“…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.”—James Connolly
James Fintan Lalor’s collected writings comprise a meagre twelve letters and articles, mostly published in The Nation and The Irish Felon throughout a period spanning January 1847 to July 1848. Yet from such a small corpus of work, Lalor proved himself to be one of the really great minds of Young Ireland and one of the defining theorists of Irish republicanism.
A handful of editions of his collected writings exist, one edited by the veteran Fenian John O’Leary, and another edited by L. Fogarty in 1918 featuring a preface by the Sinn Féin leader and political theorist in his own right, Arthur Griffith. Griffith’s preface, however, seems incredibly hostile, rather than serving as a complimentary introductory note, it acts rather more as an open polemic against Lalor and his teachings.
“As a political thinker, Lalor failed; he knew little of history and less of political constitutions. As a writer he was often fallacious and sometimes contradictory, but the vigour of his style and the swing of his rhetoric concealed from many the occasional weakness of his argument.”
Griffith lays the charge throughout the preface that Lalor was no nationalist or separatist, that he was principally a land reformist who latched onto the national question as a means of propagating the land question. Some of these charges placed at the feet of Lalor are questionable and based upon little more than conjecture, some are outright wrong.
Lalor seems to be fatally misunderstood by Griffith in this analysis. Let us then set the record straight.
The first of Lalor’s letters, from January 1847, is a letter to The Nation’s editor Charles Gavan Duffy. Lalor states:
“I will never act with, nor aid any organisation limiting itself strictly to the sole object of dissolving the present connection with Britain and rigidly excluding every other. I will not be fettered and handcuffed.
A mightier question is in the land – one beside which Repeal dwarfs down into a petty parish question; one on which Ireland may not alone try her own right, but try the right of the world…”
Lalor is definitively right in this analysis. He is not rejecting separatism; for the Repeal Association were not separatists. He is assailing their refusal to confront the “land question”, or what may be referred to more aptly in hindsight, the Famine. It was folly to speak of extricating Ireland from British rule without addressing the arm of British rule that was landlordism. The “Repeal question”, i.e restoring the constitution of 1782, was a petty parish question compared to confronting the act of mass genocide that was being speedily undertaken against one million Irishmen and women.
Gavan Duffy, who was of the more moderate wing of Young Ireland, was nonetheless impressed by Lalor’s letter and invited him to further explicate his theory in The Nation.
Lalor would oblige several months later in an open letter to the landlords, titled “A New Nation.” For Lalor, the old order of society was dissolving and thus a new structure had to be developed from its ruins. He proposed to the landlords that they finally do what they had not the courage to do before; which was to stand decisively at the head of the people. This was of course a rhetorical question, for the landlords, by the inherent nature of their public standing, would never stand with the people and Lalor himself knew that.
A “combination of classes” as the Irish Confederation spoke of was virtually impossible; a nationalist mode of action could only stand upon, as Tone had realized, those men of no property, which made up the vast bulk of the Irish people.
“If you persevere in enforcing a clearance of your lands you will force men to weigh your existence, as landowners, against the existence of the Irish people. The result of the struggle which that question might produce ought, at best, to be a matter of doubt in your minds; even though you should be aided, as you doubtless would be, by the unanimous and cordial support of the people of England, whose respect and esteem for you are so well known and loudly attested.”
In the third letter, titled “Tenant’s Right and Landlord Law”, Lalor delivers a sobering truth, some of the most terrible yet brilliant words to emerge from the whole literature of Young Ireland:
“He (the landlord) stood to his right and got his rent – and hunger was in five hundred thousand houses, pinching dearth in all, deadly famine in many. Famine, more or less, was in five hundred thousand families; famine, with all its diseases and decay; famine, with all its fears and horrors; famine, with all its dreadful pains, and more dreadful debility. All pined and wasted, sickened and drooped; numbers died – the strong man, the fair maiden, the little infant – the landlord got his rent.”
In the fourth article, Lalor, in response to the formation of a “National Council” (which Lalor rejects on the basis that it will merely be comprised of landlords), makes a “very hurried and imperfect” sketch in proposing a constitution for an ideal National Council, encompassing landowners’ associations, tenant-leagues and trade societies. In practical terms, the tenant-leagues and trade societies would comprise the overwhelming majority of such a council.
Thus ends Lalor’s contributions to The Nation.
On June 21st, 1847, Lalor addresses a letter to John Mitchel, in which he scathingly critiques Mitchel for his naivete on the class question. He states that he now thinks it to be too late for the landowners to become part of the new order of society, the “new Irish nation.” They were aliens with an alien allegiance and their grip could only be relieved through physical force:
“The mode of argument to be employed in convincing the landlords of the truth of the principle I have stated, and of persuading them to recognise it (and Independence) is very simple. To show them we are owners de jure, we have only to prove we are owners de facto. Easily done.”
“Our means, whether of moral agitation, military force, or moral insurrection, are impotent against the English Government, which is beyond our reach; but resistless against the English garrison who stand here, scattered and isolated, girdled round by a mighty people, whom their leaders alone have turned into mean slaves and sneaking beggars.”
Mitchel was humbled and, in a letter back to Lalor, in January 1848, gracefully admitted as such:
“In fact and truth, I am ashamed to be forced to admit, that on the only question we ever differed about I was wholly wrong. Last summer the time had come for giving up the humbug of “conciliating classes”, winning over landlords to nationality and the rest of it. Practically, last summer, I was unable for want of means to aid your schemes more than I did – I mean my own individual effort – but I ought to have urged the proper course upon our precious Council and Confederation, and, if needful, broken them up on that question.
The following month on 7th February, Mitchel tended his resignation letter to the Irish Confederation, stating:
“…The Irish Confederation ‘entertains a confident hope’ of a combination of classes in Ireland against English dominion: – but I do not entertain a confident hope, or any hope at all, of that result.”
Mitchel would establish the United Irishman that very month, its prospectus declaring that “no combination of classes in Ireland is desirable, just, or possible, save on the terms of the rights of the industrious classes being acknowledged and secured.”
The United Irishman lasted for sixteen editions before its inevitable suppression by the British Government and the conviction of Mitchel. It had notably eschewed secret conspiracies and brotherhoods. There was little point in organising upon the lines of secret conspiracies for the British Government and the landlords had declared war on the Irish people, to retaliate via physical force was, in the eyes of Mitchel, undertaking legitimate self-defence.
Lalor concurred, and although he did not write any columns for the United Irishman, he would take a leading role in its successor, The Irish Felon, and it is in the columns of this paper where Lalor would come into his own.
One of Griffith’s most damaging contentions is that Lalor was no separatist, but a federal unionist. Lalor would bring up the possibility of a federal union, but insofar as it was the only possible means in which any connection between England and Ireland could theoretically exist, with total independence acting as a necessary perquisite for any such theoretical arrangement. Let us see where Lalor stood regarding separatism:
“A mightier question moves Ireland today than that of merely repealing the Act of Union. Not the constitution that Wolfe Tone died to abolish, but the constitution that Tone died to obtain – independence; full and absolute independence for this island, and for every man within this island. Into no movement that would leave an enemy’s garrison in possession of all our lands, masters of our liberties, our lives, and all our means of life and happiness – into no so much movement will a single man of the greycoats enter with an armed hand, whatever the town population may do.”
“We owe no obedience to laws enacted by another nation without our assent; nor respect to assumed rights of property which are starving and exterminating our people. The present salvation and future security of this country require that the English government should at once be abolished, and the English garrison of landlords instantly expelled. Necessity demands it – the great necessity of self-defence. Self-defence – self-protection – it is the first law of nature, the first duty of man.”
Lalor would devote his time writing for The Irish Felon towards organising a concerted effort at rebellion, going as far as establishing and openly advertising The Felon Club, which served as a revolutionary militia. His final article for The Irish Felon, “Clearing Decks,” is arguably the finest of Lalor’s writings, arguably even the greatest writing of any man from ’48. It is worth quoting at length:
“Which class do those belong to who are prating now for prudence, and against premature insurrection; while rejecting every proceeding and plan for preparation?
Against the advice of those men, and all men such as they, I declare my own. In the case of Ireland now there is but one fact to deal with, and one question to be considered. The fact is this – that there at present in occupation of this country some 40,000 armed men, in the livery and service of England; and the question is – how best to kill and capture those 40,000 men.
If required to state my own individual opinion, and allowed to choose my own time, I certainly would take the time when the full harvest of Ireland shall be stacked in the haggards. But not infrequently God selects and sends his own seasons and occasions; and oftentimes, too, an enemy is able to force the necessity of either fighting or failing.
In the one case we ought not, in the other we surely cannot, attempt waiting for our harvest-home. If opportunity offers, we must dash at that opportunity – if driven to the wall, we must wheel for resistance. Wherefore, let us fight in September if we may – but sooner if we must.
Meanwhile, however, remember this – that somewhere, and somehow, and by somebody, a beginning must be made. Who strikes the first blow for Ireland? Who draws first blood for Ireland? Who wins a wreath that will be green for ever?”
Lalor would be arrested shortly afterwards and the paper forcibly disbanded. He spent some months in prison, before being released owing to ill health. He tried, at the expense of his health, to raise the spirit of insurrection among an emaciated people but would die a sickly man, his efforts being, as he feared, too little too late.
It is thus obvious where a clear friction lies between the thinking of Lalor and Griffith; for Griffith, like many of the Young Irelanders that Lalor chided 70 years earlier, envisaged in effect a “combination of classes”, and Lalor did not. It is up to the reader to determine who was right in their estimation, although I suspect that the balance would tilt decisively in one particular direction.
It was not Lalor, but Griffith, who fundamentally failed to recognise nationality as the highest value in economics, for Griffith failed to grasp in Lalor’s teachings the necessity in realising that the landowners were the chief subverters of the Irish people’s sovereign right to the land of Ireland. There could be no conciliation between tenant and landlord, for the latter was actively trying to exterminate the former. To suggest that Lalor “was a Land Reformist, not a Nationalist” would be tantamount to suggesting that the Gaelic Leaguers “were Irish Irelanders, and not Nationalists.”
Griffith, as a nationalist and thinker, is rivalled by few, yet in this exchange of words with a man who had died 70 years beforehand, he was handily outclassed. Lalor is unrivalled by any other thinker who has pondered the socio-economic question in Ireland, to humble a man like Mitchel was no mean feat, but all those other great minds who came after Lalor in assessing the land question, the Davitts, Connollys, Parnells and so on would act in concurrence with, rather than in opposition to the teachings of Lalor.
Wolfe Tone’s writings consisted of an autobiography, diaries of extensive negotiations with the French, and countless long-form pamphlets. Mitchel’s handiwork was three decades of written service to the Irish cause as a historian, journalist and revolutionary. Davis, in the four or five years he devoted to the national question, wrote dozens upon dozens of articles, poems and ballads before the age of thirty. Yet Lalor’s corpus was only a dozen articles in an eighteen-month span, a true testament to his greatness and which may be one of the greatest examples in proving that age-old axiom right that brevity is indeed the soul of wit.