The Irish famine

IN 1798 A FULL-SCALE rebellion against British rule in Ireland was only put down with considerable violence and the deliberate encouragement of sectarian conflict. The United Irishmen, an underground movement of both Catholics and Protestants, had mounted a powerful revolutionary challenge, looking to the French for assistance, but had been brutally crushed. A later attempt in 1803 was to misfire and the British were able to restore order with little difficulty.1 In the interim Ireland’s separate Protestant legislature had been abolished and the country had been formally incorporated into the United Kingdom by the 1801 Act of Union. Ireland was now represented at Westminster, but in practice it continued to be governed as an occupied country. In the 1820s Daniel O’Connell had successfully built up a mass movement demanding Catholic emancipation. The movement triumphed in 1829. O’Connell subsequently took up the demand for the repeal of the Union and once again put himself at the head of a powerful mass movement. While ostensibly a constitutional movement, the intention was to intimidate the British government into repeal by the threat of violence. On this occasion the British called O’Connell’s bluff and in 1843 saw off the challenge by making it clear that they would put the repeal movement down by force if necessary. But while the movement had suffered a serious defeat, the likelihood was that this was only a temporary setback. All the conditions were ripe for renewed resistance. In 1844 a young Tory MP, Benjamin Disraeli, told the House of Commons that anyone looking at the condition of Ireland, with its “starving population”, “absentee aristocracy”, “alien church” and “the weakest executive in the world”, would inevitably conclude that “the remedy was revolution”. All that prevented revolution was “the connexion with England”.2 Certainly, if the British government had found itself confronted by a revived mass Repeal movement in the revolutionary year of 1848 then the history of both Ireland and Britain in the 19th century would have been very different. Instead the Irish landscape was to be changed altogether by famine.

The Great Hunger

Potato blight (the fungus phytophthora infestans) first appeared in Ireland in 1845 when it destroyed between 30 and 40 per cent of Ireland’s potato crop. The potato was the staple food of the poor and the blight caused great hardship. The following year the blight ruined almost the whole crop and great hardship became terrible famine. In 1847 the blight was less severe, but the farmers now had few seed potatoes to sow, with the result that the yield was only 10 percent of a pre-famine harvest. In 1848 the blight returned once again with devastating consequences that continued into the following year. The effects of the famine lasted into the early 1850s. This was Western Europe’s worst modern peacetime catastrophe, with a million people dying of starvation, disease and exposure, and another million fleeing their homeland as refugees, seeking safety in England and Scotland, Canada and the United States. The hardest hit were inevitably the rural poor, the landless labourers, cottiers and small farmers, most of whom already lived in the most appalling poverty. According to the economic historian Cormac O Grada, for the Irish poor, “life on the eve of the famine was at least as grim as for the poor in much of the Third World”. For some half of the Irish people, life was “harsh and comfortless”.3 West Munster, South Ulster and Connaught were the areas worst affected, but in every district where subsistence farming predominated there was terrible suffering. Even the Wicklow Mountains, in sight of Dublin, were devastated by hunger and disease.

How did the British state respond to this crisis? How did the richest country in Europe, “the workshop of the world” and the ruler of a great empire respond? Robert Peel’s Tory government took limited relief measures to cope with the partial failure of the potato crop in 1845, measures that were sufficient to ensure that despite considerable hardship there were few actual deaths. The complete failure of the crop in 1846 coincided with Peel’s replacement by a Whig government headed by Lord John Russell. This development was enthusiastically welcomed by the repealers who regarded Russell as a friend, as someone committed to a policy of reform and amelioration in Ireland. The new government was also doctrinally committed to laissez-faire, free trade and market forces, even to the extent of refusing to introduce such an elementary measure as a prohibition of food exports from Ireland. Russell ended the Tories’ food relief measures and subsidies to Irish public works and left the provision of food to the free market. The results were disastrous, and the government was reluctantly and grudgingly forced to adopt emergency measures. The scale of the catastrophe overwhelmed its public works scheme, with the numbers employed increasing from 250,000 in the autumn of 1846 to 750,000 in the spring of 1847. When this policy collapsed, it was replaced by soup kitchens, which by August 1847 were feeding 3 million people a day. This initiative, which saved the lives of tens of thousands of people, was only intended as a stopgap measure while a system of workhouse relief, which it was intended would be paid for out of Irish resources, was made effective throughout the country. All of these measures were, moreover, implemented in a harsh and mean-spirited manner with the lead being given by the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Wood, and the under-secretary at the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, certainly two of the most monstrous figures in modern British history.4 In effect, a million people died because government relief measures were too little and too late. And, they were too little and too late because of a fatal and deadly interaction between the government’s economic ideology and Ireland’s colonial situation.

The harsh truth is that the Irish poor were sacrificed on the altar of free trade and economic liberalism. At a protest meeting in Cork in the terrible winter of 1846-47 Horace Townsend suggested that the coroner’s verdict on the famine dead should be that they had “died from an overdose of political economy administered by quacks”.5 Of course, it has been argued that those responsible, the Whig ministers and their officials, did, in fact, do all that was believed to be possible at the time. The ideological universe these men inhabited, so the argument goes, simply did not provide solutions to the catastrophe that confronted them. This led to the remarkable situation where a delegation from Ireland visited Russell to plead for more relief for the starving poor, only to have the prime minister read to them from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The relief they were asking for would, according to Russell’s political economy, only make the situation worse and actually result in more deaths.6

The problem, one historian, Gearoid O Tuathaigh, has agreed, was that by the 1840s the British governing classes were united in the belief that private enterprise, the sanctity of property rights, free trade and the laws of supply and demand “constituted the optimum conditions for economic activity… The disciples of laissez-faire ruled the roost.” This account is compromised by its idealist approach, that is it wrenches the “conventional wisdom” of the time free of the social and political forces within which it was formed. Within the context of British politics the Irish Famine was not of sufficient moment to call into question the conventional wisdom. This was the essence of Ireland’s colonial situation. The fate of the Irish poor never became a central concern for the British government or the governing classes generally. As O Tuathaigh himself notes, the pressure of events did actually force the Whigs to abandon certain of their cherished principles, but not enough to save the famine dead.7 The viceroy of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, made the point that even in Ireland the British government could not allow the numbers starving to rise above a certain number.8 Moreover, there were many contemporary critics of British government policy, but they never had sufficient political weight to make a difference. One does not have to turn to Republicans such as John Mitchel for an indictment of Russell’s government. In March 1849 Edward Twistleton, the eminently respectable Chief Poor Law Commissioner for Ireland, resigned. Clarendon wrote to London explaining that Twistleton considered “the destitution here is so horrible, and the indifference of the House of Commons so manifest that he is an unfit agent of a policy that must be one of extermination”.9

If the famine had occurred in part of England there can be no doubt that the British government would have taken whatever measures necessary to prevent mass starvation regardless of cherished economic principles. The threat to the social and political order would have been too great for any other course to be have even been contemplated. Mass starvation in Ireland, however, was just not important enough to shift the conventional wisdom. Moreover, Ireland was already perceived as a hotbed of disaffection and, if anything, the famine was to actually help preserve British rule rather than pose a threat to it.

There was, of course, popular protest against the conduct of the authorities, but historians have barely started to examine this dimension of the famine years. One notable exception is Ciaran O Murchadha’s Sable Wings Over the Land, a study of Ennis in County Clare. Here the agrarian secret societies, the Whiteboys or Terry Alts, took steps to prevent the export of grain from the district in the winter of 1846-47. Farmers were threatened and if they ignored the warning the horses that had carried their grain to market were shot. In October 1846 some 50 horses were shot and over the next two years hundreds more shared the same fate. An organised attempt was made to prevent grain being shipped from the port but troops were brought in to disperse the blockading crowds. There were protests about the administration of relief and access to the public works. Early in December 1846 an unsuccessful attempt was made to assassinate the overseer at the Clare Abbey works. In reprisal, the Poor Law inspector, Captain Edmond Wynne, closed the works and let starvation teach the people a lesson. Two weeks after he closed the works, Wynne visited the district:

Although a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the extent and intensity of the suffering that I witnessed, more especially among the women and children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields, like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half-naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, uttering exclamations of despair, whilst their children were screaming with hunger. I am a match for anything else that I may meet with here, but this I cannot stand.

But stand it he did. The collective punishment was considered a great success and the works were reopened for a cowed population. Similar action was subsequently taken elsewhere, with works closed at Ruan and Kilmaley. Trevelyan was full of praise for Wynne’s “undaunted spirit” and considered that he was all that stood “between the people of Clare and complete anarchy”.10

What of the expense of keeping the Irish alive? Altogether the British government spent some £8 million on famine relief. This contrasts sharply, as was pointed out at the time, with the £20 million spent on compensating the slave owners when slavery was abolished in 1834. This money was disbursed to uphold the right of property and went to the deserving rich rather than to the undeserving poor, and the Irish poor at that. As Twistleton observed in 1849, the House of Commons was more concerned with “the conquest of Scinde or of the Punjab” than with keeping the Irish alive.11As if to prove the point, soon after the famine the British government was to find, without too much difficulty, £70 million to wage the Crimean War. Most telling of all perhaps was the comment by the Irish nationalist MP William Smith O’Brien in the House of Commons, that “if there were a rebellion in Ireland tomorrow, they would cheerfully vote 10 or 20 millions to put it down, but what they would do to destroy life, they would not do to save it”.12

Evictions

Compounding the hunger and disease was the way the famine became the occasion for dramatic land clearances that amounted to a concerted landlord offensive against the poor. The large Catholic farmers joined in this assault and in fact emerged as important beneficiaries in the post-famine period. Exactly how many people were evicted during these grim years is unknown and is inevitably the cause of controversy. The figure certainly exceeds half a million people, an astonishing number by any standard.13 This is one of the most terrible acts of class war in modern European history even without the accompanying starvation. How does one of the standard histories, Roy Foster’s much-praised Modern Ireland 1600-1972, deal with it? The whole famine receives pretty minimal treatment, but the clearances get one sentence in 596 pages of text.14 It is inconceivable that a general history of Scotland would treat the Highland Clearances in such a fashion, but perhaps Scottish history is not so politically sensitive.15

In December 1849 the correspondent for the London Illustrated News reported from Moveen, a village in the Kilrush Poor Law district:

There is nothing but devastation…the ruthless destroyer, as if he delighted in seeing the monuments of his skill, has left the walls of the houses standing, while he has unroofed them and taken away all shelter from the people. They look like the tombs of a departed race, rather than the recent abodes of a yet living people, and I felt actually relieved at seeing one or two half-clad spectres gliding about as evidence that I was not in the land of the dead.

The people, he went on, were “resigned to their dooms…One beholds only shrunken frames scarcely covered with flesh—crawling skeletons.” He emphasised “the vast extent of the evictions”.16

An account by a parish priest in September 1847 described one eviction scene. The tenant was:

Confined to bed, being for a considerable time in a declining state—the result of destitution. The Sheriff, on seeing the extreme debility of the man, hesitated to execute his orders—he came out and remonstrated: but Mr Walsh was inexorable. Duffy was brought out and laid under a shed, covered with turf, which was once used as a pig cabin, and his house thrown down. The landlord, not deeming the possession complete while the pig cabin remained entire, ordered the roof to be removed and poor Duffy, having no friend to shelter him, remained under the open air for two days and two nights, until death put an end to him.17

This sort of spectacle even appalled members of the government. Russell himself, on one occasion, complained that “the murders of poor cottier tenants are too horrible to bear” and that the government “ought to put down this lynch-law of a landlord”.18 Bear it he did, however. The Poor Law inspector in the Kilrush district, Arthur Kennedy, was even more appalled, later recalling “that there were days…when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the day’s work that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met”.19

Russell’s government actually included two Irish landlords, Lords Palmerston and Clanricarde, both of whom were determined to uphold the rights of property and favoured a policy of systematic clearance. Palmerston urged that “ejectments ought to be made without cruelty” but the harsh fact was that any improvement in Ireland “must be founded upon…a long continued and systematic ejectment of smallholders and of squatting cottiers”. Clanricarde was not so bothered about the cruelty side of things and told the cabinet on one occasion that sometimes if a tenant would not “go away by daylight, nothing is left but to force him out by night, and so he is forced out on a winter night and dies of cold and starvation by the roadside”.20 Even more extreme were the sentiments the viceroy, Lord Clarendon, gave voice to in August 1848: “I would sweep Connacht clean and turn upon it new men and English money just as one would to Australia or any freshly discovered colony.” This, the forcible removal of some 2 million people, was the only solution he could see to “the Irish Problem”.21

There was, of course, resistance to eviction. Some landlords were shot. The most notorious case was the shooting of Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown in County Roscommon on 2 November 1847. He was an evicting landlord and had paid passage for some 500 of his tenants on a “coffin ship”, the Virginius, to Canada. Over 150 of the emigrants were dead by the time the vessel arrived and most of the survivors were in such a poor condition that they had to be carried ashore, where over a hundred more of them subsequently died. In the British press, however, Mahon was celebrated as a humane landlord cut down by a murderous assassin urged on by the parish priest. The death by shooting of this one man eclipsed the death by starvation of tens of thousands. A government-orchestrated press campaign was launched with the Times leading the way, a campaign that was intended in part to intimidate and silence those clergy publicly critical of government policy. One priest, Father James Maher, replying to the press assault, asked whether the 16 ounces of food a day provided by the Carlow workhouse was not in itself an incitement to revolt and, more particularly, how many murders such a diet would provoke if it were imposed on the poor in England.22 Palmerston considered the Mahon shooting to be part of “a deliberate and extensive conspiracy among the priests and peasantry to kill or drive away all the proprietors of land, to prevent and deter any of their agents from collecting rent, and thus practically to transfer the land of the country from the landowner to the tenant.” Unfortunately there was no such conspiracy. Nevertheless, Palmerston went on to argue quite hysterically that there had never been in modern times, outside of Africa, “such a state of crime as now exists in Ireland”. His proposed solution to this law and order crisis was that “whenever a man is murdered in Ireland, the priest of the parish should be transported. A more generally popular proposal would be that he should be hung, and many who clamour for martial law fancy, I have no doubt, that by martial law this latter process could be adopted”.23 He somewhat predictably showed considerably more concern for protecting his rents than he did for relieving the hunger of his tenants.

Palmerston was himself an evicting landlord and offered many of his tenants passage to Canada. One biographer of the great man describes how in:

The summer and autumn of 1847 nine ships arrived at Quebec and St John carrying a total of two thousand of Palmerston’s tenants from Sligo. The Canadians were shocked at the conditions of the immigrants who arrived in a state of complete destitution…though Palmerston had announced that every family would be paid between £2 and £5 on arrival at Quebec, no representative was there to meet them or provided them with any assistance, and they were left to be in the snow, barefoot and in rags, during their first Canadian winter.24

Adam Ferrie, chairman of the Emigration Committee in Canada, complained that Palmerston had “forgot that duty which he owed to God, his sovereign and his country”. His transported tenants were “victims to that cruel system of maritime imprisonment and the only destination they could have was an early grave”. Ferrie regretted “that men pretending to be Christians, and especially British, could be guilty of such barbarity”.25 None of this was to hinder Palmerston’s subsequent political career and as far as most historians of the period are concerned it leaves no stain on his reputation.26

While the people starved and the land was being cleared, the Irish upper class continued to enjoy a life of great luxury and extravagance. The Republican John Mitchel later observed that:

You may imagine that Dublin city would show some effect or symptom of such a calamity. Singular to relate, that city had never before been so gay and luxurious; splendid equipages had never before so crowded the streets; and the theatres and concert rooms had never been filled with such brilliant throngs… Any stranger arriving in those days, guided by judicious friends only through fashionable streets and squares, introduced only to the proper circles, would have said that Dublin must be the prosperous capital of some wealthy and happy country.27

The same Lord Clarendon who presided over mass starvation, who could write to Russell that “these people…deserve to be left to their fate”, also presided over Dublin’s social life.28 In February 1848, there were three large balls at Dublin Castle, attended by 1,300, 400 and 45 guests and five large dinner parties. March saw two balls for 900 and 550 guests and four large dinner parties. The spectacle was to drive some to revolution.

John Mitchel and the famine

Looking back on the famine in 1854, John Mitchel wrote that while now “I can set down these things calmly…to see them might have driven a wise man mad”. He described:

How families, when all was eaten and no hope left, took their last look at the sun, built up their cottage doors, that none might see them die nor hear their groans, and were found weeks afterwards skeletons on their hearths; how the law was vindicated all this while…and many examples made; how starving wretches were transported for stealing vegetables by night…and how every one of those years, ’46, ’47 and ’48, Ireland was exporting to England food to the value of 15 million pounds sterling.

He accused the British government of deliberately starving the Irish people, of making use of the potato blight to “thin out these multitudinous Celts”. While the potato crop might have failed, there was, Mitchel insisted, still more than enough grain, cereals and livestock in the country to have fed the population, but it was exported to England. He wrote of how “insane mothers began to eat their young who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England.” This was what “free trade did for Ireland in those days”.29 If such a disaster had befallen the south of France, he argued elsewhere, then the whole reserve of the country would have been used to provide “labour upon works of public utility” and to provide “such quantities of foreign corn as might be needed”. Similarly, if the north of England had been afflicted “there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken promptly and liberally”.30 Ireland’s colonial position was the key.

Mitchel was radicalised by the famine. He was one of a number of intellectuals associated with the Nation newspaper, who had become known collectively as “Young Ireland”. They were cultural and literary nationalists, Protestant and Catholic, who had begun by supporting O’Connell and repeal, but had become disillusioned by his retreat from confrontation in 1843 and his friendly relations with the Whigs in London. They finally broke away from the Repeal Association in July 1846 and soon after, in January 1847, established the Irish Confederation. This was not a revolutionary organisation. While it refused to rule out the use of force (which was one of the causes of the break with O’Connell), it certainly was not planning to use it, but rather saw it as a threat not to be given up. The Irish Confederation’s strategy was to win over the Protestant landlords to the Nationalist cause and hopefully force the British into making concessions, without violence or disorder. They certainly had no ambitions to replicate the United Irishmen of the 1790s. Their vision was of an independent Ireland where landlords fulfilled their social obligations to a grateful tenantry who recognised their natural claim to leadership. It was a deeply conservative vision. For Mitchel, the horrors of the famine swept it away.

Mitchel came to recognise that the struggle for land had to be central to any successful strategy for national liberation. His embrace of social revolution is a testimony to the impact that mass starvation and mass eviction had on his thinking. Much later, looking back on this period, he argued that revolution could “only be justified by desperate necessity”, but that this had been the situation during the famine years. He went on: “When the system was found to work so fatally—when hundreds of thousands of people were lying down and perishing…society itself stood dissolved.” Circumstances propelled him and his comrades into confrontation. They were all, he remembered, possessed by a “sacred wrath… They could endure the horrible scene no longer, and resolved to cross the path of the British car of conquest, though it should crush them to atoms”.31 Mitchel’s radicalism led him to embrace democracy, social revolution and an alliance with the Chartists in England.32

The Irish Confederation’s leadership did not share Mitchel’s radicalism. While William Smith O’Brien, Charles Gavan Duffy and the others were bitterly critical of the British government, they were not revolutionaries. Indeed, Mitchel’s call for social revolution was seen as as much of a threat to their wealth and position as it was to the British. Inevitably there came a parting of the ways. Mitchel established his own newspaper, the United Irishman, proclaiming that “the deep and irreconcilable disaffection of his people to all British laws, lawgivers and law administrators shall find a voice”.33 In a letter to the moderate Duffy, he explained that his intention was “once and for all, to turn men’s minds away from the English parliament, and from parliamentary and constitutional agitation of all kinds”. He made the point that “most of the people have no franchise and are not very likely to get any”, indeed the electorate was “growing smaller and poorer continually”. And as for any “combination of the gentry with the people”, this “is now and henceforth impossible”. Instead he proposed to promulgate “sound instruction in military affairs…a deliberate study of the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare” as “the true and only method of regenerating Ireland”.34

1848 in Ireland

The political situation was transformed by the revolutionary overthrow of the regime of Louis Philippe in Paris in February 1848. This signalled the beginning of a revolutionary wave that was to shake governments throughout Europe. Mitchel enthusiastically welcomed the outbreak, celebrated it in the pages of the United Irishman and fervently hoped that the revolutionary contagion would spread to Ireland. On 4 March Mitchel told his readers that the earth “was awakening from sleep: a flash of electric fire is passing through the dumb millions. Democracy is girding himself once more like a strong man to run a race; and slumbering nations are arising in their might.” He went on: “The blessed words ‘Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!’…are soon to ring out from pole to pole.” His readers were urged to make ready for the coming fight for freedom: “Let the man amongst you who has no gun, sell his garment and buy one”.35 Even the moderate leadership of the Irish Confederation felt that a revolutionary outbreak was now inevitable, that the old order was about to be swept away. The fear that increasingly gripped them was that the coming revolution would be led by the radicals. As Duffy put it to William Smith O’Brien, his great fear was that “you and I will meet on a Jacobin scaffold, ordered for execution as enemies of some new Marat or Robespierre”.36 If revolution was to come, they were determined it should be neither democratic nor socially levelling, but a moderate respectable affair.

How realistic were the hopes of revolution? In Dublin the Irish Confederate clubs were dominated by the artisan trades, with many members sympathetic to Chartism. Serious preparations for rebellion were under way with demonstrations and meetings throwing down a challenge to the authorities. It was here that Mitchel’s influence was strongest, with the United Irishman reminding its readers that the “trades unions now govern France”.37 Certainly, Clarendon was seriously alarmed, writing to Russell in London that “a spirit of disaffection…among the lower orders is universal”. The people, he complained, actually thought that a revolution would lead “to a government that feeds the whole nation”.38

Mitchel was arrested on 13 May 1848, tried before a carefully picked jury of government supporters and sentenced to 14 years transportation on the 27th. Within hours of the sentence being passed he was taken in chains on board a government steamer, beginning his journey to Van Diemens Land, now Tasmania. He had hoped that his arrest would provoke an insurrection, that it would occasion Dublin’s “day of the barricades”. O’Brien, Duffy and the moderates prevailed, however, opposing a proposed armed rescue and urging caution and patience. In this way, as Alexander Sullivan put it, “the Irish insurrectionary movement of 1848 was put down”.39 Certainly, the best moment for a revolutionary attempt was missed. As Justin McCarthy later observed, had “there been another Mitchel out of doors as fearless and reckless as the Mitchel in prison a sanguinary outbreak would probably have taken place”.40 Even after this success Clarendon was worried. The men who served on Mitchel’s jury were subsequently boycotted and, he told Russell, “have suffered severely and some of them are quite ruined”. One of them had “a respectable looking, well-dressed lady” visit him: she spat “in his face and said, Take that for what you did to Mitchel”.41 As far as he was concerned, “in any real danger we have only the Protestants to rely on”. He told one correspondent that he would only have “to hold up my finger to have re-embodied all the Orange yeomanry and to have set them in march upon the south”. The trouble was that their “exuberance of loyalty” was as much trouble as “the excess of sedition” in the south.42

After Mitchel had been transported, any hope of insurrection in Dublin was abandoned. The city was filled with troops. Instead the Irish Confederation leadership looked to the countryside. Their hand was forced when internment was introduced on 25 July 1848. William Smith O’Brien, a most unlikely revolutionary, set out to raise the standard of revolt in Kilkenny. O’Brien, according to one biographer, had “an almost pathological fear of anarchy and revolution from below”.43 While the circumstances in which he tried to rally the peasantry were certainly difficult, to say the least, his own limitations made failure certain. The rebellion collapsed after a skirmish with the police at Ballingarry on 26 July. The rebels dispersed and their leaders fled. Another attempt was to be made the following year in August 1849, but this too ended in failure.

Was this outcome inevitable? Certainly a successful insurrection in Ireland in 1848 was most unlikely. The famine had ravaged the rural population and starvation was not the best preparation for rebellion. What was possible, however, was a serious attempt that could have at least shaken, even if not overthrown, British rule. The best opportunity was missed in Dublin at the time of Mitchel’s arrest. O’Brien’s attempt amounted to little more than a half-hearted gesture. What has to be acknowledged is the extent to which the famine actually helped preserve British rule. If the famine had not decimated and demoralised the Irish people then there can really be no doubt that Ireland would have been one of the countries overwhelmed by the revolutionary wave of 1848, with the British either conceding repeal or being swept away.

Irish Republicanism

The famine and the revolutionary attempt of 1848 were the context within which modern Irish Republicanism was formed, and Mitchel was its first spokesman. His ferocious hatred of the British Empire, “the Carthaginian sea-monster”44 as he called it, that he held responsible for the mass starvation and mass evictions, was to inform the revived Republican movement of the 1860s, the Fenians, and afterwards. Yet Mitchel protested that he was not motivated by “mere hatred of England”. He made a crucial distinction between “the British nation” and “what Cobbett called the Thing [the British establishment]”, and insisted that the best friend of the British people “is simply he who approves himself the bitterest enemy of their government and all their institutions”. He never mistook the British people for Britain’s pirate empire. His alliance with the Chartists is proof of this. He escaped from Van Diemens Land in July 1853 and arrived in the United States that October. Here he still looked forward to a revived European revolutionary movement. In January 1854 he proclaimed that “Europe is again ripening fast for another bursting forth of the precious and deathless spirit of freedom”. In Britain the Chartists “are finding voice and spirit again”. The Crimean War, he believed, provided an opportunity for revolutionaries, and he urged preparation of an Irish military expedition from America to once again raise the standard of revolt in Ireland.45

There was no fresh revolutionary outbreak, however, and Mitchel was condemned to remain an exile in the United States. His stay had a corrosive effect on his radicalism, and John Mitchel, one of the most powerful voices of 1848, was to become a fierce supporter of black slavery and advocate of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. All that remained of his radicalism was his support for an Irish Republic.46

The efforts of Irish revolutionaries in both Ireland and the United States continued culminated in 1858 in the establishment of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB—better known as the Fenians) in Dublin. This was an underground movement that by 1864 had over 50,000 sworn members. The IRB successfully infiltrated the British army, established links with the radical movement in Britain and prepared for armed rebellion. Once again the attempt, in February 1867, was to misfire.47 The IRB survived, however, and was to play a major part in the Land Wars of the 1880-1900s and go on to organise the Easter Rising in 1916. The IRB, under the leadership of Michael Collins and others, was to provide much of the sinew, muscle and brain of the Republican movement during the War of Independence.48

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!