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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 militia activity.

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O'Connell was often briefed for the defence, and showed extraordinary vigour in pleading the rights of Catholics to argue for emancipation.In 1823, he set up the Catholic Association which embraced other aims to better Irish Catholics, such as: electoral reform, reform of the Church of Ireland, tenants' rights, and economic development.The Association was funded by membership dues of one penny per month, a minimal amount designed to attract Catholic peasants.More radical elements broke with O'Connell to found the Young Ireland movement.O'Connell was born at Carhan near Cahersiveen, County Kerry, to the O'Connells of Derrynane, a once-wealthy Roman Catholic family, that had been dispossessed of its lands.Throughout his career in Irish politics, O'Connell was able to gain a large following among the Irish masses in support of him and his Catholic Association.

O'Connell's main strategy was one of political reformism, working within the parliamentary structures of the British state in Ireland and forming an alliance of convenience with the Whigs.

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, in an atmosphere of alarm over the French invasion fleet in Bantry Bay, 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.

On , O'Connell was called to the Irish Bar and became a barrister.

The subscription was highly successful, and the Association raised a large sum of money in its first year.

The money was used to campaign for Catholic emancipation, specifically funding pro-emancipation members of parliament (MPs) standing for the British House of Commons.

Most famous perhaps was his retort to Baron Mc Clelland, who had said that as a barrister he would never have taken the course O'Connell had adopted: O'Connell said that Mc Clelland had never been his model as a barrister, neither would he take directions from him as a judge.