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Labour in Irish History

by James Connolly


Chapter XI
An Irish Utopia

Were the hand of Locke to hold from heaven a scheme of government most perfectly adapted to the nature and capabilities of the Irish nation, it would drop to the ground a mere sounding scroll were there no other means of giving it effect than its intrinsic excellence. All true Irishmen agree in what ought to be done, but how to get it done is the question.
-- Secret Manifesto. (Ireland), 1793.

In our last chapter we pointed out how the close of the Napoleonic wars precipitated a commercial crisis in Great Britain and Ireland, and how in the latter country it also served to intensify the bitterness of the relations existing between landlord and tenant. During the continuance of the wars against Napoleon, agricultural prices had steadily risen owing to the demand by the British Government for provisions to supply its huge army and navy. With the rise in prices rents had also risen, but when the close of the war cut off the demand, and prices consequently fell, rents did not fall along with them. A falling market and a stationary or rising rent-roll could have but one result in Ireland -- viz., agrarian war.

The landlords insisted upon their `pound of flesh,' and the peasantry organised in secret to terrorise their oppressors and protect themselves. In the year 1829 a fresh cause of popular misery came as a result of the Act granting Catholic Emancipation. Until that year no Catholic had the right to sit in the English House of Commons, to sit on the Bench as a Judge, or to aspire to any of the higher posts in the Civil, Military, or Naval services. As the culmination of a long fight against this iniquitous `Protestant Ascendancy,' after he had aroused the entire Catholic population to a pitch of frenzy against the injustices inherent in it, the Catholic leader, Daniel O'Connell, presented himself as a candidate for the representation in Parliament of the County Clare, declaring that if elected he would refuse to take the oath then required of a Member of Parliament, as it libelled the Catholic Religion. In Ireland at that time open voting prevailed, every elector having to declare openly before the clerks of the election and all others who chose to attend, the name of the candidate for whom he voted. In Ireland at that time also, most of the tenants were tenants-at-will, removable at the mere pleasure of the agent or landlord. Hence elections were a combination of farce and tragedy -- a farce as far as a means of ascertaining the real wish of the electors was concerned, a tragedy whenever any of the tenants dared to vote against the nominee of the landlord. The suffrage had been extended to all tenants paying an annual rental of forty shillings, irrespective of religious belief, but the terrible power of life and death possessed by the landlord made this suffrage ordinarily useless for popular purposes. Yet when O'Connell appealed to the Catholic peasantry of Clare to brave the vengeance of their landed tyrants, and vote for him in the interests of religious liberty, they nobly responded. O'Connell was elected, and as a result Catholic Emancipation was soon afterwards achieved. But the ruling classes and the British Government took their revenge by coupling with this reform a Bill depriving the smaller tenants of the suffrage, and raising the amount of rent necessary to qualify for a vote to ten pounds.

Up till that time landlords had rather encouraged the growth of population on their estates, as it increased the number of their political adherents, but with the passage of this Act of Parliament this reason ceased to exist, and they immediately began the wholesale eviction of their tenantry and the conversion of the arable lands into grazing farms. The Catholic middle, professional and landed class by Catholic Emancipation had the way opened to them for all the snug berths in the disposal of the Government; the Catholics of the poorer class as a result of the same Act were doomed to extermination, to satisfy the vengeance of a foreign Government and an aristocracy whose power had been defied where it knew itself most supreme.

The wholesale eviction of the smaller tenants and the absorption of their farms into huge grazing ranches, thus closing up every avenue of employment to labour, meant death to the agricultural population, and hence the peasantry struck back by every means in their power. They formed lodges of the secret Ribbon Society, made midnight raids for arms upon the houses of the gentry, assembled at night in large bodies and ploughed up the grass lands, making them useless for grazing purposes, filled up ditches, terrorised graziers into surrendering their ranches, wounded and killed those who had entered the service of graziers or obnoxious landlords, assassinated agents, and sometimes, in sheer despair, opposed their unarmed bodies to the arms of the military. Civil war of the most sanguinary character was convulsing the country; in May, 1831, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and a huge military force accompanied by artillery marched through Clare to overawe the people, but as he did not stop evictions, nor provide employment for the labourers whom the establishment of grazing had deprived of their usual employment on the farm, the `outrages' still continued. Nor were the professional patriots, or the newly emancipated Catholic rich, any more sympathetic to the unfortunate people. They had opened the way for themselves to place and preferment by using the labourer and cottier-farmer as a lever to overthrow the fortress of religious bigotry and ascendancy, and now when the fight was won, they abandoned these poor co-religionists of theirs to the tender mercies of their economic masters. To the cry of despair welling up from the hearts of the evicted families, crouching in hunger upon the road-side in sight of their ruined homes, to the heartbroken appeal of the labourer permanently disemployed by the destruction of his source of employment; to the wail of famishing women and children the politicians invariably had but one answer -- `Be law-abiding, and wait for the Repeal of the Union'. We are not exaggerating. One of the most ardent Repealers and closest friends of Daniel O'Connell, Mr. Thomas Steele, had the following manifesto posted up in the Market Place of Ennis and other parts of Clare, addressed to the desperate labourers and farmers: --

Unless you desist, I denounce you as traitors to the cause of the liberty of Ireland...
I leave you to the Government and the fire and bayonets of the military. Your blood be upon your own souls.

This language of denunciation was uttered to the heroic men and women who had sacrificed their homes, their security, and the hopes of food for their children to win the emancipation front religious tyranny of the well-fed snobs who thus abandoned them. It is difficult to see how a promised Repeal of the Union some time in the future could have been of any use to the starving men of Clare, especially when they knew that their fathers had been starved, evicted and tyrannised over before just as they were after the Union. At that time, however, it was deemed a highly patriotic act to ascribe all the ills that Irish flesh is heir to, to the Union. For example, Mr. O'Gorman Mahon, speaking in the House of Commons, London, on February 8, 1831, hinted that the snow-storm then covering Ireland was a result of the Legislative Union. He said: --

Did the Hon. Members imagine that they could prevent the unfortunate men who were under five feet of snow from thinking they could better their condition by a Repeal of the Union. It might be said that England had not caused the snow, but the people had the snow on them, and they thought that their connection with England had reduced them to the state in which they now were''.

Another patriot, destined in after years to don the mantle of an Irish rebel, William Smith O'Brien, at this time, 1830, published a pamphlet advocating emigration as the one remedy for Irish misery.

On the other hand a Commission appointed by the House of Lords in 1839 to inquire into the causes of the unrest and secret conspiracies amongst the poorer class examined many witnesses in close touch with the life of the peasantry and elicited much interesting testimony tending to prove that the evil was much more deeply rooted than any political scheme of Government, and that its real roots were in the social conditions. Thus examined as to the attitude of the labourers towards the Ribbon Association, one witness declared: --

`Many look to the Association for protection. They think they have no other protection'.

Question: -- `What are the principal objects they have in view'?

Answer: -- `To keep themselves upon their lands. I have often heard their conversation, when they say: -- '

`What good did Emancipation do for us? Are we better clothed or fed, or are our children better clothed or fed? Are we not as naked as we were, and eating dry potatoes when we can get them? Let us notice the farmers to give us better food and better wages, and not give so much to the landlord, and more to the workman; we must not be letting them be turning the poor people off the ground'.

And a Mr. Poulett Scroope, M.P., declared in one of his writings upon the necessity for a Poor Law: The tithe question, the Church, the Grand Jury laws, the more or fewer Catholics appointed to the Shrievalty or Magistracy -- these are all topics for political agitation among idle mobs; but the midnight massacre, the daily plunder, the frequent insurrection, the insecurity of life and property throughout agricultural districts of Ireland, these are neither caused by agitation, nor can be put down with agitation''.

It will be thus seen that the opinion of the independent Member of Parliament coincided with that of the revolting labourers as to the relative unimportance to the toilers of Ireland of the subjects which then, as now, bulked most largely in the minds of politicians.

This was the state of things political and social in Ireland in the year 1831 and as it was in Clare the final effective blow had been struck for religious emancipation, so it also was Clare that was destined to see the first effort to discover a peaceful way of achieving that social Emancipation, without which all other freedom, religious or political, must ever remain as Dead Sea fruit to the palate of Labour.

In 1832 the great English socialist, Robert Owen, visited Ireland and held a number of meetings in the Rotunda, Dublin, for the purpose of explaining the principles of Socialism to the people of that city. His audiences were mainly composed of the well-to-do inhabitants, as was, indeed, the case universally at that period when Socialism was the fad of the rich instead of the faith of the poor. The Duke of Leinster, the Catholic Archbishop Murray, Lord Meath, Lord Cloncurry, and others occupied the platform, and as a result of the picture drawn by Owen of the misery then existing, and the attendant insecurity of life and property amongst all classes, and his outline of the possibilities which a system of Socialist co-operation could produce, an association styling itself the Hibernian Philanthropic Society was formed to carry out his ideas. A sum of money was subscribed to aid the prospects of the society, a General Brown giving 1,000, Lord Cloncurry 500, Mr. Owen himself subscribing 1,000, and 100 being raised from other sources. The society was short-lived and ineffectual, but one of the members, Mr. Arthur Vandeleur, an Irish landlord, was so deeply impressed with all he had seen and heard of the possibilities of Owenite Socialism, that in 1831, when crime and outrage in the country had reached its zenith, and the insecurity of life in his own class had been brought home to him by the assassination of the steward of his estate for unfeeling conduct towards the labourers, he resolved to make an effort to establish a Socialist colony upon his property at Ralahine, County Clare. For that purpose he invited to Ireland a Mr. Craig, of Manchester, a follower of Owen, and entrusted him with the task of carrying the project into execution.

Though Mr. Craig knew no Irish, and the people of Ralahine, as a rule, knew no English -- a state of matters which greatly complicated the work of explanation -- an understanding was finally arrived at, and the estate was turned over to an association of the people organised under the title of The Ralahine Agricultural and Manufacturing Co-operative Association.

In the preamble to the Laws of the Association, its objects were defined as follows: --

 

The acquisition of a common capital.

The mutual assurance of its members against the evils of poverty, sickness, infirmity, and old age.

The attainment of a greater share of the comforts of life than the working classes now possess.

The mental and moral improvement of its adult members.

The education of their children.

The following paragraphs selected from the Rules of the Association will give a pretty clear idea of its most important features: --

Basis Of The Society

That all the stock, implements of husbandry, and other property belong to and are the property of Mr. Vandeleur, until the Society accumulates sufficient to pay for them; they then become the joint property of the Society.

Production

We engage that whatever talents we may individually possess, whether mental or muscular, agricultural, manufacturing, or scientific, shall be directed to the benefit of all, as well by their immediate exercise in all necessary occupations as by communicating our knowledge to each other, and particularly to the young.

That, as far as can be reduced to practice, each individual shall assist in agricultural operations, particularly in harvest, it being fully understood that no individual is to act as steward, but all are to work.

That all the youth, male or female, do engage to learn some useful trade, together with agriculture and gardening, between the ages of nine and seventeen years.

That the committee meet every evening to arrange the business for the following day.

That the hours of labour be from six in the morning till six in the evening in summer, and from daybreak till dusk in winter, with the intermission of one hour for dinner.

That each agricultural labouring man shall receive eightpence, and every woman fivepence per day for their labour (these were the ordinary wages of the country, the secretary, storekeeper, smiths, joiners, and a few others received something more; the excess being borne by the proprietor) which it is expected will be paid out at the store in provisions, or any other article the society may produce or keep there; any other articles may be purchased elsewhere.

That no member be expected to perform any service or work but such as is agreeable to his or her feelings, or they are able to perform; but if any member thinks that any other member is not usefully employing his or her time, it is his or her duty to report it to the committee, whose duty it will be to bring that member's conduct before a general meeting, who shall have power, if necessary, to expel that useless member.

Distribution And Domestic Economy

That all the services usually performed by servants be performed by the youth of both sexes under the age of seventeen years, either by rotation or choice.

That the expenses of the children's food, clothing, washing, lodging, and education be paid out of the common funds of the society, from the time they are weaned till they arrive at the age of seventeen, when they shall be eligible to become members.

That a charge be made for the food and clothing, &c., of those children trained by their parents, and residing in their dwelling houses.

That each person occupying a house, or cooking and consuming their victuals therein, must pay for the fuel used.

That no charge be made for fuel used in the public room.

That it shall be a special object for the sub-committee of domestic economy, or the superintendent of that department, to ascertain and put in practice the best and most economical methods of preparing and cooking the food.

That all the washing be done together in the public washhouse; the expenses of soap, labour, fuel, & c., to be equally borne by all the adult members.

That each member pay the sum of one half-penny out of every shilling received as wages to form a fund to be placed in the hands of the committee, who shall pay the wages out of this fund of any member who may fall sick or meet with an accident.

Any damage done by a member to the stock, implements, or any other property belonging to the society to be made good out of the wages of the individual, unless the damage is satisfactorily accounted for to the committee.

Education And Formation Of Character

We guarantee each other that the young children of any person dying whilst a member of this society, shall be equally protected, educated, and cherished with the children of the living members, and entitled, when they arrive at the age of seventeen, to all the privileges of members.

That each individual shall enjoy perfect liberty of conscience, and freedom of expression of opinion, and in religious worship.

That no spirituous liquors of any kind, tobacco, or snuff be kept in the store, or on the premises.

That if any of us should unfortunately have a dispute with any other person, we agree to abide by a decision of the majority of the members, or any person to whom the matter in question may be by them referred.

That any person wishing to marry another do sign a declaration to that effect one week previous to the marriage taking place, and that immediate preparations be made for the erection, or fitting-up of a suitable dwelling house for their reception.

That any person wishing to marry another person, not a member, shall sign a declaration according to the last rule; the person not a member shall then be balloted for, and, if rejected, both must leave the society.

That if the conduct of any member be found injurious to the well- being of the society, the committee shall explain to him or her in what respect his or her conduct shall continue to transgress the rules, such member shall be brought before a general meeting, called for the purpose, and if the complaint be substantiated, three-fourths of the members present shall have power to expel, by ballot, such refractory member.

Government

The society to be governed, and its business transacted, by a committee of nine members, to be chosen half-yearly, by ballot, by all the adult male and female members, the ballot list to contain at least four of the last committee.

The committee to meet every evening and their transactions to be regularly entered into a minute book, the recapitulation of which is to be given at the society's general meeting by the secretary.

That there be a general weekly meeting of the society; that the treasurer's accounts be audited by the committee, and read over to the society; that the `Suggestion Book' be also read at this meeting.

The colony did not use the ordinary currency of the country, but instead adopted a `Labour Note' system of payment, all workers being paid in notes according to the number of hours worked, and being able to exchange the notes in the store for all the necessities of life. The notes were printed on stiff cardboard about the size of a visiting card, and represented the equivalent of a whole, a half, a quarter, an eighth, and a sixteenth of a day's labour. There were also special notes printed in red ink representing respectively the labours of a day and a half, and two days. In his account of the colony published under the title of History of Ralahine, by Heywood & Sons, Manchester (a book we earnestly recommend to all our readers), Mr. Craig says: -- `The labour was recorded daily on a `Labour Sheet', which was exposed to view during the following week. The members could work or not at their own discretion. If no work, no record, and, therefore, no pay. Practically the arrangement was of great use. There were no idlers'. Further on he comments: --

The advantages of the labour notes were soon evident in the saving of members. They had no anxiety as to employment, wages, or the price of provisions. Each could partake of as much vegetable food as he or she could desire. The expenses of the children from infancy, for food or education, were provided for out of the common fund.''

The object should be to obtain a rule of justice, if we seek the law of righteousness. This can only be fully realised in that equality arising out of a community of property where the labour of one member is valued at the same rate as that of another member, and labour is exchanged for labour. It was not possible to attain to this condition of equality at Ralahine, but we made such arrangements as would impart a feeling of security, fairness and justice to all. The prices of provisions were fixed and uniform. A labourer was charged one shilling a week for as many vegetables and as much fruit as he chose to consume; milk was a penny per quart; beef and mutton fourpence, and pork two and one-half pence per pound. The married members occupying separate quarters were charged sixpence per week for rent, and twopence for fuel''.

In dealing with Ireland no one can afford to ignore the question of the attitude of the clergy; it is therefore interesting to quote the words of an English visitor to Ralahine, a Mr. Finch, who afterwards wrote a series of fourteen letters describing the community, and offered to lay a special report before a Select Committee of the House of Commons upon the subject. He says: --

The only religion taught by the society was the unceasing practice of promoting the happiness of every man, woman, and child to the utmost extent in their power. Hence the Bible was not used as a school-book; no sectarian opinions were taught in the schools; no public dispute about religious dogmas or party political questions took place; nor were members allowed to ridicule each other's religion; nor were there any attempts at proselytism. Perfect freedom in the performance of religious duties and religious exercises was guaranteed to all. The teaching of religion was left to ministers of religion and to the parents; but no priest or minister received anything from the funds of the society. Nevertheless, both Protestant and Catholic priests were friendly to the system as soon as they understood it, and one reason was that they found these sober, industrious persons had now a little to give them out of their earnings, whereas formerly they had been beggars''.

Mr. Craig also states that the members of the community, after it had been in operation for some time, were better Catholics than before they began. He had at first considerable difficulty in warding off the attacks of zealous Protestant proselytisers, and his firmness in doing so was one of the chief factors in winning the confidence of the people as well as their support in insisting upon the absolutely non-sectarian character of the teaching.

All disputes between the members were settled by appeals to a general meeting in which all adults of both sexes participated, and from which all judges, lawyers, and other members of the legal fraternity were rigorously excluded.

To those who fear that the institution of common property will be inimical to progress and invention, it must be reassuring to learn that this community of `ignorant' Irish peasants introduced into Ralahine the first reaping machine used in Ireland, and hailed it as a blessing at a time when the gentleman farmers of England were still gravely debating the practicability of the invention. From an address to the agricultural labourers of the County Clare, issued by the community on the introduction of this machine, we take the following passages, illustrative of the difference of effect between invention under common ownership and capitalist ownership: --

This machine of ours is one of the first machines ever given to the working classes to lighten their labour, and at the same time increase their comforts. It does not benefit any one person among us exclusively, nor throw any individual out of employment. Any kind of machinery used for shortening labour -- except used in a co- operative society like ours -- must tend to lessen wages, and to deprive working men of employment, and finally either to starve them, force them into some other employment (and then reduce wages in that also) or compel them to emigrate. Now, if the working classes would cordially and peacefully unite to adopt our system, no power or party could prevent their success''.

This was published by order of the committee, 21st August, 1833, and when we observe the date we cannot but wonder at the number of things Clare -- and the rest of Ireland -- has forgotten since.

It must not be supposed that the landlord of the estate on which Ralahine was situated had allowed his enthusiasm for Socialism to run away with his self-interest. On the contrary, when turning over his farms to the community he stipulated for the payment to himself of a very heavy rental in kind. We extract from Brotherhood, a Christian Socialist Journal published in the north of Ireland in 1891, a statement of the rental, and a very luminous summing-up of the lesson of Ralahine, by the editor, Mr. Bruce Wallace, long a hard and unselfish worker for the cause of Socialism in Ireland: --

The Association was bound to deliver annually, either at Ralahine, Bunratty, Clare, or Limerick, as the landlord might require, free of expense --

Wheat

320 brls.

Barley

240 brls.

Oats

50 brls.

Butter

10 cwt.

Pork

30 cwt.

Beef

70 cwt.

 

At the prices then prevailing, this amount of produce would be equivalent to about, 900, 700 of rent for the use of natural forces and opportunities, and 200 of interest upon capital. It was thus a pretty stiff tribute that these poor Irish toilers had to pay for the privilege of making a little bit of their native soil fruitful. This tribute was, of course, so much to be deducted from the means of improving their sunken condition. In any future efforts that may be made to profit by the example of Ralahine and to apply again the principles of co- operation in farming, there ought to be the utmost care taken to reduce to a minin um the tribute payable to non-workers, and if possible to get rid of it altogether. If, despite this heavy burden of having to produce a luxurious maintenance for loungers, the condition of the toilers at Ralahine, as we shall see, was marvellously raised by the introduction of the co-operative principle amongst them, how much more satisfactorily would it have been raised had they been free of that depressing dead weight?

Such is the lesson of Ralahine. Had all the land and buildings belonged to the people, had all other estates in Ireland been conducted on the same principles, and the industries of the country also so organised, had each of them appointed delegates to confer on the business of the country at some common centre as Dublin, the framework and basis of a free Ireland would have been realised. And when Ireland does emerge into complete control of her own destinies she must seek the happiness of her people in the extension on a national basis of the social arrangements of Ralahine, or else be but another social purgatory for her poor -- a purgatory where the pangs of the sufferers will be heightened by remembering the delusive promises of political reformers.

In the most crime-ridden county in Ireland this partial experiment in Socialism abolished crime; where the fiercest fight for religious domination had been fought it brought the mildest tolerance; where drunkenness had fed fuel to the darkest passions it established sobriety and gentleness; where poverty and destitution had engendered brutality, midnight marauding, and a contempt for all social bonds, it enthroned security, peace and reverence for justice, and it did this solely by virtue of the influence of the new social conception attendant upon the institution of common property bringing a common interest to all. Where such changes came in the bud, what might we not expect from the flower? If a partial experiment in Socialism, with all the drawbacks of an experiment, will achieve such magnificent results what could we not rightfully look for were all Ireland, all the world, so organised on the basis of common property, and exploitation and mastership forever abolished ?

The downfall of the Association came as a result of the iniquitous land laws of Great Britain refusing to recognise the right of such a community to hold a lease or to act as tenants. The landlord, Mr. Vandeleur, lost his fortune in a gambling transaction in Dublin, and fled in disgrace, unable to pay his debts. The persons who took over the estate under bankruptcy proceedings refused to recognise the community, insisted upon treating its members as common labourers on the estate, seized upon the buildings and grounds and broke up the Association.

So Ralahine ended. But in the rejuvenated Ireland of the future the achievement of those simple peasants will be dwelt upon with admiration as a great and important landmark in the march of the human race towards its complete social emancipation. Ralahine was an Irish point of interrogation erected amidst the wildernesses of capitalist thought and feudal practice, challenging both in vain for an answer. Other smaller communities were also established in Ireland during the same period. A Lord Wallscourt established a somewhat similar community on his estate in County Galway; The Quarterly Review of November, 1819, states that there was then a small community existent nine miles outside Dublin, which held thirty acres, supported a priest and a school of 300 children, had erected buildings, made and sold jaunting cars, and comprised butchers, carpenters and wheelwrights; the Quakers of Dublin established a Co-operative Woollen Factory, which flourished until it was destroyed by litigation set on foot by dissatisfied members who had been won over to the side of rival capitalists, and a communal home was established and long maintained in Dublin by members of the same religious sect, but without any other motive than that of helping forward the march of social amelioration. We understand that the extensive store of Messrs. Ganly & Sons on Usher's Quay in Dublin was the home of this community, who lived, worked and enjoyed themselves in the spacious halls, and slept in the smaller rooms of what is now the property of a capitalist auctioneer.

 

 

Continued...

 

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