Politics and the Irish working class, 1830–1945

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Politics and the Irish working class, 1830–1945 1Politics and the Irish working class, 1830–1945
Fintan Lane and Donal Ó Drisceoil (eds)
(Palgrave Macmillan,  £55)
ISBN 1 40393179

The editors of this volume lay out their stall at the outset by attributing the failure of labour in politics to the traditional ‘three evil geniuses of socialism: the priest, peasant and patriot’. The wide-ranging and numerous contributions largely adhere to this thesis. They constitute a significant augmentation of the canon of Irish and international labour history and herald the academic maturity of a scholarship that began with the heroic/romantic school of Connolly and his disciples Greaves and Jackson. Thankfully, in the process, the enthusiasm of the various authors for their subject has not been lost.
In ‘Labour and politics, 1830–1945: colonisation and mental colonisation’ Emmet O’Connor seeks to replace the ‘three evil geniuses’ explanation with a form of post-colonial theory, according to which, following the Act of Union and the consequent economic decline, ‘trade union support for nationalism was a mature response to deindustrialisation’. The movement, however, ‘underwent a profound mental colonisation in the 1890s, and that colonial legacy was intrinsic to labour’s underachievement in the next century’. He castigates the ‘awful’ ITUC and the British-based unions whose membership by 1900 constituted 75 per cent of Irish trade unionists. Labour was obliged by ‘colonialism . . . to . . . abjure as trade unionists what they believed in as citizens’. ‘Mental colonisation’, however, hardly explains the huge growth in membership of Irish unions and labour’s ‘re-greening’ under Larkin and subsequent engagement with republicanism in the revolutionary period. O’Connor implicitly acknowledges this in a section headed ‘a partial decolonisation’. The continuing political failure of labour after Partition was due to the innate conservatism of Irish society, not least of the working class, the ineffectiveness of Labour Party TDs and the strength of its political opponents. Indeed, O’Connor, with his customary thoroughness, does cover all that, with only an occasional nod towards ‘mental colonisation’.
Maria Luddy’s ‘Working women, trade unionism and politics in Ireland, 1830–1945’ details the contribution women have made to the political struggles of the working class. While informative about working women in the Land League, the trade union movement and women’s suffrage, she raises as many questions as she answers. Thus she goes to some lengths to produce a definition of what constitutes a working woman. That this is still a necessity is indicative of the need for much more research into Connolly’s ‘slaves of slaves’.
Christine Kinealy’s ‘“Brethren in bondage”: Chartists, O’Connellites, Young Irelanders and the 1848 uprising’ is a cogent analysis of the uneasy relationships between radicals in Ireland and Britain in the 1840s. Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader, Irish like much of its rank and file, supported Repeal, but his relationship with Daniel O’Connell deteriorated over the Liberator’s alliance with the Whigs. The Confederate leaders, Smith O’Brien and Meagher, opposed the Chartist demand for universal franchise. John Mitchell stated in 1847 that ‘some of their five points are to us an abomination’. The outbreak of the 1848 French Revolution did not induce the two movements to act together, much to the relief of the government. This contributed to the failure of both movements that year. A further factor in the Confederate demise was opposition from the Catholic Church, frightened by events in France. Kinealy underlines the dismal denouement of radicalism, in both islands, by pointing to the rise of Orangeism and Tory populism and the demonising of the Irish in Britain.
After the Famine, the position of rural labourers was on a par with that of the Untouchables of India. Fintan Lane, in ‘Rural labourers, social change and politics in late nineteenth-century Ireland’, argues that, despite considerable obstacles, they used mass organisation and struggle to better their lot. This was aimed not so much against landlords or government as against the tenant farmers who largely made up the Land League. The demand of land for labourers led to the formation of over 100 Labour Leagues. These aimed to wrest concessions from the farmers and gain more political clout for the labourers. When this situation threatened to split the constitutional movement, Parnell and Davitt in 1882 set up the Irish Labour and Industrial Union to bring the labourers under central control. This, like the Land League, was subsumed into the National League. Lane concludes that, though ‘effectively neutralised’ by the Parnellites, ‘labour nationalism as a result of their mass action thereafter had to be taken more seriously by the middle-class leadership of constitutional nationalism’.
The two cities in Maura Cronin’s ‘Parnellism and workers: the experience of Cork and Limerick’ had a similar religious, social, political and economic make-up. Both had ‘experienced the depression of the early 1880s, which aggravated the negative effects of importation, mechanisation and deskilling, and resulted in high rates of unemployment… Parnellism… promised a political panacea for these ills, and was responded to enthusiastically by working people in both cities.’ But behind this seeming nationalist consensus Cronin detects the ‘illusion of unity’. She uncovers divisions between skilled and unskilled unions. In their efforts to promote trade, the unions were highly critical of the National League élite and even of the clergy for not patronising local production. Local labour and nationalists in general were not happy at the centralising control and interference of Parnell, particularly in the choice of parliamentary candidates. The speed of the split that followed the divorce scandal was indicative of the fissured nature of Parnellism in both cities.
Helga Woggan’s ‘Interpreting James Connolly, 1916–1923’ shows how almost immediately after his death he was subject to a wide variety of often conflicting interpretations. In this respect we are reminded of Marx’s exclamation, later in life, ‘Je ne suis pas Marxiste’. Woggan shows how Connolly’s legacy was hijacked by the entire Left, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the language movement. She cites the sanitising of his socialism by the Church. One Catholic writer even considered effecting a post-mortem reconciliation between Connolly and his Jesuit opponent Fr Kane. The fissiparous nature of his legacy affected even his own immediate family, who, down the years, straddled the spectrum of republican and left-wing politics.
Vincent Geoghegan in ‘Robert Owen, co-operation and Ulster in the 1830s’ uses the Belfast Newsletter to unearth the little-known impact of Robert Owen and his radical followers in the north. Owen’s disciple, Dr Robert MacCormac, was prominent in organising early co-operatives in Belfast and elsewhere. The Newsletter views the co-operators as misguided dreamers and philanthropists rather than subversives. Nevertheless, it assiduously reports their meetings, speeches and writings, including a march in Belfast in 1831 in favour of parliamentary reform and in 1834 against the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Geoghegan’s article adds considerably to our knowledge of the precursors of labour organisation in the north.
In ‘Politics, sectarianism and the working class in nineteenth-century Belfast’ Catherine Hirst states that ‘There was little chance of anything other than unionism and nationalism being the defining feature of working-class politics in Belfast’. By the 1820s the formerly liberal town had its share of fractious Orange and Ribbon gangs, imported from the sectarian frontier of rural Ulster. Hirst traces the subsequent development of sectarianism via the impact of O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation campaign and Protestant reaction to it. Continuing controversy involving Fenians, the Belfast Protestant Working Men’s Association and the conflict around Home Rule ensured that sectarianism became endemic. Hirst’s essay maps out the stony ground on which labour and socialist politics in Belfast was later to founder.
In ‘William Walker, labour sectarianism and the Union, 1894–1912’ Henry Patterson explains how, despite the deep-seated sectarianism in Belfast, Walker came close to becoming the first Labour MP in Ireland. While not denying Walker’s credentials as an impressive labour leader, Patterson is clear that this was largely the result of an unusually favourable combination of circumstances when he fought the North Belfast by-election in 1905. For a brief moment the National Question was latent and Conservatism and Orangeism were seriously split, with many dissident Orangemen supporting Walker’s ‘Labour Unionism’. The opposing candidate was corrupt and unpopular. Walker, with a well-organised local machine, had the support of the British Labour executive. Nevertheless he was defeated, largely because of an ill-judged slight to Catholic voters. He lost even more narrowly in 1906 in the general election, and his eventual election seemed inevitable. By the time of a third contest in 1907, however, the moment had passed. He was massively defeated by a more popular opponent, backed by the nascent Ulster Unionist Council and a Protestant electorate spooked by revived fears of Home Rule under the new Liberal government.
Graham Walker’s essay provides a comprehensive analysis of the failure of ‘The Northern Ireland Labour Party, 1924–45’, to break the sectarian stranglehold on northern politics. The party itself was riven over Partition, with contesting factions gathered around rival leaders Harry Midgley and Jack Beattie. Midgley eventually became a Unionist minister. The NILP did achieve limited electoral success, partly by concentrating on ‘labour’ issues and sitting on the fence regarding Partition. This was enough to cause the Unionist government to counter the NILP threat by abandoning PR in order to marginalise it and cynically following a step-by-step policy on British social welfare measures. Ultimately the NILP was doomed to be squeezed between the competing nationalisms in the north.
Conor Kostick sees ‘Labour militancy during the War of Independence’ as ‘part of a great upsurge of revolutionary enthusiasm that was sweeping through Europe . . . spreading westwards from Russia’. Kostick points to the revolutionary potential of the era, with a proliferation of strikes and lockouts. He doesn’t take into account the variety of motivations for much of this activity, however. By his reckoning, the anti-conscription strike in April 1918, the Belfast ‘44 hour’ strike and the Limerick ‘Soviet’, both in 1919, support for the hunger strikers in 1920 and the transport boycott of the military are part of the same overall pattern of militancy, a kind of ‘revolutionary moment’. This opportunity was frustrated owing to a combination of the ‘repressive measures of the Free State government’ and (quoting Larkin) ‘misled by compromising, selfish, self-seeking group of place and fortune hunters, masquerading as Labour Leaders’. There is here more than an element of wishful thinking.
Ferghal McGarry in ‘Radical politics in interwar Ireland, 1923–39’ shows how the essential social, economic and political conditions for the advance of socialist politics were absent in this period. He presents his argument convincingly through detailed case-studies of the Labour Party, the annuities agitation, Saor Éire, the Republican Congress, ‘the red scare’ and the Spanish Civil War. The left could make little headway against Fianna Fáil’s appeal to the urban and rural working class. This was compounded by the hostility of the essentially conservative majority in the IRA and of course the hostility of the Catholic Church. By debunking the myth that this failure was due either to stupidity or cravenness on the part of the leadership, McGarry provides a reality check on the more polemical writing on the period.
In ‘Fianna Fáil and the working class, 1926–38’ Richard Dunphy covers much the same ground as McGarry. He shows how Fianna Fáil, ‘outflanking various romantic republican leftist movements that sporadically questioned its leadership, outpolled the Labour Party amongst urban workers and divided and contained the organised trade union movement’. In the process their ‘successful strategy’ appealed to ‘large swathes of society of working-class, small farmer, petty bourgeois and déclassé’ that the left saw as its natural constituency. Dunphy, while here rehearsing much of his previous work, in addition draws on populist theory in analysing Fianna Fáil’s appeal.
Donal Ó Drisceoil’s ‘“Whose Emergency is it?” Wartime politics and the Irish working class, 1939–45’ considers yet another ‘moment’ when high hopes for a leftward turn in Irish politics were dashed by a combination of enmity and splits in the Labour Party and Congress, ‘red scares’, the hostility of the Catholic Church and the political nous of Fianna Fáil. This final chapter presents a comprehensive, well-argued case. As such it is typical of much of the writing throughout this volume, which sets the benchmark high for future labour history.
Peter Collins is Senior Lecturer in History at St Mary’s University, Belfast.


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