IRELAND’S HOPE: the ‘peculiar theories’ of James Fintan Lalor

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

JAMES P. BRUCE
Vernon Press
€38
ISBN 9781622738984

Reviewed by Emmet O’Connor

Emmet O’Connor is a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at Ulster University.

Few nationalist movements had as many luminaries per capita as Young Ireland. Most have now been elbowed aside in public history by heroes of subsequent struggles, but James Fintan Lalor has always held a place in the hearts of the left as Ireland’s finest proto-socialist. His best-known statement—‘The principle I state and mean to stand upon is this: that the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland’—flanked the masthead of James Connolly’s paper, The Harp, and Jim Larkin called his third son after Lalor. Conversely, the greatest scholar of Lalor, Thomas P. O’Neill, writing in the 1940s/50s, was anxious to save his subject from ‘appropriation’ by Marxist historians and insisted that Lalor favoured peasant proprietorship rather than land nationalisation in various articles and the biography Fiontáin Ó Leathlobhair (1962). O’Neill’s concerns and the question of whether Lalor should be seen as a nationalist or a socialist preoccupied the only English-language biography of Lalor in the twentieth century, David N. Buckley’s James Fintan Lalor: radical (1990).

James Bruce sets out to challenge O’Neill and Buckley—of whom he is exceptionally critical—as well as the scepticism about Lalor’s ideas, importance and influence in the general historical surveys. Though based on an MLitt. at Oxford, Ireland’s hope is a mature study from one who spent a lifetime in banking and has published a memoir on Brian Cleeve. Bruce makes his case in three chapters. The first looks at Lalor’s writings, especially on the land question. The second explores the ‘possible origins’ of his theories and reviews a series of earlier writers, including William Ogilvie, Thomas Spence, Tom Paine, the United Irishmen, the Chartists and Thomas Davis. The third assesses the impact of his ideas on friends, political associates, the public and the press, including opponents in the British media.

Lalor was born in 1807 at Tinakill, Queen’s County, to a well-to-do tenant farmer, Patt. Patt was the local O’Connellite MP between 1832 and 1835 and prominent in the Tithe War. Little is known of Fintan’s early years. With a spinal deformity and chronic ill health, he was educated at home, apart from one year at Carlow College. There are gaps, too, in our knowledge of his adult life, compounded by his inability as an orator and his limited literary output. There is even a difference of opinion on whether or not he spent time in France. In consequence, all books on Lalor have been collections of his writings or slim biographies focused on his ideas, and there is plenty of scope for dispute on the enigma of the roots and meaning of his ‘peculiar theories’.

Bruce traces Lalor’s thinking on the land question to 1831 but argues that the Great Famine was ‘pivotal’ in the formation of the position for which he is remembered. In 1843 he had written to Prime Minister Robert Peel saying that only the Tories could improve Ireland’s social conditions and offering to serve as an informant on the Repeal Association. Estrangement from his father may have been a motivation. By 1847 he was telling John Mitchel: ‘My object is to repeal the Conquest—not any particular part or portion but the whole and entire conquest of seven hundred years …’ (p. 23). The continuity between his statements to Peel and Mitchel is that, for Lalor, the land question was fundamental. Repeal without land reform was worthless, and land reform meant the elimination of the landlords through the withholding of rent, but who should take their place, the tenants or the nation, was unclear. Either way, it was a new(ish) and radical demand, and Lalor was now making a strong impression on the Young Irelanders through the force of his ideas and his passionate commitment to newspapers like The Nation and the Irish Felon as a means of advancing the cause.

In 1848 Lalor turned revolutionary. The Irish contribution to the ‘year of revolutions’ is usually remembered as a fiasco in the Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch at Ballingarry. What’s forgotten is the sizeable support for the Confederates in the towns and among the trade unions, which was left to wither on the vine by the grossly inadequate preparation for insurrection and William Smith O’Brien’s incompetent military leadership. Lalor himself was typical of the dithering in planning for revolt and ‘hanker[ing] after compromise and peace’ (p. 37). He was arrested after the suspension of habeas corpus, imprisoned for three months and released owing to ill health. Undaunted, he helped to organise another insurrection in 1849, which fizzled out after an ineffective attack on a police barracks in Cappoquin. Lalor returned to Dublin and died of bronchitis on 27 December.

In an all-too-brief conclusion, Bruce affirms Lalor as a radical of substance and weight who combined his views on the social and national questions coherently and deserves to be acclaimed as an original intellectual. His emphasis on the defects in the land holding system would make a powerful impact on subsequent nationalist movements. Even if his more far-reaching proposals were ignored, the land question would attain a new centrality between the 1850s and 1880s. Bruce makes a good case in a lucid, concise and cogent study. The book is attractively produced, with footnotes rather than endnotes, an excellent bibliography, but a poor index.

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