James Connolly


Labour In Irish History


Chapter XII
A chapter of horrors: Daniel O’Connell and the working class


“’Tis civilisation, so ye say, and cannot be changed for the weakness of men,
Take heed, take heed, ’tis a dangerous way to drive the wild wolf to the end of his den.
Take heed of your civilisation, ye, ’tis a pyramid built upon quivering hearts,
There are times, as Paris in ’93, when the commonest men play terrible parts.
Take heed of your progress, its feet are shod with the souls it slew, with its own pollutions,
Submission is good, but the order of God may flame the torch of the revolutions.”
John Boyle O'Reilly

For both Ireland and Great Britain the period between the winning of Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the year 1850 was marked by great misery and destitution amongst the producing classes, accompanied by abortive attempts at revolution in both countries, and the concession of some few unimportant political and social reforms. In Ireland the first move against the forces of privilege was the abolition of the Tithes, or, more correctly speaking, the abolition of the harsh and brutal features attendant upon the collection of the tithes. The clergy of the Episcopalian Church, the Church by law established in Ireland, were legally entitled to levy upon the people of each district, irrespective of religion, a certain tax for the upkeep of that Church and its ministers. The fact that this was in conformity with the practice of the Catholic Church in countries where it was dominant did not, of course, make this any more palatable to the Catholic peasantry of Ireland, who continually saw a part of their crops seized upon and sold to maintain a clergy whose ministrations they never attended, and whose religion they detested. Eventually their discontent at the injustice grew so acute as to flare forth in open rebellion, and accordingly all over Ireland the tenants began to resist the collection of tithes by every means in their power.

The Episcopalian clergymen called on the aid of the law, and, escorted by police and military, seized the produce of the poor tenants and carried it off to be sold at auction; the peasantry, on the other hand, collected at dead of night and carried off the crops and cattle from farms upon which the distraint was to be made, and, when that was impossible, they strove by acts of violence to terrorise auctioneers and buyers from consummating the sale. Many a bright young life was extinguished on the gallows, or rotted away in prison cells, as a result of this attempt to sustain a hated religion by contributions exacted at the point of the bayonet, until eventually the struggle assumed all the aspect of a civil war. At several places when the military were returning from raiding the farm of some poor peasant, the country people gathered, erected barricades, and opposed their passage by force. Significantly enough of the temper and qualities of the people in those engagements, they generally succeeded in rescuing their crops and cattle from the police and military, and in demonstrating that Ireland still possessed all the material requisite for armed rebellion.

In one conflict at Newtownbarry, twelve peasants were shot and twenty fatally wounded; in another at Carrigshock eleven policemen were killed and seventeen wounded; and at a great fight at Rathcormack, twelve peasants were killed in a fight with a large body of military and armed police. Eye-witnesses declared that the poor farmers and labourers engaged, stood the charge and volleys of the soldiers as firmly as if they had been seasoned troops, a fact that impressed the Government more than a million speeches could have done. The gravity of the crisis was enhanced by the contrast between the small sum often involved, and the bloodshed necessary to recover it. Thus, at Rathcormack, twelve peasants were massacred in an attempt to save the effects of a poor widow from being sold to pay a sum of forty shillings due as tithes. The ultimate effect of all this resistance was the passage of a Tithes Commutation Act by which the collection of tithes was abolished, and the substitution in its place of a ‘Tithe Rent Charge’ by means of which the sums necessary for the support of the Episcopalian clergy were included in the rent and paid as part of that tribute to the landed aristocracy. In other words, the economic drain remained, but it was deprived of all the more odious and galling features of its collection. The secret Ribbon and Whiteboy Societies were the most effective weapons of the peasantry in this fight, and to their activities the victory is largely to be attributed. The politicians gave neither help nor countenance to the fight, and save for the advocacy of one small Dublin newspaper, conducted by a small but brilliant band of young Protestant writers, no journal in all Ireland championed their cause. For the Catholic clergy it is enough to say that while this tithe war was being waged, they were almost universally silent about that ‘grievous sin of secret conspiracy’ upon which they are usually so eloquent. We would not dare to say that they recognised that, as the secret societies were doing their work against a rival priesthood, it was better to be sparing in their denunciations for the time being; perhaps that is not the explanation, but at all events it is noteworthy that as soon as the tithe war was won, all the old stock invectives against every kind of extra-constitutional action were immediately renewed.

Contemporaneously with this tithe-war had grown up the agitation for repeal of the Legislative Union led by Daniel O’Connell, and supported by the large body of the middle classes, and by practically all the Catholic clergy. At the outset of this agitation the Irish working class, partly because they accepted O’Connell’s explanation of the decay of Irish trade as due to the Union; and partly because they did not believe he was sincere in his professions of loyalty to the English monarchy, nor in his desire to limit his aims to repeal, enthusiastically endorsed and assisted his agitation. He, on his part, incorporated the trades bodies in his association with rights equal to that of regularly enrolled members, a proceeding which evoked considerable dissent from many quarters. Thus the Irish Monthly Magazine (Dublin), a rabidly O’Connellite journal, in its issue of September, 1832, complains that the National Union (of Repealers) is in danger because “there is a contemporary union composed of the tradesmen and operative classes, the members of which are qualified to vote at its sittings, and who are in every respect put upon a perfect equality with the members of the National Union”. And in its December number of the same year it returns to the charge with the significant statement that “In fact we apprehend great mischief and little good from the trades union as at present constituted”. The representative of the English King in Ireland, Lord Lieutenant Anglesey, apparently coincided in the opinion of this follower of O’Connell as to the danger of Irish trade unions in politics, for when the Dublin trade bodies projected a mammoth demonstration in favour of Repeal, he immediately proclaimed it, and ordered the military to suppress it, if necessary, by armed force. But as O’Connell grew in strength in the country, and attracted to himself more and more of the capitalist and professional classes in Ireland, and as he became more necessary to the schemes of the Whig politicians in England, and thought these latter more necessary to his success, he ceased to play for the favour of organised labour, and gradually developed into the most bitter and unscrupulous enemy of trade unionism Ireland has yet produced, signalising the trades of Dublin always out for his most venomous attack.

In 1835 O’Connell took his seat on the Ministerial side of the House of Commons as a supporter of the Whig Government. At that time the labouring population of England were the most exploited, degraded, and almost dehumanised of all the peoples of Europe. The tale of their condition reveals such inhumanity on the part of the masters, such woeful degradation on the side of the toilers, that were it not attested by the sober record of witnesses before various Parliamentary Commissions the record would be entirely unbelievable. Women worked down in coal mines, almost naked, for a pitiful wage, often giving birth to children when surprised by the pains of parturition amidst the darkness and gloom of their places of employment; little boys and girls were employed drawing heavy hutches (wagons) of coal along the pit-floors by means of a strap around their bodies and passing through between their little legs; in cotton factories little tots of eight, seven, and even six years of age of both sexes were kept attending machinery, being hired like slaves from workhouses for that purpose, and worked twelve, fourteen, and even sixteen hours per day, living, sleeping, and working under conditions which caused them to die off as with a plague; in pottery works, bakeshops, clothing factories and workrooms the overwork and unhealthy conditions of employment led to such suffering and degradation and shortening of life that the very existence of the working-class was endangered. In the agricultural districts the sufferings of the poor were so terrible that the English agricultural labourer – the most stolidly patient, unimaginative person on the face of the earth – broke out into riots, machine-breaking, and hay-rick burning. As in Ireland, Captain Rock or Captain Moonlight had been supposed to be the presiding genius of the nocturnal revolts of the peasantry, so in England, Captain Swing, an equally mythical personage, took the blame or the credit. In a booklet circulated amongst the English agricultural labourers, Captain Swing is made to say: “I am not the author of these burnings. These fires are caused by farmers having been turned out of their lands to make room for foxes, peasants confined two years in prison for picking up a dead partridge, and parsons taking a poor man’s only cow for the tithe of his cabbage garden.” So great was the distress, so brutal the laws, and so hopelessly desperate the labourers, that in the Special Assize held at Winchester in December, 1830, no less than three hundred prisoners were put upon trial, a great number of whom were sentenced to death. Of the number so condemned, six were actually hanged, twenty transported for life, and the rest for smaller periods. We are told in the English Via Dolorosa, of William Heath, that “a child of fourteen had sentence of death recorded against him; and two brothers, one twenty, the other nineteen, were ruthlessly hanged on Penenden Heath, whither they were escorted by a regiment of Scots Greys.” As to whom was responsible for all this suffering, contemporary witnesses leave no doubt: The London Times, most conservative of all capitalist papers, in its issue of December 27, 1830, declared: – “We do affirm that the actions of this pitiable class of men (the labourers) are a commentary on the treatment experienced by them at the hands of the upper and middling classes. The present population must be provided for in body and spirit on more liberal and Christian principles, or the whole mass of labourers will start into legions of bandittibanditti less criminal than those who have made them so; those who by a just but fearful retribution will soon become their victims.” And in 1833 a Parliamentary Commission reported that “The condition of the agricultural labourers was brutal and wretched; their children during the day were struggling with the pigs for food, and at night were huddled down on damp straw under a roof of rotten thatch.”

In the large towns the same state of rebellion prevailed, the military were continually on duty, and so many people were killed that the coroners ceased to hold inquests. Such was the state of England – misery and revolt beneath, and sanguinary repression coupled with merciless greed above – at the time when O’Connell, taking his seat in Parliament, threw all his force on the side of capitalist privilege and against social reform.

In 1838 five cotton-spinners in Glasgow, in Scotland, were sentenced to seven years’ transportation for acts they had committed in connection with trade union combination to better the miserable condition of their class. As the punishment was universally felt to be excessive, even in the brutal spirit of the times, Mr. Walkley, Member of Parliament for Finsbury, on the 13th of February of that year, brought forward a motion in the House of Commons for a “Select Committee to enquire into the constitution, practices, and effects of the Association of Cotton Operatives of Glasgow”. O’Connell opposed the motion, and used the opportunity to attack the Irish trade-unions. He said: –

“There was no tyranny equal to that which was exercised by the trade-unionists in Dublin over their fellow labourers. One rule of the workmen prescribed a minimum rate of wages so that the best workman received no more than the worst. Another part of their system was directed towards depriving the masters of all freedom in their power of selecting workmen, the names of the workmen being inscribed in a book, and the employer compelled to take the first on the list.”

He said that at Bandon a large factory had been closed, through the efforts of the men to get higher wages, ditto at Belfast, and “it was calculated that wages to the amount of £500,000 per year were lost to Dublin by trade-unions. The combination of tailors in that city, for instance, had raised the price of clothes to such a pitch that it was worth a person’s while to go to Glasgow and wait a couple of days for a suit, the difference in the price paying the expense of the trip.” He also ascribed the disappearance of the shipbuilding trades from Dublin to the evil effects of trade unions.

Because of O’Connell’s speech his friends, the Whig Government, appointed a committee, not to enquire into the Glasgow cases, but to investigate the acts of the Irish, and especially of the Dublin, trade unions. The Special Committee sat and collected two volumes of evidence, O’Connell producing a number of witnesses to bear testimony against the Irish trade unionists, but the report of the committee was never presented to the House of Commons. In June of the same year, 1838, O’Connell had another opportunity to vent his animus against the working class, and serve the interest of English and Irish capitalism, and was not slow to take advantage of it. In the year 1833, mainly owing to the efforts of the organised factory operatives, and some high-spirited philanthropists, a law had been enacted forbidding the employment of children under nine years of age in factories except silk-mills, and forbidding those under thirteen from working more than forty-eight hours per week, or nine hours per day. The ages mentioned will convey to the reader some idea of how infantile flesh and blood had been sacrificed to sate the greed of the propertied class. Yet this eminently moderate enactment was fiercely hated by the godly capitalists of England, and by every unscrupulous device they could contrive they strove to circumvent it. So constant and effective was their evasion of its merciful provisions that on the 23rd of June the famous friend of the factory operatives, Lord Ashley, in the House of Commons, moved as an amendment to the Order of the Day the second reading of a Bill to more effectually regulate Factory Works, its purpose being to prevent or punish any further infringement of the Act of 1833. O’Connell opposed the motion, and attempted to justify the infringement of the law by the employers by stating that “they (Parliament) had legislated against the nature of things, and against the right of industry.” “Let them not”, he said, “be guilty of the childish folly of regulating the labour of adults, and go about parading before the world their ridiculous humanity, which would end by converting their manufacturers into beggars.” The phrase about regulating the labour of adults was borrowed from the defence set up by the capitalists that preventing the employment of children also interfered with the labour of adults – freeborn Englishmen! O’Connell was not above using this clap-trap, as he on a previous occasion had not been above making the lying pretence that the enforcement of a minimum wage prevented the payment of high wages to any specially skilled artisan.

On this question of the attitude to be taken up towards the claims of labour, O’Connell differed radically with one of his most capable lieutenants, Fergus O’Connor. The latter, being returned to Parliament as a Repealer, was struck by the miserable condition of the real people of England in whose interests Ireland was supposed to be governed, and as the result of his investigation into its cause, he arrived at the conclusion that the basis of the oppression of Ireland was economic, that labour in England was oppressed by the same class and by the operation of the same causes as had impoverished and ruined Ireland, and that the solution of the problem in both countries required the union of the democracies in one common battle against their oppressors. He earnestly strove to impress this view upon O’Connell, only to find, that in the latter class-feeling was much stronger than desire for Irish National freedom, and that he, O’Connell, felt himself to be much more akin to the propertied class of England than to the working class of Ireland. This was proven by his actions in the cases above cited. This divergence of opinion between O’Connell and O’Connor closed Ireland to the latter and gave him to the Chartists as one of their most fearless and trusted leaders.

When he died, more than 50,000 toilers marched in the funeral procession which bore his remains to his last resting-place. He was one of the first of that long list of Irish fighters in Great Britain whose unselfish sacrifices have gone to make a record for an ‘English’ Labour movement. That the propertied and oppressing classes were well aware of the value of O’Connell’s services against the democracy, and were believed to be grateful for the same was attested by the action of Richard Lalor Shiel when, defending him during the famous State trials, he claimed the consideration of the Court for O’Connell, because he had stood between the people of Ireland and the people of England, and so “prevented a junction which would be formidable enough to overturn any administration that could be formed”. But, as zealous as O’Connell and the middle class repealers were to prevent any international action of the democracies, the Irish Working Class were as enthusiastic in their desire to consummate it. Irish Chartist Associations sprang up all over the island, and we are informed by a writer in the United Irishman of John Mitchel, 1848, that in Dublin they had grown so strong and so hostile to O’Connellism that at one time negotiations were in progress for a public debate between the Liberator and a representative of the Dublin trades. But upon the arrest and imprisonment of O’Connell, he continues, the Working Class were persuaded to abandon their separate organisations for the sake of presenting a common front to the Government, a step they afterwards regretted. To this letter John Mitchel, as editor, appended a note reminding his readers of the anti-labour record of O’Connell, and adducing it as a further reason for repudiating his leadership. Yet it is curious that in his History of Ireland Mitchel omits all reference to this disgraceful side of O’Connell’s career, as do indeed all the other Irish ‘Historians’. If silence gives consent, then all our history (?) writing scribes have consented to, and hence approved of, this suppression of the facts of history in order to assist in perpetuating the blindness and the subjection of labour.


Last updated on 12.8.2003