“(T)he clearest exposition of the doctrine of revolution, social and political”: Connolly on Fintan Lalor

James Fintan Lalor, 1807-1849

The piece below is taken from chapter 14 (“Socialist Teaching of the Young Irelanders: Thinkers and Workers”) of James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History (1910).  I’ve broken up very big paragraphs.

. . . But the palm of honour for the clearest exposition of the doctrine of revolution, social and political, must be given to James Fintan Lalor, of Tenakill, Queen’s County. Lalor, unfortunately, suffered from a slight physical disability, which incapacitated him from attaining to any leadership other than intellectual, a fact that, in such a time and amidst such a people, was fatal to his immediate influence. Yet in his writings, as we study them to-day, we find principles of action and of society which have within them not only the best plan of campaign suited for the needs of a country seeking its freedom through insurrection against a dominant nation, but also held the seeds of the more perfect social peace of the future.

All his writings at this period are so illuminating that we find it difficult to select from the mass any particular passages which more deserve reproduction than others. But as an indication of the line of argument pursued by this peerless thinker, and as a welcome contrast to the paralysing respect, nay, reverence, for landlordism evidenced by Smith O’Brien and his worshippers, perhaps the following passages will serve. In an article entitled “The Faith of a Felon, published July 8, 1848, he tells how he had striven to convert the Irish Confederation to his views and failed, and says:

“They wanted an alliance with the landowners. They chose to consider them as Irishmen, and imagined they could induce them to hoist the green flag. They wished to preserve an aristocracy. They desired, not a democratic, but merely a national, revolution. Had the Confederation, in the May or June of ’47, thrown heart and mind and means into the movement, I pointed out they would have made it successful, and settled at once and forever all questions between us and England. The opinions I then stated and which I yet stand firm to, are these:

“1. That in order to save their own lives, the occupying tenants of the soil of Ireland ought, next autumn, to refuse all rent and arrears of rent then due, beyond and except the value of the overplus of harvest-produce remaining in their hands, after having deducted and reserved a due and full provision for their own subsistence during the next ensuing twelve months.

“2. That they ought to refuse and resist being made beggars, landless and homeless, under the English law of ejection.

“3. That they ought further, on principle, to refuse all rent to the present usurping proprietors, until the people, the true proprietors (or lords paramount, in legal parlance) have, in national congress or convention, decided what rents they are to pay, and to whom they are to pay them.

“4. And that the people, on grounds of policy and economy, ought to decide (as a general rule admitting of reservations) that these rents shall be paid to themselves, the people, for public purposes, and for behoof and benefit of them, the entire general people.

“It has been said to me that such a war, on the principles I propose, would be looked on with detestation by Europe. I assert the contrary; I say such a war would propagate itself throughout Europe. Mark the words of this prophecy – the principle I propound goes to the foundations of Europe, and sooner or later will cause Europe to outrise. Mankind will yet be masters of the earth. The right of the people to make the laws – this produced the first great modern earthquake, whose latent shocks, even now, are heaving in the heart of the world. The right of the people to own the land – this will produce the next. Train your hands, and your sons’ hands, gentlemen of the earth, for you and they will yet have to use them.

The paragraph is significant, as demonstrating that Fintan Lalor, like all the really dangerous revolutionists of Ireland, advocated his principles as part of the creed of the democracy of the world, and not merely as applicable only to the incidents of the struggle of Ireland against England. But this latter is the interpretation which the middle-class politicians and historians of Ireland have endeavoured to give his teachings after the failure of their attempt, continued for half a century, to ignore or suppress all reference to his contribution to Irish revolutionary literature.

The working-class democracy of Ireland will, it is to be hoped, be, for their part, as assertive of the universality of Lalor’s sympathies as their bourgeois compatriots are in denying it. That working class would be uselessly acquiescing in the smirching of its own record, were it to permit emasculation of the message of this Irish apostle of revolutionary Socialism. And, in emphasising the catholicity of his sympathies as well as the keenness of his insight into the social structure, that Irish working class will do well to confront the apostate patriotism of the politicians and anti-Socialists of Ireland with the following brilliant passage from the work already quoted, and thus show how Lalor answered the plea of those who begged him to moderate or modify his position, to preach it as a necessity of Ireland’s then desperate condition, and not as a universal principle.

“I attest and urge the plea of utter and desperate necessity to fortify her (Ireland’s) claim, but not to found it. I rest it on no temporary and passing conditions, but on principles that are permanent, and imperishable, and universal – available to all times and to all countries as well as to our own – I pierce through the upper stratum of occasional and shifting circumstances to bottom and base on the rock below. I put the question in its eternal form – the form in which, how often so ever suppressed for a season, it can never be finally subdued, but will remain and return, outliving and outlasting the cowardice and corruption of generations. I view it as ages will view it – not through the mists of a famine, but by the living lights of the firmament.”

By such lights the teachings of Fintan Lalor are being viewed to-day, with the result that, as he recedes from us in time, his grandeur as a thinker is more and more recognised; his form rises clearer and more distinct to our view, as the forms of the petty agitators and phrase-mongering rebels who seemed to dominate the scene at that historic period sink into their proper place, as unconscious factors in the British Imperial plan of conquest by famine.

Cursed by the fatal gift of eloquence, our Irish Girondins of the Confederation enthralled the Irish people and intoxicated themselves out of the possibility of serious thinking; drunken with words they failed to realise that the ideas originating with Fintan Lalor, and in part adopted and expounded with such dramatic power by Mitchel, were a more serious menace to the hated power of England than any that the dream of a union of classes could ever materialise on Irish soil; the bones of the famine victims, whitening on every Irish hill and valley, or tossing on every wave of the Atlantic, were the price Ireland paid for the eloquence of its rebels, and their scornful rejection of the Socialistic teachings of its thinkers.

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

Posted on September 12, 2018, in 1840s, Famine, Young Ireland & Irish Confederation, Economy and workers' resistance, Famine, Fintan Lalor, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Ireland in 1800s, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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