About the Irish question (1882)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 13 July 1882


Published in Der Sozialdemokrat, No. 29, July 13, 1882
Printed according to the text of the newspaper
Translated from the German

There are two trends in the Irish movement. The first, the earliest one, is the agrarian trend, which has gradually developed from the brigandage supported by the peasants and organized by the clan chiefs dispossessed by the English and the major Catholic landowners (in the 17th century these brigands were called Tories, and it is from them that the present-day Tories take their name) into a spontaneous peasant resistance in the districts and provinces against the uninvited English landlords. The names—Ribbonmen, Whiteboys, Captain Rock, Captain Moonlight, etc. —have changed, but the form of resistance—the shooting not only of the more obnoxious landlords and their agents (collectors), but also of peasants who occupy farms from which others have been forcibly evicted, boycotts, threatening letters, night raids, etc.—all this is as old as the contemporary English land tenure in Ireland; that is, it began ait the latest at the close of the 17th century. This form of resistance is not to be suppressed, force can do little against it, and it will disappear when its causes disappear. But by its nature it is local and isolated and can never become a general form of political struggle.

The liberal national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie, which, as in the case in all agrarian countries with declining townships (Denmark, for example), has its natural leaders in the lawyers, came to the fore soon after the Union (1800).[1] This also stands in need of peasant support, and has therefore had to search for slogans that would appeal to the peasants. Thus, O’Connell found one first in Catholic emancipation and later in the repeal of the Union. Lately this trend has, in view of the landlords’ infamies, been compelled to choose a different path. While the Land League pursues more revolutionary (and here feasible) aims in the social sphere: the total removal of the uninvited landlords, it acts fairly timidly in the political sphere and only demands home rule, i.e., a local Irish parliament alongside and under the general all-British Parliament. This too is certainly attainable in a constitutional manner. The frightened landlords are already clamouring (and even the Tories propose it) for the earliest redemption of peasant land in order to save what can still be saved. On the other hand, Gladstone says that greater self-government for Ireland is quite admissible.

After the American Civil War, Fenianism wedged itself in between these two trends. Hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers and officers who took part in that war did so with the secret intent of building up an army to liberate Ireland. The differences between America and Britain after the war became the principal motive lever of the Fenians. If it had come to a war, Ireland would in a few months have become a member of the United States or at least a republic under its protectorate. The sum which England so readily undertook and paid in the Alabama case by decision of the Geneva arbitration was its price for buying off the American intervention in Ireland.

That was the moment when the chief danger was removed. The police sufficed to settle with the Fenians. As in every conspiracy it was the inevitable betrayal that lent a hand in this, and yet it was only the leaders who betrayed and then became direct spies and false witnesses. The leaders who escaped to America dabbled there in emigrant revolution and mostly went to seed, like O’Donovan Rossa. Whoever has witnessed the European emigration of 1849-52 will find all this familiar, with the sole difference, of course, that It all went on in a typically American excessive degree.

By now many of the Fenians have doubtlessly returned and revived their old armed organization. They make up an important element in the movement and compel the Liberals to more resolute action. But aside from this, they can achieve nothing save frightening John Bull. The latter is admittedly weakening somewhat in the outskirts of his Empire, but here, close to his own home, he is still able to suppress any Irish revolt. Firstly, there are in Ireland 14,000 men of the constabulary, the gendarmery, armed with rifles and bayonets and drilled militarily, and then nearly 30,000 troops of the line, which can easily be reinforced with just as many more and with the English militia. Then there is the navy. And in quelling revolts John Bull is known for his unmatched brutality. An Irish revolt has not the slightest hope of success unless there is a war or danger of a war externally; and just two powers might become dangerous: France and, still more so, the United States. Yet France is out of the question. And in America the parties are playing coy with the Irish votes, making many promises and keeping none. They would not think of getting involved in a war over Ireland. What is more, they stand to profit by such conditions in Ireland as would cause an intensive Irish migration to America. And it is only natural that a country which is to become the most populated, the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world within 20 years, has no particular wish to involve itself in adventures that might, and inevitably would, impede its gigantic internal growth. In 20 years it will speak an entirely different language.

But if there were a danger of war with America the English would readily grant Ireland all that it demands, short of complete independence, which is in no case desirable in view of its geographic location.

For this reason the Irish have only the constitutional way open to them of gradually winning one position after another; in this, however, the mysterious background of Fenian armed conspiracy may remain a very effective element. But the Fenians themselves are being drawn increasingly to a type of Bakuninism; the assassination of Burke and Cavendish[2] could have pursued the sole aim of thwarting the compromise between the Land League and Gladstone. Yet this compromise would have been the best possible way out for Ireland in the present circumstances. The landlords are driving tenants off the land by the tens of thousands for being in arrears with their rent, sometimes even with military assistance. To curb this systematic depopulation of Ireland (the dispossessed must either starve or emigrate to America) is the cardinal demand of the day. Gladstone is prepared to introduce a bill under which the arrears would be settled much as the redemption of feudal imposts was in Austria in 1848: one third by the peasant, another third by the government, with the remainder lost by the landlord. That is the proposal of the Land League. In this light the “heroic deed” in Phoenix Park appears as a purely Bakuninist, boastful and senseless “propagande par le fait” (propaganda by deed), if not as crass foolishness. If it did not have the same consequences as the similar foolishness of Hodel and Nobiling, this is merely due to the fact that Ireland is not part of Prussia. It should be left to the Bakuninists and revolutionary phrase-mongers to place these childish things on the same footing as the assassination of Alexander II and to threaten with an “Irish revolution” that does not come.

There is another thing to be borne in mind about Ireland: never praise any Irish “politician” unconditionally, never declare yourself at one with him, until he is dead. Their Celtic credulity and customary exploitation of peasants (all “educated” classes, and particularly the juristic profession, live by it in Ireland) make the professional Irish politicians an easy prey to corruption. O’Connell let the peasants pay him a full £30,000 annually for his agitation.

When the Union was established, which England is known to have bought at the cost of a million pounds in bribes, one of the bribed was rebuked: ‘‘You have sold your fatherland,” to which he replied with a laugh: “And damned glad I was that I had a fatherland to sell.”

  1. In 1800, British Parliament approved the Union Act under which Ireland was forcibly incorporated in Britain and the Irish Parliament was dissolved. The Union was made effective as of January 1, 1801.
  2. In May 1882, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Irish revolutionary terrorists assassinated the State Secretary for India, Cavendish, and his assistant, Burke.