced to flee home after home and plead with an unheeding government for basic rights of life, due process, property, and government representation, would find the story of O’Connell and his compatriots so fascinating.

Daniel O’Connell is known as the Great Liberator. He is one of the national heroes of Ireland, complete with grand monuments built to his memory.

It is only in the past few years that attention has turned to Daniel’s wife, Mary. Her hundreds of existing letters have revealed an affectionate woman, highly invested in her husband’s career and their personal, social, and professional relationships.

Mary O’Connell was one of the many children of Dr. Thomas O’Connell, a man of some reputation but little fortune. She lived with her aunt in Tralee on the west coast of Ireland when her third cousin, Daniel O’Connell, began courting her.

When Daniel was a small boy, his childless uncle Maurice had taken charge of his education. Maurice sent Daniel to school in Ireland and France. A young Daniel fled France as the Revolution became more deadly, and forever after he was opposed to the use of violence to settle political differences. After he finished his education, the Irish emancipation effort had gone just far enough that Daniel was able to become a member of the bar in Dublin. He was a successful young lawyer when his thoughts turned to marriage.

Daniel’s uncle Maurice wanted him to marry a Miss Healy, a young woman of property. Daniel preferred Mary O’Connell and later reminisced:

“I never,” he said, “proposed marriage to any woman but one—my Mary. I said to her, ‘Are you engaged, Miss O’Connell?’—she answered ‘I am not’; ‘then,’ said I, ‘will you engage yourself to me?’ ‘I will,’ was her reply. And I said I would devote my life to make her happy. She deserved that I should: she gave me thirty-four years of the purest happiness that man ever enjoyed.”

Despite the fear that Maurice would disinherit Daniel, the two married in 1802 and kept their marriage a secret until the pending birth of their first son made the arrangement impractical. Maurice recovered from the disappointment, perhaps after Daniel and Mary named their firstborn son after him.

The O’Connells were a well-matched, affectionate couple. Mary wrote to her husband:

My own darling Dan…you are aware that in existence I don’t think there is such a husband and father as you are, and have always been….In truth, my own Dan, I am always at a loss for words to convey to you how I love and doat on you….We will, Love, shortly be fifteen years married, and I can answer that I never have had cause to repent it. I have, darling, experienced all the happiness of the married state without feeling any of its cares, thanks to a fond and indulgent husband.

Daniel and Mary O’Connell had eleven children. Much of Mary’s married life involved raising the children and running the household. After her son John was born, Mary’s next four children died in infancy, so when her youngest, Daniel, Jr., was born, Mary tended to act rather protective toward him.

The O’Connells sent their sons away to school at about age seven. But when it was time to send Danny to school, the family was in reduced circumstances and perhaps Mary could not stand to send her youngest son away. After she and her children left Ireland for a less-expensive life in France, Mary and her daughter Ellen taught Danny at home while his older brothers Morgan and John were away at school.

When Danny finally went off to school at age fourteen, Mary wrote him detailed, loving, intimate letters which have been collected and published by historian Erin Bishop in the book My Darling Danny. Here is an excerpt from the first letter Mary wrote her son. She was living in London, while he was at Clongows, a Jesuit boarding school in Ireland.

My darling Danny

It was a great pleasure to me this morning to get your first letter from Clongows but I will not allow you to address me by any appellation but that of Mod. You are much improved in your writing but you ought to attend to your spelling. [Gives examples.]… We go on Sunday week to hear Mass at Moorfield Chapel. I heard a Sermon last Sunday from an Irish Priest. It was quite a treat to our ears…. I shall my darling Danny count the days until I have the happiness of embracing you…Your Fath [father] Maurice [brother] and the Girls unite in love to you with my darling child your ever fond Mother.

In another letter Mary wrote:

I am told Mr Duncan says to every person that you are a spoiled child by me. I dont realy think I deserve he should speak of me in those terms and I should much regret you giving him cause to make this ill notioned remark upon your Mother. He should learn a little discretion.

One letter mentions some of the results of her husband’s fight for emancipation and his popularity in Ireland:

Your Father is getting presents every day from the people. Orange scarfs orange and green Waistcoats. A snuff box with a picture of King William in it. A beautiful Irish diamond Harp with Irish Gold, and orange and green cloth cap and this day I got from the Jewellers two Medaelins gold with a figure in silver. Much of them representing your Father. They are very handsome.

Some of the difficulties of O’Connell’s career are mentioned:

My darling child this moment 10 O Clock your Father got a Notice from the court that he should appear tomorrow there under his recognizance and cannot go as he intended to day. They may keep him interned. He will however go down with us to Dunleary [for a parade or political rally.]

The friendly and hospitable O’Connell family spent summers at Darrynane Abbey on the southwest coast of Ireland. “Nowhere did a more generous or genial hospitality abound than at Darrynane. There indeed every stranger found a ready chair, and jests and pranks never failed, though it is not many mournful tales were told in that delightful circle.”

O’Connell met many setbacks including a long incarceration toward the end of his life, which resulted in his death a few years later. But he had many successes and his use of non-violent means to force political change was an inspiration to future leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

One very important part of O’Connell’s career and the one for which he was best known in America was his abolitionism.

O’Connell refused to interact with slave owners. He created quite a stir when he publicly snubbed the American ambassador, Virginian Andrew Stevenson, as being not only a slaveholder, but an even more despised “slave breeder.” Stevenson took this as a personal insult and challenged O’Connell to a duel, but was refused.

O’Connell was a great influence on the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Under bondage as a youth, [Douglass] heard his master berate the strong anti-slavery stance of O’Connell, who refused to shake hands with anyone who kept slaves.” O’Connell and Douglass met in Dublin in 1845. Douglass was influenced by O’Connell’s rhetorical style and non-violent methods, and the abolitionist movement in the United States relied regularly on O’Connell’s writings and reputation. When United States President Barack Obama visited his Irish ancestral home in 2011, an Irish artist sketched a touching cartoon of Obama speaking to a crowd with Daniel O’Connell smiling over one of his shoulders and Frederick Douglass smiling over the other.

But much of this happened after Mary died in 1836. Although O’Connell lived eleven years after her death, Mary’s life and influence continued to guide him. Several years after her death he paid tribute to the women in his life, including his wife:

I am a father, and I know what it is to respect as well as to love those whom, in parental language, I call my angel daughters. They have never given breath to a word of offence against me…. I am a grandfather, and the chirping of my darling granddaughters sounds sweetly in my ears…. I think within myself, “How happy the man will be that obtains them!” But that subject brings me back to a being of whom I dare not speak in the profanation of words. No, I will not mention that name. The man who is happiest in his domestic circle may have some idea of what my happiness was. Yes, I was her husband then. Did I say I was? Oh! yes, I am her husband still. The grave may separate us for a time, but we shall meet beyond it, never, I trust, to be separated more.

* * *

Mary O’Connell’s temple work was done by Ann Crosby Thomas. It is curious that the work for the wife of the great emancipator and abolitionist, Daniel O’Connell, was done by a former slaveholder, a woman O’Connell would have shunned if they had met socially. The biography of Ann Crosby Thomas will post tomorrow.



  1. Wonderful! Thanks, Amy.

    It’s interesting that O’Connell received gifts colored orange. These days the New York Irish, who are reputed to be more Irish than the Irish themselves, shun orange even though the Irish flag has as much orange as green.

    I wondered where Dunleary was, and found that it’s just a few miles southeast of Dublin. Although the Irish still pronounce it the same, the old Irish spelling, Dun Laoghaire, is much more common now.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 23, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  2. How badly I would have mispronounced the place had it been spelled that way, Mark!

    I enjoyed this, too. As with so many of the Eminent Woman, Mary was evidently included not for her own merits but because of the prominence of her husband. Amy has brought Mary to life for me, though, with these snips from her letters. That final paragraph by Daniel leaves me hopeful that he and Mary both came to appreciate the spirit and the fact of what was done for them in St. George.

    Thanks, Amy!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 23, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  3. I read with interest your research on Mary O’Connell. Do you know where she died in 1836 and where she is buried?
    Do you know her siblings; I have found 2 sisters born in Tralee but would be interested to know what brothers she may have had;
    Thank you;
    Mary O’Connor

    Comment by Mary O'Connor — November 15, 2012 @ 7:53 am

  4. Oh, Mary O’Connell. She has been one of my favorites, probably because of her letters to her son, her “darling Danny.”

    The book The World of Mary O’Connell notes that not much is known of her early life. Little is known of her later years due mostly to the fact that she spent most of the time with her husband and did not write many letters during that time. The book lists brothers Rickard (md to Betsey Tuohy), Edward, John, and Maurice. I would suggest looking at the book for more details.

    The Irish Examiner says she was buried in the family tomb, which is at at Derrynane Abbey by Derrynane House.

    Here’s a picture of her grave. (That doesn’t look like a tomb!)

    Her husband Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland, but his heart is (of course) buried in Rome. (He famously said, “My body to Ireland – my heart to Rome – my soul to heaven.”)

    Comment by Amy T — November 15, 2012 @ 9:08 am

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