The Irish Fight for Freedom – Part 1: The Clans to The Famine

“The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour”.

– James Connolly

Irish history is one of famine, repression, and partition. The struggle of the Irish people against imperialism has been one of inspiration for many revolutionaries across the world. In Ireland, many of the guerrilla tactics used today were developed and used. The Irish fight for freedom cannot be overlooked as unimportant or meaningless, it is quite the contrary. The struggle in Ireland is one of the most important cases of a national liberation struggle that still goes on to this day and it must be understood. In order to understand the struggle, it is necessary to understand the history of Ireland and its people who have struggled against famine, imperialism, and oppression. It is also imperative to understand the Marxist perspective in the Irish struggle and how it has related to International Socialism and Marxist theory.

This history of struggle in Ireland is long, spanning hundreds of years. Many of these ancient struggles, while noteworthy, are not especially relevant to the modern climate in Ireland. What must be talked about, however, is the ancient society in Ireland and some of the principal contradictions in these early struggles. The clan system in Ireland was very much a proto-socialist society in relation to private property and distribution of resources. The land of a clan was owned by all in the clan and while the clan leader acted like a monarch of any other sorts, he had no claim to the land of the clan. The communal tribal system of ownership lasted until 1649 when the English were able to abolish it through conquest. This system lasted for 400 years after the first invasion by the English. This is because the Irish people were effectively able to resist the English armies, keeping them confined to the area around Dublin known as “The Pale”. Feudalism reigned where the English occupied and that never extended very far beyond the Pale for most of medieval Irish history. When the English would attempt to break into Irish land, it would be met with heavy resistance by the native Irish. The resistance was not just against the political order of the British but, also the social system of feudalism. The Irish wanted to keep their communal ownership of land and saw English feudalism as just as much the enemy as the English themselves. This allowed for greater unity in the tribes. All elements in the clan were fighting for their land, not just in the national sense but, in the actual ownership sense as well. As said earlier, the clan system was abolished in 1649 and the English system of private property was introduced to the majority of Irish society. The introduction of a landed and sometimes comprador class allowed for a contradiction to arise within the Irish people that did not exist previously. This change would have come naturally eventually but, what made the conversion worse was the fact that it was forced and sudden. People who were once of the same status were split between landlord and peasant. This essentially fractured any truly united struggle for freedom in Ireland. This is because there was now a true bourgeois class that would not benefit from independence. The rise of the bourgeois class in Ireland also began the repression of the Irish working class. As the bourgeois class formed itself, a middle class also formed. This middle class would maintain an interest in Irish freedom and nationalism. This, however, was not revolutionary. These movements, while promising national political sovereignty from England, would not promise a change in status for Irish workers, who made up the majority of their fighting forces. The trend has persisted throughout most of Irish history that Irish freedom would only happen when the ruling class thought it would be profitable. This changed (somewhat) in 1916.

The roots of the modern Irish struggle can be traced back to 1691 and the Williamite Wars in Ireland. The conflict between the Williamites and Jacobites should have been of little concern to Ireland but, it was Irish Catholics that gave many of their lives for the English King James. Protestants in Ireland also gave many lives for King William of Orange. The reason many native Irish gave their lives was due to the Irish gentry at the time. The Catholic gentry that held land were of a comprador stock, they had no right to the land they owned. They acquired much of the land through the dissolution of the clan system decades earlier. It was the Jacobites that gave them the land, so the gentry fought to maintain their authority derived from English swords. Even before the end of the Williamite Wars and the victory of the Protestant King William, a period of Protestant Ascendancy had been in Ireland. How this was kept in place was the giving of land to Protestants, settlers, and comprador Catholics. James Connolly in his definitive essay Labour in Irish History gives details as to how the Jacobite kings had treated the Catholics that fought for them:

To further illustrate our point regarding the character of the Jacobite leaders in Ireland we might adduce the result of the great land settlement of Ireland in 1675. Eleven million acres had been surveyed at the time, of which four million acres were in the possession of Protestant settlers as the result of previous confiscations.”

Despite the claims of many Irish nationalists both in Connolly’s time and still today, the Jacobites had used the blood of Irish Catholics to maintain hegemony on the island. They never had the interests of the Irish people in mind. The Catholic gentry that had pushed this were also aware of this, they gave false promises of freedom when in reality were only trying to maintain their status with the English. They would fail in this endeavour and King William would be victorious in conquering Ireland. The actions of King William must also be mentioned as they are just as important. William confiscated around a million and a half acres of land. He then distributed this land to his English aristocratic lackeys. All Protestant. This kept in place the Ascendancy of the previous dynasties. The actions of land distribution where Protestants and Englishmen were ruling Ireland is one of the root causes of the so-called “Orange-Green Divide”. With the victory of King William, Protestant control of Ireland would begin to be harsher and the divide more apparent. This plays a major part in Irish history and the division of the Irish working class.

It was shortly after the end of the Williamite Wars that the Irish people learned that it meant very little to their actual position in society. Ireland was still a colonial province and tenants, both Protestant and Catholic, were facing the oppression of the landlords. The Ascendancy had kept Catholics down in the law but, the economic hardships brought on by the colonial landlordism in Ireland were terrible for all working people regardless of religious sect. The religious division was only prevalent in the upper classes and in criminal proceedings. The rich Catholics were quietly tolerated by the English establishment and they still continued to oppress the Irish people. While they were tolerated, the Penal Laws made their property ownership insecure in many cases. This led to a spark of Irish nationalism among the landed class. The working people of Ireland however, continued to be repressed. What this led to was some minor peasant rebellions against British rule. These would all be brutally suppressed, and the Bliain an Áir (Year of Slaughter), where 20% of the population would die of starvation would ensure these rebellions did not manifest major changes. The peasant rebellions would see the same tactics used later by landlords in Ireland during the famine of the 1850s. The landlords would evict tenants from their homes or force them to graze sheep and other livestock. This was to ensure profits for the landlord. The problem with the livestock switch was that turning fields into pastures for grazing decreased the arability of the land. This caused many to starve. This paired with an unusual cold that affected the potato crop and the lack of fuel shipments from England added to the disaster. This famine would be met with less mismanagement than what would be seen later in The Great Famine of the mid-1800s but, it still showed a lack of caring in Westminster for the Irish people. 

Following the famine of the 1740s and economic turmoil following the American Revolution, an interest in Irish nationalism arose in Irish society. This manifested among the bourgeoisie as Home Rule. Home Rule was essentially the quasi-independence of Ireland as a self-governing province of the British Empire. Not true independence but, it was seen by the upper classes as a middle ground between the potential economic disaster of full independence and British rule. Ireland technically had home rule through a parliament in Dublin. This was a medieval relic that did very little but mirror Westminster. In response to a fear of foreign invasion, a volunteer army was formed to guard the island. This army was made up of some 80,000 Irishmen and was somewhat well equipped and trained. The general apathy seen from the government in Westminster allowed for pressure to be exerted upon the parliament in Dublin. Under the leadership of Henry Grattan and the “Patriot Party” the Dublin parliament would see minor reform. The Constitution of 1782 would see legislative power returned to the parliament along with a promotion of “free trade” between English and Irish merchants. Parliament was also given greater control of the Royal Irish Army than before the new constitution. This period would be called “Grattan’s Parliament”. It is often seen as the first modern native body in Ireland but, this is not the case. Grattan did little for the working people of Ireland and failed to assert real independence from Britain. Grattan maintained loyalty to the crown, however, whether this was out of actual loyalty or political savvy is up for debate. Grattan would also pass Catholic relief acts that would attempt to uplift the position of Catholic Irish in society. These would be met with resistance from the king and Westminster who would exert influence over the Whigs in the Irish parliament. Grattan lost support because of this and retired from parliament in 1797, denouncing the government. With Grattan gone, it was possible for the British to undo his reforms and this culminated in a plan for union. They would absorb Ireland into the United Kingdom, abolishing the Dublin parliament and establishing direct rule in Ireland. This plan would lead to a unification of Catholic and Protestant Irish nationalists with the Rebellion of 1798, led by Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen.

The United Irishmen was an organisation founded in Belfast by Protestant Irish liberals in 1791. The group included those of many different faiths in Ireland including Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists. At first, the society was peaceful, advocating for Catholic Emancipation. This goal would never be met by the parliament. The society was inspired by the French republicans and in 1793, following the execution of Louis XVI and war with France, received aid from the French revolutionary government. This turned the society into a vanguard of rebellion in Ireland. Theobald Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen and was in exile for the time leading up to the rebellion. In the late 1790s, Tone would travel to France to convince the new revolutionary government to intervene in Ireland. Seeing the value of an ideologically similar group willing to cut off a profitable portion of the British Empire, the French agreed. There would be an attempt in 1796 of a French landing in Ireland. Known of the Expédition d’Irlande, it would consist of a small fleet led by French General Lazare Hoche. It would prove uneventful due to storms and general indecisiveness. This would not be the end of the United Irishmen or French intervention in Ireland, however. In May of 1798, the rebellion would start. It was supposed to start in Dublin, capturing the seat of British power in Ireland and then spreading to the rest of the island. This would not happen. The rebels would be informed on at the last minute and many of the Dublin leaders detained by the British. The loss of the central nucleus of the rebellion would not stop it. Following the call for rebellion, the counties around Dublin would rise with the heaviest fighting happening in County Kildare. Throughout the province of Leinster, fighting would rage. Other counties would not fare too well such as in the Battle of Carlow or on the Hill of Tara in County Meath. These defeats would pacify the rebellion in those counties. Arguably the most successful rebellion was that in Wexford. The Wexford rebels waged a guerrilla campaign against the British Army, wreaking havoc among their ranks. In the province of Ulster, risings would occur in County Antrim and County Down. Both rebellions were crushed rather quickly but, the rebels in Down would wage the longest battle of the rebellion at Ballynahinch. The Wexford rebels would hold out until June when they were defeated at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, a battle immortalised in folk songs. With the loss of the Wexford rebels, the rebellion began to lose hope. The following month the French would intervene and would set up an “Irish Republic” in Connacht. This would last only 12 days before collapsing. The French and Wolfe Tone would try again in October to land in Donegal. This would fail with the Battle of Tory Island, leading to Wolfe Tone’s capture and trial. He would be sentenced to death by hanging but, would commit suicide in prison and die a month later.

The Rebellion of 1798 is a key moment in Irish history for a multitude of reasons. It would establish Irish Republicanism as an ideology in Ireland. It would also become a staple of Irish culture, being enshrined in song, novels, and poems. The effects of the rebellion would also influence the future of Irish politics. The rebellion had been in response to plans from Westminster of making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. This was true but, it was the rebellion and the British response to it that hastened the Act of Union of 1800, making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. This decision would influence the way Irish republicans would act towards fighting British rule in the future. British administration in Ireland would be centralised in Dublin Castle, MPs would be sent to Westminster, all hints of Irish home rule would be taken away for the next century. So, what did the 1798 Rebellion mean to the working people of Ireland? What does the Marxist get from this? Well, much like the French Revolution, the Rebellion was one spearheaded by bourgeois intellectuals. Also, much like the French revolution, the message was progressive and truly revolutionary given the time period. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were fighting for the people of Ireland, the peasant, the worker, and the poor. This was not like the other rebellions that were for the gain of Catholic landlords, it was truly for the people. Wolfe Tone said it best himself:

“Our freedom must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.”

Even with that said, the ideas of Wolfe Tone are vague and the United Irishmen themselves were very divided, some maintaining Grattan’s liberalism towards the relationship with Britain. Despite these feuds, during the rebellion, Ireland saw a truly progressive force fighting against English tyranny. The Irish people stood against colonialism. It would be the example of the United Irishmen that would inspire future Irish freedom fighters and others across the world.

The Rebellion of 1798 would reinforce the cause of Irish freedom among the working class of Ireland more than any before it. Famous rebels such as Robert Emmet would realise this and begin to appeal to the masses rather than the bourgeoisie. Others after him followed suit. Irish resistance to the Union was still strong and small risings occurred during the period between 1798 and the Great Famine. Many mass groups were formed to oppose the Union, such as the Repeal Association. Out of this Repeal Association would form the Young Irelanders. The Young Irelanders, taking inspiration from the United Irishmen, looked to France as the revolutionary model. It was 1848 and Europe was embroiled in revolution. Ireland had its own problem, however, the Great Famine. A blight on the potato crop, British policy, and the landlord system in Ireland led to the greatest famine in Irish history. The landlord system had changed very little since the 1600s and peasants still lived in great poverty. As the potato crop failed, people could not feed themselves nor could they sell any crops for rent money. Landlords then proceeded in mass evictions, burning thatch rooves so that tenants were not able to stay in their old homes. The British would respond to the mass starvation with cruel policies of workhouses and so-called “famine roads” in an effort to try and help the Irish. This would only exacerbate the suffering. British policy was also just outright ignoring the Irish. This and the exporting of wheat and beef from Ireland during the famine have led many historians to believe that the Irish famine may have been exploited by the British to try and thin the Irish population. This would make it one of the first modern genocides. However, this claim is mostly unproven and relies on too much speculation for anyone to state it as a fact. From this turmoil and upheaval, the Young Irelanders seised the opportunity in 1848. The Young Irelander Rebellion is the 2nd most important rebellion in pre-20th Century Irish history. It took the strides of the United Irishmen and extended them. It paved the way for the rebellions in the 20th Century, laying the groundwork for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who would spearhead the 1916 Easter Rising. The Young Irelander rebellion was short and small but, it would see the Irish tricolour, a gift from French revolutionaries, flown for the first time. This would cement the tricolour as the national flag of Ireland. It was also symbolic of the United Irishmen’s idea of unifying Irish people as one, disregarding the religious divides fostered by Britain. Along with the Young Irelanders, the Famine would see many more minor peasant rebellions in the countryside.

The Great Famine (an Gorta Mór in Irish) was the greatest loss of life in Irish history. One million people died, another million immigrated from Ireland. This would lead to a 20-25% decrease in the population. The British made Irish men work on roads to nowhere for pennies a day. They forced Irish women and children into poorhouses unfit for an animal. The British let the Irish starve in many cases. They burned houses, torched farms, and killed mercilessly those who wanted to keep their homes. The Famine would be remembered in Irish folk legend, immortalised in songs such as Skibbereen. The Famine is too often joked about or used by racist Irish diaspora members to justify themselves or excuse their racism. Actions like this dishonour the memory of those who died. Irish history is one of struggle, the struggle of a colonised people. Many Irish diaspora members forget this revolutionary tradition and soil the name of those who died for freedom. I intend to educate people on Irish history and it’s revolutionary legacy. As a member of the Irish diaspora, the actions of my fellows sickens me. We, a formerly colonised people (somewhat still colonised today in Ireland), have refused and continue to refuse to stand with other colonised people in America and elsewhere. This is terrible and sadly, will never be corrected any time soon. I can only hope to educate people on the real nature of Irish history, to try and counter the projection shown in the mainstream. I wish to show that Irish history and the Irish people have and still do stand against all colonisers and oppressors.

Special credit to Labour in Irish History by James Connolly for being the source of the bulk of the research in this part. Sources of other information are a variety of Irish history books and online sources to be cited at the end of the project.

Part 2: The Irish Fight for Freedom – The Irish Republic to the Dissidents coming soon!

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