Identifiable left-wing politics first emerged in Ireland at the end of the 18th century.
It was the result of three revolutions.
The American revolution, which broke out in 1776. The French revolution, which started in 1789. And the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which the English Parliament kicked out the would-be absolutist Catholic King James and put William of Orange and James’s Protestant daughter, Mary, jointly on the throne, under the control of Parliament.
In England and Scotland 1688 was a peaceful, liberating consolidation of the bourgeois revolution of the 1640s. For Ireland’s Catholics it had been a terrible war between
Protestant and Catholic European coalitions, ending in vast confiscations of land held by Catholics, the migration of much of the Irish Catholic upper classes to France and Spain, and the sinking of the Irish Catholic people into a system of helotry akin to South Africa’s apartheid in the 20th century, with their status defined and determined by religion. To them the “Glorious Revolution” meant enslavement, not liberation.
If it increased the liberty of Irish Protestants, it was a liberty erected on the bent backs of the subjugated “natives”. Yet it was remembered by them as a liberating revolution. And so it was seen through Europe and most of English North America. It exerted on the American colonists, and on the European liberals, living under autocracies, the influence of example and precept.
When the thirteen American colonies came into conflict with England, they raised the cry that had been heard in the 1640s in England as Parliament and the King squared up to each other — “no taxation without representation”. They demanded the rights of “free-born Englishmen”, and made war on the English government and set up their own revolutionary assembly to realise and exert those rights.
In turn, the American revolution exerted a great influence on bourgeois France and helped shape their demands against the King and the aristocracy.
The American revolution had a dual influence in Ireland. Britain’s defeat and weakening created a need for the authorities in Ireland to organise defence against French raids and a possible French invasion. This gave the heirs of 1688 in Ireland their chance, and the “spirit of 1688”, flowing back across the Atlantic ocean, inspired them to act.
The Protestants — who, under the system of restrictions on the Catholics, alone had the right to bear arms — organised “volunteers”, locally-based armed militias to defend the country. Soon they confronted the English government.
According to the then dominant ideas about economics, colonies existed to serve the “mother country”. Their trading rights were strictly limited and controlled to ensure that they did not compete with it.
From early in the 18th century the ruling Irish “Protestant nation” had resented the constrictions placed on them. The Volunteers turned into a political movement demanding free trade with Britain and its colonies, and an end to subordination of the Protestant Parliament in Dublin to the Parliament at Westminster. Some of them demanded equality for Catholics.
In 1783, the weakened British Parliament capitulated to their demands. For the next 17 years, the Irish Parliament was linked to the British Parliament only by obeisance to a common king, George III.
While this was going on, the Catholics supported the Volunteers and their demands, and in some places they may even have been allowed to “volunteer”.
But the “revolution” was an affair of the “Protestant nation”. It ended in the effective independence of that “nation’s” Parliament, from which Catholics were rigidly excluded.
This was a “left”, but one confined to an elite caste. The Protestant oligarchy which ruled in Dublin jealously guarded its privileges; the volunteering movement declined.
The “revolution of 1783” would inspire future Catholic nationalists — for example, Arthur Griffith, founder of the first Sinn Fein — to argue for a return to 1783, but with manhood suffrage which would produce, this time, a Catholic majority. In fact, however, 1783 only prepared the Protestant-Catholic explosion that was soon to come.
The revolution in France, unfolding from mid 1789, had a tremendous impact all over Europe, and in Ireland too. “The Rights of Man and the Citizen”, proud republicanism, open contempt for kings and their toadies — these ideas spread quickly through the towns of Ireland and in parts of the countryside, where peasant secret societies — primitive, illegal peasant “trade unions”, some Protestant, some Catholics — were an organised force.
“The Rights of Man in Ireland”, was how the leading Republican, Wolfe Tone, summed up his political objectives. He and his comrades were people of the left, of the then-international “extreme left” even.
This was the real beginning of a plebeian left, and the beginning of secular politics in Ireland. Before, politics had been the politics of religious sects and struggles for advantage, with the Catholics going down to utter defeat at the end of the 17th century.
Now it was to be the politics of nation and, though this was not said, of class.
The words of the man who became the leader and martyr of the new politics, Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Anglican from the Midlands in origin, have been made hackneyed by quotation. “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...”
What a tremendous new departure such an objective was is lost if you forget what it was that Tone was trying to replace with this new approach.
Belfast and the Protestant towns of the North were the most responsive to the new word from France. But it gripped Catholics too, though the Catholic Church was very hostile to the French Revolution.
Those who would liberate Ireland from English rule were people of the left. The French Revolution was their revolution. Large marches took place in Belfast on the anniversaries of Bastille Day, 14 July.
The revolutionary cause meant in Ireland what it meant in France — “liberty, brotherhood, equality”. An end to oligarchic rule, from Dublin or from London; an end to the helot condition of the Catholics; their elevation to equality as citizens; an end to the rule of Kings and their ministers, and an end to the Kings themselves if they did not make way.
The Oligarchy in Dublin was immovable. The radicalisation of the revolution in France, the overthrow and then the beheading of the King and Queen and the aristocracy, the first war of the European monarchies on France, all this had a tremendous impact on Ireland, and in the first place on those who had been for the French Revolution from the beginning — the plebeians of the towns, most of them Protestants. So did the Reign of Terror in Paris and elsewhere — when the head of the Austrian army had announced on crossing the French border that he would massacre the entire “contaminated ” Jacobin population of Paris — and the victory of the French armies, with the matchless élan and audacity of people fighting for their freedom.
A “Catholic Association” was organised, with Wolfe Tone as its secretary, to campaign for an end to the penal laws. The Society of United Irishmen — in which Catholics and Protestants were fully equal — was launched in 1791, at first as an open, legal organisation concerned with reform.
But the unfolding events in France which aroused the common people, also aroused the ruling classes. In Britain it led to a savage political reaction that would not lift for 30 years, until the 1820s. Disillusioned early supporters of the French Revolution, such as the poet Wordsworth, who wrote the famous lines, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!”, turned into bitter reactionaries. Look what the attempt at reform had led to in France!
In Ireland repression drove reformers into illegality. The United Irishmen was reorganised as an oath-bound secret society, Wolfe Tone had to flee, and, after a stay in America, eventually went to France to seek French armies to help liberate Ireland from the rule of the Dublin oligarchy and the domination of England — to set up an Irish Republic.
Yet Tone’s words about “the common name of Irishman” recorded not a fact, but only an aspiration. The people of Ireland were far from from united.
The impact of the French Revolution had been mainly in the towns, and mainly on Presbyterians, the majority among Protestants. Presbyterian Ireland had direct links and affinities with the American Revolution. The “Ulster Scots” too had been subjected to religious discrimination by the Anglican Irish establishment, and many had been driven to the USA in the course of the 18th century. Such early US leaders as Presidents Monroe and Jackson were of Scots-Irish descent.
The Ulster Scots had been well prepared by the American Revolution for the impact which the French Revolution would have on them. The Anglican peasants were not so receptive.
Their secret societies battled with Catholic secret societies in areas where they
competed for land. The Orange Order is a direct descendant of those secret societies; it was formed after a battle with Catholics in Armagh in 1795.
Where the townspeople could talk of Catholic-Protestant equality, competition with desperate Catholics used to a lower standard of life, who might offer to pay the landlords a higher rent to get hold of land as renewal of leases fell due, dominated the Anglican peasants.
Of course, to imagine, as Catholic middle-class nationalist historians used to, that the Catholic secret societies were free of the sectarian spirit, would be mistaken. Catholic peasants in Wexford committed some of the worst sectarian atrocities during the insurrection there in 1798. Yet the United Irishmen did establish contact and collaboration with the Catholic peasant secret society, the “Defenders”.
The political organisation, the United Irishmen, was mainly made up of middle-class and professional people (though one of its leaders, who lost his life in 1798, Edward
Fitzgerald, was a son of the Duke of Leinster, the “premier aristocrat” in Ireland).
Riddled with spies and informers, the revolutionary movement was kept under surveillance by the Dublin and London governments. The records of the time show the rulers to be deadly afraid of one thing: that the Republicans of the cities would succeed in crossing the ethnic-sectarian barrier and link up with the downtrodden Catholic peasantry. If these two distinct elements combined, then, as the Dublin oligarchy and the English government understood, they had the potential of an immense explosion in Ireland.
Some of the French revolutionary leaders thought so too (though French politics had taken a turn to the right with the overthrow of the Jacobins in 1794). They remembered the blow which regular French troops had helped the rebel American colonists deliver to the “motherland” two decades earlier.
An invading force of French soldiers set out for Ireland in 1796, but bad weather made it impossible for them to land. They returned to France. Wolfe Tone had been on board.
Its narrow escape spurned the government on to a reign of terror in Ireland, whose object was to cow and disarm the people. Soldiers went round the country systematically torturing information out of the peasants and seizing all weapons.
To a considerable extent they succeeded in disarming the people. They severely repressed the United Irishmen, the conscious Republican movement that might have given leadership and coherence to an all-Ireland rising.
When the Rising came in 1798, it was not one movement, but a series of more or less disconnected regional risings. The Presbyterian United Irishmen rose in the North; peasants rose in Wexford in the south-east, one of the most Anglicised parts of Ireland, where the peasants spoke not Gaelic but English; and a small French invasion landed in the West, creating the “Republic of Connaught”, from which a movement spread to the Midlands.
Everywhere there was defeat and slaughter. In the North the Presbyterians, led by a Lisburn draper, Henry Monroe, were crushed in a battle at Ballynahinch. The government hanged the captured Monroe in front of his own draper’s shop.
In the West, the peasants rallied to the French Republican army under General Humbert. They inflicted a notable defeat on an English army, but, denied the reinforcements they needed from France, were ultimately defeated. The French soldiers were treated as prisoners of war; the Irish “croppies” as defeated rebels to be butchered on the battlefield after they had surrendered, or later hanged.
Wolfe Tone was captured — recognised and denounced by an old school friend in British Army uniform — and cut his own throat to avoid hanging.
In Wexford, revolutionary Ireland came face to face with its own condition and its own contradictions, and tragic evidence of how far it was from being a nation united and integrated in a common identity.
Elements of the shattered United Irishmen were involved, notably Bagenal Harvey, but it was a peasant jacquerie. Led by a priest, Father John Murphy, the Catholic peasants rose and won a series of victories.Armed with locally-made pikes — long two-headed spears, a point for stabbing and a hooked blade for cutting, mounted on an eight foot long ash handle — they fought and beat trained soldiers armed with gun, bayonets, and cannon. The Catholic peasants had something of the élan of the French revolutionary armies.
Finally they were surrounded at Vinegar Hill, defeated, and slaughtered. As the 19th century song puts it: “And poor Wexford, stripped naked, hung high on the cross/ With her heart pierced by traitors and slaves/ Glorio! glorio! to our brave sons who died? For the cause of long downtrodden man”.
The risings would inspire nationalists all the way into the 20th century. Song about them would be sung for 200 years and more, such as Boolavogue, a song about Father Murphy.
Another word would be remembered and enunciated by Protestants, including the descendants of the United Irishman — “Skullabogue”. Catholic sectarians rounded up local Protestants, locked them in a barn at Skullabogue, and set fire to it, burning them alive.
If the peoples of Ireland could ever have melded together into one distinct people, one nation, it would have been in “’98”, in a radical social and political revolution modelled on France — where the political reaction under Napoleon Bonaparte nevertheless preserved most of the social conquests of the revolution — and in alliance with France.
In victory, such a thing as “Skullabogue” would have assumed the character of a mere incident. In defeat it came to symbolise how far Ireland was from being one people, and how wide the Gulf was between Protestants and Catholics.
The United Irishman William Drennan wrote:
“Hapless Nation, rent and torn,
Thou wert early taught to mourn;
Warfare of six hundred years!
Epochs marked with blood and tears!
Hunted thro’ thy native grounds,
Or flung reward to human hounds,
Each one pulled and tore his share,
Heedless of thy deep despair.
Hapless Nation! hapless Land!
Heap of uncementing sand!
Crumbled by a foreign weight:
And by worse, domestic hate.”
The Irish majority would in the first half of the 19th century claim their own. In doing it as they did, organised by priests under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell, they would step back a long way from the politics of the United Irishmen.