Object 83: Daniel O'Connell portrait, 1838

Portrait of Daniel O'Connell

Portrait of Daniel O'Connell, founder of National Bank of Ireland, by David Wilkie, 1838. © RBS

This life-size portrait is of Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), the legendary Irish hero popularly known as 'The Liberator'. In the style of a military portrait, O'Connell's clothing and pose recall famous pictures of men of war. But this hero carries no weapon. No sword hangs at his side. The tools of this Liberator's power are the inkwell on his desk; the legal deed at his fingertips; and the ledgers by his feet.

O'Connell spent much of his life campaigning for Catholic emancipation, and for the repeal of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. He was a brilliant lawyer and a controversial Member of Parliament. It's less remembered today that he was also a banker.

In 1835 Daniel O'Connell founded The National Bank of Ireland. He invested in it, spoke to drum up support for it, and attended its very first board meeting. The bank was a natural extension of his political campaigns; a universal bank formed to 'preserve the banking system in this country from politics'. It was also destined to become a significant force in Irish banking.

His new bank's services were to be available to all

O'Connell was a lawyer who spent many years in private practice before setting up the Catholic Board in 1811 to campaign for Catholic emancipation. In 1823 he established the more popular Catholic Association to press for electoral and church reform, tenants' rights and economic development. In 1828 he was elected MP for County Clare, but as a Catholic could not take up his seat in parliament. His case decisively increased pressure on the government, and an Act delivering Catholic emancipation was passed the following year.

The National Bank of Ireland was part of O'Connell's broader ambitions for Ireland. He wanted to take the politics out of banking. His new bank's services were to be available to all, with no preference on grounds of religion or politics. His customers would be treated fairly.

The National Bank grew into one of Ireland's biggest banks. O'Connell, meanwhile, went on to press for repeal of the Act of Union; for penal reform, free trade, trade union rights and secret voting; for the abolition of slavery and the end of discrimination against Jews. British Prime Minister William Gladstone said he 'had energies to spare for whatever tended...to advance human happiness and freedom.'

This portrait was commissioned by one of The National Bank's early directors and donated to the bank in 1848 to hang in its Dublin offices. In 1966 The National Bank was split up and part of it - including this painting - was bought by RBS constituent National Commercial Bank of Scotland. Today it's on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland, where thousands of visitors can enjoy seeing it every year, and remember O'Connell's extraordinary achievements.