How not to make a revolution - Young Ireland, the Chartists and 1848

"William Smith O'Brien Young Ireland leaderI recently read a biography of the Young Ireland revolutionary William Smith O’Brien, leader of the 1848 insurrection in Ireland, sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘The Battle of Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch.’ I’ve vague memories of being taught about it in school, the focus being on the arguments between Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelander’s in the years before the rising with the details of the rebellion very much an afterthought, nothing in fact that I recall beyond that one battle. But the detail of this rebellion which took place during the Great Hunger that killed over a million has a lot to say about nationalism, republicanism and class and the way those tensions would play out over the next 150 years.

The book, William Smith O'Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848  by Robert Sloan,  was a random purchase while visiting Solidarity Books (the WSM bookshop in Cork) but once I got around to reading it I found there was a lot more to 1848 then expected. Lacking the time to do a proper review I’m going to blog a few notes about what I gleaned about the development of Irish Republicanism from the reading, part of my ongoing ‘Rising of the Moon’ project. As my reading of this period is pretty much restricted so far to this one biography I don’t feel confident to attempt an article as yet. This blog will however note some of what I feel the most important events and trends within the rebellion were.

My general thesis in the ‘Rising of the Moon’ has been that republicanism as it developed in Ireland in the 1790’s included a radical democratic element that was secular and leveling. That rising and the ones that followed it revealed to all the potential for class conflict within the movement, this was the situation not just in Ireland but across Europe. In the European context the divides this created led in the 1860’s to the formation of the anarchist movement as the most radical strand of republicanism that favored economic as well as political democracy. In Ireland although there was a tiny anarchist group in Dublin their was no development of anarchism and the republican movement as a whole tended to avoid class conflict by emphasising unity around a conception of Irishness (as catholic, peasant and Gaelic) that was both backward looking and alienating to many of the protestants of the north east.

There were tensions around question of class within the republican movement at times, most notably between the Irish Citizens Army and the National Volunteers in the run up to 1916. But these were always ‘resolved’ by building unity that buried the interests of the working class in the name of the greatest strength in the face of the external enemy. In that period this meant workers in Ireland ended up with a republican socialist movement in the south influencing a wave of syndicalist struggle that was amazingly completely disconnected from the syndicalist movement in the north struggling in the same period, 1919.

The events of the 1848 rebellion in Ireland at first appear so minor as to not be worth bothering with, one minor shoot out with only a couple of casualties but on digging deeper many of the contradictions that were to arise again an again were present. William Smith O’Brien encapsulates a wide range of theme in his person and his family history. His family background went back to a particularly famous Irish King, Brian Boru who at the battle of Clontarf beat another Irish king who was in alliance with the Vikings. Brian actually also had Viking mercenaries fighting on his side. In the 1540’s the family acknowledged the British King as King of Ireland and soon converted from catholicism to anglicanism to retain control of the family estates. As a significant landlord, albeit a progressive one (not a hard claim to make in those ties), O’Brian was extremely protective of private property and very nervous about any danger of arousing the ‘men of no property’ without a disciplined leadership to prevent outrages against property. This was probably the major single reason why the rebellion was so insignificant.

While the Irish republicans of the 1790’s had sought to make common cause with the radical movements in Britain in 1839 O’Brien voted against the repeal of the hated Corn Laws which kept the price of food for English workers high as he saw this as good for an agricultural economy like Ireland’s. On the other hand after the Newport rising of the same year he did second a motion for a select committee to look into the causes of discontent among Britain’s working class. But his attitude was reformist rather than looking for revolutionary allies. Unlike the 1790’s there was no strategy of seeing the radical democratic and class conflicts that existed in England as a way of constructing a common alliance against the Empire that also ruled Ireland. Yet the strength of the radical movement in Britain was significant at that time being principally organised as the Chartists a significant proportion of whose membership and leadership were of Irish extraction. One of the main national leaders of the Chartists was Fergus O’Connor whose uncle was the representative of the Emmet era United Irishmen in France and whose brother Francis was a general in Bolivar’s army of liberation in South America.

The demands of the Chartists today appear to be simply those for parliamentary reforms long since granted, with the exception of the 6th demand for annual elections but at a time were widely seen as revolutionary and a significant faction of the Chartists saw physical force as necessary for their implementation. The unfulfilled sixth demand is worth quoting as it still would have radical implications today. “Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.” It’s not quite a demand for recall and mandatibility but in effect it certainly would approach that and its easy to see why it was thus never granted.

Newport was the last large armed uprising in Britain and occurred in November 1839 when a few thousand Chartist’s, many drawn from the coal mines took up arms with the intention of freeing Chartist prisoners. 22 were killed in a gun battle in Newport with 200 being arrested afterwards. Three of the leaders were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, as Robert Emmet was sentenced in 1803, but like the Young Irelander’s their sentences were commuted to transportation. Republicanism in the sense of a general movement for democracy and against absolute power had become hegemonic enough to bring to an end the bloody massacres of ‘traitors’ that typified rebellions of the previous century. The execution of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin far from cementing British rule caused a wide spread loss of faith in it amongst those who had not been at all keen on the actual rebellion, a loss that was disastrous when the attempt to introduce conscription in 1918 led to mass mobilisations and general strikes.

O’Brien’s political development into a revolutionary separatist was quite late. His political career started with the family co-ownership of the election rights from the rotten borough of Ennis, it had an electorate of 13. He was a parliamentary reformer (he supported Catholic emancipation) and then repealer. As part of the price for emancipation O’Brien supported the abolition of the vote for the ‘40 shilling freeholders” because “it would put an end to the political strife between landlord and tenant” by removing the votes of the richer tenants! Daniel O’Connell, another landlord but this time catholic and very conservative, led the repeal movement. O’Connell had volunteered for the government forces in 1796 when Wolfe Tone’s fleet had entered Bantry Bay, opposed the 1798 rebellion and said of Robert Emmet, the leader of the 1803 rebellion, that “A man who could coolly prepare so much bloodshed, so many murders—and such horrors of every kind has ceased to be an object of compassion.”

O’Brien and O’Connell differed consistently on questions of tactics and principle within the repeal movement even though the stature of each of them meant they were forced to patch up those differences time and time again in the interest of the broader movement. With the growing radical republicanism of the late 1840’s, expressed in Ireland through the Young Irelander’s the split was inevitable and in July1846 when O’Connell forced the issue by putting forward resolutions within the Appeal Association rejecting all use of Violence the Young Irelander’s split off to form the Irish Confederation based around the demand for an Irish Parliament with full legislative and executive powers.

Within the Confederation class conflicts came to the fore in 1847 when Fintan Lalor supported by James Mitchel argued for a general rent strike and the return of the land to the peasantry. O’Brien opposed this in favor of a policy to trying to win the gentry to the nationalist cause. Duffy in support of him saw recruiting landlords as the best security against the Confederation becoming “firmly democratic.” A Chartist revival was underway in Britain in 1848 but just months before he would attempt rebellion O’Brien opposed “any attempt to couple Chartism with Repeal” saying he was not prepared to subscribe to the Chartist program and its democratic principles.

The Chartists could have been serious allies in any rebellion, the revived Chartists under Fergus O’Connor were seen as such a threat that their April 10 London demonstration saw the enrolment of 85,000 special constables from the middle class to enforce a ban on them marching from their meeting spot. When John Mitchel was put on trial at the end of May there were Chartist solidarity demonstration in “numerous” English cities. Mitchel, writing in the middle of the famine, had called for “one hundred thousand pikes” to stop food being exported and both the Nation and the United Irishmen had carried columns on military instruction and weapon manufacture.

O'Connell had been considerably more hostile to the limit attempts by Chartists to work in Ireland.  As with later conservative nationalists he played the sectarian religious card to try and prevent catholic workers showing sympathy, he linked the Chartists to the Orange Order on the flimest of excuses and declared catholic tradesmen "will now know how to treat any scoundrel that invites them to support the idol of the Orange Lodges." This was in response to an attempt to organise in Newry in the period after the Newport revolt, O'Connell had gone on to threaten the organisers that if "they entered into any correspondence with the Chartists of England they are guilty of an offence punishable with transportation." Around the same time O'Connell was sending spies in search of the Dublin Chartist's meeting in Golden Lane.   Despite O'Connells supposed opposition to physcial violence when Christopher Coyne of Capel street had a letter published defending the Chartists the response was a severe physical beating by those he belived to be allied to O'Connell only limited by the intrusion of passers by.  Chartist organisation was also reported in Drogheda and Roosky, Co Leitrim as well as Dublin were it was maintained till 1848.

Ballymacarrett in Co. Down was another center of anti-Corn law agitation but there because the workers were mostly protestant which religious sectarianism was against used as a weapon against the agitation the time the other side of the coin, the suggestion of a catholic plot was used.  There was a Chartist meeting in Newtownards and agitation in the Bann valley.

There were rebellions in 1848 in Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Prague, and Budapest and O’Brien led a Confederation delegation to Paris to congratulate the new French republic. He hoped to make a military alliance with the French as had been done in the 1790’s but the French had little sympathy for his plans. On his return to Ireland in July the British Parliament suspended habeas corpus allowing for imprisonment without trial and did not include in the legislation the usual exclusion of MP’s, removing the protection O’Brien had as a member of parliament. With little option other than waiting for arrest O’Brien and the others decided to try and start a rebellion.

This was not quite as crazy as it sounds, O’Brien had been touring parts of the country to inspect the Clubs and had thus seen thousands of men declare they were ready for rebellion. Claims were made that 50,000 men were enrolled in 170 clubs. In his Draft Address O’Brien claimed that it was “no presumptuous expectation to believe that upon the first call to arms on hundred thousand men would have appeared in the field.” They tried to initially rise the population of parts of Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary by traveling from town to town. But 1848 was in the middle of the famine that killed one million and forced another million to emigrate and O’Brien insisted that anyone joining the rebellion had to have food for 3 days and forbade looting landlords houses for food and weapons. Under such restrictions the raising of a sizeable army was simply impossible, men would join for a day before retreating home in the evening in the face of hunger. O’Brien even forbade the felling of trees across roads “without the permission of the owner of the estate on which they grew!”

Another of the rebel leaders, the journalist Patrick O’Donohoe, wrote about the effects of such orders “on his first appearance in every village and hamlet he was hailed with ecstasy as a deliverer and men, women and children would have followed him to death in wild delight. But the moment he spoke their visions of future happiness vanished and they shrunk from his standard in despair and dismay.” But O’Brien represented the views of the majority of the leaders, at their conference in Ballingarry at the start of the rebellion after debate they rejected the idea of taking money from the bank in Carrick to finance the rebellion and rejected confiscating the landed property to offer it as the reward for victory.

The other obstacle the rebellion faced was the opposition of the catholic church. In the 1790’s the British state had started a process of winning over the Catholic church and by the late 1840’s this had an impact right down to the level of parish priest. In some rural areas priests led the rising’s of 1798, in 1848 the priests infiltrated the tiny forces raised and spread fear and demoralisation. For a week at the end of July the Young Ireland leaders traveled the area, rising a couple of hundred men here and there only to see their tiny force melt away due to hunger and the influence of priests each evening. Finally on the 29th of July there was a shoot out between a party of 50 police and the small rebel force of miners, tradesmen and small tenant farmers which saw the police come out on top and the rebels disband. The battle took place with the police fortified in Margaret McCormack farmhouse, hence the ‘Battle of Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch.’

Several of the captured rebel leaders including O’Brien and O’Donohoe were sentenced to death for sedition but then had their sentences commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s land. Others fled into exile, with some becoming the founding members of the Fenian’s which would have a very much longer and more successful history but which was also to back down when it came to the class conflict around land that erupted during the land war. This is the subject for another blog post I hope to have online soon.

There seems to have been some Chartist involvement in the 1848 rebellion.  Dublin Chartists Patrick O’Higgins received a prison sentence afterwards in connection with the planning of revolt and in the north on "Shane Hill on May 20th 1848 Michael Doheny, the ex Young Irelander who by now was describing himself as a Chartist" gave a militant speech to a crowd of 500.

The comments on Chartism in Ireland are drawn from Irish Chartism (February 2009), Chris Patton of Socialist Democracy

A hundred years, a thousand years, we're marching on the road
The going isn't easy yet, we've got a heavy load, oh we've got a heavy load
The way is blind with blood and sweat, and death sings in our ears
But time is marching on our side, we will defeat the years, oh we will defeat the years
We men of bone of shrunken shank, our only treasure doth,
Women who carry at their breast heirs to the hungry earth, oh heirs to the hungry earth
Speak with one voice, we march, we rest, and march again upon the years

Sons of our sons are listening to hear the Chartist cheers
Oh, to hear the Chartists cheers


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