Monster Agitators: O’Connell’s Repealers 1843 Ireland, by Vincent Ruddy, Ashfield Press, 456 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-0995672239
Daniel O’Connell was a political genius. The social class he belonged to, that of property-owning Catholics, was relatively small in size. O’Connell himself had limited means. Notwithstanding, he made an unprecedented impact on Irish politics and history.
He led a thrusting and dynamic bourgeoisie, a substantial element within the Catholic property-owning cohort, one which wished to and believed it was possible to transform the social disaster which was early nineteenth century Ireland. From about 1810 this class struggled to find its political voice. The bulk of the population, comprising tenant farmers, peasantry and their families, were unheard and without a political representation. Both groups were to form a national movement under bourgeois leadership, designed to forge a society and an economy that would support future generations.
One option open to property-owning Catholics was to throw their lot in with property-owning Protestants, a choice which some found palatable, particularly as the high era of persecution had passed. O’Connell rejected this path and found innovative ways to engage with the common people, free them from landlord control and unite them in pursuit of national objectives.
He did this by inventing the forms of modern democratic party politics. Mass membership associations, first the Catholic Association and later the Repeal Association, brought together vast and completely unprecedented numbers, which peacefully demanded concessions from government.
Westminster was unsure how to respond. It was a new situation. In the late 1820s it decided to concede Catholic Emancipation and thus O’Connell won the sobriquet the Liberator.
Things did not go so well in the 1840s. Then O’Connell set his sights higher and demanded a local democratic parliament for Ireland. The level of organisation and the number of people engaged was even greater than in the 1820s. But the objective was, in contemporary parlance, a red line for the government, crossing it they believed, would herald dismemberment of the Empire. It would not be permitted.
Their ultimate response was the threat to use military force against an unarmed and peaceful movement. It was a real and effective threat to which O’Connell had no response, and thus Repeal was defeated. As Vincent Ruddy observed at the launch of his book:
O’Connell’s Monster Meetings came to an abrupt halt in October 1843 when the Viceroy “proclaimed” the meeting in Clontarf and moved in four battalions of troops, some four hundred armed RIC and Metropolitan Police and three gunships in the bay to prevent a large meeting being held; the expected attendance (Frazer’s magazine, Nov 1843) mentioned a figure of 300,000.
O’Connell had designated 1843 as the Repeal Year. It was a year of massive and sustained campaigning, characterised by Monster meetings often held at historically symbolic sites such as Tara and Cashel. Vincent Ruddy’s book is an insightful and detailed study of that year and of O’Connell’s middle class supporters. In particular it highlights the individuals within the Catholic bourgeoisie who supported O’Connell and who attended on the platforms at the thirty-eight Monster Meetings he addressed between January and September in that year.
This class comprised the local and national leadership of the movement, a group who articulated the campaign’s defining national and economic objectives. The desire for legislative and economic autonomy and the freedom to develop a modern industrial economy that would support the population and generate wealth was probably the central motivation of O’Connellite bourgeoisie of the time.
Vincent Ruddy’s book contains a fascinating index of repealers, naming individuals who comprised this class. Some 3,600 persons are identified: merchants, professionals, strong farmers, clergy and manufacturers. Behind them were 800,000 card-carrying repealers, mostly small tenants and stable peasantry. And behind them again were millions of political supporters.
It was an unprecedented phenomenon in the world. If the attempted O’Connellite bourgeois revolution had been successful, it is probable the following century and a half of population decline would have been prevented
In Monster Agitators Vincent Ruddy has made an important contribution to our appreciation of what happened in the Repeal year of 1843.