Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Irish influences on Chartism

Historians of Chartism differ on the place that Irish questions played in the movement and on the importance of the part played in the movement by Irish men and women[1]. In the years that Chartism dominated English radicalism, Daniel O’Connell dominated Irish popular politics. The earlier historians of Chartism tended to see the O’Connellite repeal movement as entirely separate from Chartism but nevertheless allowed for a considerable Irish influence over Chartism[2]. Mark Hovell saw O’Connor as an Irish outsider who became involved in English politics after he had failed in Irish politics and quarrelled with O’Connell. Hovell had little time for the Irish in any form and regarded O’Connor as the ruin of Chartism. Irish immigrants were a ‘swarm’ and served mainly as shock troops for the physical force side of Chartism for which Hovell had little time or sympathy[3].  Hovell’s views were challenged by later historians especially Rachel O’Higgins who showed a considerable Irish presence among the Chartism leadership and a concern for Irish questions that went beyond the personal interests of O’Connor[4]. However, this view has also been questioned from a viewpoint more sympathetic to Irish history than Hovell’s in the work of J.H. Treble[5].

  • He argued that the Irish immigrants in the industrial areas of Britain were actively hostile to Chartism and held apart from the movement. He suggests that the large number of Irish among the Chartist leadership has mistakenly been assumed to imply a following of the Irish in the crowd.
  • He shows convincingly that the leaders of most Irish organisations in the 1830s and 1840s were actively hostile to Chartism and discouraged their members from associating with the English movement.
  • His evidence is, however, taken entirely from official documents and he does not show how far the actions of ordinary Irish working men were influenced by such pronouncements. There is little doubt that in the major cities like Liverpool and Manchester, organisations controlled by Irish politicians and by the Catholic church had a loyal membership, articulate and organised if never large. However, in the years before the famine there is little proof that these organisations represented the views or commanded the support of the majority of Irish men and women in Britain. Official condemnation by the Catholic Church is not a necessary indication of shared hostility. Outside these two cities, there is less evidence of organised conflict between the O’Connellite Irish and Chartists.

Treble’s arguments have been taken up by some historians to the extent that the ‘textbook’ view of the relationship between English and Irish workers is one of mutual antagonism and misunderstanding. This view is reinforced by the difficulty of identifying whether Chartists were immigrants from Ireland or from Irish families in England or not. However, it is essential to challenge the orthodox position that developed from Treble’s influential article.

What was the level of Irish participation in Chartism?

The Irish dimension was a contributory influence for two of the most important Chartist leaders: Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien. Among Chartist leaders at regional level, historians have identified a number of Irishmen who played an important part in the movement. Thomas Murphy, a Catholic coal merchant in London led St Pancras opposition to church rates and the new poor law in the 1830s. He was one of a group that included O’Connor that played a major part in establishing the Great Radical Association and the LWMA in 1836. Philip McGarth, a tailor who lived in the Irish quarter of the East End was president of the NCA for many years. Daniel and Charles McCarthy were members of the Chartist trade locality of the City Boot and Shoemakers in 1842 and held positions in both Chartism and the repeal movement. Arthur O’Neill was half Irish and a pioneer of Church Chartism initially in Scotland and then in Birmingham. The wool-comber George White was an Irish Chartist leader in Leeds who found himself out of tune with the respectable dissenting Chartists of the city and moved to Bradford where he won support among fellow wool-combers.

Although it is possible to identify Chartist leaders of Irish descent, the short of reliable evidence on the participation of ordinary Irish men and women in the movement is recognised by all the key figures in the debate. John Saville, in his book on 1848 accepts the qualifications Thompson makes of Treble’s thesis but argues that the extent of the involvement of Irish communities in Chartism remains problematic because of the difficulty of knowing precisely where Irish allegiance lay between Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful movement for the repeal of the Union and O’Connor’s more robust approach to Chartism. A comparison can be made between the top twenty towns in terms of the number of Irish-born people recorded in the 1851 census with the recorded membership of the National Charter Association in 1842 to see whether there was a close correlation between the two lists shows significant differences between the two. From this Graham Davis[6] concludes that “the marked differences between the two lists are more significant than the coincidences that have prompted a false conclusion of an Irish presence in Chartist activity, at least before 1848”. Although Davis’ methodology is simplistic, there is no denying the lack of correlation between membership of the NCA and areas where there were significant Irish communities.

However, there was conflict between Irish workers and Chartists in Manchester in 1841 and 1842. Irish opposition to Chartism in other areas did draw workers away from Chartist involvement. Epstein suggests, “The fragmentation within sections of the northern industrial working class, between Irish and English workers, was a source of Chartist weakness.” It is difficult to estimate the amount of Irish support for O’Connor and the Chartist movement. Traditional studies have tended to focus on the antagonistic relationship between O’Connell and O’Connor. Irish immigrants remained aloof from Chartism because of the policy of O’Connell and the critical attitudes of the Catholic clergy. There was no formal link between Irish nationalism and Chartism until after 1847. Treble took the view that it was not until 1848 that the ‘vast majority’ of the Irish in the northern industrial counties had any significant contact with Chartism. Dorothy Thompson, by contrast, has shown that informal co-operation between Chartists and Irish workers were common especially in the smaller manufacturing towns and villages before 1848. However, 1848 was different in several respects from anything that had happened earlier and Treble was right to emphasise the differences.

How far did religion limit support for Chartism?

The Irish should not be seen as a single, undifferentiated mass. Within the manufacturing districts, there could be Irish families from several periods of immigration, some who had come by way of other English and Scottish districts, and some who were Protestant, some who had drifted away from the Catholic Church and others who had deliberately broken with the Church. In was not until after the famine that the Irish community became rather more homogeneous and there was a tendency for the immigrants to remain grouped around the area in which their priest lived and their church was situated. There was an increase in the importance of religion as a defining characteristic of ‘Irishness’ in the period after Chartism.

In the 1830s and 1840s, there is little evidence to suggest that religious affiliations were sufficiently divisive to override working class loyalties. Though it is difficult to recover denominational loyalties, as with occupations Chartism represented a cross-section of the communities in which it existed. In Barnsley, for example, there was a large Irish-Catholic population and many of the Chartists were Catholic. In Lancashire, there was a high level of non-religious radicalism but there were also a number of Catholics and members of Nonconformist sects. In the West Riding, the majority of Chartists whose affiliations were known were Nonconformists. There was no particular Chartist religious grouping. Treble argues that examples can be found of priests warning their flocks against supporting Chartism, but such warnings can also be found coming from the pulpits of Anglican churches and Nonconformist chapels. Religion was used by the Chartists themselves to support their views, as well as by others to condemn them. It is difficult, therefore to sustain Treble’s argument that the hostility of the Catholic church to Chartism explains Irish indifference to the movement. If anything, the reverse was the case.  It has been suggested that

  • Concern for Ireland and support for repeal were grafted on to British Chartism because of a personal foible of its leader and that this did the movement little good.
  • It has also been argued that the Irish cared little for Chartist politics but accepted the hostility to the movement expressed by Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Church.
  • A third line of argument found in Thomas Carlyle and other writers suggests that the ethnic differences of race, religion, language and behaviour were sufficient to prevent cooperation between the Irish and the rest of the British population on any real scale.
How concerned were people about Ireland ?

Ireland was ruled and administered directly from Westminster and contained a third of the population of the British Isles before the famine. Regulations passed by the government with respect to Ireland could well be extended to other parts of the kingdom. The expression ‘disturbed districts’ used to describe those areas in Ireland where martial law had been imposed was also used to describe parts of the manufacturing districts of England and Scotland. The number of Irish men and women in the workforce throughout Britain meant that anything that affected them came very close to affecting all working people in the British Isles, whether Irish or not. The way in which Ireland was ruled and the living conditions of its people affected the rest of the kingdom directly and immediately.

The government of Ireland was a central question for reformers in the aftermath of the 1832 Act and it was hoped that a new government would end coercion if not immediately address the question of the repeal of the union. The disillusion with the actions of the reformed Parliament and the Whig administration that was the starting point for the Chartist movement began in the first parliamentary session. In January 1833, the Suppression of Disturbances Act was passed, a draconian Coercion Act for Ireland that was more severe than any that had gone before. The middle and working-class cooperation that had achieved the Reform Act did not survive this action. The passage of the act resulted in an immediate nationwide response. This protest was centred in areas that were soon to become Chartist strongholds and many of its leaders were soon to become the leaders of Chartism. In Halifax, for example, Robert Wilkinson, Thomas Cliffe, Elijah Crabtree and William Thornton all became leading Chartists. When touring the provinces in 1835 and 1836, Feargus O’Connor set up radical organisations that were among the immediate precursors of Chartism and kept the issue of Irish coercion at the head of his campaign against the government. The Northern Star, founded in 1837 was deliberately names after a journal of the United Irishmen. Repeal of the union and the opposition to coercion were important parts of its policy from the beginning. It was not simply the northern radical associations that opposed coercion. The LWMA presented an address to Queen Victoria on her coronation in which it too commented on Irish oppression and the need for “an immediate and radical remedy”. Given the relationship between Lovett and O’Connor, the LWMA could never be accused of pursuing a personal foible of O’Connor.

Working class radicals were seriously concerned about the question of Ireland well before the publication of the Charter in May 1838. Irishmen were already prominent in British radical leadership. John Cleave, George Condy, John Doherty and Bronterre O’Brien were known nationally as active supporters of various pre-Chartist radical campaigns especially the battle against stamp duty on newspapers. Chartism also included the support of trade unions[7] and here, since the Irish were often used a strike-breaking cheap labour, more anti-Irish feeling and fewer Irish personalities might be expected. Irish men and women were often deliberated imported to break strikes, as they were in the 1844 coal strike in the north-east. However, there is a difference between the use of fresh immigrant labour or of labour deliberately used to dilute the existing working force and the behaviour of immigrants who were already part of that labour force. In reality, establish Irish labour was often more willing to defend their livelihoods than English workers. The Glasgow cotton-spinners strike and the prosecution of its leaders that convulsed manufacturing areas in the winter of 1837-8 was one of the immediate precipitants of Chartism. Many of the Glasgow spinners were Irish and two at least of the arrested leaders had been born in Ireland. It is clearly simplistic to see the use of low-paid or unskilled labour as being necessarily divisive in the pre-Chartist or Chartist period.

The role of O’Connell

Until 1837, O’Connell appeared to be in sympathy with the majority of the radical programme. In 1837, he made a sharp break with English radicalism and sought to take the whole of the Irish movement with him. In Ireland, apart from Dublin and a few centres, he was successful. The extent to which he succeeded in separating the Irish from the British radicals in other parts of the British Isles is far more debatable.  The Glasgow cotton-spinners’ case was the cause of the rift and made clear what the experience of the Dublin artisans had already made evident: O’Connell was hostile to trade unionism and adhered to the dogmas of conventional political economy. Initially, the LWMA secured the support of O’Connell for their proposed petition to Parliament for universal manhood suffrage. However, O’Connell’s price was that the LWMA should drop its opposition to the new Poor Law and soon showed that his support was conditional on a denial of the principles of trade unionism. The litmus test of working class radicalism was opposition to the Poor Law and support for trade unions and the Glasgow case in the autumn of 1837 cemented O’Connell’s opposition to Chartism.

The rift between O’Connell and the British radicals was not simply a question of English politics; it was also an indication of differing traditions in Irish popular politics. The split between O’Connell and O’Connor was not simply personal as some historians have suggested. The division between the two men was also one of tactics. O’Connor believed that the only function of Irish MPs should be to achieve repeal of the union with Britain and that the issue should be put at once and should continue to be raised on every possible occasion. O’Connell was, however, prepared to do a deal with the Whigs in return for limited concessions. The Conservative victory in 1841 ended the pact between O’Connell and the Whigs and he returned to the campaign for repeal founding the Loyal National Repeal Association in late 1842. There was ‘official’ discouragement of links between repealers and Chartists on the mainland but undoubtedly links, below the level of the leadership continued between the Irish and Chartism. However, O’Connell was able to head off the development of Chartism in most areas until the failure of the Clontarf demonstration in October 1843 when Irish repealers in England seem to have moved even more towards the Chartist position, a movement that was followed more slowly by Young Ireland on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Within Ireland, outside Dublin, there was little support for trade unionism or republicanism before the late 1840s. There was also little support for Chartism. In 1839, a group of Irish radicals formed the Irish Chartist Association, meeting weekly to read the Star and the Scottish Chartist journal the Scottish Patriot. The programme of the Irish Chartist Association was taken over in 1841 by the newly formed Irish Universal Suffrage Association that was founded in August 1841 with the aim of furthering the People’s Charter and the repeal of the union and was based on Dublin. In Belfast, members collected two thousand signatures for the second petition in 1842 and there were groups in Athboys, Drogheda, Loughrae, Newry and Sligo. Dublin Chartists were mainly 40/- freeholders who had lost the vote in 1829 led by Patrick O’Higgins and the Irish Universal Suffrage Association. Between 1841 and 1844, they sent several petitions to parliament for the Charter and repeal of the Act of Union, which added yet another dimension to Chartism. Regular meetings were discontinued in 1844. There was a short revival in 1848.

Membership of the Irish Universal Suffrage Association included artisans, tradesmen and at least one priest. O’Higgins maintained that the majority of its members were Roman Catholics and the tactics that O’Connell used to discourage people from joining it, including calling on the clergy to refuse the sacraments to members could only have worked against members of the Church. The first secretary was Peter Michael Brophy who went to the mainland of England for some time and took a prominent role in the Chartist movement and left the Church as a result. His successor, W.H. Dyott was a small master-printer and was probably a Protestant. No religious or sectarian discussion was permitted at meetings of the Irish Universal Suffrage Association and the success of this approach is seen in their publications in which there is no evidence of Protestant sectarianism or anti-clericalism.

The Irish Universal Suffrage Association and O’Connell’s Loyal National Repeal Association were opposed to each other until, for a brief moment they came together in 1848. This opposition has been variously described in terms of the personal disagreement between O’Connell and O’Higgins, of sectarian divisions between the membership of the two groups (an argument that was undoubtedly overstated) and the fundamental division between the Chartists, who were prepared to employ physical force and the repealers who followed O’Connell’s view that “my country’s freedom is not worth the spilling of one drop of Irish blood”.

After O’Connell

At first, the Young Ireland echoed O’Connell’s distrust of Chartism. In early 1847, John Mitchel wrote “We desire no fraternisation between the Irish people and the Chartists, not on account of the bugbear of physical force, but simply because some of their five points are to us an abomination.” Important shifts took place among the Irish leadership following O’Connell’s death in mid-1847. First, the Irish Democratic Federation, founded in London in August-September 1847, campaigned for repeal. In addition, Fintan Lalor’s ideas had an important influence on the policies of Young Ireland from the early 1847. His social radicalism was invigorated by news of successful revolution in Europe in 1848. Finally, O’Connor made a vigorous attack on the Crimes and Outrages Bill in the House of Commons. These developments helped to create a new understanding and provided the basis for an informal but firm agreement of mutual support between the Confederation and the Chartists. Many of those arrested that year were Irish and it was in areas where cooperation between the two movements was closest that the authorities made the most arrests. It is clear that the major centres of Chartist activity in 1848 (London, Bradford and the West Riding, Manchester and its surrounding towns and Liverpool) were precisely those towns and regions where there was a concentration of Irish immigrants.

These developments posed problems for the government. In 1839 and, to a lesser extent in 1842, Ireland had been relatively quiet and this allowed troops to be transferred from Ireland to the mainland. In 1847 and 1848, this was not the case. There was, however, one important difference between the Chartist and the Irish radicals. The Chartists were essentially constitutional in their approach while the Irish in England were no longer restrained by O’Connell’s prescription of physical force. This placed a great strain on the Chartist-Irish alliance. The Kennington Common meeting on 10th April was followed by violent confrontations between the police and radicals in early June and by plans by a small group of London Chartists and Confederates for a rising on 16th August. It is clear that the Chartists failed to exploit the full physical possibilities of their alliance with the Irish. In fact, the ‘Irish connection’ may have weakened the Chartist cause because it projected the Chartists as dangerous revolutionaries rather than constitutional reformers and allowed the government to mobilise anti-Chartist feelings.

John Belchem argues that Anglo-Irish co-operation in 1847 and 1848 did not strengthen the working class challenge in early Victorian England. In many respects, it was of greater benefit to the government. The Times commented on 10th April, “The Repealers wish to make as great a hell of this island as they have made of their own.” Punch showed the Chartists revelling in rape pillage and massacre. The establishment press exploited the Irish card as often as they could and the political failure of Chartism in 1848 had a decided effect on the increasing social and political isolation of the Irish in Britain during the 1850s. There is ample evidence of growing distrust and antagonism towards Irish immigrants in this period as a result of post-Famine immigration and the restoration of the Catholic Church hierarchy in 1851. Racial and religious prejudice formed an important part in the social consciousness of majority of ordinary people who took little or no part in the events of 1848 and this was exploited by Tory politicians. Anglo-Irish political solidarity in the late 1840s gave way to anti-Irish riots in the 1850s and 1860s[8].

Ethnic and religious hostility

There was certainly hostility to the Irish in ethnic and religious grounds among ordinary people in the 1830s and 1840s. However, among Chartists a feeling of community based on common work experience and a joint feeling of oppression was always much stronger and, in many cases produced the opposite effect as, for example, in great admiration for Irish nationalism. It was primarily among the middle classes that hostility was more often expressed in racial terms.


The Irish in England contributed an important element to Chartism at all levels. They were national and local leaders of the movement and formed much of the rank-and-file of Chartism. They were also important in 1848 and in the later days of Chartism especially for violence. The Irish brought their own grievances and experience into English Chartism. They were also hostile to the English ruling classes.

[1] Roger Swift The Irish in Britain 1815-1914. Perspectives and Sources, London, 1990 is a brief general survey invaluable for setting the issue in context. Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds.) The Irish in Britain 1815-1939, Pinter Publishers, 1989, especially pages 134-162 and Graham Davis The Irish in Britain 1815-1914, Gill, and Macmillan, 1991, pages 159-190 are more extensive. Roger Swift (ed.) Irish Migrants in Britain 1815-1914: A Documentary History, Cork University Press, 2002 is a valuable collection of sources with pithy commentaries.

[2] Dorothy Thompson ‘Ireland and the Irish in English Radicalism before 1850’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 120-151 reprinted in her Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993, pages 103-133, J.H. Treble ‘O’Connor, O’Connell and the Attitudes of Irish immigrants towards Chartism in the North of England 1838-48’, in J. Butt and I.F. Clarke (eds.) The Victorians and Social Protest, Newton Abbot, 1973, pages 33-70, R. O’ Higgins ‘The Irish Influence in the Chartist Movement’, Past and Present, no. 20, (1961) and John Belchem ‘English Working-Class Radicalism and the Irish 1815-50’, in Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds.) The Irish in the Victorian City, London, 1985, pages 85-97 are the best guide to the controversy about the extent of Irish involvement in England popular radicalism.

[3] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester, 1918, pages 92-96.

[4] Rachel O’Higgins ‘The Irish Influence in the Chartist Movement’, Past and Present, volume 20, (1961), pages 83-96.

[5] J.H. Treble ‘O’Connor, O’Connell and the Attitude of Irish Immigrants towards Chartism in the North of England 1838-1848’ in J. Butt and I.F. Clarke (eds.) The Victorians and Social Protest: A Symposium, David & Charles, 1973, pages 33-70.

[6] Graham Davis The Irish in Britain 1815-1914, Gill, and Macmillan, 1991, pages 174-176.

[7] For trade union politics, the Irish and their church, see G.P. Connolly, ‘The Catholic church and the first Manchester and Salford trade Unions in the age of the Industrial Revolution’, in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, volume 135 (1985) and J.H. Treble, ‘The attitude of the Roman Catholic church towards trade unionism in the North of England, 1833-42’, Northern History, volume 5 (1970).

[8] The momentous year of 1848 is also covered in a number of important works: John Saville’s excellent 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement, Cambridge, 1987 and three shorter pieces by John Belchem: ‘The Year of Revolutions: the political and associational culture of the Irish immigrant community in 1848’, in John Belchem (ed.), Popular Politics, Riot and Labour, ‘Republican spirit and military science: the “Irish brigade” and Irish-American nationalism in 1848’, Irish Historical Studies, volume 24, May (1994) and ‘Nationalism, republicanism and exile: Irish emigrants and the revolutions of 1848’, in Past and Present, volume 146, (1995). The descent into sectarian politics in Lancashire is dissected by Neville Kirk, ‘Ethnicity, Class and Popular Toryism, 1850-1870’, in K. Lunn (ed.), Hosts, Immigrants and Minorities: Historical Responses to Newcomers in British Society, 1870-1914, Folkestone, 1980, pages 64-106.

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