Chapter Three: Opposition to Chartism in East Ulster: The twin threats of Liberalism and Sectarianism.
In North County Down resistance to the evolution of plebeian radicalism emanated from layers of conservatism already historically established. An anti corn law meeting at Ballymacarrett was prevented from going ahead by a sectarian crowd that reportedly refused the acceptance of aid unless it came through Protestant avenues.(149) McDonnell, a local working class operative spoke, or attempted to speak, against the corn laws but was drowned out by an animated crowd. After several attempts to calm the interventionists the meeting adjourned to a near-by church but a section of the opposition travelled with them. Mr Noble spoke from the floor against opposition to the corn laws and insisted that “the poor of Ballymacarrett” would only accept provisions from a Conservative government, although how representative he was of “the poor” is questionable.(150) The proceedings of the meeting were again stinted because of continued interventions and it was eventually abandoned. By June 14th another attempt was made to hold the meeting, which was to be addressed by D.R. Ross MP, a liberal pro-Repeal landlord. Again the meeting was abandoned due to the intervention of a disruptive crowd but it was announced that the meeting was to be reconvened on the 17th of June. This time, in an attempt to exclude the conservative opposition, admission was to be by ticket only. Despite this, a determined attempt was made by opponents to gain entry using forged tickets, but the meeting finally went ahead and was addressed by Ross.
The meeting itself was uneventful and, possibly reflecting more defined divisions between the gentry and a more developed industrial bourgeoisie, it was concerned simply with repealing the Corn Laws. This was a position that found favour among O’Connell supporters and, possibly due to the absence at the meeting of a defined Chartist perspective, the ’bread tax’ theme was dominant. On the other side of the political spectrum, the mobilisation of the opposition simultaneously revealed the powers of patronage still available to the landowning class, allowing them to mobilise a section of the urban poor, and at the same time it displayed the relative weakness of that patronage. The plebeian deference that was displayed was undoubtedly shallow and, reflecting the desperation of some of the Ballymacarrett poor, their adherence to the Conservative’s campaign was gained by the supply of “bread, cheese and whiskey” distributed “through the medium of the Conservative ‘open houses’”.(151) The landed interest’s success, aided by the support of the Orange Order, in keeping the anti Corn Law campaign at bay did not go unanswered and provoked opposition from among the weavers. A “Ballymacarrett weaver” bemoaned the Conservative influence and describing the plebeian Conservatives as “monopolists” he pointed out the irony of their opposition to the entry of American flour into the country, a measure that left them hungry and with no option but to seek aid from the colonial government to emigrate.(152) By March 1842 conditions had worsened and James Connor, President of the Society of Hand Loom Weavers of Belfast, highlighted the “distressed situation of the Ballymacarrett weavers”. Connor, who came from North Belfast, was also at pains to point out that “the hand loom weavers of the northern boundary of Belfast … labour under greater privations, if possible, than the weavers of Ballymacarrett”. Reflecting a certain lack of political evolution, or perhaps a degree of resignation, Connor’s demands did not exceed a call for government aid for emigration. In an open letter to the Belfast Vindicator he advocated government intervention, arguing that, “nothing but an extensive system of emigration will be the means of bettering our condition”.(153) Efforts to oppose the corn laws in Ballymacarrett had achieved mixed results but by February 1842, spurred on by Peel’s failure to repeal or adjust them to any significant degree, the anti corn law agitation was revived in North Down.(154)
On Monday 21st February 1842 a revived anti Corn Law meeting at Bald’s Yard in Newtownards attracted the support of around one thousand people. The Chair of the meeting, John Mc Kittrick, presented his argument against the corn laws in the populist terms commonly used by the industrial middle class to rally support for free trade, his interpretation being that free trade would mean an increase in the living standards of the poor.(155) Mc Kittrick, a Presbyterian, who led the list of subscribers to O’Connell’s compensation fund in the Newtownards area(156) unequivocally placed himself in the free trade camp. This relationship with Ulster liberals was treasured by O’Connell and subscriptions from Reverend James Denvir and Reverend Wm Mc Lea of Ards along with returns from “Tydavnet and Londonderry” raised hopes that “Ulster is at length worthy to be recognised by her sister provinces as ‘the long lost pleaid’ who has regained all her original brightness”.(157) The tantalising prospect of cross-sectarian, middle class unity undoubtedly strengthened the Repeal Association’s aversion to factional politics and this aversion had found an encouraging echo in the editorial line of, the liberal, Newry Examiner,which had heavily criticised Feargus O’Connor and physical force Chartism.(158)
In Bald’s Yard, the central focus of McKittrick’s speech was the ill effects of the “iniquitous bread tax” and its disproportionate effect on the “working classes, they being the great consumers of corn”.(159) Coming at the end of a protracted recession this presentation of the effects of the corn laws from a plebeian perspective was pitched at receptive ears. Conditions in Newtownards were badly effected by the system of retaliatory tariff walls that had inhibited trade between Britain and America and had intensified the industrial bourgeoisie’s support for Laissez Faire economics. McKittrick’s interpretation of the effects of the free market, reflecting this orientation towards plebeian sensibilities, argued that it would prevent the flooding of the home market with cheap foreign produce. Reinforcing this argument, James Jeffrey from Paisley told the crowd that the American reaction to the imposition of a tariff on the importation on their corn was the placement of a restrictive tariff on carpet, which resulted in all the weavers of Kilmarnock being “thrown idle” and the saturation of the home market with cheap carpet. This argument reduced the demands of the industrial bourgeoisie to the effects of protectionism on trade and its subsequent effect on wages and employment for the working class.
Free trade was presented by McKittrick as a panacea; “happiness and contentment” would find its way into “every mechanic’s family” and “all classes would benefit” from the repeal of the monopoly laws. This cross class utopia included the middle and working classes but also had the potential to include a section of the liberal land-owning class. Not all landlords were excluded from the benefits of repeal of the Corn Laws, except perhaps “a few of those bloated landlords who had enacted the corn laws in order to keep up a system of enormous rental”.(160) As an archetype of the liberal category of Landlord, McKittrick possibly had William Sharman Crawford MP in mind. Sharman Crawford was leader of the liberal Ulster Association, but his enthusiasm for full Repeal of the Union was questionable however. Although voicing his support for the repeal of the corn laws, he refused to present a motion on Repeal to the House of Commons as he felt “it was impracticable to him to carry it”.(161) Crawford’s style of Estate management was based on his explicit desire to avoid the extension north of the outrages effecting the southern counties(162) and fits E.P Thompson’s description of Paternalism as a “studied technique of rule”.(163) In this conservatism Crawford had common ground with D.R. Ross. Ross also was concerned with the threat to property rights, a threat which, in Ross’ opinion, lay in an abrogation of the duties falling to the elite of Irish society to “put themselves at the head of the people”.(164) Failure in that duty would lead to a campaign that would undoubtedly unleash forces that would be difficult to control. This fear was all the greater because of the necessity he saw in the need for the Repeal campaign in the first place, the redemption of the empire, and an end to the “misgovernment” that forced the elite of Irish society into a position of opposition that they did not feel comfortable with but felt was necessary. His message to Irish landlords was to assume the leadership of the Repeal campaign in order to, “save the empire and your property”. An abrogation of this responsibility would mean a more plebeian orientated leadership and a lack of control that was dangerous. In his own words “think ye that starving slaves will respect your possessions? See ye not already their famished eyes glaring with the cravings of spoilation”(165) Ross repeatedly appealed to the elite of Irish society for their support and for any advocate of rural direct action the anti physical force stance was unmistakably a defence of the property of the landed class.
At the other end of the social scale, McKittrick’s attempt to mobilise the “working classes” appropriated the language of Chartism but sought to keep that mobilisation within strict parameters. The discipline of the anti Corn Law campaign persistently pressed home the requirement that the working class comply with the rigours of a cross class alliance and this ruled out the possibility of independent self-organisation. Mirroring the repeal movement’s policing of the trade unions this message was consistently pressed home from anti corn law platforms.(166) The more pronounced concentration on the corn laws reflected conditions that were regionally unevenly developed. In the south and west, O’Connell struggled to control a highly transitional agrarian agitation which increasingly reflected a consciousness that expressed itself in terms that had been initially learned through Irish rural plebeians’ connection with the English proletariat.(167) In the North the more developed economic conditions and the uneasy relationship between the landed interest and the industrialists of the Lagan valley presented plebeians with a space in which they could manoeuvre, but this was a transient phenomenon.
The economic recession of 1839-42 caused an upsurge in plebeian activity but between north and south it took different forms. O’Connell’s campaigns in the south focused on repeal of the union as the imperative for bourgeois domination of emerging proletarian movements. In the north, although a good degree of crossover was apparent between the Repeal, and anti Corn Law campaigns, it was the anti Corn Law campaign that necessitated the exclusion of dangerous English ideas. In the north especially, the historical problem of sectarianism also had to be resolved by the liberal bourgeoisie. The conundrum for them was that the sectarian unity becoming apparent at grass roots level in some areas was showing signs of extending its demands further than middle class economic interests could allow. At the same time they had to establish enough unity to strengthen their base of support among the plebeians and challenge the Conservative utilisation of sectarian divisions, which became particularly virulent in county Down in the early 1840s. The campaign against liberalism that was centred around support for Lord Roden’s inquiry into Ribbonism had raise the political temperature(168) and the murder of Hugh McCandless at Ballyroney inflamed sentiments further(169). Death threats were also issued to Father Morgan(170) who mounted a campaign to have a police station established at Drumgooland, near Castlewellan, to protect “the well disposed inhabitants” from attack.(171) In his correspondence with Dublin Castle Morgan sought the strengthening of the State as a way of bypassing local magistrates including Hill Rowan, the stipendiary magistrate, whom he accused of failing to move to quell the sectarian campaign which had seen shots fired at the Parochial house.(172) The campaign reached such a pitch that reports reached Dublin Castle that gunpowder was being purchased in Rathfriland for the purpose of protecting those accused of McCandless’ murder and to “wreck the houses of Catholics from Castlewellan to Banbridge”.(173) It was against this background of sectarian tension in rural Down that attempts to strengthen spontaneous moves towards sectarian unity took place in Newtownards. The irony was, that the social demands of spontaneous plebeian sectarian unity had to be controlled by both the liberal and conservative gentry and the industrialists.
Speaking at the anti Corn Law meeting in Bald’s Yard, David McKean identified the threat posed by division and emphasised the necessity of sectarian unity. He went on to criticise “persons in Ballymacarrett who declared that they would not take a big loaf except it came through a Protestant channel”, a not wholly correct reference to Mr Noble’s earlier intervention.(174) McKean also contrasted this threat to unity with the non - sectarian nature of the Newtownards meeting which he forcefully presented as being key to the successful overthrow of the corn monopolists. The Reverend Harrison supported by Reverend Mulherin also addressed the crowd, condemning the destitution of the town’s residents which prevented “upwards of forty families … from attending public worship in consequence of a want of clothing”.(175) Reverend Mulherin went on to condemn sectarian divisions and to reinforce the previous argument on the necessity of class unity, urging the crowd to “have the voices of two classes, the middle and working classes, and it would tell upon the aristocracy with success and effect”.(176) This attempt at a cross class unity was counterposed by a sectarian unity and quickly came under attack from Conservatives who planned a “counter-meeting” to express the “sentiments of the landed proprietors and agricultural classes in favour of these laws”.(177) Had the plebeian opposition to the corn laws been independent of the liberal middle class it had some chance of growing in the space between the two ruling class factions, but the campaign suffered from middle class fears that such independence would exceed the parameters of middle class requirements and radical moves towards establishing that independence faced strong opposition.
Mathew Mayes proposed the collection of a petition to the crowd at Newtownards but, reflecting perhaps the Liberal domination of the platform, his speech is not recorded in full, being described by the Belfast Vindicator only as “brief but eloquent”. Mayes later appeared at an exclusively Chartist meeting in Newtownards(178) but his orientation towards plebeian politics was apparent in his first article on the petition which points out “That your petitioners are principally working men, having no other property but in the labour of their hands”.(179) This was as far as his political intervention went at this meeting however, and the petition presented to the House of Commons by Sharman Crawford did not contain the Chartists’ six points but instead concentrated solely on the “bread tax”.(180) Although Mayes stuck firmly to the anti corn law agenda the stinted nature of his speech and the context in which it was delivered suggests that a degree of restriction was placed upon him. Nevertheless, his intervention, described by the Northern Whig as “brief but forcible”, seems to have been generally popular and he was “loudly applauded”.(181) Tight control of the agenda appears to have been enforced by McKittrick but others were not to be censured and Hugh Carlile, described as “a gentleman” carrying a copy of the Northern Star, made an attempt to address the crowd on “universal suffrage, and such other combustable topics” during the passing of the resolutions.(182) Having been prevented by McKittrick he then attempted to address the crowd when the main meeting was breaking up but, according to the Belfast Vindicator’s correspondent, was physically ejected from Bald’s yard where the meeting took place. This, however, is contradicted by the Ulster Times which reports that “a Chartist” addressed the meeting “at considerable length”.(183)
Hugh Carlile of Moneyrea was a middle class radical apparently of some repute who had attended Belfast Royal Academical Institution and according to a disparaging account in the Belfast Vindicator had become “Chartist and Socialist all in a lump”.(184) Carlile challenged this view of his politics however. Perhaps showing where the boundaries of ‘the pale’ were in relation to freedom of thought among middle class intellectuals he rejected the classification of his politics as socialist, pronouncing instead his Christian beliefs and hoping for “the speedy downfall of Socialism”.(185) His attitude to his classification as a Chartist was not so unequivocal. Although he denied being part of a Chartist organisation he rather disingenuously claimed membership of the IUSA. The report in the Belfast Vindicator seems to have been an attempt to devalue his position by casting aspersions on his personal history and character and by undermining his intellectual integrity with the implication that he had been ejected from college. This was strenuously denied by Carlile who accused David McKean, who had attended college with him, for what appears to be a personalised attack on his political position. He also challenged the account given of his attempts to address the crowd at Bald’s yard. According to Carlile the crowd, rather than “laughing at him”(186) , were receptive to his proposal of support for Sharman Crawford’s view “that the corn law agitation and the agitation for an extended suffrage ought to go hand in hand”.(187) Although Carlile did not go in to detail on how precisely the two campaigns could co-operate it is significant that both campaigns were seen as running in parallel and he did not suggest the liquidation of the suffrage campaign in favour of McKittrick’s leadership. His intervention on behalf of the IUSA seems to have had some effect as some of the speakers on the anti corn law platform invited him to address a further meeting planned for March 12th at which a contribution to the Charter was to be taken. The working class crowd also seem to have been receptive to demands that exceeded the limitations of the anti corn law campaign and were supportive of the collection of a local contribution towards the second Chartist petition which overall had attracted the support of two thousand in Belfast area.
At the subsequent meeting organised by Mayes, Carlile, James Knightly and McKenna of Boyle, for the purpose of establishing a local branch of the Universal Suffrage Society, Mayes attacked “Melbourne for ignorance” and the Tories for dishonesty, stating to the crowd that “both parties have robbed you”.(188) Carlile also, feeling that the strictures had been lifted from him, proclaimed the IUSA’s independence by announcing that “This society is for the people not for Whig or Tory or O’Connell”. McKenna’s presence suggests that the embryonic local organisation was receiving at least some of its impetus from travelling agitators, in this case from Roscommon, but possibly with links that could be extended to England. In unequivocal terms McKenna urged support for the Chartist petition being taken and urged those present to “Join the Chartists or they would die as slaves.” Before taking the petition three cheers were raised for the police, the chair and Feargus O’Connor while the aristocracy were loudly condemned for “trampling” on the people.(189) Although the numbers involved are not mentioned, the crowd were not as unanimous in support as the previous meeting in Bald’s yard and the constable in charge noted that “some slight inclination to riot” occurred when a section of the crowd “contemplated to pull the cart from under the Chartists”.(190) Chartism appealed to a narrower social stratum and the combination of Tory agitation, O’Connellite hostility and an underdeveloped industrial base conspired to marginalise the independent working class initiative in Newtownards, but this was not simply a local phenomenon.
In the Bann valley a similar distillation of class positions was taking place among weavers. As in Roscommon the weavers’(191) link with what can loosely described as ‘pre-industrial’ forms of struggle was direct in an organisational sense. The context of their protests however had been changed by the evolving forces of production, and demands came increasingly to reflect a burgeoning proletarianisation of small scale producers. In November 1842 John Mathews’ signature appears along with eight others on a caution to linen trade workers to ignore Tommy Downshire notices.(192) This apparent gentrification of traditional methods of protest did not reflect fully the opinion of all the signatories however and Mathews himself was to be profoundly disappointed by the deal achieved through formal negotiations, a discontent that was reflected in his attempt to organise plebeian opposition to the deal and to spread this opposition into a campaign for regulation of rents. Mathews seems isolated however and his second meeting of weavers at Moira did not attract a great deal of support, with the crowd estimated at “about eighty”.(193) Mathews address was considered by an irreconcilably hostile press as being “as violent and inflammatory as stupid ignorance could make it”.(194) His previously favourable image appears to have suffered grievously when he attempted to expand his campaign to include rent regulation and to have rejected the formalisation of protest in favour of a move towards the traditional methodology of the Tommy Downshires. As the space in which they operated, between the industrial bourgeoisie and the landed gentry, contracted around them the weavers’ agitation at Shane Hill and Moira attempted to break out of its isolation in a number of directions and ultimately threatened to spill over into support for Chartism.(195)
This was not the sole orientation of the weavers however. A co-signatory of Mathews’, John Blackstock, is not reported as being at the second Moira meeting and possibly did not share Mathews’ opinions, at least not fully. In a letter to the Belfast Vindicator(196) a “J.B.’ associated with the weavers’, possibly John Blackstock of the weavers‘ committee, outlined his politico-economic theories and, mentioning the earlier Moira meeting, cautioned against the return to the methodologies of Tommy Downshire. His theory represented a tendency that rejected direct action for a more constitutional but nevertheless independent perspective for plebeian resistance to the ideologies of both free market radicalism and Tory Conservatism. His concern that continued hardship could “probably tend to disturb the peace and harmony of society” placed him outside the ranks of the handloom weavers most inclined to take direct action however. Although highlighting the public opposition to “machinery” at the Moira meeting by one of the speakers and the “private threats of demolition”, reminiscent of Luddism, he argued against taking this course of action. His warnings attest to the volatility of the Shane Hill and Moira meetings which in his estimation “could have terminated in such scenes of violence and outrage as have so lately disgraced the working classes of England and Scotland”.(197) However, despite rejecting the Moira demonstrators’ perspectives on how to oppose mechanisation, he shared their opinion of the harm that the capitalisation of industry was causing to the hand loom weavers. Although he regarded mechanisation as “one cause of the present want of employment” he asks the question “whether machinery is of itself the cause of the distress now existing, or whether other causes may not be assigned as combining with it to produce this result”.(198) His answer amounted to an argument for government intervention in the market to protect small weavers that were in competition with the large “capitalists”. As part of this State intervention he advocated a repeal of the corn laws which he saw as a way of opening up the international market for British manufactured goods. Theoretically this would have purged the glut on the home market which had driven down the price of hand produced goods. His argument saw the Corn Laws as having promoted manufacturing in other nations simply because they had been deprived of the product of British manufacturing and were therefore forced to develop their own industrial base.
Although it was a simplistic economic theory that to some extent borrowed from the Anti Corn Law League (ACLL), its greatest value lay in its independence from other theories and its expression of a working class political perspective. Indeed a good degree of plebeian alienation from government was apparent in the accusation that the Legislature had allowed mechanisation “to act uncontrolled”.(199) The theory on the one hand attacked the protectionism of the landlord class but did not favour the Laissez Faire arguments of the bourgeois radicals. Contradicting the ethos of free market ideology, a “reasonable tax” on mechanical improvements was recommended, “to protect manual labour from the effects of their operation” and an “efficient regulating principle” proposed which would “make steam power subservient to manual labour”. ‘J.B’ recommended that the “interference of the Legislature” should deliver a heavily regulated form of capitalism that would see the benefits of industrialisation being “conferred on the nation at large, instead of being absorbed by the capitalists,” and although presenting the case for the alleviation of poverty among the weavers his argument was also presented as being in the interests of the large capitalists.(200) Foreshadowing Keynesian economics, and bearing a striking resemblance to Sismondi’s petit bourgeois socialist theories,(201) J.B’s theory saw state regulation of capitalism as a possible method of avoiding the worst excesses of competition between large mechanised producers which he compared with the “fabled battle of the Kilkenny cats who ….eat each other up, all but the tails”.(202) This early example of reformism which urged the working classes to reject machine wrecking in favour of a campaign to bring “the subject under the consideration of Parliament”(203) did not meet with an enthusiastic response from the Vindicator. Instead, in a pointed editorial footnote they asserted that “we differ altogether from the writer in his calculations of the effects of machinery” and explain that the letter had been published “because it is the production of a working man and contains the opinions which influence the class to which he belongs”.(204) A divided bourgeoisie were united in their opposition to independent plebeian initiatives.
At Moira traditional methods of protest were shelved by the weavers following Hill Rowan’s intervention, which resulted in weavers suspending their traditional hill top meetings in favour of a more formal negotiating committee. Although Rowan represented to some extent the professionalisation and expansion of the State he was also involved in a potentially compromising financial relationship with Lord Downshire.(205) Neither would the pressures coming on to the manufacturers from the weavers’ protests have necessarily prompted a vigorous response from the landed class, or in this case from the emerging machinery of state. Despite the existing rivalries it is likely however, that both Hill Rowan and Lord Downshire would have preferred these protests to be limited to constitutional means. Although Lord Downshire had an uneasy relationship with the linen and cotton manufacturers the relationship was to some extent symbiotic. Downshire was in an economic relationship with the manufacturers through the provision of water for their mills from his dam constructed near the source of the Bann, a service his agent felt they could “well afford“ to “pay handsomely for”.(206) A degree of friction and jealousy was mixed with a degree of economic interdependence. Despite this overlapping of economic interests the struggle for political hegemony was bitterly fought. The Tory Newry Telegraph and the Northern Whig were in dispute over the latter’s unflattering dismissal of Colonel Blacker’s(207) apologia for the Corn Laws as an “absurd doctrine”(208) and Lord Downshire, as the threat of repeal of the tariff system loomed promised that if “any man of the present government should think at any time of standing for any place where I have the least influence local or personal I shall oppose him to the utmost of my power”.(209) The uneven development of capitalism had placed a modernising Irish agriculture as a less developed but nevertheless integral component of the industrial expansion of England, the combined and uneven economy that was the basis for the ‘combined and uneven consciousness’ of agrarian activists.(210) The corollary of this was that the friction between the landed interest and the manufacturing class was less acute in Ireland and the space within which John Mathews’ campaign operated was all the more tenuous and could not survive his inclusion of demands that threatened both sides of the upper class schism. As with the English moral economy a real but transient space had opened up for plebeian protest between the landed class and the manufacturing bourgeoisie and both sides were locked in competition to gain or maintain hegemony. Although neither side could get a firm hold on them the plebeians were split ideologically. ‘J B’ favoured a firmly constitutionalist approach that could be envisaged, if he settled for a repeal of the corn laws as a first step on the way to his vision of a regulated capitalism, as gravitating towards the ACCL. John Mathews, on the other hand seems to orientate towards the poorest weavers and favoured a return to tried and trusted methods of regulating the economy more familiar to agrarian activists. Both factions remained isolated outside their own isolated economic group and in the age of emigration the economically and politically defeated weavers sought to join impoverished landless labourers in the post famine exodus.
Although Chartism maintained an independent presence in Dublin until 1848 and participated in plans for a revolt, for which Patrick O’Higgins received a prison sentence, there was little evidence of activity in provincial towns of any form of organisationally independent Chartism. Nationalism had changed dramatically however and had recognised the utility of Chartist demands for the franchise in mobilising the masses. The impact of the French revolution of February 1848 is also evident in the relatively sudden change of heart by nationalist radicals. In January 1848 Smith O’Brien advised the Limerick trade unions that they should mute their protests against O’Connell. Despite his recent split with O’Connell Smith O’Brien felt that “It would be much better these demonstrations would not take place at all. It lessens the Repeal cause. Gentlemen are afraid to join us”. He went on to add that the trade unions should “not ally themselves with any English party, but to act independently”.(211) Yet in March 1848, at a meeting at the North Wall of the Dublin Trades and Citizens, John Mitchel glorified the role of the Paris proletariat in the February revolution. The language of the repeal radicals had become uncompromising and calls for repeal were also suggesting that in the event of a British refusal “they should be prepared to wade through a river of blood if necessary”.(212) The impact of English Chartism on Irish nationalism is also evident. T.F. Meagher voiced regret at “the gross injustice” done to the English people who “had been held accountable for the animosity of the English government”.(213) The new confidence of this most radical faction was inspired by events in England and France and in complete contrast to his Young Ireland colleague one month earlier, Meagher now looked to the English people for “foreign sympathy” for their cause and declared sectarianism to be on the wane. Confidently the Weekly Vindicator predicted, “The spell of division is broken … every grown man from Shane’s Hill to the Giant’s Causeway is cultivating the society of pikes and muskets”.(214) This was certainly true of the Newry Confederate club which had rejected the name conferred on it by Ross and had inspected the production of pike heads at a local manufacturer.(215) How general this was is another question.
At a meeting at Shane Hill on May 20th 1848 Michael Doheny, the ex Young Irelander who by now was describing himself as a Chartist, presented a “pike and gun” speech that went down well with the crowd of 500. Rather ironically the meeting had originally been called under the Chartist slogan of “Peace, Law and Order” but its central focus had been intended as being the Tenant Right issue. The choice of meeting place suggests a conscious attempt was being made to tap into the “Tommy Downshire” tradition, and the tactic seems to have been successful, with a good deal of local support being generated, especially among the poorer weavers.(216) Independent Chartist leadership however was not evidenced and the radical Confederate Clubs were in a position of leadership that was soon to be qualitatively undermined by the establishment of The Irish League (217), and the opening up of the organisation to the most right wing of the old disintegrating repeal leadership.(218) By the end of June, Dr Blake, the sworn enemy of McDonald’s Chartism, had joined the Irish League and encouraged other Clergy to do the same. The recruitment drive was a deliberate entrist policy by the Catholic bourgeoisie designed to cause the “more ardent and flighty of the Confederates” to “be subdued into calmness and prudence”, and by late July a large scale take over was under way with the entry of the Bishop of Conor along with Dr Maginn and 90 Clergy of the diocese of Derry.(219) Chartist influence may have presented the most radical faction of the Irish middle class with an opportunity, but the majority of the Catholic bourgeoisie arrested that development.
In Newry, the Confederate meeting of February 1848 does not turn out any evidence of an independent Chartist intervention, only of a rejection of the reactionary nature of Conciliation Hall. However this is ambiguous as the radical speakers also seemed to have an orientation to the landed class, or at least lacked roots in any plebeian base. Michael Doheny, who in April was to proclaim himself a Chartist in a speech at Oldham Edge,(220) had the self-declared objective of bridging the sectarian divide, but this was presented simply in generic terms, a specific class perspective was excluded. Doheny based his argument for Protestant participation in the Repeal campaign on the fact that the Irish parliament had been a Protestant parliament. In what can best be described as opportunism, neither the class nature of that parliament nor the limited electoral franchise associated with it was mentioned. Despite the fact that just over a month later Doheny was declaring himself a Chartist, there is little hint of Chartist demands being made in the Newry meeting. The conflict of interests between landlord and tenant was briefly addressed but again, as with Ross, Doheny felt the Irish landlords interests would best be served “by striving at home”. This appeal to the landowning class still persisted in the faction of the Repeal movement that considered itself the most radical, having broken with the “worn out fallacies of Conciliation Hall”.(221) The thrust of Doheny’s speech was for Repeal pure and simple and issues of the extension of the articles of the Charter were conspicuous by their absence indicating perhaps a dearth of local Chartists.
149 Belfast Vindicator February