Category Archives: 1840s, Famine, Young Ireland & Irish Confederation

“My object is to repeal the conquest – not any part or portion, but the whole and entire conquest of seven hundred years”: Fintan Lalor, 1847

A letter from Lalor to John Mitchel on the landlords, repealing the Union and repealing the Conquest.  Lalor subsequently shifted from the views here, becoming totally opposed to the landlords as a class.  (See “They or we must quit this island: Fintan Lalor on the landlord class, June 24, 1848”; I will have this up on the blog by the end of this month.)  The piece below originally appeared as a single, long paragraph; I have broken it up into shorter paragraphs.

From Sir C. G. Duffy’s Four Years of Irish History: 1845-1849, London, Paris & New York, Cassell, Petter, Galpin, 1883.

I know the Confederation and you by speeches and writing only.  But men may speak and write forcibly and yet act very feebly, and be very competent to criticize, yet utterly incompetent to construct.  Ireland’s greatest and last opportunity was in your hands – a revolution that would have put your own names in the blaze of the sun for ever was in your hands; you have flung it away as the cock flung the diamond, useless to him as the crisis was to you. Vain to him the flash of the gem which he could not polish; vain to you were the lightnings of heaven and the meteors of earth, which you could or would not kindle and guide.

You appear to be under mistakes as to my objects which I cannot permit you to retain.  I have nothing to do with the landlord and tenant question, as understood.  The question of the tenure by which the actual cultivator of the soil should hold his land is one for an Irish Parliament.  My object is to repeal the conquest – not any part or portion, but the whole and entire conquest of seven hundred years – a thing much more easily done than to repeal the Union.

That the absolute (allodial) ownership of the lands of Ireland is vested of right in the Read the rest of this entry

“The country was completely ruined by the English wars of conquest. . .” Engels on Ireland, May 1856

Depiction of Famine Ireland

In May 1856, less than a decade after the official end of the 1840s Famine, Frederick Engels and his partner Mary Burns visited Ireland, Burns’ homeland.  On May 23, Engels wrote the following letter to Karl Marx, his political co-worker, in London.  I’ve taken the text from Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, Progress Publishers, third edition (1975), pp86-88.  I have slightly edited the translation to improve punctuation.  Also, I have replaced Traice with Tralee – I assume Traice is a mistake as there is no such town in Kerry, whereas Tralee is on the route between Tarbert and Killarney.  Lastly, I’ve broken up the paragraphs.

Dear Marx,

During our trip to Ireland we traveled from Dublin to Galway on the West Coast, then 20 miles north and inland, on to Limerick, down the Shannon to Tarbert, Tralee and Killarney, and back to Dublin – a total of about 450-500 English miles within the country itself, so we have seen about two-thirds of the whole country. With the exception of Dublin, which bear the same relation to London as Düsseldorf does to Berlin, and has quite the character of a small one-time capital.  It is, moreover, built entirely in the English style.  The look of the entire country, and especially of the towns, is as if one were in France or Northern Italy. Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, bureaucrats, country squires in pleasing profusion and a total absence of any industry at all, so that it would be difficult to understand what all these parasitic plants live on if the distress of the peasants did not supply the other half of the picture.

“Disciplinary measures” are evident in every corner of the country, the government meddles with everything, of so-called self-government there is not a trace.  Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony and as one which, because of its proximity, is still entirely governed in the old way, and one can already notice here that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the Read the rest of this entry

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 Read the rest of this entry

“(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 Read the rest of this entry

Marx, Engels and the Irish and British revolutions: a note

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ireland’s greatest Marxist, James Connolly.

Accordingly, I will be running material by Marx (and Engels) on the subject of Irish freedom and its interconnectedness with the British revolution, as well as material by and about James Connolly.

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of Connolly’s great co-workers, Constance Markievicz.

This blog already contains a substantial body of her writings and also articles about her.  Most recently, I added her 1923 pamphlet What Irish Republicans Stand For.

Later this year, I will be putting up a substantial piece on her and the Irish revolution, something I began to write well over 20 years ago and put aside unfinished.

I will also continue my (so far rather haphazard) efforts to get up everything I have of Fintan Lalor’s writings and write something substantial on ‘Fintan Lalor and the Irish revolution’.  I had made a load of notes for this last year and then lost them, so I have to start again; very frustrating.

I want to get something substantial up soon on Sean McLoughlin too, a kind of precis of the book by Charlie McGuire, a book I urge folks to go out and buy.

As always, I have a bunch of books – and it’s growing, also as always! – which I want to review.  They go back to stuff published about five years ago now, I have been so lax in getting these reviews done.  Aaaarrrggghhh!

And there are a few old articles from several journals that I want to get up here, but I have to type them up – a very time-consuming task.

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.  My aim is to do it in both article and pamphlet form.  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 Read the rest of this entry