By September 1841 Chartists were making real inroads in influencing O’Connell’s supporters in England. By early 1842 The Northern Star had a circulation of 400 in Ireland with a readership that is likely to have far exceeded that figure and in Glasgow the Chartists had gained the trust of the Repeal movement, in spite of the O’Connellites’ reservations.(222) The Chartist influence was also spreading to rural areas and by all accounts was finding a receptive audience among the rural poor. By May O’Connell, in an attempt to stop the rot, had instructed the Repeal Wardens in England to “return subscriptions”, a euphemism for ‘expel’, to anyone associated with Chartism.(223) In Ireland, from the first attempts at Chartist organisation, the organisers faced the determined opposition of O’Connell’s organisation but, despite this, the organisation did gain a foothold, albeit a rather tenuous one, with the exception of Dublin. Although their membership level did peak between 1841 and 1843 the depth of the new recruits’ level of commitment appears to have been relatively shallow. Also, possibly reflecting the relative absence of a large scale proletarian pole of attraction for the radicalised petit bourgeoisie, radicalised middle class layers, as in Drogheda, were easily broken away by the Repeal Association’s aggression. The evidence that exists in relation to Chartist numbers in Drogheda is somewhat contradictory but, taken at face value, the contrast between Quain’s figure and Dyott’s, which is supported by the police informer’s figures, suggests an unstable organisation. It undoubtedly had the capacity to expand rapidly but the series of public resignations also suggests that it had the capacity to shrink just as fast, especially when coming under the kind of concentrated pressure from the Catholic church and the Repeal Association leadership that saw Father Ryan withdraw with such haste.
Facing different levels of economic development and a Tory gentry with a greater ability to mobilise plebeian support Chartism faced challenges in the North from a well established relationship between Conservative Landlords and the Orange Order. The resistance to the anti Corn Law campaign at Ballymacarrett illustrates both the degree of want among the poor and the ease with which the Conservative gentry could mobilise a layer of plebeian support. The existence of the strongly worded critique of the Tories from within the weaving community suggests that this conservative opposition, although effective in suppressing the Liberals, was not overwhelming however. Lord Downshire’s uneasy, but far from irreconcilable, relationship with the industrialists over the building of the Dam on the river Bann, and the Tommy Downshire revolts of the early 1840s, reveals a division between the Irish landed gentry and the industrial bourgeoisie. This was a division that tended to contract quite easily however, restricting the space within which plebeian protest occurred, and though not excluding the existence of a moral economy, narrowing the parameters within which it could operate. In addition to this the dominant opposition to the Tories in Ulster, the Liberal Ulster Association led by Sharman Crawford combined with the Repeal Association, were opposed to Chartism although this opposition was to some extent more subtle than that of the Tories and concentrated on focussing attention on the campaign against the corn laws. It was none the less virulent however. Despite the fact that they were attacked on both sides by considerable forces, plebeian activists did come to the fore and openly campaigned for the charter and a persistent willingness existed among plebeians to submerge sectarian identities in disputes over class issues.
The plebeian response to the economic recession of the early 1840s was drawn in two directions, towards both the repeal and the anti corn law agitations. Irish Chartism stood as the most independent expression of the emerging working class, but it was squeezed on both sides by Conservative sectarianism and O’Connellite confessionalism. Under the overall hegemony of British economic dominance, both sides of the Repeal argument accepted responsibility, in their different ways, for the suppression of the development of all forces to their left. The restricted development of Irish industry further hindered Chartist development in the sense that the Irish proletariat did not develop in any way comparable to that of the English industrial working class. But on the other hand the combined and uneven development of capitalism in the British isles meant that agrarian plebeians found themselves in conflict with a modernising system of agricultural production that was increasingly integrating with English industrial capitalism. As a result, both in terms of personnel and politics they found themselves benefiting from the ideas of the developing English proletariat. This connection produced a nascent internationalism, what Michael Huggins terms a combined and uneven consciousness, among rural labourers that combined pre-industrial forms of struggle with demands that were essentially opposed to the effects of the burgeoning industrial revolution. In the West it was the development of this international connection that presented the Irish landowning class and the growing middle class with the greatest challenge. Feargus O’Connor’s travelling agitators appear to have had an acute impact where the development of a middle class was more stinted or where the relationship between rural plebeians and the strong farming class was already confrontational. The common ground based on nationalism was harder to find. No firm division existed between agrarian and industrial forms of struggle with the Molly Maguires’ acting as a trade union for the labourers working on the Boyle canal and the kidnapping of the “ganger” by workers on the Newry canal showing a tendency for earlier forms of struggle to become refocused on new demands. This reveals a tendency for the early labour movement to utilise forms of struggle that had been more closely associated with agrarian issues.
The way in which Chartism appears to have spread to the Newtownards area is also interesting. There was both an organic local response and an outside influence. Hugh Carlile’s contribution to the establishment of Chartism reveals that a home grown intellectual layer was being drawn in to the democracy campaign. Despite a substantial campaign against him and an attempt to slander his academic standing Carlile persisted with his activities, evidence not only of his own tenacity but also suggestive that a mileiu existed within which such radicalism could survive. The presence within that mileiu of McKenna from Boyle is also significant in that it shows that links were beginning to be established between different areas of activity. McKenna represents an organisational link between the agrarian activity in Roscommon and the eastern seaboard that was unequivocally Chartist in tone but possibly of greater significance was their direct approach to building an independent organisation. No attempt was made to form any alliances and in uncompromising language Chartism under the leadership of Feargus O’Connor was posed as an alternative leadership. A similar radicalisation is apparent in the politics of ‘J.B’, though this time rising out of the Tommy Downshire struggle, which bore more that a passing resemblance to the petit bourgeois socialism of Sismondi. In this period of unrest it is probable that such radical ideas were reaching Irish shores given the already existing Chartist connections and the organic intellectual development of G.J. Harney’s Society of Fraternal Democrats which “enjoyed considerable contact with Marx and Engels.(225)
Despite this development there seems to be little evidence of the survival of Chartism outside Dublin in the post famine period and the connection with the English working class was eventually capitalised upon by the Confederate clubs for what could be interpreted as quite cynical purposes. There was an attempt, that appears opportunistic, to harness existing trade organisations to the more radical wing of nationalism by Mitchel in particular who moved rapidly to the left in the months preceding the 1848 rising. When the revolutionary surge receded however Mitchel moved rapidly to the right again. Chartism in Ireland with the exception of Dublin did not have the organisational independence from existing bourgeois parties that existed in the working class heartlands of industrialised Britain. Without the weight of a developed working class behind them the nationalist radicals, unlike the French revolutionaries of February 1848 appear as paper tigers. Nevertheless they sought to exploit Chartism for its strength as a diversionary force in Britain(226) and as a way of mobilising the working class in Ireland. The evolution of the Irish League also revealed a struggle taking place between conservative and radical wings of the middle class for ownership of the Repeal campaign with the swamping of the League by the Catholic church undermining the influence of Chartism at a key moment. While rapid changes of mind may be commonplace in revolutionary situations the sudden conversion of John Mitchel and other leading Confederates to Chartist principles suggests a degree of opportunism especially in the context of continued attempts to appeal to the middle class. Indeed if Mitchel’s change of heart on Chartism was opportunistic it may help explain his later social conservatism and defence of slavery when in America.
222 Belfast Vindicator.
March 26th 1842.