James Connolly


Labour In Irish History


Chapter XVI
The working class: The inheritors of the Irish ideals of the past – The repository of the hopes of the future


“Is a Christian to starve, to submit, to bow down
As at some high consecrated behest,
Hugging close the old maxims, that ‘Weakness is strength’,
And ’Whatsoever is is the best?’
O, texts of debasement! O, creed of deep shame!
O, Gospel of infamy treble.
Who strikes when he’s struck, and takes when he starves,
In the eyes of the Lord is no rebel.”
J.F. O’Donnell

This book does not aspire to be a history of labour in Ireland; it is rather a record of labour in Irish History. For that reason the plan of the book has precluded any attempt to deal in detail with the growth, development, or decay of industry in Ireland, except as it affected our general argument. That argument called for an explanation of the position of labour in the great epochs of our modern history, and with the attitude of Irish leaders towards the hopes, aspirations, and necessities of those who live by labour. Occasionally, as when analysing the ‘prosperity’ of Grattan’s Parliament, and the decay of Irish trade following the Legislative Union of 1800, we have been constrained to examine the fundamental causes which make for the progress, industrially or commercially, of some nations and the retrogression of others. For this apparent digression no apology is made, and none is called for; it was impossible to present our readers with a clear idea of the historical position of labour at any given moment, without explaining the economic and political causes which contributed to make possible or necessary its attitude. For the same reason it has been necessary sometimes to retrace our footsteps over some period already covered, in order to draw attention to a phase of the subject, the introduction of which in the previous narrative would have marred the view of the question then under examination. Thus the origin of trade unionism in Ireland has not been dealt with, although in the course of our study we have shown that the Irish trades were well organised. Nor are we now prepared to enter upon that subject. Perhaps at some more propitious moment we will be enabled to examine the materials bearing upon the matter, and trace the growth of the institution in Ireland. Sufficient for the present to state that Trades Guilds existed in Ireland as upon the Continent and England, during Roman Catholic, pre-Reformation days; that after the Reformation those Trade Guilds became exclusively Protestant, and even anti-Catholic, within the English Pale; that they continued to refuse admission to Catholics even after the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act, and that these old Trade Guilds were formally abolished by law in 1840. But the Catholic and Protestant workmen who were excluded from guild membership (Episcopalians only being eligible) did nevertheless organise themselves, and it was their trade unions which dominated the labour world to the wrath of the capitalists and landlords, and the chagrin of the Governments. One remarkable and instructive feature of their organisation in town and country was the circumstance that every attempt at political rebellion in Ireland was always preceded by a remarkable development of unrest, discontent, and class consciousness amongst their members, demonstrating clearly that, to the mind of the thoughtful Irish worker political and social subjection were very nearly related. In the Dublin Chronicle, January 28, 1792, there is a record of a great strike of the journeymen tailors of Dublin, in the course of which, it is stated, armed tailors went to the workrooms of Messrs. Miller, Ross Lane; Leet, Merchant’s Quay; Walsh, Castle Street; and Ward, Cope Street, attacked certain scabs who were working there, cut off the hands of two, and threw others in the river. In another and later issue of the same journal there is a record of how a few coal porters (dock labourers) were seized by His Majesty’s press-gang with the intention of compelling them to serve in the navy, and how the organised quay labourers, on hearing of it, summoned their members, and marching upon the guard-house where the men were detained, attacked it, defeated the guard and released their comrades. In the same paper, January 3, 1793, there is a letter from a gentleman resident at Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, describing how an armed party of Defenders paraded through that town on its way to Ardee, how the army was brought out to attack them and a number were killed. On January 24, 1793, another correspondent tells how a battle took place between Bailieborough and Kingscourt, Co. Cavan, “between those deluded persons styling themselves Defenders and a part of the army”, when eighteen labourers were killed, five badly wounded, and thirty taken prisoners “and lodged in Cavan gaol”. There is also on July 23, 1793, the following account of a battle at Limerick: –

“Last night we hear that an express arrived from Limerick with the following intelligence – that on Saturday night a mob of 7 or 8,000 attacked that city and attempted to burn it; that the army, militia and citizens were obliged to join to repel these daring offenders, and to bring the artillery into the streets, and that after a severe and obstinate resistance the insurgents were dispersed with a loss of 140 killed and several wounded.”

Similar battles between the peasantry and the soldiery, aided by the local landlords, occurred in the county Wexford.

In the Reports of the Secret Committee of the House of Lords, 1793, speaking of the Defenders (who, as we have stated before, were the organised labourers striving to better their condition by the only means open to them), it says “they first appeared in the county Louth”, “soon spread through the counties of Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and parts adjacent”, and “their measures appear to have been concerted and conducted with the utmost secrecy and a degree of regularity and system not usual to people in such mean condition, and as if directed by men of a superior rank”.

All this, be it noted, was on the eve of the revolutionary struggle of 1798, and shows how the class struggle of the Irish workers formed the preparatory school for the insurrectionary effort.

The long-drawn-out struggle of the fight against tithes and the militant spirit of the Irish trades and Ribbonmen we have already spoken of, as providing the revolutionary material for 1848, which Smith O’Brien and his followers were unfit to use. For the next revolutionary period, that known as the Fenian Conspiracy, the same coincidence of militant class feeling and revolutionary nationalism is deeply marked. Indeed it is no wonder that the real nationalists of Ireland, the Separatists, have always been men of broad human sympathies and intense democracy, for it has ever been in the heart of the working class at home that they found their most loyal support, and in the working class abroad their most resolute defenders.

The Fenian Brotherhood was established in 1857, according to the statement of John O’Mahony, one of its two chiefs, James Stephens being the other. Of O’Mahony, John O’Leary says, in his Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism, that he was an advanced democrat of Socialistic opinions, and W.A. O’Connor, in his History of the Irish People, declares that both O’Mahony and Stephens had entered into the secret societies of France, O’Mahony “from mere sympathy”. A further confirmation of this view of the character of the men responsible for the Fenian Society is found in a passage in a journal established in the interests of Fenianism, and published in London after the suppression of the organ of the Brotherhood, The Irish People, in Dublin, in 1865. This journal, The Flag of Ireland, quoting from the Paris correspondent of The Irishman, says on October 3, 1868: –

“It took its rise in the Latin Quarter of this city when John O’Mahony, Michael Doheny, and James Stephens were here in exile after ’48.

“This was the triumvirate from whose plotting brains the idea of Fenianism sprung. O’Mahony, deep in lore of Ireland and loving her traditions, found its name for the new society; Doheny, with his dogged, acute and vigorous character, stamped it with much of the force that helped it into life, but to Stephens is due the direction it took in line of sympathy with the movements of the Revolution on the Continent. He saw that the Irish question was no longer a question of religion; his common sense was too large to permit him to consider it a question of race even; he felt it was the old struggle which agitated France at the end of last century, transferred to new ground; the opposing forces were the same, with this difference, that in Ireland the people had not the consolation in all cases of saluting their tyrants as their countrymen.”

The circumstances that the general chosen by Stephens to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Republican army was no less a character than General Cluseret, afterwards Commander-in-chief of the Federals during the Commune of Paris, says more for the principles of the men who were the brains of the Fenian movement than any testimony of subordinates.

Coincident with the inception of Fenianism, 1857, commenced in Ireland a determined labour agitation which culminated in a vigorous movement amongst the baker journeymen against night labour and in favour of a reduction of the working hours. Great meetings were held all over the country during the years 1858-60, in which the rights of labour were most vehemently asserted and the tyranny of the Irish employers exposed and denounced. In Wexford, Kilkenny, Clonmel and Waterford night-work was abolished and day labour established. The movement was considered so serious that a Parliamentary Committee sat to investigate it; from its report, as quoted by Karl Marx in his great work on Capital, we take the following excerpts: –

“In Limerick, where the grievances of the journeymen are demonstrated to be excessive, the movement had been defeated by the opposition of the master bakers, the miller bakers being the greatest opponents. The example of Limerick led to a retrogression in Ennis and Tipperary. In Cork, where the strongest possible demonstration of feeling took place, the masters by exercising their power of turning men out of employment, have defeated the movement. In Dublin the master bakers have offered the most determined opposition to the movement, and, by discountenancing as much as possible the journeymen promoting it, have succeeded in leading the men into acquiescence in Sunday work and night work, contrary to the convictions of the men.

“The Committee believe that the hours of labour are limited by natural laws which cannot be violated with impunity. That for master bakers to induce their workmen by the fear of losing employment, to violate their religious convictions and their better feelings, to disobey the laws of the land, and to disregard public opinion, is calculated to provoke ill-feeling between workmen and masters – and affords an example dangerous to religion, morality and social order. The Committee believe that any constant work beyond twelve hours a day encroaches on the domestic and private life of the working man, and leads to disastrous moral results, interfering with each man’s home, and the discharge of his family duties as son, brother, husband, or father. That work beyond twelve hours has a tendency to undermine the health of the working man, and so leads to premature old age and death, to the great injury of families of working men, thus deprived of the care and support of the head of the family when most required.”

The reader will observe that the cities where this movement was strongest, where the workers had made the strongest fight and class-feeling was highest, were the places where Fenianism developed the most; it is a matter of historical record that Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Clonmel, Kilkenny, Waterford and Ennis and their respective counties were the most responsive to the message of Fenianism. Richard Pigott, who, before he succumbed to the influence of the gold offered by the London Times, had a long and useful career as responsible figurehead for advanced journals in Ireland, and who in that capacity acquired a thorough knowledge of the men and movements for whom he was sponsor, gives in his Recollections of an Irish Journalist, this testimony as to the personnel of Fenianism, a testimony, it will be observed, fully bearing out our analysis of the relation between the revolutionary movement and the working class: –

“It is notorious that Fenianism was regarded with unconcealed aversion, not to say deadly hatred, not merely by the landlords and the ruling class, but by the Catholic clergy, the middle-class Catholics, and the great majority of the farming classes. It was in fact only amongst the youngest and most intelligent of the labouring class, of the young men of the large towns and cities engaged in the humbler walks of mercantile life, of the artisan and working classes, that it found favour.

Karl Marx quotes from Reports of the Poor Law Inspectors on the Wages of Agricultural Labourers in Dublin, 1870, to show that between the years 1849 and 1869, while wages in Ireland had risen fifty or sixty per cent, the prices of all necessaries had more than doubled. He gives the following extract from the official accounts of an Irish workhouse: –

Year ended

Provisions and Necessaries



29th Sept., 1849

1s. 3¼d.


1s. 6¼d.

        ”         1869

2s. 7¼d.


3s. 1¼d.

These facts demonstrate, that in the period during which the Fenian movement obtained its hold upon the Irish masses in the cities, the workers were engaged in fierce struggles with their employers, and the price of all necessaries of life had increased twofold – two causes sufficient to produce revolutionary ferment, even in a country without the historical justification for revolution possessed by Ireland. Great Britain was also in the throes of a fierce agitation as a result of the terrible suffering of the working class resultant from the industrial crisis of 1866-7. The Morning Star, London paper, stated that in six districts of London 15,000 workmen were in a state of destitution with their families; Reynolds’ Newspaper, on January 20, 1867, quoted from a large poster, which it says was placarded all over London, the words “Fat Oxen, Starving Men – the fat oxen from their palaces of glass, have gone to feed the rich in their luxurious abode, while the starving poor are left to rot and die in their wretched dens”, and commented that “this reminds one of the secret revolutionary associations which prepared the French people for the events of 1789. At this moment, while English workmen with their wives and children are dying of cold and hunger, there are millions of English gold – the produce of English labour – being invested in Russian, Spanish, Italian and other foreign enterprises.” And the London Standard of April 5, 1866, stated: “A frightful spectacle was to be seen yesterday in one part of the metropolis. Although the unemployed thousands of the East End did not parade with their black flags en masse the human torrent was imposing enough. Let us remember what these people suffer. They are dying of hunger. That is the simple and terrible fact. There are 40,000 of them. In our presence, in one quarter of this wonderful metropolis, are packed – next door to the most enormous accumulation of wealth the world ever saw – cheek by jowl with this are 40,000 helpless, starving people. These thousands are now breaking in upon the other quarters.”

This state of hunger and revolt in Great Britain offers an explanation of the curious phenomenon mentioned by A.M. Sullivan in New Ireland, that the Home Rule or constitutional journals held their own easily in Ireland itself against The Irish People, but in Great Britain the Fenian journal simply swept the field clear of its Irish competitors. The Irish working-class exiles in Great Britain saw that the nationalist aspirations of their race pointed to the same conclusion, called for the same action, as the material interests of their class – viz., the complete overthrow of the capitalist government and the national and social tyranny upon which it rested. Any thoughtful reader of the poems of J.F. O’Donnell – such, for instance, as An Artisan’s Garret, depicting in words that burn, the state of mind of an unemployed Fenian artisan of Dublin, beside the bedside of his wife dying of hunger – or the sweetly pleading poetry of J.K. Casey (Leo), cannot wonder at the warm reception journals containing such teaching met in Great Britain amidst the men and women of Irish race and of a subject class.

Just as ’98 was an Irish expression of the tendencies embodied in the first French Revolution, as ’48 throbbed in sympathy with the democratic and social upheavals on the Continent of Europe and England, so Fenianism was a responsive throb in the Irish heart to those pulsations in the heart of the European working class which elsewhere produced the International Working Men’s Association. Branches of that Association flourished in Dublin and Cork until after the Paris Commune, and it is an interesting study to trace the analogy between the course of development of the Socialist movement of Europe after the Commune and that of the Irish revolutionary cause after the failure of ’67. In both cases we witness the abandonment of insurrectionism and the initiation of a struggle in which the revolting class, while aiming at revolution, consistently refuse the arbitrament of an armed struggle. When the revolutionary nationalists threw in their lot with the Irish Land League, and made the land struggle the basis of their warfare, they were not only placing themselves in touch once more with those inexhaustible quarries of material interests from which all the great Irish statesmen from St. Laurence O’Toole to Wolfe Tone drew the stones upon which they built their edifice of a militant patriotic Irish organisation, but they were also, consciously or unconsciously, placing themselves in accord with the principles which underlie and inspire the modern movement of labour. This fact was recognised at the time by most dispassionate onlookers. Thus, in a rather amusing book published in France in 1887, under the title of Chez Paddy, Englished as Paddy at Home, the author, a French aristocrat, Baron E. de Mandat-Grancey giving an account of a tour in Ireland in 1886, in the course of which he made the acquaintance of many of the Land League leaders, as well as visited at the mansions of a number of the landlords, makes this comment: –

“For in fact, however they may try to dissimulate it, the Irish claims, if they do not yet amount to Communism as their avowed object – and they may still retain a few illusions upon that point – still it is quite certain that the methods employed by the Land League would not be disowned by the most advanced Communists.”

It was a recognition of this fact which induced The Irish World, the chief advocate of the Land League in America, to carry the sub-title of American Industrial Liberator, and to be the mouthpiece of the nascent labour movement of those days, as it was also a recognition of this fact which prompted the Irish middle-class leaders to abandon the land fight, and to lend their energies to an attempt to focus the whole interest of Ireland upon a Parliamentary struggle as soon as ever a temporary set back gave them an opportunity to counsel a change of tactics.

They feared to call into existence a spirit of inquiry into the rights of property which would not halt at a negation of the sacredness of fortunes founded upon rent, but might also challenge the rightfulness of fortunes drawn from profit and interest. They instinctively realized that such an inquiry would reveal that there was no fundamental difference between such fortunes: that they were made, not from land in the one case nor workshops in the other, but from the social subjection of the non-possessing class, compelled to toil as tenants on the land or as employees in workshop or factory.

For the same reason the Land League (which was founded in 1879 at Irishtown, Co. Mayo, at a meeting held to denounce the exactions of a certain priest in his capacity as a rackrenting landlord) had had at the outset to make headway in Ireland against the opposition of all the official Home Rule Press, and in Great Britain amongst the Irish exiles to depend entirely upon the championship of poor labourers and English and Scottish Socialists. In fact those latter were, for years, the principal exponents and interpreters of Land League principles to the British masses, and they performed their task unflinchingly at a time when the ‘respectable’ moneyed men of the Irish communities in Great Britain cowered in dread of the displeasure of their wealthy British neighbours.

Afterwards, when the rising tide of victorious revolt in Ireland compelled the Liberal Party to give a half-hearted acquiescence to the demands of the Irish peasantry, and the Home Rule-Liberal alliance was consummated, the Irish business men in Great Britain came to the front and succeeded in worming themselves into all the places of trust and leadership in the Irish organisations. One of the first and most bitter fruits of that alliance was the use of the Irish vote against the candidates of the Socialist and Labour Parties. Despite the horrified and energetic protests of such men as Michael Davitt, the solid phalanx of Irish voters was again and again hurled against the men who had fought and endured suffering, ostracism and abuse for Ireland, at a time when the Liberal Government was packing Irish jails with unconvicted Irish men and women. In so manoeuvring to wean the Irish masses in Great Britain away from their old friends, the Socialist and Labour Clubs, and to throw them into the arms of their old enemies the Liberal capitalists, the Irish bourgeois politicians were very astutely following their class interests, even while they cloaked their action under the name of patriotism. Obviously a union of Irish patriotism and Socialist activity, if furthered and endorsed by Irish organisations in Great Britain, could not long be kept out of, or if introduced could not well be fought in, Ireland. Hence their frantic and illogical endeavour to twist and distort the significance of Irish history, and to put the question of property, its ownership and development, out of order in all discussions on Irish nationality.

But that question so dreaded rises again; it will not lie down, and cannot be suppressed. The partial success of the Land League has effected a change in Ireland, the portent of which but few realise. Stated briefly, it means that the recent Land Acts, acting contemporaneously with the development of trans-Atlantic traffic, are converting Ireland from a country governed according to the conception of feudalism into a country shaping itself after capitalistic laws of trade. To-day the competition of the trust-owned farms of the United States and the Argentine Republic is a more deadly enemy to the Irish agriculturist than the lingering remnants of landlordism or the bureaucratic officialism of the British Empire. Capitalism is now the enemy, it reaches across the ocean; and, after the Irish agriculturist has gathered his harvest and brought it to market, he finds that a competitor living three thousand miles away under a friendly flag has undersold and beggared him. The merely political heresy under which middle class doctrinaires have for nearly 250 years cloaked the Irish fight for freedom has thus run its its course. The fight made by the Irish septs against the English pale and all it stood for; the struggle of the peasants and labourers of the 18th and 19th centuries; the great social struggle of all the ages will again arise and re-shape itself to suit the new conditions. The war which the Land League fought, and then abandoned, before it was either lost or won, will be taken up by the Irish toilers on a broader field the sharper weapons, and a more comprehensive knowledge of all the essentials of permanent victory. As the Irish septs of the past were accounted Irish or English according as they rejected or accepted the native or foreign social order, as they measured their oppression or freedom by their loss or recovery of the collective ownership of their lands, so the Irish toilers henceforward will base their fight for freedom, not upon the winning or losing the right to talk in an Irish Parliament, but upon their progress towards the mastery of those factories, workshops and farms upon which a people’s bread and liberties depend.

As we have again and again pointed out, the Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland. Who would own and control the land? The people or the invaders; and if the invaders, which set of them – the most recent swarm of land-thieves, or the sons of the thieves of a former generation? These were the bottom questions of Irish politics, and all other questions were valued or deprecated in the proportion to which they contributed to serve the interests of some of the factions who had already taken their stand in this fight around property interests. Without this key to the meaning of events, this clue to unravel the actions of ‘great men’, Irish history is but a welter of unrelated facts, a hopeless chaos of sporadic outbreaks, treacheries, intrigues, massacres, murders, and purposeless warfare. With this key all things become understandable and traceable to their primary origin; without this key the lost opportunities of Ireland seem such as to bring a blush to the cheek of the Irish worker; with this key Irish history is a lamp to his feet in the stormy paths of to-day. Yet plain as this is to us to-day, it is undeniable that for two hundred years at least all Irish political movements ignored this fact, and were conducted by men who did not look below the political surface. These men, to arouse the passions of the people, invoked the memory of social wrongs, such as evictions and famines, but for these wrongs proposed only political remedies, such as changes in taxation or transference of the seat of Government (class rule) from one country to another. Hence they accomplished nothing, because the political remedies proposed were unrelated to the social subjection at the root of the matter. The revolutionists of the past were wiser, the Irish Socialists are wiser to-day. In their movement the North and the South will again clasp hands, again will it be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Social democracy.


Last updated on 12.8.2003