Ireland’s Wars: Young Irelanders And Great Famines

As discussed last time, Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association was an entity divided into factions dominated by moderate and radical thinkers. O’Connell’s decision to cancel his Clontarf monster meeting exacerbated an already evident divide, that had been growing for several years. That divide would eventually lead to the next of the noted rebellion against British rule in Ireland.

The “Young Ireland” movement can be sourced to historical debate meetings held by Trinity College associations, that brought together a number of a new breed of Irish nationalists in 1839. The names included John Blake Dillon, Thomas McNevin and, perhaps most notably, a young poet named Thomas Davis. What would become the Young Irelanders began as the Dublin Historical Society, of which Davis soon became President.

These men were part and parcel of the Repeal Association from near it’s founding, but always had a slightly different outlook to O’Connell. Indeed, the term “Young Irelanders” may first have been used in a disparaging way by British newspapers for the more radical members of this moment, before the term was taken up as badge of honour. In the early days, the involvement of pro-active and energetic men like Davis in the Repeal Association, despite his differing opinions, was crucial to making it the juggernaut it eventually became.

Many of these radicals recognised the power of the press, first in the Morning Register, where their inflammatory articles and commentary on topics ranging from Protestant history to the tactics of guerilla warfare brought much notice, especially in Dublin. This was a generation growing up in the shadow of the United Irishmen, and were gravitating back towards that revolutionary sentiment.

When the Register became defunct, Davis, Dillon and new contact Charles Gavin Duffy founded a new publication, The Nation, in 1842. This new paper became an intricate part of the burgeoning Young Ireland movement, even as it remained nominally a part of the Repeal Association.

The Nation became a huge success, and was the primary publication for nationalist thinking for the time. It’s spread helped further the message of the Repeal Association, but all the while its editors and chief writers were cultivating their own set of contacts, with aims different to those of O’Connell, who fully recognised the threat, but was in no position to turn down such help, at least not at that time. O’Connell, despite some vague pronouncements during the monsters meetings, held strongly to the aim of a non-violent agitation against the Act of Union, and purposefully introduced resolutions to that effect to the Association’s make-up, a deliberate barb to the voices of The Nation, that were growing ever more linked to that of the idea of violent uprising. The Peace Resolutions were violently denounced by young firebrands like Thomas Francis Meagher, whose famous “Sword Speech” served as a stirring defence of violent action against oppressors.

The Clontarf decision split the Repeal Association, and gave the Young Irelanders the perfect chance to strike out on their own, as the banner-bearers for an uncompromising movement towards Irish liberation. It was they who had attempted to militarise aspects of the monster meetings, and O’Connell’s decision to call off that meeting may also have been influenced by a desire to force a confrontation with the more radical aspect of the Association.

This internal squabble petered on for several years, with the Repeal Association maintaining at least the facade of unity, before events in Ireland, political, social and military, were dramatically overtaken by a much more important issue, a tragedy that would prove more destructive to Ireland than any war or rebellion, before or since.

Since its introduction to the country in the 16th century, the Irish lower classes had become increasingly dependent on the potato to survive. The potato, despite its perceived unreliability, offered high yields in its crop and decent nutrition, the perfect combination for a lower class that, in the best of times, was never too far away from subsistence farming in order to keep going. The more recent economic changes in Ireland had only increased the potato’s popularity, moving it from a food source that had been supplementary in nature, to the primary part of many Irish Catholics’ daily diet. Combined with the lack of diversity in the breeds of potato – the vast majority of Ireland growing a single type, the “Irish lumper” – the Irish dependence on the potato was a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, it had already happened, with numerous famines of various size recorded from 1728 up to 1845, with one, that I mentioned briefly before, devastating large parts of the country between 1740 and 1741.

Phytophthora infestan, a virulent potato blight that has been sourced to Mexico, arrived in Europe in 1844, and landed in Ireland in 1845, first reported in September of that year. The blight destroyed potato plants in the ground, leaving only a rotten, useless vegetable when harvest time came: somewhere in the region of a third of the Irish harvest that year was lost, by all descriptions a crisis, yet not one that was unusual in Ireland. It was only in 1846 that events turned catastrophic, as well over half the usual harvest was lost, and a nationwide famine arrived. In “Black ’47”, the lack of seed potatoes left after two years of hardship resulted in further and irrevocable disaster.

What we call the Great Famine today, “an Gorta Mor”, is generally said to have lasted from 1845 to 1852. In that time, it is quite likely that over a million Irish men, women and children died, either from starvation, or from diseases connected to a lack of nutrition. Combined with immigration, no stranger to Ireland but skyrocketing under the circumstances, the population of the country plummeted.

Government efforts to deal with the crisis have long been criticised. The infamous image of the packed workhouse, or civil construction projects amounting to roads to nowhere, have become seared into the Irish consciousness, and while there has been a certain exaggeration in depicting the British government as an uncaring monster, it is quite true that, even at the worst moments, food was still being exported from Ireland. Many identify the British policy at the time as genocide, though I personally do not adhere to that view, believing strongly in Hanlon’s razor: never ascribe to evil, that which can be explained by stupidity. And there was stupidity, callousness and a lack of care aplenty from Sir Robert Peel and John Russells’ administrations during the time, which only fully grasped the scale of the disaster when it was far too late to do anything about it, and remained caught in partisan bickering over how to deal with this most fraught of Irish questions.

As you would expect, Irish politics was dominated by the issue. O’Connell, tying the crisis into the Repeal movement, insisted that an Irish legislature would be better able to deal with the famine, suggesting that such an entity would have the power to close Irish exports and allow imports only, and further criticised the contemporary state of tenant rights as exacerbating the problem. Members of the Young Ireland movement were similarly inclined, but now were even better inspired to take more active action to stem the tide of suffering. The British government had continually talked big about Ireland’s part of the union, and how it was in a better place because of it, yet now it all seemed like so much bluster and empty declarations.

In January of 1848, the split in the Repeal Association became concretely manifest, with the founding of the Irish Confederation, a new entity comprising those radicals now openly seceding from O’Connell’s Association, and declaring their aim to be the independence of Ireland, though as of yet they did not officially outline their preferred means of achieving this. With their desire for Irish freedom growing, while the Irish population struggled to survive, the discontentment and rancour made the situation ideal for an uprising.

Or, at least, so the Young Irelanders though.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Young Irelanders And Great Famines

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