1798: the United Irishmen and the early Trade Unions


This year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion, long considered a great moment in Irish history, even though it resulted in death and defeat for many of the participants. The leaders of the United Irishmen were, as has often been pointed out, mainly from middle-class, prosperous backgrounds and many of them were actively opposed to combinations, the late 18th century trade unions. However, despite the drawbacks of their social conservatism, the leaders did have a republican reading of history which at least confirmed for them the necessity for radical reform and revolution in their society.

They looked at the great republican states of the past which had fallen because prominent citizens, obsessed with wealth and luxury, had pushed their own interests before the public good. This was the United Irishmen's understanding of the nature of English occupation and it was why Connolly cited the movement as "a revolutionary party openly declaring their revolutionary sympathies but limiting their first demand to a popular measure such as would enfranchise the masses, upon whose support their ultimate success must rest" (Labour in Irish History).

Wolfe Tone, in particular, recognised that "the men of no property" must be an intrinsic element of the society which developed out of the rebellion. The social programme of the United Irish movement could be summed up in the phrase "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" (Secret Manifesto of the Friends of Freedom in Ireland, written by Wolfe Tone with Samuel Nielson and others, June 1791.)

In March 1793, the Volunteers (the 'military wing' of the United Irishmen) were suppressed by the government. Up to that date, despite much discussion about the need for democratic reform, their only military engagement had been to suppress a strike of cotton workers in Belfast. After 1793, the movement increasingly operated underground and embarked on a period of reconstruction. This was based on a more social radicalism and recognised the need, already outlined by Wolfe Tone, to enlist "the men of no property", the journeymen and wage-earners who were already well organised in combinations, especially in the Dublin area.

There was a network of workingmen's 'reading clubs', which developed alongside (or 'beneath') the mainstream, middle-class radical, United Irish movement. The influence of the French Revolution and Thomas Paine's 'The Rights of Man' was crucial.

This was an era of rapid social change in which, although Dublin was still a pre-industrial city in the sense that most people still worked at home, the artisan and the small workshop now existed side-by-side with the factory. Economic hardship developed, apparently as a result of the war with France, and led to widespread discontent. The combinations continued to disrupt public order as demands were made for a more just society and riots were a frequent occurrence. A handbill entitled The cry of the poor for bread, was found stuck in a tree in north county Dublin in 1796:

"Oh! lords of manors, and other men of landed property, as you have monopolised to yourselves the land, its vegetation and its game, the fish of the rivers and the fowls of heaven ... in the present condition of things can the labourer, who cultivates your land with the sweat of his brow, the working manufacturer or the mechanic, support himself, a wife and 5 or 6 children? How much comfort do you extort from their misery, by places, offices and pensions and consume in idleness, dissipation, riot and luxury?"

The United Irish leader, Oliver Bond, seemed to think "if Dublin was once taken, all the rest of Ireland would directly submit". From an opposite political perspective, General Carhampton, discussing the possibility of a French invasion, predicted that "the city [would] be handed over to a municipality formed of the dregs of the people, who, armed with pikes and whiskey, would probably plunder and burn the town, and the whole kingdom then be undone for a century to come".

Many of the leaders of the United Irishmen were anti-union, subscribing to the conventional wisdom that combinations artificially distorted the labour market and acted as a brake on economic growth. However, it would be as wrong to see the United Irishmen as totally anti-labour as to suggest that they were early socialists.

Thomas Russell, one of the Belfast leaders, once defended the journeymen weavers in an industrial dispute with local linen merchants and the 'Northern Star', the paper of the United Irishmen, applauded the defeat of an anti-combination bill in the House of Lords. Russell produced a pamphlet entitled 'Letter to the People of Ireland' which attacked the abuse of wealth and power by the aristocracy and the church, although he did not outline any clear programme of social reform, other than proposing a reduction in taxes and tithes.

The impact of the French Revolution changed the politics of the United Irishmen from their essentially bourgeois nature to a more revolutionary perspective. The events of 1798 weeded out the socially conservative from those who recognised that democracy could not be confined to the propertied classes. Sadly, the real revolutionaries were those who died or were condemned to permanent exile, and those who remained got caught up in sectarian politics.

Connolly suggested that the rising failed because of the lack of co-ordination between the rank and file and the leaders, so that the arrests of the Leinster leadership in early 1798 left the ordinary members of the movement unprepared:

"The people were wretchedly armed, totally undrilled and compelled to act without any systematic plan of campaign, because of the sudden arrest and imprisonment of their leaders"
(Labour in Irish History).

The government also had an extensive intelligence network, with spies and informers who betrayed practically every move the revolutionaries made. The administration used the press to depict the uprising as a religious war, whereby Catholics were attempting to throw out the Protestants (despite the fact that the leadership was mainly Protestant) and this further undermined support and lent itself to the popular sectarianism which has proved so pervasive to the present day.

The influence of the "men of no property" on the United Irishmen is particularly evident in the following extract from 'The Union doctrine; or poor man's catechism', which was published anonymously in the early 1790s:

"I believe in a revolution founded on the rights of man, in the natural and imprescriptable right of all citizens to all the land ... As the land and its produce was intended for the use of man 'tis unfair for fifty or a hundred men to possess what is for the subsistence of near five millions ..."

The legacy of the United Irishmen is still the memory of a great moment of defiance in the face of oppression and a reminder that Irishmen (and women, who have been excluded only in deference to 18th century sensibilities) could leave aside sectarian divisions to tackle a common enemy.

Mary Muldowney


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