Ireland's Revenge (1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 13 March 1855


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First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 127, March 16, 1855
First published in English in Marx, Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, Moscow, 1971.
Marked with the sign x
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.78-80), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980

London, March 13. Ireland has revenged herself upon England, socially—by bestowing an Irish quarter on every English industrial maritime or commercial town of any size, and politically—by presenting the English Parliament with an "Irish Brigade"[1]. In 1833, Daniel O'Connell decried the Whigs as "base, bloody and brutal". In 1835, he became the most efficient tool of the Whigs; although the English majority was opposed to the Melbourne Administration, it remained in office from April 1835 to August 1841 because of the support it received from O'Connell and his Irish Brigade. What transformed the O'Connell of 1833 into the O'Connell of 1835? It was an agreement, known as the Lichfield-House Contract, according to which the Whig Cabinet granted government patronage in Ireland to O'Connell and O'Connell promised the Whig Cabinet the votes of the Irish Brigade in Parliament[2]. "King Dan's" Repeal[3] agitation[4] began immediately the Whigs were overthrown, but as soon as the Tories were defeated "King[5] Dan" sank again to the level of a common advocate. The influence of the Irish Brigade by no means came to an end with O'Connell's death. On the contrary, it became evident that this influence did not depend on the talent of one person, but was a result of the general state of affairs. The Tories and Whigs, the big traditional parties in the English Parliament, were more or less equally balanced. It is thus not surprising that the new, numerically small factions, the Manchester School[6] and the Irish Brigade, which took their seats in the reformed Parliament, should play a decisive role and be able to turn the scale. Hence the importance of the "Irish quarter" in the English Parliament. After O'Connell left the scene it was no longer possible to stir the Irish masses with the "Repeal" slogan. The "Catholic" problem[7], too, could be used only occasionally. Since the Catholic Emancipation it could no longer serve as a permanent propaganda theme. Thus the Irish politicians were compelled to do what O'Connell had always avoided and refused to do, that is, to explore the real cause of the Irish malady and to make landed property relations and their reform the election slogan, that is to say a slogan that would help them to get into the House of Commons. But having taken their seats in the House, they used the rights of the tenants, etc.—just as formerly the Repeal—as a means to conclude a new Lichfield-House Contract.

The Irish Brigade had overthrown the Derby ministry and had obtained a seat, even though a minor one, in the coalition government. How did it use its position? It helped the coalition to burke measures designed to reform landed ownership in Ireland. The Tories themselves, having taken the patriotism of the Irish Brigade for granted, had decided to propose these measures in order to gain the support of the Irish M.P.s. Palmerston, who is an Irishman by birth and knows his "Irish quarter", has renewed the Lichfield-House Contract of 1835 and has broadened its scope. He has appointed Keogh, the chief of the Brigade, Attorney-General[8] of Ireland, Fitzgerald, also a liberal Catholic M P. for Ireland, has been made Solicitor-General, and a third member of the Brigade[9] has become legal counsel to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so that the judicial general staff of the Irish government is now composed entirely of Catholics and Irishmen. Monsell, the Clerk of Ordnance in the coalition government, has been reappointed by Palmerston after some hesitation, although—as Muntz, deputy for Birmingham and an arms manufacturer, rightly observed—Monsell cannot distinguish a musket from a needle-gun. Palmerston has advised the lieutenants of the counties always to give preference to the protégés of Irish priests close to the Irish Brigade when nominating colonels and other high-ranking officers in the Irish militia. The fact that Sergeant Shee has gone over to the government side, and also that the Catholic Bishop of Athlone has pushed through the re-election of Keogh and that moreover the Catholic clergy has promoted the re-election of Fitzgerald shows that Palmerston's policy is already producing an effect. Wherever the lower ranks of the Catholic clergy have taken their "Irish patriotism" seriously and have stood up to those members of the Irish Brigade who deserted to the government, they have been rebuked by their bishops who are well aware of the diplomatic secret.

A protestant Tory newspaper[10] exclaims in distress: "It is perfectly understood between Lord Palmerston [...] and [...] the Irish priests, that if Lord Palmerston hands over Ireland to the priests, the priests will return members who will hand over England to Lord Palmerston".

The Whigs use the Irish Brigade to dominate the British Parliament and they toss posts and salaries to the Brigade; the Catholic clergy permits one side to buy and the other to sell on condition that both sides acknowledge the power of the clergy and help to extend and strengthen it. It is, however, a very remarkable phenomenon that in the same, measure as the Irish influence in the political sphere grows in England, the Celtic influence in the social sphere decreases in Ireland. Both the "Irish quarter" in Parliament and the Irish clergy seem to be equally unaware of the fact that behind their back the Irish society is being radically transformed by an Anglo-Saxon revolution. In the course of this revolution the Irish agricultural system is being replaced by the English system, the system of small tenures by big tenures, and the modern capitalist is taking the place of the old landowner.

The chief factors which prepared the ground for this transformation are: 1847, the year of famine, which killed nearly one million Irishmen; emigration to America and Australia, which removed another million from the land and still carries off thousands; the unsuccessful insurrection of 1848, which finally destroyed Ireland's faith in herself; and lastly the Act of Parliament which exposed the estates of the debt-ridden old Irish aristocrats to the hammer of the auctioneer or bailiff, thus driving them from the land just as starvation swept away their small tenants, subtenants and cottagers.[11]

  1. The Irish Brigade was the name given to the Irish faction in the British Parliament from the 1830s to 1850s. Up to 1847, the Irish Brigade was led by Daniel O'Connell. As neither the Tories nor the Whigs had a decisive majority the Brigade was able to tip the balance in Parliament and sometimes even decide the fate of the government.In the early fifties, a number of MPs belonging to this faction formed an alliance with the radical Irish Tenant-Right League and set up what they called an Independent Opposition in the House of Commons. However, the leaders of the Irish Brigade soon made a deal with the British ruling circles, securing some secondary posts in Aberdeen's Coalition Government and refusing to support the League's demands. This demoralised the Independent Opposition and ultimately led to its collapse (1859).
  2. A reference to the agreement concluded in February 1835 by Daniel O'Connell, leader of the liberal wing of the Irish national movement, with the leaders of the Whig party. The negotiations had been held in the house of Lord Lichfield in London. Under the agreement, Irish liberals were to get certain administrative posts. O'Connell, for his part, promised to call off the mass campaign for the repeal of the Anglo-Irish Union of 1801 which abolished the autonomy of the Irish Parliament, and to support the Whigs in the British Parliament.
  3. Marx uses the English word "Repeal" here and below.—Ed.
  4. The repeal of the Anglo-Irish Union of 1801. In the 1820s repeal became the most popular slogan in Ireland. In 1840 the Repeal Association was set up. Its leader, Daniel O'Connell, sought a compromise with the British ruling circles. In January 1847 a group of radicals broke away from the Association and formed the Irish Confederation. Its left, revolutionary wing led the national liberation movement and became the target of severe reprisals in 1848. Eventually, the Repeal Association broke up completely.
  5. Marx uses the English word here.—Ed.
  6. The Manchester School—a trend in political economy reflecting the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. It favoured free trade and non-interference by the state in the economy. The Free Traders' stronghold was Manchester, where the movement was led by Cobden and Bright, two textile manufacturers who founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. In the 1840s and 1850s the Free Traders were an independent political group which later formed the Left wing of the Liberal Party.
  7. Emancipation of the Catholics—in 1829 the British Parliament, under pressure of a mass movement in Ireland, lifted some of the restrictions curtailing the political rights of the Catholic population. Catholics were granted the right to be elected to Parliament and hold certain government posts. Simultaneously the property qualification for electors was increased fivefold. With the aid of this manoeuvre the British ruling classes hoped to win over to their side the upper crust of the Irish bourgeoisie and Catholic landowners and thus split the Irish national movement.
  8. Here and below Marx gives the titles in English: Attorney-General, Solicitor-General, Lord Lieutenant, Clerk of Ordnance, Sergeant.—Ed.
  9. G. W. F. Howard.—Ed.
  10. The Morning Herald, No. 22378, March 13, 1855.—Ed.
  11. Between 1845 and 1847 potato blight was the occasion of widespread famine in Ireland. The poverty of the small tenants ruthlessly exploited by the big landowners made the mass of the population almost entirely dependent on a diet of potatoes grown on their own little patches. Meanwhile the British Government not only withheld any effective form of relief, but exported large quantities of grain and other agricultural products from Ireland to England. About one million people starved to death, and the wave of emigration caused by the famine swept away another million. Large areas of Ireland were depopulated. The abandoned land was turned by English and Irish landlords into pasture.In 1848 a popular national liberation uprising was being prepared in Ireland by the revolutionary wing of the Irish Confederation (Mitchel, Lalor, Reilly and others). In May 1848 the British authorities took severe reprisals against the movement, leaving it virtually leaderless. The vacillating Confederation leaders (Smith O'Brien and others) missed the right moment for action. Instead of a country-wide insurrection, isolated and often unprepared uprisings occurred in a number of towns and agricultural areas in late July 1848, which were quickly put down by troops. In 1849 Parliament passed the Encumbered Estates Act for Ireland, which was supplemented by a series of other Acts in 1852 and 1853. The 1849 Act provided for the sale of mortgaged estates by auction if their owners were proved to be insolvent. As a result, the lands of many ruined landlords passed into the hands of usurers, middlemen and rich tenants.