In Europe 1848 was the year of revolutions, both Marx and Engels cut their revolutionary teeth in this period the defining event of which was the revolt of the Parisian proletariat in which the battle lines between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were drawn. In Ireland a revolt of sorts also took place, but despite the impact of the famine it was a revolt that did not reflect the degree of agitation and organisation that had preceded it. The reasons for this muted response to the insurrectionary call are varied but hunger was not the sole reason. The lessons of the Parisian proletariat’s revolt were not lost on the Irish bourgeoisie, rather, despite the efforts of a determined, but quite cynical, minority, it confirmed middle class suspicions of “the mob” and strengthened their commitment to gentle reforms as different sectarian and economic interests wrestled for position within the empire.
Working class and plebeian activity, especially agrarian agitation, was endemic to Ireland in the early 19th Century and in that sense conditions were ripe for the spread of nuanced European and British ideologies. One of the most immediate influences was the Chartist upsurge in Britain. Although little credit is generally give to its influence in Ireland it was an influence that nevertheless was felt. Irish Chartism’s failure to ascend to the national stage guarantees its neglected position but the reasons for its failure are seldom investigated, being put down, somewhat mechanically, to the underdeveloped economic conditions. Chartist attempts at self organisation had an impact however, announcing a plebeian presence which eventually translated into a burgeoning left wing to the nationalism of the Confederates and the progenitors of the Fenian movement. The question arises, how was this evolution achieved; that a plebeian movement, initially exhibiting a high degree of independence, came to be dominated by nationalism?
As elsewhere, in Ireland the evolving proletariat developed “organic intellectuals” that attempted to theorise their attempts at struggle, attempts that bore a passing resemblance to other European theorists. On the other side of the equation the bourgeoisie were actively and ideologically opposed to the development of an independent proletarian movement. While religious sectarianism existed as a pre capitalist phenomenon it was a division that was strengthened by the uneven development of capitalism in Ireland and the acceptance of difference spheres of influence for the commercial capital of the south and the industrial capital of the north. Both the Catholic and the Protestant bourgeoisie accepted these divisions quickly following the defeat of the United Irishmen in 1798 and while liberalism continued to exist it became increasingly marginalised as both industrialisation and the switch to pasture farming provoked a response from both agrarian activists and the nascent proletariat. Both landed liberals and the emerging bourgeoisie found themselves engaging in a dangerous game; attempting to utilise plebeian discontent in their struggle with the landed aristocracy, a struggle that culminated in the 1847 repeal of the Corn Laws.
The plebeian body, made up of many social parts, proved less than reliable and soon, like Mary Shelley’s classic monster, developed an independent consciousness, the classic example being the Parisian proletariat. Irish plebeians also proved difficult to handle for the bourgeoisie, but the development of a unified mass of workers was hampered by the uneven development of the economy which saw different layers of resistance to evolving economic change peak at different times. Both pro and anti Repeal camps recognised the necessity of keeping plebeian expectations to a minimum and under control, and sectarian divisions were nurtured by both sides as spontaneous, non sectarian, resistance erupted. The struggle between the conservative gentry and the rising bourgeoisie, which in England allowed the space for a plebeian regulation of the market, or a “moral economy”, was further complicated in Ireland by a sectarian division which overshadowed the economic divisions between the commercial and industrial middle class, and the orientation of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association towards the liberal land owners of Ulster. For the middle and upper classes the struggle was conducted to gain precedence in the colony’s relationship with the industrialised imperial centre, separatism was not seriously countenanced.
While the Irish bourgeoisie were, from the watershed of 1798, ambivalent about separatism, plebeian views of the Act of Union were more unequivocal. Union was seen as the font of all evil and despite the fact that Grattan’s Parliament was viewed through rose tinted spectacles, the arrival of Chartism in Ireland represented a serious effort to establish an independent working class political tradition. The determined independence of the Chartists, a feature the Repeal Association in particular found most obnoxious, was not to be tolerated by any branch of the Irish middle or upper classes and while Chartism’s membership crossed the sectarian divide the opposition to it was also universally agreed upon by all of the factions among the local ruling classes.
Irish Chartism undoubtedly had an effect
far beyond its immediate circle, its democratic ideals were attractive,
not only to the urban working class but also to the rural agricultural
labourers. This layer of rural plebeians not only brought their own traditions
of direct action with them to the struggle but they also benefited from
the experiences of emigrants, returned from the centres of the British
industrial revolution. By comparison with the insularity of nationalism
this nascent internationalism had the potential to cross all boundaries.
This potential was not to be realised, in the “final analysis” for objective
economic reasons, but these objective conditions were mediated by a virulently
oppressive bourgeoisie. Although an independent plebeian ideology was tentatively
evolving the middle and upper classes were involved in a class war, and
consciously so. Attempts to suppress plebeian or proletarian dissent were
vigorously carried out by all sections of the Irish middle and upper classes,
irrespective of religious persuasion.