Chartism (Lancaster Pamphlets)

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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 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.

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Chartism (Lancaster Pamphlets)

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 and 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 , suffered heavily from increasing British competition, especially after the Act of Union in and the removal of the protective duties. Such economic distress and discontent could, moreover, still feed on religious issues even after Catholic Emancipation in ; 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 , 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.

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". 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 s and played an important role in the nationalist rising of 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.

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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 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.

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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 and 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.


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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 when the Combination Laws were repealed. In , tradesmen in Dublin, Cork and other Irish towns held demonstrations and meetings in favour of Repeal of the Union.

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In , with the revival of the demand for Repeal, the Dublin workers once more demonstrated in favour of the measure. And in , 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 as leaders of strikes and lock-outs.


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In 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 , 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. Given this local radical prominence, it made excellent sense for him, on losing his job, to set up as a bookseller and printer in Oak Street, Manchester. It was at this time, however, that his Chartist career moved on to the national level. In July , he chaired the delegate conference in Manchester at which the key organisation of Chartism, the National Charter Association, was established.

He sat as a delegate in the convention, of which he acted as vice-chairman.

In addressing a public meeting he was just as free and easy as in a private conversation; but for fact and argument there were but few of the speakers at that period who excelled him. Leach played a prominent part in bringing Chartism and the trade unions together, notably in support for the general strike movement of August , and was one of the fifty-nine defendants in the mass trial at Lancaster in March , although, like the others found guilty of conspiracy, he was not sentenced.

He continued as a leading Chartist throughout the s, but was also active in the co-operative movement while not an Owenite and in the agitation for a ten-hour limit on the working day. In , he was a member of both the national convention of April and the national assembly of May and the latter appointed him to the militant provisional executive. A committed supporter of collaboration between English Chartists and Irish confederates, he had represented the Chartists in Dublin on 12th January at the first meeting between the two movements. After his release, from late Leach came to favour an alliance with the middle-class radicals, a startling U-turn for one who had displayed continuous personal and ideological hostility towards the Anti-Corn Law League.

This phase was short-lived as he soon retired from politics and returned to the obscurity from which Chartism had lifted him. Volume 85 , Issue The full text of this article hosted at iucr. If you do not receive an email within 10 minutes, your email address may not be registered, and you may need to create a new Wiley Online Library account.

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