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Socialist Worker, 19 June 1969


Chris Gray

Irishman who called for unity
of ‘the men of no property’

From Socialist Worker, No. 127, 19 June 1969, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the Denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means. To effectuate these great objects I reviewed the three great sects. The Protestants I despaired of, from the outset, for obvious reasons. To the Catholics I thought it unnecessary to address myself, because as no change could make their political situation worse, I reckoned on their support to a certainty, and I well knew that however it might be disguised or suppressed, there existed in the breast of every Irish Catholic an inextirpable abhorrence of the English name and power. There remained only the Dissenters whom I knew to be patriotic and enlightened: however, the recent events at Belfast had showed me that all prejudice was not entirely removed from their minds. I sat down, accordingly, and wrote a pamphlet addressed to the Dissenters, and which I entitled An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, the object of which was to convince them that they and the Catholics had but one common interest, and one common enemy, that the depression and slavery of Ireland was produced and perpetuated by the divisions existing among them. This pamphlet which appeared in September 1791, had a considerable degree of success.’ (Tone’s autobiography, pp. 21–22)

WOLFE TONE was a classic middle-class revolutionary, a major figure in the 1798 Irish Rising, an internationalist and champion of The Rights of Man.

His career and writings are still of relevance today, especially in relation to the current civil rights campaign in Ireland and the parallel campaign of solidarity which is being undertaken in Britain.

Revolutionary ideas do not, of course, fall from the sky, but are themselves part and parcel of a revolutionary epoch.

What shaped Tone’s political ideas was the success of the middle-class revolutions in America and France, and the condition of his own country, whose capitalists found their economic operations thwarted and baffled by a number of Westminster Acts designed to hinder the growth of Irish industry and trade.

Opposition to this policy, and to the absentee landlords who supported it, came from some commercially-minded landowners and from the Protestant merchants and manufacturers in the towns.

These classes formed the social base of the Patriot Party which arose about the middle of the 18th century. Jonathan Swift was their spokesman. His advice was to ‘burn everything British except their coal’.

Belfast armed

The American revolution emptied Ireland of British troops, leaving Irish commerce a prey to French privateers.

Belfast was allowed to arm in order to protect itself. The Patriot leader Grattan seized the chance to force through repeal of most of the Acts harmful to Irish industry and the English parliament conceded legislative independence.

This satisfied the moderates, but was not enough to guarantee independence. For that it was necessary to take into account the interests of the peasant masses and the small Irish working class.

This meant the end of the Penal Laws in force against the Catholic majority and the introduction of a fully democratic electoral system.

Tone came to realise this, helped by the French Revolution. He became a champion of the revolutionary cause.

Hence the 1791 pamphlet referred to above, which he wrote under the name of A Northern Whig and the formation of the Society of United Irishmen – at first a purely ‘constitutional’ body, but by 1794 actively in favour of an armed uprising in conjunction with the French as the only sure means of success.

Unfortunately the great Rebellion of 1798 was crushed by British imperialism, aided and abetted by the Patriots, the Orange Order, the Catholic hierarchy and Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte’s eyes were fixed on colonial plunder in Egypt when a blow in Ireland would have done more damage.

Only class

Tone lost his life, but the lesson of 1798 lives on in his own words:

‘If the men of property will not support us. they must fall: we can support ourselves by the aid of that numerous and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.’

Tone’s greatness, as James Connolly observed, lies in the fact that he imitated nobody. Instead he made a concrete class analysis of the situation.

Tone’s international outlook reappears also in Connolly, who deepened the insights of republicanism by identifying capitalist competition as the evil, and not merely English political control. (See Erin’s Hope and Labour in Irish History where Connolly discusses these points.)

The only class in Ireland today whose interests are diametrically opposed to imperialism is the working class, and the only true form of national independence is the Workers’ Republic.

It is also true that labour cannot be emancipated in its Protestant denomination while it is branded in its Catholic one. Tone-style tactics therefore have considerable value in the current civil rights movement.

It remains to add that the United Irishmen were in touch with radical movements in England at the time and helped to shape the labour movement here.

A society of United Englishmen was founded which infiltrated the armed forces, getting dragoons to swear ‘not to obey the Cornall but the – Peapell’. (Edward Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 170. Note Irish spelling.)

Same demands

The paper of the United Irishmen was called The Northern Star, later famous as Feargus O’Connor’s Chartist sheet and the Chartist demands are identical with the programme of voting reform put forward by the United Irishmen.

We must ensure that the current agitation in Northern Ireland for civil rights leads to similar beneficial results in Britain, results which will speed the overthrow of capitalism on both sides of the Irish sea.

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