The Irish Influence in the Chartist Movement

It was undeniably in the Chartist Movement that the Irish made their most important contribution to the growth of political radicalism among the working classes in nineteenth-century Britain. But their earlier influence was not negligible. John Doherty, for instance, was a leading trade unionist and in 1829 organised the first general union among the Lancashire cotton spinners; there was William Thompson, sometimes called the "precursor of Marx" on account of his economic writings; Hugh Doherty, editor of the Fourierist paper, the Phalanx; Jim Connell, author of the "Red Flag"; and Thomas Sexton and Peter Curran, trade union leaders. And, as James Connolly the Irish socialist has pointed out, not only did working-class Irish exiles exercise an influence out of all proportion to their numbers; their influence was consistently extremist: "always they were the most advanced, the least compromising, the most irreconcilable element in the movement". This radical activity in England sprang naturally from the background of Irish society itself.

There was, of course, a long and honoured tradition of organised political opposition. But that tradition was diversified and enlivened among peasants and artisans by economic conditions and tensions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the countryside, an oppressive system of land tenure, which denied any form of tenant right or compensation for improvements, was rendered even harsher by high competitive rents (a reflection of the growth in population) and by the recurrent famines (of which those in 1846 and 1847 were merely the most devastating) due to a diet based almost exclusively on home-grown potatoes. In the towns, the ill-developed and still largely domestic industries, which had been protected and subsidised under Irish legislation 1782-1798, suffered heavily from increasing British competition, especially after the Act of Union in 1800 and the removal of the protective duties. Such economic distress and discontent could, moreover, still feed on religious issues even after Catholic Emancipation in 1829; for though Emancipation gave Catholics legal equality with Protestants, it left them with a grievance in the payment of tithes to the Protestant Established Church. The outcome was endemic unrest in the Irish countryside.

Writing in 1836, Sir George Cornewall Lewis declared that for the past seventy years Ireland had been the scene of constantly recurring disturbances In a large part of Ireland there is less security of person and property than in any part of Europe except perhaps in the wildest districts of Calabria and Greece.5 Such unrest achieved a measure of cohesion in the secret agrarian societies - akin to what Dr. Hobsbawm has called "social banditry" - which appeared in Ireland during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries under a variety of names: for instance, Whiteboys, Defenders, Levellers, Peep-of-Day or Break-of-Day Boys. Their existence was, for the most part, characterised by "driftless acts of outrage".' But from these local groups, a more deliberate organisation with complex economic and social objectives developed, which became known as Ribbonism or the Ribbon Society. In the years after the Union, there are abundant references in public records, newspapers and parliamentary reports to the popular agrarian combination known as Ribbonism - even though no clear picture of this movement emerges. It was composed almost exclusively of Roman Catholics of the lower classes and organised on a hierarchical basis somewhat similar to that of the United Irishmen which had flourished in Ulster, Leinster and other parts of Ireland in the 1790s and played an important role in the nationalist rising of 1798.

At the base of the Ribbon Society were "bodies", each composed of thirty-six men; there might be several in one parish. The Parish Committee, composed of representatives of each "body", sent delegates to the county meetings, which in turn sent two delegates to the national meetings. These met once a quarter to discuss policy and issue instructions, passwords and signs for the next quarter. Strict secrecy was maintained by an elaborate system of signs and passwords, which usually took the form of simple questions and answers, accompanied by gestures. All instructions were passed by word of mouth and the ordinary Ribbonman had no knowledge of any "body" but his own. The intention of the Society was to unite the existing agrarian confederacies into one great combination extending throughout Ireland. The marked element of sectarianism which appeared in many Ribbon oaths and documents gave the impression that it was primarily a religious movement of Catholics against Protestants. Actually it was a war of the poor tenantry, almost all of whom were Catholics, against local landlords and parsons, who were members of the Established Church. The basis of its programme was the abolition of tithes and the reduction of rents, although contemporaries giving evidence before the Parliamentary Select Committee in 1839 were prepared to argue that its aims were more extensive.

Major George Warburton maintained that it was a system which could be converted to "any object which may arise", while Hill Wilson Rowan, a stipendiary magistrate, declared that he had been informed by witnesses that its principal object was to overturn the British -Government in Ireland, to subvert the Protestant religion, to recover the forfeited estates, and, when strong enough, to establish an independent Monarchy in Ireland under a Roman Catholic King. The question is confused by the web of secrecy which surrounded all Ribbon activities, and by the fact that much of the evidence comes from hostile sources. Moreover, the practical measures adopted by its leaders varied from one year to the next. In the early twenties, the Ribbonmen led by a Dublin coal porter, Michael Keenan, envisaged a countrywide rising against the government and hoped to enlist the cooperation of a section of the English Radicals, who were believed to be on the point of revolt should Queen Caroline be convicted of treason. The plans failed to materialise, Keenan was tried and transported, and from this time on the Ribbon Society concentrated its attention on building up its organisation. It was alleged that between 1820 and 1840 Ribbonism had spread into every part of Ireland and established itself in several cities in England and Scotland - Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. There is, it is true, no evidence specifically connecting Ribbonmen as such with English working-class radicals. But wherever Ribbon Lodges were formed in England, an unusually high proportion of Irish labourers is found participating in local radical and labour movements.

There need be no doubt, therefore, that Ribbonism helped to strengthen radical and Chartist organisations in northern England. Agrarian societies were not the only form of organisation among the lower classes in Ireland. Trade unions flourished in many Dublin trades and in other Irish cities from the second half of the eighteenth century. In the opinion of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the Dublin trades were better organised than any in England in 1824 when the Combination Laws were repealed." Although the primary purpose of the Irish unions was to protect the working conditions of their members, matters of national importance also attracted their attention. In 1830-2, tradesmen in Dublin, Cork and other Irish towns held demonstrations and meetings in favour of Repeal of the Union. In 1843, with the revival of the demand for Repeal, the Dublin workers once more demonstrated in favour of the measure. And in 1848, Dublin tradesmen took part in the disturbances which culminated in an unsuccessful rising against the government.

The existence of widespread trade and political organisations among the lower classes in Ireland meant that there were, among the numerous tradesmen and labourers forced through unemployment to emigrate to England, many experienced political agitators, ready to participate in movements against the existing order. They are found in the forefront of combinations to raise wages, often (like John Doherty in 1829) as leaders of strikes and lock-outs. In 1836 an employer, giving evidence before a parliamentary commission, declared that where there is discontent, or a disposition to combine, or turn-outs among the work people, the Irish are the leaders; they are the most difficult to reason with and convince on the subject of wages and regulations in factories.

And when lower-class unrest in England was turned to a specifically political programme in the Chartist movement, the Irish, as we shall see, played a prominent role. In Ireland itself, the situation was different; there, the movement for radical reform and the Charter failed to take root as it did among their compatriots in England. For the vast mass of the native Irish, the most urgent question was to alter the whole system of government and to destroy Ireland's colonial status: Catholic Emancipation and then, after 1829, the abolition of tithes and Repeal of the Union - these were the dominant aims of Irish radicalism. The possible advantages of Universal Suffrage, Vote by Ballot and other reforms proposed in the People's Charter seemed remote to a people who were constantly reminded of the iniquities inflicted upon them by English government in Ireland.

Other factors such as the absence of large-scale industry and of an industrial proletariat, and the dependence of the vast majority of the Irish people on subsistence agriculture, hindered the spread of a programme of reform on Chartist lines. Such considerations may help to explain not only the hostility of the Catholic hierarchy, but - what is at first sight harder to understand - the hostility of Irish political leaders to radical reform and Chartism, and to the whole idea of unity between the Irish and the English working classes. Daniel O'Connell, who dominated Irish politics from the I820s until his death in 1847, was indeed in sympathy with many of the principles endorsed in the People's Charter. Yet he used all his influence to crush any manifestation of Chartism in Ireland. Whether or not this was the betrayal of Ireland that O'Higgins and other Chartists maintained, it was certainly vital in limiting the spread of Chartism there: and O'Connell may well have been right when he said that, but for his opposition (often accompanied by physical violence on the part of  his supporters), Chartism "would have passed over and spread from one end of Ireland to the other”.

O'Connell also made considerable efforts to prevent Irishmen resident in England from joining the agitation, lest a popular movement might be unleashed which would threaten to undermine "the groundworks of the social state - the protection of property and the institutions of the country". The Young Ireland Party, who were far less conservative in their outlook than O'Connell, agreed in opposing the Chartists; though in their case, the reasons were altogether different - a passionate hatred of all things English. Despite these difficulties, small groups of reformers appeared in a number of the larger Irish towns, notably Dublin, Belfast and Cork where the trade-union movement was well-established. In the summer of 1839 a few Dublin radicals founded a Chartist Association, holding weekly meetings and distributing to their supporters Chartist periodicals, such as the Northern Star, the Champion and the Scotch Patriot. In July 1839, they invited the Chartist Convention, which was then sitting in Birmingham, to send a speaker to Dublin.

Robert Lowery was appointed by the Convention and a meeting to welcome him was called early in August. However, members of other political organisations, controlled by Daniel O'Connell, notably the Precursor Society and the Trades Political Union, determined not to allow Lowery a hearing and denounced the Chartists as "violent incendiaries anxious to plunder . . . [and] to dupe the people of Ireland into illegal practices”. The meeting was broken up in confusion and Robert Lowery might have been seriously injured if he had not escaped from the hall. O'Connell praised the part played by the Trades Political Union "in this loyal demonstration". It took some time for the Dublin Chartists to recover from this set-back but, by June 1841, the Dublin police were reporting that "Chartism was rapidly on the increase in Dublin". During the same year, small Chartist groups were formed in other Irish towns, for example Belfast, Newry, Drogheda and Loughrea. In order to co-ordinate these various Chartist groups, the Irish Universal Suffrage Association [I.U.S.A.] was formed in August 1841.

Meetings were held every Sunday in the house of Patrick O'Higgins, a Dublin merchant, who was the President of the Association. Unlike the English Chartists, the I.U.S.A. did not take part in militant processions or public meetings, but confined its activities to the distribution of Chartist periodicals and to holding weekly political discussions, which were regularly reported in the Northern Star for several years. Unable to produce a newspaper of their own, the Irish Chartists relied upon the Northern Star as their main source of information of Chartist activities. Most of the members were tradesmen or small farmers. Their numbers never exceeded one thousand, and so the influence of the Association was limited. One Catholic priest, the Rev. Patrick Ryan of Donabate, a parish just outside Dublin, joined the Association in 1841, but he was not typical. The majority of the Catholic hierarchy were very hostile to Chartism: they denounced the Chartists from the altar; and, so the I.U.S.A. maintained in 1843, tried to intimidate Association members by refusing "to baptise the children of Chartists and [by] withhold[ing] the sacraments from them until they had promised to withdraw themselves from the I.U.S.A. and surrender into their hands the cards of membership”.

The Association was most active between 1841 and 1844, when it organised several petitions to Parliament in favour of The People's Charter and Repeal of the Union. The I.U.S.A. produced two pamphlets: the first in 1842, entitled Chartism and Repeal, which argued for an alliance of Irish Repealers and English Chartists,23 and the second in 1843, Civil and Religious Liberty, which dealt with the persecution of Irish Chartists by Daniel O'Connell and the Catholic clergy. The I.U.S.A., pledged to support the "Six Points" of the People's Charter together with Repeal of the Union, was firm in its view that these changes should only be achieved by constitutional means. It aimed to create a public opinion in favour of these rights and principles through the medium of public meetings, petitions to parliament, discussions, lectures, cheap publications and the newspaper press; and also by securing the return of members to parliament pledged to support the objects of the Association.

Patrick O'Higgins, the Irish Chartist leader, who drafted the Declaration of the Association, believed that the introduction of the "Six Points", in particular universal suffrage, would create a better feeling between the different classes in society since it would cause the upper classes of society to set a higher value on the labourer and artisan than they have hitherto done; and to consider the happiness and prosperity of the working classes as the surest test of the landlords' and employers' respectability.26 Like many other Irish radicals of the period, O'Higgins and the Irish Chartists believed that Daniel O'Connell had used his unique position for his own personal gain. From the early I830s, O'Higgins alleged, O'Connell preferred an alliance with the Whigs and some petty reforms in Ireland, to the uncertainty of agitation over tithes and Repeal; and, in his desire to keep the Tory party out of office, had urged the Irish people to support "the cunning and deceitful Whigs".

Among the Irish Catholic leaders and their supporters, there had been a general run for places at the disposal of the Government or of the Irish executive, and by 1840 the Irish Repeal party was weakened by internal dissention and corruption. O'Higgins maintained that the great "Liberator" himself was primarily responsible for this situation. However, with the return of the Tories in 1841, O'Connell renewed the Repeal agitation; and although his motive, according to O'Higgins, was to return the Whigs to power, the Irish Chartists enthusiastically supported the Repeal agitation in 1843. But they urged the Irish people not to be deceived again by their leaders into substituting Repeal for the promise of reform. Thus when, at the proclamation of the Clontarf mass-meeting in October 1843, O'Connell abandoned the agitation, the I.U.S.A. expressed their dismay at seeing "a noble, brave, generous, confident people dragged about in this manner - deluded, cheated, plundered, deserted". They made a fresh effort later in 1843 to bring about a reconciliation between Feargus O'Connor and Daniel O'Connell as the first step to union between the Chartists and the Repealers.

But after years of mutual hostility, these appeals went unheeded. The following year O'Connell was tried for conspiracy and the I.U.S.A. voluntarily suspended its meetings "lest it should seem guilty of offering a further and selfish obstruction to the national feeling". The absence of regular meetings led to a fall in membership and the Association failed to re-form as an effective political group except for a few months in 1848. Individual Dublin Chartists were neither liked nor trusted by the nationalists, and they played little part in the revolutionary events of that year. O'Higgins was arrested in August 1848 on a charge of hoarding arms and, with five other Irish nationalists, was kept in prison without trial until March 1849 when he was released after public protest.

From this time Chartism in Ireland ceased to exist as an organised movement. In contrast to the comparative insignificance of the Chartist movement in Ireland was the participation of considerable numbers of Irishmen in the English movement, both among the leaders and the rank-and-file - as the reports of criminal trials arising out of Chartist agitation show. The sparsity of detailed studies of local Chartist organisations makes it impossible to give a clear picture of their place in the movement as a whole. But there is enough to show the existence of local groups in Barnsley, Manchester and London. More obvious is Irish influence in the leadership of the movement. Many of the fifty-eight tried with O'Connor at Lancaster in 1843 had Irish names. James Bronterre O'Brien gave the movement an ideology which it otherwise lacked. O'Connor had a correspondingly important place in leading the masses. Much of his energy was concentrated on building a united mass movement, modelled significantly on the type of political organisation so successfully used by O'Connell in Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s. As early as 1836, he tried to form such a body in the Central Association in London, but it was not until 1841 with the foundation of the National Chartist Association [N.C.A.] that he succeeded in creating a large-scale organisation.

He was convinced of the necessity to concentrate the leadership in a small but dedicated body of men headed by himself. He therefore supported the election to the Executive of several Irish Chartists who were loyal to him and to his policies: they included a number of Manchester Irish Chartists; for example James Campbell, who became Secretary of the N.C.A. from its creation in 1841 until the autumn of 1842; Thomas Clarke and Christopher Doyle who were leading members of the Executive from 1843 until 1850, when O'Connor's leadership was opposed by Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney. Devotion to Ireland and the cause of Irish nationality was common to all Irish Chartists whether they remained at home or joined the ranks of the English Chartist movement. Irish Chartists differed from Irish nationalists largely in their opposition to the existing class-structure of society which, they argued, must be altered to allow the labouring masses to enjoy the benefits of self-government.

While the executive and legislative power of the state remained in the hands of a small, privileged minority, the mass of the people would secure but small advantage from the restoration of Ireland's Parliament in College Green. Reform of the franchise, therefore, must precede Repeal of the Union. It followed from this that English working-class radicals must unite with Irish nationalists. In so far as this union was achieved, it was the doing of Irish Chartists in England and of O'Connor in particular. As early as 1839, O'Connor urged the Chartist Convention to consider the best means of "enlisting the support of the Irish people in the furtherance of the People's Charter". In the Star, O'Connor constantly advocated such a union. In 1846, Thomas Clarke, an Irishman on the Executive, made a new appeal on behalf of the Chartist Convention to the Irish nationalists to unite with them, since "co- operation strengthens the hand of labour, and enables us to make a stand against the power of monopoly".These appeals met a hostile reception from Irish national leaders until 1847, when Feargus O'Connor was elected Member of Parliament for Nottingham. His support in the House of Commons of the Irish demand for repeal and his opposition to coercive measures for Ireland won the approval of a considerable section of the Irish Confederation, which had been formed in January 1847 for the purpose of achieving independence for the Irish nation by every means consistent with "human morality and reason".

Joint meetings of Confederates and Chartists were held in Dublin in January and April 1848; and on the occasion of the presentation of the Third Chartist Petition to the House of Commons, Smith O'Brien, the Irish leader, declared: I am happy to think that there is amongst the middle and humbler classes of this country a large amount of sympathy with Ireland ... that amongst the Chartists, from whom there has been a petition presented this evening, there is scarce an individual who does not sympathise with the cause of Ireland .. I trust that the repealers of Ireland will accept that aid which the Chartists are universally prepared to give them. Although the moderates and conservatives among the leadership of the national movement looked upon the alliance with the Chartists with considerable disapproval, Irish Confederates in Dublin and other towns endorsed the attitude adopted by the extremists. In Dublin a body known as the Trades and Citizens Committee, composed of tradesmen and members of the Confederate party, which had been formed the previous year, sent Michael Doheny to represent them at the Chartist Convention in May 1848, and "to convey personally our utmost sympathy and warmest support" for the aims of working-class radicals in England.

In England, where Irish Repealers and Confederates had for some years been in favour of limited co-operation with the Chartists, the change of policy among the leaders was welcomed. Irish Confederates marched with the Chartists to present the Chartist Petition on April 10th, headed "by a green banner, with gilded edges, in centre an Irish harp” Joint demonstrations were held in London during May and June, many of which were forcibly broken up by the police. Elsewhere in the country unified organisations developed haphazardly and without the expert direction needed for a movement of this kind. However, later events showed that elaborate plans had been made for simultaneous risings of the English and Irish people to take place during the Whitsun weekend. Late in July there appeared The English Patriot and Irish Repealer, a newspaper edited and published by James Leach, an English Chartist supporter of the Confederate- Chartist alliance. The paper endorsed the view that the Irish and English should unite to support "the principles of Democratic Liberty".

In the event, the alliance achieved nothing. In part this was due to lack of planning in the face of government action, so that the first sign of repressive measures killed the popular movement on both sides of the Irish Sea. More important, perhaps, was the absence of a real basis of agreement to overcome the gulf between English and Irish social backgrounds and the deep-rooted suspicions which O'Connell had fanned in his opposition to Chartism at home. It was, in fact, only the determination of O'Connor and his compatriots in the English movement which achieved even temporary union between the two organisations. But the policy of alliance and the great influence wielded in England by O'Connor and other Irishmen nevertheless did much to mould English Chartist policies and outlooks in the 1840s. In the first place, the participation of the Irish contingent strengthened the "physical force" element and helped to commit the movement to a policy of revolutionary change which was far beyond its resources at the time.

The Cuffey conspiracy in 1848, which may be regarded as the last spark of the "physical force" group, was led by William Cuffay, Thomas Fay, William Lacy and William Dowling, all of whom seem to have been Irish. Secondly, the convictions of O'Connor and his fellow-countrymen and the consequent policy of alliance between English and Irish radicalism, forced the whole "Irish question" on to the attention of English Chartists. Between 1841 and 1847, when O'Connor was the predominant figure in the Chartist movement, efforts were made to break down the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding which existed between the English and Irish working people.

O'Connor used the Northern Star, to inform his readers on various aspects of life in Ireland. He secured the inclusion of Repeal of the Union in the second Chartist Petition of 1842 despite opposition from William Lovett and the Scottish Chartists43 and, when the repeal agitation was renewed in Ireland in 1843, O'Connor encouraged English working-class radicals to agitate in support.

Chartist demonstrations were held in many parts of England and Scotland in the spring and summer of 1843, organised for the most part by Irishmen in the Chartist movement but attended by English workmen. Irish Chartists in England were almost without exception fervent supporters of O'Connor largely on account of his policy towards Ireland. Barnsley, for example, where they numbered over a hundred and provided several of the local leaders, was an O'Connorite stronghold. O'Connor, for his part, welcomed the enrolment of his compatriots into the Chartist movement and praised the Barnsley Irish Chartists for "the perfect union that existed between them and  their English brethren".

Although it is hard to estimate the extent to which rank-and-file English Chartists came to understand Irish problems and difficulties, it seems likely that a body of opinion favourable to a union with the Irish developed. By 1848, when some limited measure of co-operation was achieved between the Chartists and the Irish Confederates, union with the Irish nationalists was supported by considerable numbers of Chartists in England. George Julian Harney, for example, admitted that at one time he had been filled with disgust at what he considered to be the wickedness and ignorance of Irishmen in representing "England as the natural oppressor of Ireland, and Englishmen as the enemy of the Irish people". By 1848, however, he had realised the truth of the assertion that "hatred, contempt and indifference towards the Irish people abound in English society". Lastly, Irish Chartists shared and to a considerable extent embedded in English Chartism an ideology and a concept of social justice centred on the land rather than on the towns.

Thus, while O'Brien drew for his Chartist ideology on continental theories of class-struggle, he believed that the basic evils of society could be traced to the existing conditions of land ownership; and while he recognised the growing importance of the middle classes, he saw land as still the major source of wealth. The land should be nationalised, and made "the common property of all, to be used and enjoyed under regulations made with the consent of all, expressed by the vote of the majority". By establishing a comprehensive system of national credit, everyone would be able to "rent and cultivate on his own instead of being subject, as now, to the injustice and tyranny of wage slavery".

Thomas Devyr, sub-editor of the Northern Liberator between 1838 and 1840, similarly traced the misery among the labouring classes in England and Ireland to "the landed aristocracy and their base and unprincipled mercenaries" there was "not an evil in society which has not its root in absolute ownership of land". To both Devyr and O'Brien therefore, reform of parliament had to be based in reform of the land, and as early as 1831 O'Brien declared that "no plan of parliamentary reform will produce substantial advantage to the community at large, which will not lay the foundation of a gradual extinction of aristocracy". Similarly, O'Connor never came to terms with industrialisation. "It opens", he wrote a fictitious, unsettled, and unwholesome market for labour, leaving to the employer complete and entire control over wages and employment... It entices the agricultural labourer under false pretences, from the natural and wholesome market, and locates him in an unhealthy atmosphere, where human beings herd like swine.

Far from accepting the industrial worker as the true representative of a new society, he saw him rather as an ex-peasant whose best interest was to return to the land from which he had been driven by the lure of industry and the iniquitous power of the landlords. The key to social reconstruction therefore lay in a thorough solution of the land question. His ideal was peasant ownership of small holdings, and this became the basis of his Land Plan adopted by the Chartists in 1845. This plan had its origins in the conditions of Irish not English society, and in O'Connor's own experiences as a farmer in Fortrobert, Co. Cork and the intimate knowledge of the Irish land system which he had acquired while living and working as a barrister in Ireland.

It developed naturally from his proposed reform of that land system, first tentatively stated in his early pamphlet "A State of Ireland"and later elaborated in a series of "Letters to Irish Landlords" published in the Northern Star during the summer of 1841. For all the practical hints in "A Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms"by which he launched his plan in England, O'Connor in fact committed English Chartism to a policy obviously ill-suited to a predominantly industrial society. And although a somewhat wistful regard for the land and dislike of the factory was common enough in nineteenth-century European radicalism, it is hard to doubt that the failure of English Chartism to adopt a more positive policy towards industrialisation had its chief source in a leadership whose outlook had been formed in altogether different conditions.

Cambridge – Rachel O'Higgins

Past&Present, No.20 (Nov.,1961),pp. 83-96.