Chapter Two: Chartist growth and the Repeal Association:
Swimming against the tide.
In March 1841the Repeal Association’s Belfast Vindicator carried a response to a report in Feargus O’Connor’s Northern Star that Chartism has been organised in Newry. The Northern Star had earlier claimed that Chartism had also made an appearance in Antrim town but the Belfast Vindicator claimed that “on inquiry we discovered that that place contained exactly one Chartist who had imported himself from England whither he was about to return.”(109) The Belfast Vindicator surmised from this that reports of Chartist agitation in Newry had been generated by the same individual and, although the effect of the roaming agitator is played down, the paragraph from the Northern Star is reproduced along with an invite to the “tradesmen of Newry” to “take prompt steps to retrieve their character from the imputation it contains”. O’Connell’s organisation was nothing if not efficient and political propaganda conducted among the rank and file merited serious action.
The article in the Northern Star makes it clear that the meeting’s purpose was the organisation of “a body of Chartists” in Newry and a request was forwarded to Leeds seeking “information respecting the rules and regulations for conducting the said body”.(110) Joseph Mc Donald, described as “a shoemaker, a Roman Catholic and, we hear, a native of Newry”, was in the chair at the meeting that took place on Monday 22nd March 1841, in a public house on High Street.(111) No further details were revealed of the proceedings but McDonald’s arrival caused quite a stir, with the police being urged to “keep a sharp lookout after his movements”.(112) Although O’Connell’s organisation was keen to play down McDonald’s impact, by Sunday April 4th the Right Reverend Dr Blake was addressing his flock in Newry “on the evils and dangers of Chartism and warned them strongly against being seduced into countenancing it”.(113) The Belfast Vindicator fully supported the bishop’s efforts at attempting to steer, “the poor man” away from the “pestilence” of Chartism “which in England has brought the working classes to crime and destitution”. The Liberal or O’Connellite perspectives were presented as the only credible alternative: reform of landlord - tenant relations, encouragement of native manufacture , temperance and repeal. In a final, slightly overstated, warning “the poor man” is cautioned not to “put his trust in a system which has filled the jails of England with prisoners and the poor houses with paupers”.(114) A single organising meeting had met with quite a formidable response from the Catholic bourgeois apparatus, but more was yet to come. The magnitude of the response and the apparent fixation with the pages of the Northern Star suggests that, with a considerable circulation in Ireland, O’Connell saw it as a substantial threat, especially to the adherence of his own rank and file to the Repeal Association’s discipline and principles. The potential attraction of Chartist ideas could undermine the Repeal Association’s base and allow common cause to be made between Chartism and Repeal, as happened at a later date in England.
By Monday the 5th April, one day after Dr Blake’s sermon, O’Connell’s machine had swung into action and a concentrated denunciation of Chartism, focussing especially on the efforts in Newry to form a local branch, took place at the weekly meeting at the Corn Exchange. Despite attempts to play down its development, the somewhat shrill condemnation of “torch and dagger” Chartism was a reminder that O’Connell was nervous about his own sometimes tenuous grip on the rank and file of the Repeal movement.(115) At this juncture O’Connell feigned ignorance of any Chartist organisation in Dublin but his sardonic query as to their whereabouts met with a, possibly off-message, response from the audience that informed him, twice, that they met in Golden Lane. Attesting to O’Connell’s quick-witted speaking abilities this information provided him with another angle of attack, Golden Lane being in the vicinity of the Orange Order’s meeting place. The proximity of Orange Order and Chartist meeting places was enough to imply a political proximity and O’Connell ruled out the possibility of success for Chartism in Ireland “except the Protestant operatives take it up on the Orange plan”.(116) In his later “Address to the operative classes of Newry”, O’Connell equated Chartists to “the dregs of decaying Orangism”.(117) This was a recurring theme which was used to strengthen confessional politics and to insulate Irish Catholic plebeians from the efforts of O’Connor’s travelling agitators. In July 1841 a toast drank to O’Connor in an Orange society, at Horton in Surrey, was unearthed by O’Connell as a warning to “the Catholic tradesmen of Newry, Antrim and Belfast on whom attempts have been made to seduce them in to the ranks of O’Connor’s followers”. The warning goes on to prompt any potential Chartist recruit that they “will now know how to treat any scoundrel that invites them to support the idol of the Orange Lodges”.(118) Despite his downplaying of McDonald’s impact and indicating that the threat from Chartism was more real than he at first pretended, he announced; “As to Newry we are bound to take some steps with regard to it, for it is an authenticated fact that some Chartists are endeavouring to get together a meeting of the trades of Newry for the purpose of establishing Chartism there”. O’Connell eloquently brought all the threats wielded by the state to bear on the Newry Chartists, warning them that if “they entered into any correspondence with the Chartists of England they are guilty of an offence punishable with transportation”. Irish Chartists were promised that they could be punished for the crimes of the English Chartists merely by association, the example given being Frost’s revolt at Newport and his subsequent transportation. Gilding the lily a little perhaps O’Connell went on to hold out the likelihood of trial and execution for Frosts supporters in Ireland merely for the crime of communicating with the Welsh Chartists at the time of their revolt.(119)
Strenuous attempts were made to create a gap between the Irish trades and English Chartists. The northern agitators were accused of being agents provocateurs whose aim was “first to seduce and then to betray their unhappy victims”, and that, “several of that body [their recruits] will within six months be suffering the horrors of imprisonment - if not of transportation”.(120) For the Irish middle class the imperative of controlling the Irish proletariat meant insulating them from their English counterparts. A repeated tactic was the issuing of scare stories about English efforts to hinder the “movement in favour of Irish manufacture”. O’Connell pronounced that English workmen coming to Ireland were keeping wages down and this was precisely what the Repeal movement was struggling against because a strengthened Irish manufacture would result in higher wages. In characteristic fashion precisely how low wages were hindering the development of Irish manufacturing was not spelled out but he carries on to point out an apparent conspiracy by an English Hatters’ union which raised £50 to support a strike by Irish workers. This was interpreted as money raised to “procure a strike of the workmen to prevent the manufacture movement from going on in this country, and to enable them to keep the business”.(121) Obviously aware of Dr Blake’s efforts in Newry the previous day, O’Connell expressed confidence that Catholics that had been induced to join Chartism would “get good advice from every quarter both lay and clerical; and if they have been induced to join it, we will soon separate them from the filthiness of physical force Chartism”. This critique was not limited to the abstract level, but signalled an active intervention in Chartist activity and, rather ominously, the repeal wardens in the vicinity of Golden Lane were instructed to “report as to whether any Chartist meetings had taken place in that locality, in order that the Association might take such measures as would be deemed advisable to save from the consequences those who had been induced to join them”.(122)
By the meeting of April 13th this investigation had borne fruit and Hubert McGuire had located the Chartists in Golden Lane and offered the Repeal Association to attend Chartist meetings in order to glean further information. O’Connell, perhaps exhibiting a degree of political insecurity, and possibly keen to insulate his people from Chartist influence, dissuaded McGuire from attending by arguing “that to take any notice of them would be merely to raise them to fictitious importance”. At the same time O’Connell delivered the promised “Address to the operative classes of Newry”.(123) This appeal appeared as curious mixture of moral blackmail and threat. The Newry tradesmen were informed that the Association was their “only friend” and that only the Repeal movement could solve their problems by regaining the economic prosperity associated with the Dublin parliament. It closely reflected what O’Connell had put forward at the meeting in the Corn Exchange the previous week, but went a little deeper in its analysis of Chartism. The phenomenon of plebeian independence exhibited by the English Chartists and also by Patrick O’Higgins now appears as a recurring source of irritation for O’Connell who complained that: “They are exclusionists. They will combine with nobody who does not go the full and entire length with themselves. They not only reject but they assail and vilify the middle classes of society”.(124) This was a view shared by the liberal Northern Whig which complained that the Chartists “see straight before them - they have their eyes fixed solely on the Charter, and they see not one inch to the right or left”.(125)
The way in which the Irish middle class opposed Chartism is also indicative of their internal divisions. The power of the state had been evoked by O’Connell and his direction of it towards Irish Chartist supporters was transparent enough, but his reminder that the law was interpreted in Ireland with greater severity is likely to have appeared to potential plebeian recruits as having a credible ring to it. The sectarian card was also played. The fact that Scottish Chartists had disrupted a Liberal meeting in Glasgow chaired by a Catholic bishop was deemed by the Repeal Association to be a direct insult to Catholics. Chartists in general were also deemed to be dangerous to Catholics because they consisted of two streams, one “infidel” and the other comprising a religious zeal that O’Connell implied could be traced back to Cromwell. However, choosing not to rely entirely on ideological persuasion or the threat of state persecution the threat that the Repeal Association “will strike out his name and have no further connection with him” was held out to any operative failing to shun the Chartist’s overtures.(126) Chartism was deemed to be “essentially an enemy to the Repeal” and while still denying that Chartism existed in Newry the combined efforts of Dr Blake and the Reform Association gave O’Connell the confidence to make the rather ominous pronouncement that “we are quite certain that every honest Irishman will take our cordial and affectionate advice as if it were a command”.(127) The subsequent lapse in reports of Chartist activity in Newry suggests that the trades there took the advice offered to them. By the end of the year, whether by a happy accident or by design, a temperance festival attended by Father Mathew, with the theme of national regeneration and loyalty to the Queen, drove home the victory and cemented O’Connell’s ideological hegemony.(128)
As in Newry, attempts to expand the Chartists’ organisation to other urban centres met with a formidable resistance from the Repeal machine, and almost as soon as they made their presence known they attracted a deluge of “moral force”. This approach was apparently so successful that by late August the Belfast Vindicator could report the “rout of Chartism in Drogheda” and express their confidence that “no honest man in any grade will consent to have his name stigmatised by a connection with it”.(129) This was more than a rhetorical flourish and the extent of their victory was thorough-going at least in relation to potential middle class recruits. Letters from middle class individuals either denied any association with the Chartists or apologised profusely for their membership. William Quinn, a hatter and Hugh McDonnell a publican in a joint letter announced that “we were not, nor are we, Chartists” and that “if we advocate the right of suffrage to honest men, it shall not be in combination with torch and dagger men”. Reflecting more fully perhaps the extent of the Chartist defeat John Quain, a hair dresser, who had been recruited by “the smooth hypocrisy of a Mr O’Connor” during his visit to Drogheda, renounced his membership of the IUSA and went on to pronounce his “abhorrence of Chartism” and to condemn “O’Connor, O’Higgins and his Anti-Repeal organisation”. Quain revealed that his membership number had been ‘50’ but that he had instructed “Brophy to erase my name from his books” and had withdrawn, “with feelings of indignation against my own weakness”.(130)
A police informer’s report of the 14th
August had asserted that there were “more than 300 ‘real teetotal Chartists’
in Drogheda” but this figure may be questionable.(131) The total
number of recruits to the IUSA was given as ‘53’ by a Dublin based police
informer in early June, which places Quain’s recruitment date as being
in or around that time.(132) This would mean that in order to have
reached the membership figure for Drogheda alone there would have needed
to have been an explosion in recruitment in the following three months.
It could be expected that this growth would have been replicated in Dublin,
the main organisational centre and to some extent in the other main urban
areas. Had such an explosion in membership taken place it would have made
Chartism a considerable force. Although such a rapid expansion could have
been possible the depth of the recruits level of commitment may have been
limited. Ending his short radical career Quain did not mention numbers
in the hundreds but referred only to the other forty-nine members who he
likewise encouraged to resign. Going much further than a simple renunciation
he promised in atonement to “use my every effort against the North Anne-street
jobbers”. His zeal in condemning his past political relationships suggests
on the one hand that his commitment to the IUSA was weak and on the other
that he had came under considerable pressure. Being a business owner it
is possible he was feeling the effects of a Boycott by Repeal Association
supporters similar to the tactics later suffered by Coyne in Dublin whose
trade was severely effected by a similar protest over his connection with
the IUSA.(133) Eager to follow up on their early victory and administer
the coup de grace to the fledgling organisation, the Vindicator warned
that “We know the system and its disciples well, for we have been watching
them closely; and in our next number, promise ourselves the pleasure …
of letting in the daylight upon them”.(134) The following issue remained
silent on the issue however.
The Repeal Association’s victory was not so complete in Dublin however. Responding to an attack by O’Neill Daunt, Christopher Coyne of Capel street put up a stout defence of the Chartist position. Coyne had attended a meeting of the IUSA that was subsequently reported in the Northern Star. In his ardour to expose a Chartist, O’Neill Daunt appears to have embellished the tone of the meeting’s proceedings and in his account of events alleged that a personal attack had been made on O’Connell. Coyne denied this and called on Daunt to “contradict” his version of the IUSA gathering. Harvesting the acreage that lies between accusation and insinuation O’Neill Daunt denied that he had said that the attack on O’Connell had taken place at the IUSA meeting attended by Coyne who responded by pointing out that this “certainly was the impression [given] at the assembly at the Corn Exchange”.(135) Coyne’s outspoken challenge remained unanswered but his opposition earned him a severe beating, “from some of those persons who are loudest in decrying physical force”, that left him bed ridden and could possibly have been worse had his attackers not been disturbed by passers-by, a coincidence that Coyne credits with preventing “the aggressors from writing their detestation of Chartism with the [his] heart’s blood”.(136)
Coyne was not left to fight alone and was supported by an uncompromising W.H. Dyott who signed himself as “an ardent Repealer and undaunted Chartist”.(137) Dyott pointed out that Chartist policy on universal suffrage was no different than that of the Repeal movement except that O’Connell referred to it as “Manhood suffrage”, and that the Charter itself had been in part drawn up by O’Connell himself, a point also raised by the Northern Whig in accusing O’Connell of duplicity.(138) Although his membership information may have been out of date Dyott put their strength at under ‘700’, which was a considerable advance on Quain’s membership number of ‘50’ seven months earlier. Focussing on their demand for democracy he presented the campaign for the Charter as a way of gaining Repeal as opposed to the uncertainty of gaining a Repeal that would be useless to Irish plebeians. Irish Chartism mistrusted a middle class that appeared willing to compromise with the Whigs and contrasted their vacillations to a united plebeian campaign for the Charter that would not compromise on democracy, the natural corollary of which would be the Repeal of the Union. Their opposition was not just to O’Connell’s infamous ambiguities but also to the Repeal Association’s lack of internal democracy and intolerance of dissenting opinions. With more than a hint of irony Dyott opposed the vagueness of the objectives of O’Connell’s organisation and attacked the “official eloquence of Mr Daunt” and the “measureless’, ‘transcendental’ and ‘unintelligent’ rhapsodising of Mr Tom Steele”, a leading Protestant Repealer central to O‘Connell’s attempts to build support in Ulster. In an attempt to reach out to the rank and file of the Repeal Association he directed his demands for a hearing “to the democracy” and asserted that O’Neill Daunt “knows only too well who are the brutal force party”.(139) Presenting the IUSA as a potential new home for discontented democrats he highlighted the plebeian nature of the organisation, pointing out that their fledgling organisation had only one “Chaplain” and “no lawyers, for which thank heaven”.(140)
The IUSA undoubtedly made gains in Dublin periodically but they also continued to suffer reverses especially in the provincial towns. The “Chaplain” referred to by Dyott was likely to have been Fr Ryan from Kilkeel whose membership, at Dyott’s time of writing, appears to have been lapsed for some time. When his association with the IUSA had became known Fr Ryan had been put under acute pressure from the Catholic hierarchy. In a letter to the Freeman’s Journal he expressed “his regret at having joined the newly - formed Chartist Association in Dublin”, and announced that “all his venerable superiors and brethren in the ministry disapprove of the step which he took”. Distancing himself completely from any association with the Chartist position he went on to make it clear that he latterly “thinks they are right in holding such opinion”.(141) Further efforts were made to counter any influence he may have had by undermining his character and he was publicly discounted as “a very estimable man but still he is not the one that the people of this country would choose for a leader”.(142) Fr Ryan’s radical career had been typically short.
To some extent the existence of a strong middle class layer in urban society which had been mobilised by the anti corn law agitation or the Repeal campaign acted as a counter weight to a nascent plebeian mobilisation. In rural areas where the middle class was numerically weaker, and in some places was represented almost solely by the Catholic Priest the bourgeois hegemonic consensus was weaker. Correspondingly in rural areas where agrarian revolt had broken down deferential attitudes the threat of Chartist ideas was even greater. In county Leitrim any consensus that existed between the middle class and rural plebeians broke down completely and incurred the wrath of both the Catholic church and the Repeal Association alike. The Reverend McHugh, speaking on behalf of Reverend McNally, reported a Chartist inspired revolt that had taken place at Roosky in county Leitrim close to the Roscommon border.(143) A schoolmaster named Dempsey had been forming local Chartist societies and had apparently been having some success when the local clergyman intervened from the pulpit delivering a warning of “the evil consequences” that the “unsuspecting country people” could expect by meddling in Chartism. The Priest’s attempt to “preserve his people free from danger” did not go without a challenge from the Chartist agitator however who “appeared amongst the congregation and attacked the Rev gentleman publicly”. Father McNally’s response to this unexpected challenge was to attempt to eject Dempsey from the congregation but this attempt was resisted by Dempsey who stubbornly refused to leave and in turn challenged Reverend McNally that he should leave instead. In a measure of the amount of influence held by the Chartist agitator, Dempsey succeeded and the clergyman left the chapel.(144) The degree of support for Dempsey was striking; “three-fourths of the people opposed the clergyman and told him, who had been their pastor for twenty years that they would drag him from the alter if he attempted to coerce Mr Dempsey”. This was an alarming assault on the moral authority of the Catholic church and their power as “pacificators” and was in strong contrast with the degree of control exercised by the Repeal Association’s leadership and the Catholic church in more urban areas. The response by Tom Steele to the report was rather disingenuous. Feargus O’Connor, Patrick O’Higgins and Dempsey were lumped together as threatening to “tear down from his alter a Catholic clergyman” despite the fact that the threat emanated from the priest’s own congregation in defence of Dempsey rather than from Dempsey himself.(145) This type of spontaneity was not untypical in rural areas where the absence of hierarchical structures in the protest movement led to the development of more volatile confrontations.
Michael Huggins found that this type of volatility was also imported into small scale industrial projects, such as the Boyle canal, where labourers familiar with forms of protest associated with an earlier mode of production put them to work in the context of the combined and uneven economic development of an evolving capitalism.(146) In October 1842 two hundred navvies constructing the Newry canal disturbed the town’s inhabitants by protesting in the streets over the non-payment of wages. The Newry Examiner complained bitterly of the annoyance felt by the inhabitants at “large bodies of these robust men parading through the streets in a very discontented manner”, a tactic designed to appeal to the common sensibilities of the town’s people and also to convey a certain degree of threat. The protest culminated in the pay master’s house in Mill Street being laid siege to, a siege only broken by the mobilisation of the police and military. The following day displaying an alternative conception of the law a “ganger” was kidnapped by the navvies with the threat being issued that they would “keep his body till he would pay them their wages”. The police eventually freed the hostage and there was a degree of public sympathy for the workers, but their methods exhibited a methodology more closely akin to that of agrarian protest rather than the more formalised methods of urban trades unionism.(147) Tactics were interchangeable as different strategies evolved and, as in county Leitrim, agrarian protest on Lord Downshire’s Kilwarlin Estate, in Co Down, also assumed the language of social class. Following a surge in the number of evictions in 1843 a threatening letter to Lord Downshire’s agent, W.E. Reilly, referred to the evicted tenants as “the working class”, and although signing himself off as a “Clerk of Repeal”, the author threatened the agent that “I care not you shut yourself in a cellar we will have your life and Downshire’s also”.(148) Neither the language nor the tactics of any grouping was hermetically sealed and the ideological boundaries between the repeal, agrarian, and working class agitation were to a large extent elastic at rank and file level.
109 Belfast Vindicator. March