Fintan Lalor on Repeal, land ownership, insurrection and saving the Irish masses in the Famine

Lalor argued that only a social revolution could save Ireland from the destruction wrought by the landlords and British state through the Famine

The following article appeared in The Irish Felon, July 1848.  It was titled “To the Irish Confederate and Repeal Clubs”.  The sentences in brackets were Lalor’s introduction to the piece.  In this lengthy feature Lalor criticises the Young Ireland movement for the partial nature of its break with Daniel O’Connell and his Repeal Association; argues that the goal of the struggle has to be a social revolution and not simply repeal of the 1801 Act of Union; outlines different forms of insurrection; identifies the landlord class as a garrison class; notes the socio-economic impact of Famine on Irish society; and how a plan of action is needed to fight immediately to save the country from ruin.

I must admit I was sorely tempted to break up the more massive paragraphs!  However, I decided to resist the temptation.  

by James Fintan Lalor

[The paper that follows was written in the last week of January, 1847 – just one year and five months ago and was forwarded to one of the leading members of the Confederation for private circulation among the council of that body. I now address it to you just as it was written.]

I see no reason to prevent me mentioning that, in about a month from the date and delivery of my paper, I received a letter from John Mitchel stating that, on perusal and consideration of its contents, he had fully adopted my views, and that he meant to act on them so soon as occasion should fit and serve.                                                                                                                                  – January 25, 1847

My sole wish or attention is to suggest. Any attempt to convert or convince would be useless. Individuals are never converted; they must convert themselves. Men are moved only in masses; and it is easier to convert a million of men than a single man. But neither is the attempt necessary. To you, or any of those whom this paper is intended, the end of the clue-line is enough. You will be able, if you choose, to follow it out yourself. To lead you on, link by link, would be needless and absurd.

To anyone who considers their speeches, resolutions, and proceedings, it will, I think, appear manifest and marked, as it does to me, that the “seceders” have gone into organized action upon mere vague impulse and general feeling; with their objects undefined, their principles unsettled, their course unmarked; without any determinate plan, or, consequently, any fixed purpose – for no purpose can long remain fixed, but must be ever veering and wavering, without a plan to guide, control, and sustain it; and a purpose without a plan to confine and confirm it, is no purpose at all. Such a plan, too, is wanting as a warrant and guarantee to yourselves and to others that your object is feasible and your means adequate ; that you have gauged your enterprise and measured your means; and that the work you call on us to do will not be wasted. There are few worse things, even in the ethics or economy of private life, than labour misdirected; but what should be said of those who would, for want of a full and exact survey and calculation, mislead and exhaust the labour and means and strength of a people? It is not principles alone, however pure, nor purposes the highest and noblest, that ever command success; and few will be willing to go into a ship without chart or compass, even though it steer its course by the stars of heaven.

Assuming, therefore, as I have a clear right to assume, that the leading members of the Confederation, or a certain number of them, cannot long defer coming to some agreement among themselves as to what their objects are to be, and that some surer and better defined plan for attaining those objects must be laid down and adopted than “sixty members, reading rooms, and rosewater,” I proceed to submit the following considerations:

I. Repeal, as commonly understood, taken by itself and standing alone on its own mere merits and means, is an impracticable absurdity. Impracticable, because it cannot be effected except by means which would dissolve the connexion altogether, any means that can be used being cither too feeble or too strong either inadequate or incompatible. Absurd, because both common sense and history concur in telling us that the resulting arrangement could not possibly endure nor be endured.

II. It is impracticable. It does not contain, nor can it command, the means of possible success. It has no force to call into action on which it can rely, whether moral, military, or mixed. Its moral means, acting in the mode admitted by constitution, and within the limits allowed by law, are wholly incompetent; and such as they are, they are in Mr. O’Connell’s possession-to be used, abused, or not used at all.

III. That those means are incompetent I could easily show; but surely it is unnecessary. The fact of incompetency will, I think, at once be recognized, or if any one denies it, I require of him to state, in positive and precise terms, the mode of action in which those means can be made effective. The complete and ridiculous failure of every such attempt ought to be evidence sufficient on this point. The fact, briefly stated, is this that a ” moral agitation ” exhausts its whole power – its power of influencing opinion, and of producing danger, damage, and inconvenience.it exhausts this power on the country in which it takes place. It was not England, but Ireland itself, that suffered evil and injury by our “glorious agitations” and “gorgeous ethic experiments.” The most powerful moral agitation that could be “got up” in Ireland would not act upon London. If “emancipation” be quoted, I can prove the quotation false in application to the present case.

IV. But it is no less certain that those means, whether efficient or impotent, are, in full effect, the property of Mr. O’Connell. What may possibly have been the hasty and premature protest of the Seceders against the Repeal question, has forced him to adopt the policy of not giving it up in terms. I attach no blame to the Seceders for this somewhat precipitate proceeding. But the effect is, that Repeal, in its constitutional shape, remains still his private property, in full, effective possession, to manage or mismanage, to make much or little of, to sell or suspend, surrender or exchange, as best he can. The mass of the people can neither estimate nor understand the points in dispute, nor the reasons for secession, and can never be brought to join what could so easily be represented as an antagonistic and hostile movement. If any member of council doubts this opinion, I challenge him to test it.

V. The use of military means, if you had them, would be more than adequate. Those means would do something more than repeal the Union; nor could they be limited to any such result. This might be no objection; and I mention the fact here, not as an objection, but for another and different reason, which I need not state as yet. But, in truth, on this question you possess no such means-nor can you command or create them – neither, even if you had them, could you employ them, with success.

VI. You possess no military means. Repeal is not an armed man, but a naked beggar. You fail in finding the first and fundamental element of military force you fail in finding men. The only martial population that Ireland possesses – the small farmers and labourers – will never wield a weapon in favour of Repeal. This might be enough to say; but the full and entire fact ought to be told, that you can never count again on the support of the country peasantry in any shape or degree, on the question of Repeal. Their interest in it was never ardent; nor was it native or spontaneous, but forced and factitious. Such as it was, it is now extinct, and can never be re-created. The small farmers, more especially, are weary and heart-sick of Repeal, as well as of agitation – that agitation which has been called a bloodless one, but which, to them, was not bloodless.

VII. But even had you those means, or if you could create them if you had at command the whole military power of the people, and the full means of a popular armament, I say you cannot use them with effect on the question of Repeal. To make it successful, your fight must be a defensive one. The force of England is entrenched and fortified. You must draw it out of position; break up its mass; break its trained line of march and manoeuvre – its equal step and serried array. You cannot organize, or train, or discipline your own force to any point of efficiency. You must, therefore, disorganize, and untrain, and undiscipline that of the enemy; and not alone must you unsoldier – you must unofficer it also; nullify its tactique and strategy, as well as its discipline; decompose the science and system of war, and resolve them into their first elements. You must inake the hostile army a mob, as your own will be; force it to act on the offensive, and oblige it to undertake operations for which it was never constructed. Nothing of all this could you do on Repeal. A Repeal-war should of necessity be an aggressive one on your part. You must be the attacking party. On all the questions involved in Repeal, England is in occupation of the disputed points; and you must assail them. You inust send your force against armed positions, marshal your men for a stricken field, and full in its front meet England’s might in unbroken mass on its ordered march. But further and finally, you must get time and licence, for preparing, enlisting, organizing, drilling. A Repeal-war would have to be prepared in presence of the enemy. Need I point to “Ulster on your flank”? Enough of this, and far more was needed. I doubt if a single man ever held the belief full and firm, that Ireland could any time be brought to buckle a belt and march out for Repcal. The tone and topics adopted by The Nation in ’43 and 44. I never attributed to any thing but this that a “glorious agitation” affords no poetry, while insurrection does. It was the mere craving of genius for a magnificent subject, instead of a mean one.

VIII. There is yet another class of means and mode of force better founded in moral right, and more efficient in action, than either agitation or military insurrection. I can find no fit and definite name for it on the spur of the moment. Its theory may briefly be stated as founded on the principle of natural lawca principle beyond dispute, denial or doubt:

  1. That no man has a right to assume or claim any species of authority or jurisdiction whatsoever over any other man, against the will, or without the consent, of that other.
  2. That should he attempt to exercise such assumed authority over another man, without his consent, that other is not bound to obey.
  3. And that, should he take proceeding for enforcing obedience, such proceeding may be lawfully, and ought to be resisted by any and every means and mode of force whatsoever.

This is the right expression of the principle in its first form ; and this principle, so expressed, is the primitive nucleus round which a nation gathers and grows. Enlarged into size and expanded into shape sufficient to give ground for a people to stand upon, and to fit it for operation, the principle I state is this—that every district, community, or nation of men is owner of itself; and can never, of right, be bound to submit to be governed by another people.

Its practical assertion forms the third mode of action which this country might have recourse to, and consists:

  1. In refusal to obedience to usurped authority.
  2. In maintaining and defending such refusal of obedience.
  3. In resisting every attempt to exercise such usurped authority, and every proceeding adopted to enforce obedience.
  4. In taking quiet and peaceable possession of all the rights and powers of government, and in proceeding quietly to exercise them.
  5. In imaintaining and defending the exercise of such rights and powers, should it be attacked.

IX. I have just thought of a name for this system of means, and, for want of a better, I may call it moral insurrection. The difference between it and true military insurrection amounts to nothing more, in practical effect, than difference between the defensive and the aggressive use of physical force – a difference, however, which is often important, whether as regards moral right or mechanical efficacy.

X. As an instrument for effecting Repeal, this class of means is liable to the fatal objection stated against the preceding class. The right of moral insurrection is worthless without a military force to sustain it, and unless you are prepared and willing to use that force. On the question of Repeal, you have no such force. That question is too far away from the hearts of the peasantry. They do not feel, and scarcely understand it. They may be brought to see its light, but never to feel its heat. Other circumstances, too, render the right not available in favour of Repeal. You never could organize such an insurrection on that question.

The practical assertion of the right consists of two parts:

  1. Abolition of British government.
  2. Formation of a national one.

(1) How would you proceed to accomplish the former? By a general refusal to obey the entire existing law? Impossible. You could not do this even mentally to your own satisfaction; much less could you do it in actual fact. Or by selecting and seizing some one particular law to take your stand on, trample down and nullify? What law? Name it. The law you select for assailing must have four requisites :-first, it must form no part of the moral code; second, it must be essential to government a part of its substance, not a mere accident-one the abrogation of which would be an abrogation of the sovereign; third, it must be one easily disobeyed; and fourth, difficult to enforce; in other words, a law that would help to repeal itself. There is none such to serve the purpose of Repeal. In Ireland, unluckily, there is no direct and general state-tax, payment of which might be refused and resisted. (2) The second component part of the system – formation of a national government – is rendered impossible by the circumstance that the owners of the soil are not on your side, and are not Irish, but English all, in blood and feeling.

XI. If those men could now at length be brought to adopt and acknowledge Ireland as their own mother-country, and to give you their adhesion and support, this latter mode of moral insurrection might be put in action with success, To try the experiment of inducing them to do. so, seems to be the present policy and forlorn hope of the confederation, and of The Nation. I am quite willing to join in trying that experiment, PROVIDED it be based and conducted on the condition that the commons of Ireland, as well as its nobles, be consulted and cared for – that the landowners will consent and agree to take the landholders into council – to admit them as portion of the Irish Party” – making of that “party” a great national league – and, finally, to frame and subscribe terms of accommodation and amnesty for the past, and articles of agreement for the future, between themselves and the tenants of the soil – one of those articles to be security of tenure in some effective shape or other to the present occupiers of land. On this basis, and no other, would I be willing to try the experiment; but not to make it a “life’s labour.” Until the – day of – am I willing to try it – no longer,

XII. But the success of that experiment is scarce to be hoped – especially now that the famine here has been recognized as an “imperial calamity” – and the policy of Confederation contains, apparently, no dernier resort – nor its proceedings any preparation for having recourse to it. The policy I wish and mean to press on your attention does contain such dernier resort; and the course of proceeding I would fain have the Confederation adopt contains and comprises within it the preparatory movement.

XIII. Repeal is not alone impracticable. As commonly understood a simple repeal of the act of Union it is an absurdity. The resulting connexion and state of things could neither endure nor be endured. Reflection tells us so history agrees. Two independent, co-equal, and sovereign Legislatures, forming one state under one crown, is an arrangement repugnant alike to common sense and experience. Reason repudiates, and history never heard of it. Two wheels in the same machine, of equal power, independent, unconnected, and not under control of the same prime mover, would form a better arrangement. Inanimate wheels, perchance, might work together ; but under the action of humane interests and passions, separate sovereign legislatures never could.

XIV. No mode of connexion between the kingdoms could be solid, desirable, or lasting, except a federal union, such as that existing between New York and Pennsylvania. But a federal union must be the result of negotiation and agreement between the federating parties, I deny the competency of the Imperial (British) Parliament to frame the act, or make the terms of federation. But, in order to negotiate, the parties must stand on equal terms, and each be independent of the other. Independence, therefore, full and entire independence, is a necessary preliminary to any permanent or satisfactory arrangement with Britain. The steps are: independence, negotiation, federal union, What the terms should be, I will not state – I dislike needless theorizing.

XV. Do not suppose I am insisting on useless forms. My object is very different. I think every one should familiarize his mind to the foregoing proceeding; for such is the proceeding, or one analogous which must eventually be adopted. You will NEVER, in form of law, repeal the Act of Union.  Never, while the sun sits in heaven, and the laws of nature are in action. Never, before night goes down on the last day.

XVI. But a declaration of independence is yet far away – at least in the distance that is measured by events, if not in the distance that is measured by days. I return to Repeal.

XVII. I sum up by again asserting that Repeal is destitute of all intrinsic force, and that, standing alone, on its own mere merits, it does not furnish or command the means of success.

XVIII. Indeed so plainly apparent is the impossibility of carrying Repeal, that its best and truest leaders are forced to throw themselves on a blind and helpless appeal to futurity. Broad daylight is on the present, and shows too clearly there is neither means nor hope. The future is dark; and the dark is full of shadows, which fancy may shape to what form it will; and folly may take the phantoms to be real. But men may keep theorizing and dreaming too long, and building up, or restoring, an airy and ideal nationality, which time is wearing down, and wasting away. faster than they can work it up; and when they awake from their dreams they will find, I fear, that one other people has gone out of the world, as nations and races have gone ere now.

XIX. For a revolution is beginning to begin which will leave Ireland without a people, unless it be met and conquered by a revolution which will leave it without landlords. The operation of this terrible famine will turn half the small tillage-farmers – the sole strength and hope of this island – into mere labourers working for wages. The operation of the measure of repealing the corn duties-rendered more sure and speedy by the present sudden increase of demand for foreign corn will leave landless the remainder. Heretofore tillage land has been able to pay a higher rent than grass land. Henceforth it will be the reverse-more especially should the potato have finally failed or disappeared. The only bar that existed to the universal removal of the small tillage farmer, the landlord’s own personal interest in retaining him is now gone. The result is no matter of doubt; and even if it were doubtful, it ought to be provided against. Else will Ireland lose the only weapon she possesses that would conquer or cow the English government-else, too, will she cease to have a people for a population of pauperized labourers is not a people. I fear the English government, and that English garrison who say they own our soil, have a full view of their opportunity, and are determined to take advantage of it. We hear of nothing but plans and schemes to absorb surplus labour – the surplus labour that is in process of creation. The farmers are to pass over into the condition of labourers, and to be supported during their passage. Ireland is playing out her last game, and is she then, after all, to be ‘checkmated, conquered, abolished? Not if her leaders and people be true, and no cravens. True, not to any petty objects of personal distinction or personal pelf – true, not to the foreign gang who call Ireland their own, and hold our lands by the robber’s right – but true to their country and to themselves. One move will save checkmate. By one move alone you can meet and match, and by that same move you can checkmate England. One move alone can save the stakes now, and among those stakes are the name and fame of you and yours. Men have given to you their faith, and hearts, and hopes for your bold bearing and bold words. Even I myself am now trusting to you and to your help, instead of looking round for other help and another course. Are you ready to redeem your own words, pledged in the sunshine of summer weather-are you ready to redeem now in this hour of sadness and storm? and to justify our faith when we followed your leading? Are you up to the mark and work of this one hour, in lieu of the “life’s labour” you promise ? Strip, then, and bid Ireland strip. Now or never – if; indeed, it be not too late. Oh, for one year of the bulldog soul of England! Oh, for one year of Davis now! Whatever he may have thought in the autumn of ’43, his voice would now have been louder than mine, and to say what mine is too feeble to say. He would not have lain dreaming while Ireland was being trodden down, and her people conquered finally and for ever. For England is now actually winning her crowning and DECISIVE victory over us and ours for ages coming.

XX. To prevent this result, and at the same time to achieve independence – the only form in which Repeal can ever be carried – there is, I am convinced, but one way alone ; and that is to link Repeal to some other question, like a railway carriage to the engine; some question possessing the intrinsic strength which Repeal wants; and strong enough to carry both itself and Repeal together-if any such question can be found.

And such a question there is in the land. One ready prepared – ages have been preparing it. An engine ready-made – one, too, that will generate its own steam without cost or care – a self-acting engine, if once the fire be kindled, and the fuel to kindle – the sparks for the kindling are everywhere. Repeal had always to be dragged. This I speak of will carry itself, as the cannon ball carries itself down the hill.

What the other question is I may possibly state very briefly in another paper.

Yet if its name and general character be not already known, I have lost my labour.

Further reading:
Fintan Lalor to Gavan Duffy on Repeal, the land question and the weakness of moral force
“(T)he clearest exposition of the doctrine of revolution, social and political”: Connolly on Fintan Lalor

Posted on November 10, 2018, in 1840s, Famine, Young Ireland & Irish Confederation, British strategy, Economy and workers' resistance, Famine, Fintan Lalor, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Natural resources, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Fintan Lalor on Repeal, land ownership, insurrection and saving the Irish masses in the Famine.

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