Fintan Lalor to Gavan Duffy on Repeal, the land question and the weaknesses of ‘moral force’


The above statue was created to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of James Fintan Lalor. The inscription on the plinth says, “Ireland her own, and all therein, from the sod to the sky. The soil of Ireland for the people of Ireland”.

The following is the text of a letter by James Fintan Lalor to C. Gavan Duffy, at the start of 1847.[1]  In it Lalor provides a critique of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement, emphasises the crucial importance of the land question (ie the social question) over the purely political issue of repeal of the 1803 Act of Union, and indicates the weaknesses of the ‘moral force’ argument.  Tinakill was the Lalor family home in Co. Laois.  The Lalors had to rent land which their family had once, hundreds of years earlier, held as sept land.  Indeed, the Lalors had been one of a group of septs that resisted the expansion of the Anglo-Norman conquest for 400 years and, from time to time, making incursions into the Pale.

When these septs were finally defeated by the conquerors, most of the Lalor leaders were executed or forcibly removed to Kerry.   While managing to make their way back, they did so as renters.  Nevertheless, by the standards of Catholic farmers, they were certainly well-off.  However, they kept a rebellious spirit – James’ father Patrick was a leading figure in the anti-tithe movement and the family had associations with the rural secret societies, Laois being a centre of agrarian unrest.  In 1832 Patrick’s prominent role in the unrest led to him being elected MP for Laois.  He enjoyed widespread support among the rural poor in particular although, of course, they didn’t have the right to vote.  Patrick signed up to O’Connell’s Repeal movement, causing substantial arguments with Fintan.  Indeed, Fintan was forced to leave home and subsequently lived in Dublin and Belfast.

The deterioration of his health, however, forced him back home.  But Patrick himself was to leave O’Connell’s movement, deciding that the ‘Great Liberator’ was a fraud, that O’Connell was trying to play the masses in order to enhance his own position and that fake radical rhetoric was just being used to garner mass support from the poor.

Father and son relations then improved.

Fintan Lalor’s opposition to Repeal and O’Connell was rooted in his feelings that the key focus for struggle by the mass of the Irish people should be the land question.  What was the point of exchanging an Anglo-Irish exploiting class for an indigenous one?  The contradiction between the political demand of O’Connell’s movement and the need of the masses for the basics of life was especially pronounced because even the early 1840s, before the famine, were marked by massive impoverishment and destitution.

During the famine, Fintan attempted to organise tenant societies and rent strikes.  However, his health handicapped him as an active organiser.  But he was still able to write and his articles in the Irish Felon urged armed resistance to the landlords.  The British had suspended habeas corpus in the wake of the 1848 Rising and Lalor was among those arrested and imprisoned, his health deteriorating again.  The British were forced to release him in case he died in prison.  Rather than recuperating, Fintan began renewed efforts to organise another Rising in September 1849.  By the end of the year, sadly, Lalor was dead, passing away just two days after Christmas and being buried in Glasnevin.

While being the most important thinker of the republican movement of the 1840s, Fintan never won the leadership of Young Ireland to his perspective.  He did, however, have a major impact on a number of key activists who would carry his ideas forward into the following generation of resistance; the ideas thus played an important part in both Fenianism – Lalor’s disciples being people such as Charles Kickham, John O’Leary, Thomas Luby and Devin Reilly – and, even more importantly, the Land War led by Michael Davitt, perhaps the most important of all Fintan’s disciples.

In The Separatist Idea, Pearse identified what he considered the real republican tradition in Ireland.  Lalor was one of the four great prophets of the republican gospel, said Pearse.  (The other three he listed as Tone, Davis and Mitchel.)  The founder of Irish Marxism, James Connolly, also identified James Fintan Lalor as one of the great social thinkers thrown up by the material conditions and movements of resistance in Ireland.

On a side note, his brother Peter emigrated to Australia in the early 1850s to try his luck on the Victoria goldfields.  He played a leading role in the Eureka Stockade rebellion, losing an arm in the process.  He was later elected by miners as the MP for Ballarat and served in the Victorian parliament for many years and turning down a knighthood.  Another brother became the MP for Laois and was prominent in the Land War and as a supporter of the Fenian prisoners.

Fintan Lalor’s life was fairly short (1807-1849) and he was troubled throughout it by chronic bronchitis and a crooked spine.[2]  His contribution, however, makes him a giant of the Irish revolutionary tradition, in particular the first to establish the over-riding importance of the social question within the Irish revolution.  In his day the key oppressed and exploited class was the mass of the peasantry and the key social question was ownership and control of land.  Today, the key oppressed and exploited class is the working class and the key social question is the ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange.  Lalor is thus the forerunner, indeed the most important forerunner , of Irish socialist-republicanism and Irish Marxism.

Over the coming months I intend to write an appreciation to be called James Fintan Lalor in the Irish Revolution.   I also plan to get his writings up on this blog.

  • Phil F

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Tinakill, Abbeyleix
January 11, 1847

I am one of those who never joined the Repeal Association or the Repeal Movement – one of Mr O’Connell’s “creeping, crawling, cowardly creatures” – though I was a Repealer in private feeling at one time, for I can hardly say I am one now, having almost taken a hatred and disgust to this my own country and countrymen.  I did not join the agitation, because I saw – not from reflection, but from natural instinct, the same instinct that makes one shrink from eating carrion – that the leaders and their measures, means, and proceedings, were intrinsically and essentially, vile and base; as such as never either could or ought to succeed.  Before I embarked in the boat I looked at the crew and the commander; the same boat which you and others mistook in ’43 for a war-frigate, because she hoisted gaudy colours, and that her captain swore terribly; I knew her at once for a leaky collier-smack, with a craven crew to man her, and a sworn dastard and foresworn traitor at the helm – a fact which you and Young Ireland would seem never to have discovered until he ordered the boat to be stranded, and yourselves set ashore.[3]

I would fain become one of the “National” party, if they could consent to act along with me and I with them.  But I confess I have my many doubts – I have had them all along; and they have been terribly strengthened by the two last numbers of the Nation.  I mean those of December 26 and January 2; the last (January 9) I have not yet seen.  It is not figure, but fact, that reading those two numbers made me ill.  I have long been intending to write to you to resolve those doubts, and have only been prevented by sickness.  I must now defer for some little time longer, and my reason for writing the present hurried note is this: It has just occurred to me that, at the meeting on Wednesday, an Association may possibly be formed on such a basis, and resolutions or pledges adopted of such a character, as would exclude and excommunicate me and many beside.  These resolutions or pledges may relate either – 1st, to the end; 2nd, to the means.  Now remark, 1st, As to the end: – Should the end be defined strictly, in terms or effect, to the Repeal – simple Repeal, and nothing but or besides Repeal – I would thereby be excluded.  For, in the first place, I will never contribute one shilling, or give my name, heart, or hand, for such an object as the simple Repeal by the British Parliament of the Act of Union.  I shall state my reasons hereafter, not having time now.  Don’t define the object, nor give it such a name as would define it.  Call it by some general name – independence, if you will – and secondly, I will never act with, nor aid any organization limiting itself strictly to the sole object of dissolving the present connection with Britain and rigidly excluding every other.  I will not be fettered and handcuffed.  A mightier question is in the land – one beside which Repeal dwarfs down into a petty parish question; one on which Ireland may not alone try her own right, but try the right of the world; on which you would be, not merely an asserter of old principles, often asserted, and better asserted before her, an humble and feeble imitator and follower of other countries – but an original inventor, propounder, and propagandist, in the van of the earth, and heading the nations; on which her success or her failure alike, would never be forgotten by man, but would make her, for ever, the lodestar of history; on which Ulster would not be “on her flank”, but at her side, and on which, better and best of all, she need not plead in humble petitions her beggarly wrongs and how beggarly she bore them, nor plead any right save the right of her might.

And if the magnitude and magnificence of that other question be not apparent and recognized – any more than the fact that on its settlement now depends the existence of an old and not utterly worthless people – it is partly, indeed, because the mass of mankind see all such questions, at first, through a diminishing glass, and every question is little until some one man makes it great; but partly, also, because the agitation of the Repeal question has been made to act as a proscription of every other.  Repeal may perish with all who support it sooner than I will consent to be fettered on this question, or to connect myself with any organized body that would ban or merge in favour of Repeal or any other measure, that greatest of all our rights on this side of heaven – God’s grant to Adam and his poor children for ever, when He sent them from Eden in His wrath and bid them go work for their bread.  Why should I name it?

National independence, then, in what form of words you please; but denounce nothing – proscribe nothing – surrender nothing, more especially of your own freedom of action.  Leave yourselves free individually and collectively.  2nd, as to the means: – If any resolution or pledge be adopted to seek legislative independence by moral force and legal proceedings alone, with a denunciation or renunciation of all or any other means or proceedings, you may have millions of better and stronger men than I to join you; but you won’t have me.  Such pledge, I am convinced, is not necessary to legalize any association.  To illegalize there must, I conceive, be positive evidence or act or intention – deeds done or words spoken.  Omitting to do anything can surely form no foundation for a legal charge.  What!  Is silence a proof of criminal intention?  I speak, of course, in ignorance, being no lawyer, thank God!  But whether I be correct or not, I never will subscribe or assent to any such pledge or resolution.  As regards the use of none but legal means, any means and all means might be made illegal by Act of Parliament; and such pledge, therefore, is passive obedience.  As to the pledge of abstaining from the use of any but moral force, I am quite willing to take such pledge if, and provided, the English government agree to take it also; but “if not, not”.  Let England pledge not to argue the question by the prison, the convict-ship or the halter; and I will readily pledge not to argue it in any form of physical logic.  But dogs tied and stones loose is no bargain.  Let the stones be given up; or unmuzzle the wolf-dog.  There is one at this moment in every cabin throughout the land, nearly fit already to be untied – and he will be savager by-and-by.  For Repeal, indeed, he will never bite, but only bay; but there is another matter to settle between us and England.  There has already, I think, been too much giving in on this question of means and force.  Merely to save or assert the abstract right for the use of other nations or other times, won’t do for me.  We must save it for our own use, and assert it too, if need be, and occasion offer.  You will receive, and, I hope, read this on to-morrow morning, before the Committee meet.  My petition to you is that you will use your influence to prevent any of those resolutions from being adopted, which would cut me off from co-operating with the new Association, should one be founded.  Don’t mention my name.  It is one not worth half a farthing; but such as it is I don’t choose to give it to the Seceders until I have some better guarantee than I possess as yet, that their new organization will be anything better, stronger, or nobler than a decently conducted Conciliation Hall, free from its open and brazen profession of meanness, falsehood, cowardice and corruption, but essentially just as feeble, inefficient and ridiculous.

Is there any apology required for addressing you in this manner?  I don’t know.  Perhaps I have no right – though I have been a Seceder since I ceased to be a child.  I owe to you some gratitude.  You have given me a country.  Before your time I was an alien and an exile, though living in my own land.  I hope you won’t make me one again.

This letter has been hastily written; and I have not acquired the faculty of expressing what I wish with clearness or facility.  Still I hope you will understand, or at least you will not misunderstand me.  The Nation of last Saturday might possibly give me information which would render my writing plainly unnecessary; but I don’t receive it until Wednesday, being in partnership with another person.

Notes by Admin

[1] I have left all punctuation and other grammar exactly as in the original.  Tempting as it was to break up some of the huge paragraphs – it seems to have been the custom in those days to write big paragraphs; see Marx’s Capital for instance – I have chosen to leave them as in the original.

[2] His health problems and his spine, which gave him a somewhat hunchback appearance, may have restricted the role he could play in actively leading a movement.  On the other hand, he appears to have been fit enough to swim all year round with his brothers, rode, went to local dances and generally seems to have mixed with local people and enjoyed life.

[3] For people not familiar with Irish history, the leader Lalor is referring to here is Daniel O’Connell, the champion of the interests of the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie.  Given O’Connell’s widespread popularity and the support he had among the Catholic middle and upper classes, Lalor’s characterisation of him is as daring as it is scathing.

Posted on December 16, 2016, in 1840s, Famine, Young Ireland & Irish Confederation, Fenians, Fintan Lalor, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Political education and theory. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Fintan Lalor to Gavan Duffy on Repeal, the land question and the weaknesses of ‘moral force’.

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