From Emmet to O’Connell

Submitted by Anon on 9 February, 2005 - 6:43

Thomas Carolan continues his series on the history of Irish republicanism

As we have seen, the American and French revolutions in the last quarter of the 18th century, both of which had drawn on the experience of Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, had combined to shape the first Irish left —the aristocracy-dominated “volunteers” after 1779 and then the plebeian, non-sectarian, radical and revolutionary United Irishmen organisation of the 1790s.

Nothing worthy of being called a political “left” had existed in Catholic Ireland before that. Ideas that have by our time become clichés, such as Wolfe Tone’s proclamation of his goal — “To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter…” — then represented a tremendous break with the Catholic-Protestant sectarian politics which for the previous 250 years had dominated Ireland.

But it was only an aspiration. The United Irishmen proclaimed the national identity of all the Irish, “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter” but the rising of the Catholic peasants of Wexford — who spoke English, not Gaelic, and many of whom were descendants of English colonialists – had had a terrible sectarian dimension to it.

The political ideas of the United Irishmen had had only a limited impact on Catholic Ireland. They had had a far deeper and broader impact on urban Protestant Ireland. But events in the first half of the 19th century, when Catholic Ireland mobilised to win equal citizenship, would transform those Protestant radicals and their descendants from a bulwark of separatist Irish republican politics, into militant defenders of an Irish minority community whose best protection against the Irish Catholic majority lay in unity with Britain. They would be pushed backwards into submergence in a purely Protestant, British-Irish, sectarian politics.

Yet the Irish left was not extirpated in 1798. Some of the United Irishman organisation remained — driven down from the middle-class deep into the artisan working class and the proletariat.

Robert Emmet, the younger brother of one of the more conservative of the United Irishmen, Thomas Addis Emmet, was the leading spirit in the revival. A Protestant, a former student at Trinity College Dublin — he was expelled during a purge of radicals in 1798 — and a democrat, Emmet had reached the same conclusions as Tone in his famous statement that Ireland’s cause would henceforth have to rely on “the men of no property”.

The organisation which Emmet and his friends built was mainly Dublin workers. One consequence of this was that Emmet’s remnant of the United Irishmen was more or less free from the plague that had eaten away the vitality of the middle class United Irishmen movement of the 1790s — the plague of spies and paid informers. The British authorities had little inkling of its existence.

Emmet spent two years in France, trying to arrange French military assistance for a new rising. He also had contact with the British Jacobin underground and its leaders such as Colonel Despard, who was Irish and who, like Emmet, would be hanged. That one of Despard’s character witnesses at his trial was the popular hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, did not save him.

Emmet’s plan was to seize Dublin Castle, the nerve centre of the British administration in Ireland, and other important buildings in Dublin; proclaim a republic; and hope that would spark a series of other risings outside Dublin.

But not only spies and paid informers betray such movements. An accidental explosion in one of their ammunition depots in Dublin alerted the authorities and propelled Emmet and his comrades into a premature and hopeless rising on 23 July 1803. They attacked Dublin Castle, but failed to take it. Emmet led an armed crowd of 100 or so through the streets of Dublin, calling on the people to rise. They held a couple of streets for an hour or so, but were easily dispersed.

Emmet escaped, but was eventually caught, tried, and according to the sentence of the court “hanged, drawn and quartered” – that is hanged, cut down before he had lost consciousness, disembowelled and beheaded. After which the hangman held up his head to the great crown in Thomas Street, Dublin and told them to behold the head of Robert Emmet, a traitor. Emmet was 25 years old. Twenty other insurgents were also hanged.

In Anne Devlin, the Emmet movement produced the first working-class revolutionary Irish democrat. Emmet’s housekeeper, she was tortured and threatened with death to force her to reveal Emmet’s whereabouts. She resisted and lived to write her memoirs many years later.

A pocket of guerrilla resistance led by Michael Dwyer,who had been part of Emmet’s underground movement, survived in the Wicklow mountains, south of Dublin, for a while.

Emmet became the popular romantic hero of Irish nationalism. His “speech from the dock” would be memorised by generations of Irish young people.

A Dublin street ballad published immediately after his death expressed the popular feeling about him:

Alas! my poor country, your Emmet’s no more!

Brave was his spirit, yet mild as the Brahmin,

His heart bled in anguish at the wrongs of the poor;

To relieve their hard suffering he braved every danger,

The vengeance of tyrants undauntedly bore,

Even before him the proud villains in power

Were see, though in ermine, in terror to cower,

But alas! he is gone, he has fallen a young flower,

They have murdered my Emmet — my Emmet’s no more.

Later generations would sing of “Bold Robert Emmet” to the tune that later became well-known as “The streets of Laredo”.

The darling of Erin

Bold Robert Emmet will die with a smile

Farewell companions both loyal and daring

I’ll lay down my life for the Emerald Isle.

For centuries, the Catholicism that defined Irish identity had all over Europe been to the opposite of “left”. It embodied much of what the bourgeois and petit bourgeois “left” opposed and detested. It did not cease to be that in the era of the French Revolution, the wars that followed, and the settlement imposed by the victors, foremost among whom in continental Europe was the Catholic state of Austria.

From the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the British state had looked to the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland as a bulwark against Revolution and those in Ireland who sided with France and took its revolution as an example to follow.

The man who would be the secular leader of Catholic Ireland for the half-century before his death in 1847, Daniel O’Connell, a Kerry landlord, had turned out, gun in hand, as a member of the loyal “yeomanry”, to fight the insurgents in 1798.

But though the Church and the thin remnant of an Irish Catholic upper class that had survived rallied to England, Protestant England had not quite done with persecuting Catholics.

The British Prime Minister, William Pitt the younger, won Catholic support for the abolition of the Dublin Parliament and the Union of Britain and Ireland, intending to couple union with the abolition of all legal discrimination against Catholics. But he could not persuade the bigoted King George III to “betray his Coronation Oath” and give equal citizenship to Catholics. Ireland and Britain were united with the Catholics unemancipated.

Active persecution was over, but exclusion, for example from Parliament, remained. Catholic were third class citizens; and it would take 30 years of Catholic campaigning in Ireland to achieve Catholic emancipation in 1829.

Irish Catholics organised themselves under the leadership of O’Connell, into a compact political force. They had the support of large numbers of Northern Irish Protestants — of all those who had sympathised with or fought for Wolfe Tone’s ideal of an Irish identity which would subsume the older sectarian identities of “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.”

But the movement O’Connell organised and led was, despite the initial Protestant support, itself a sectarian movement. It was the first legal political rallying of the Catholics of Ireland — the descendants of those who had in all their past attempts at self-assertion been defeated by the might of England.

Now Catholic Ireland began to rise to its feet. It was a time when Catholics began to build chapels and cathedrals.All the older church buildings had long been held by the established Anglican Protestant church. Now new buildings that symbolised the might of the Catholic Church reared up above the hovels and mud-cabins in which lived the people who paid for this Catholic display.

O’Connell’s movement was a political-social movement organised by priests and intertwined with the organisation of the Catholic church. It was financed by the regular collection of money at chapel doors.

The ostentatious Catholicism of this movement inevitably repelled and alarmed Protestants. Even Protestants who favoured Catholic emancipation saw looming up not a mass of individuals of Catholic faith and religious practices who would then, as citizens, exercise free individual judgement on political and social questions and vote accordingly. They saw an organised compact Catholic army, marshalled by priests and acting en masse, with the aim of winning the legal right to transform itself into the master of the island, and of Ireland’s Protestant minorities.

With the incremental extensions of the right to vote — to the town middle class in 1832, to the town workers in 1867, to the rural labourers in 1884 — the growth of democracy for the common people of Ireland was simultaneously for Irish Protestants the growth of the threat that they would be made into a helpless minority at the mercy of a priest-ruled majority.

The economic prosperity which came to the Protestant-majority north east of Ireland combined with that fear of the “priest-ruled” majority to reconcile Protestants to the union with Britain. They had found in the Union all they and their ancestors had aimed to in with the United Irishmen and their separatist programme. Their “leftism” merged with what was becoming English radical Liberalism which had never been differentiated from bourgeois radicalism — a movement to bring down the political, social and economic privileges rooted in the vested interests of the landed aristocracy and state-granted economic monopolies.

The mobilisation of the Irish Catholic democracy posed the question which would later be posed by the Islamic majority in Iraq, and now by the Shia-Islamic majority in Iraq. Will the exercise of majority rule by this majority, led by these priests and these politicians who unquestioningly accept the priests’ authority, be the beginning of an era of priestly rule, backed by a majority, that will ruthlessly impose itself on all parts of society? The anti-Irish nationalist slogan popularised in the later 19th century slogan, “Home Rule is Rome Rule”, summed up the Protestants’ great fear.

In Catholic Ireland, the popular movement became again a Catholic movement. Protestant Ireland, over decades, turned back to anti-Catholicism. It came once more to be dominated by the old Reformation-Protestant fear and loathing of Catholicism. Later in the century the Irish nationalist movement later in the century would be shunned by such pan-European national democrats as Guiseppe Mazzini because of its entwinement with Catholicism, the bulwark of reaction throughout Europe.

O’Connell, however, the tribune of the Catholic revival, “The King of the Beggars”, was a sort of “leftist”. He was in politics an English Whig. The Whigs — here I follow Karl Marx’s account of them — were the big landed aristocrats in Britain who formed a governing caste ruling on behalf of the bourgeois before, in the mid-19th century, the bourgeoisie became able to rule for themselves.

The Whigs looked back on the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and even further back, to those who fought Charles I in the civil war of the 1640s, and saw them as theirs. It was similar to the way some of the plutocrats in America now look back to the American Revolution against England and to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Or, indeed, as sections of the small-souled Irish bourgeoisie today look back to the Irish revolutions, those that failed and the successful one that put them in power, and, ludicrously, see them as theirs.

O’Connell allied with the Whigs and shared their attitudes on issues of the day. He was an enemy of slavery and a supporter of equal legal and civil rights for Jews (not won until the 1850s). Notoriously he was an opponent of trade unionism, but that only means he was of his time, class and species. He is said to have helped draft the charter around which the first working class movement, the Chartists, took shape in the 1830s.

When “Catholic Emancipation” was won, O’Connell turned to what was in logic the next step after emancipation, the demand for Catholic majority rule. He called for the repeal of the Act of Union (1800) between Britain and Ireland. Catholic Ireland swung behind the demand for “Repeal”. Repeal was the demand for self-rule by the Irish Catholic nation, but the movement, like the Home Rule movement that came after it, idealised itself as a nationalism that encompassed all the peoples of Ireland, Protestant, Catholic, “settler” and “native”, Unionist and Repealer.

Protestant Ireland — except for individuals here and there — defined itself once more against Catholic, now “Repeal”, later Home Rule and Republican Ireland. There would be two Irish lefts in the future, shaped and defined by their allegiance to one or other of the two identities, the mainly Protestant British Ireland and the mainly Catholic Irish Ireland.

The most important left in Ireland before the 20th century would be a populist left, akin to the populists in Russia, striving to win back the land from the landlords as civil rights for Catholics had been won from England.

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