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Young Ireland

Young Ireland and the 1848 Rebellion in Ireland The movement grew out of the Daniel O'Connell's campaign to repeal the 1800 Irish Act of Union with Great Britain. Since his agitation for Catholic emancipation, which in 1829 succeeded in winning the right of Catholics to sit in the United Kingdom parliament, O'Connell (1775-1847) was popularly called The Liberator. The achievement of repeal by constitutional agitation, in the face of determined opposition from the major British parties, ultimately proved impracticable. But O'Connell's apparent ability to mobilise the Irish peasantry and urban working-classes impressed many continental liberals. Even Mazzini who, enjoying English hospitality, repudiated Ireland's national destiny, admired O'Connell.

Young Ireland grew out of the weekly Nation, a brilliant repeal propagandist journal, established in 1842 by Charles Gavan Duffy (1816- 1903), an experienced young Catholic journalist, and Thomas Davis (1814-45), a Protestant graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. Davis converted O'Connell's nebulous utilitarian and patriotic rhetoric into an integrated linguistic, cultural, historical and non-denominational nationalism. Contemporary French and German literature disillusioned Davis with current utilitarianism. He particularly admired the history of Jules Michelet, Augustin Thierry, and Jean de Sismondi. Though occasionally mentioned in the Nation, Mazzini had little impact on Davis and Duffy who initially rejected the Young Ireland's tag, contrasting their brash immaturity with the proven statesmanship of O'Connell's Old Ireland.

Tension between O'Connell and the Nation group intensified after O'Connell's release from prison, following the House of Lord's quashing of a conviction for sedition in 1844. The Nation was accused of promoting an anti-Catholic secular philosophy and endangering the delicate balance of O'Connell's legal agitation by bellicose statements. The issue was complicated by O'Connell's endorsement of violence in defense of existing rights, but rejection of physical-force for securing of new privileges. The Nation group, for its part, feared that O'Connell was replacing repeal with piecemeal reform from the Whigs, in return for Irish parliamentary support. The Whigs returned to office in 1846. Succession to O'Connell's leadership also proved divisive. The Young Irelanders wanted a middle-aged Irelander, William Smith O'Brien, a Protestant MP from one of Ireland's noblest families; the Liberator preferred his son, John O'Connell.

In 1845 the repeal movement almost split over new non-denominational colleges, introduced by Sir Robert Peel's Tory government. Davis, Duffy and O'Brien approved the principle of mixed education. O'Connell and many, though not all, Catholic bishops were opposed. In 1846, after Davis's death, the movement did split, ostensibly over O'Connell's insistence on non-violence. The Young Irelanders, backed by O'Brien, accepted the current tactical constitutionalism, but refused to condemn physical-force nationalism in all times and places. In early 1847 the Young Irelanders established their own Irish Confederation as a purified alternative to the Repeal Association whose basic ideals they still shared. The dispute persisted after the Liberator's death in May 1847 and prevented an effective national response to the horrors of the potato famine which, between 1846 and 1849, effectively halved the Irish population of 8 million.

As the Irish Confederation was as pacific in tactics as John O'Connell's Repeal Association it suffered its own split in early 1848. John Mitchel, a vigorous Nation writer influenced by the recluse, James Fintan Lalor, insisted on a rent and rate strike. Rebuffed by O'Brien and Duffy, Mitchel established his rival United Irishman. The French revolution of February 1848 transformed the Irish situation and temporarily restored confederate unity. With war between Britain and France apparently inevitable, Irish repealers of all factions believed that O'Connell's dictum, England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity, would soon be realized. The confederation almost succeeded in merging, on good terms, with the Repeal Association. Smith O'Brien led a delegation to Paris. Though rebuffed by Lamartine's new government, the delegates were intoxicated by the revolutionary atmosphere in France. On their return caution was thrown to the winds. Confederate clubs, practicing drilling, mushroomed throughout the country. The Nation and the United Irishman openly promoted guerrilla warfare. Rhetoric escalated. Should insurrection begin after the harvest? Lord John Russell's Whig government bided its time. It struck in June 1848, repealing the habeas corpus act and ordering the arrest of O'Brien and other confederate leaders.

O'Brien had to choose between submission and resistance. A reluctant leader, he was persuaded to call the people of County Tipperary to arms. Opposed by most of the Catholic clergy, consistently hostile to Young Ireland and the confederation, O'Brien's rising petered out ingloriously. After a week's peregrination within Tipperary, accompanied by fluctuating bands of ill-fed and ill-armed peasants, whom he forbade to commandeer supplies, O'Brien's failure to capture a party of police barricaded in widow McCormack's house near Ballingarry marked the effective end of the revolt. Though sporadic resistance continued till late 1849, O'Brien and three leading colleagues were quickly arrested. Their death sentences were commuted to transportation to Van Diemen's Land, where they were joined by Mitchel and two other Young Ireland editors. The four later escaped to America. O'Brien, a better martyr than an insurgent leader, and his two remaining colleagues were released in 1854 and returned to Ireland in 1856. Refusing to return to parliament, O'Brien lived quietly till his death in 1864.

Though O'Brien and other Young Irelanders later admitted that their rising in July 1848 had been a mistake, several of the participants, though not O'Brien himself, later joined the new Fenian movement. 1848 has thus been incorporated into an Irish patriotic tradition of revolt leading to the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21. Socially, O'Brien, a considerable landowner, and most of the Young Irelanders were conservatives, looking to paternalist class co-operation. They failed to liaise with the anti-landlord peasant ribbon organizations. In the towns, though some of their followers were influenced by Chartism, and there was some strategic co-operation with that movement, most Young Irelanders were careful to repudiate identification. Even the most radical of their writers, James Fintan Lalor, who anticipated aspects of Henry George's single tax, was prepared to tolerate paternalist landlords. Gavan Duffy and John Mitchel epitomized the limited objectives of the movement. Duffy evading conviction in 1848 ultimately became a moderately liberal premier of the Australian colony of Victoria, finally accepting a knighthood; Mitchel, whose celebrated Jail Journal denounced Britain in the style of Thomas Carlyle, escaped to the United States and justified slavery during the Civil War. Young Ireland could repudiate the memory, but never the social conservatism of Daniel O'Connell.

Richard Davis


Gwynn, Denis, Young Ireland and 1848, University College, Cork, 1949.

Davis, Richard, The Young Ireland Movement, Dublin and Totowa, New Jersey (Gill and Macmillan & Barnes and Noble), 1987 and 1988.

Davis, Richard, William Smith O'Brien, Ireland--1848--Tasmania, Dublin, Geography Publications, 1989.

Davis, Richard (chief editor), "To Solitude Consigned": The Tasmanian Journal of William Smith O'Brien, 1849-1853, Sydney, The Crossing Press, 1995.

The William Smith O'Brien Papers, National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

The Nation, Dublin, 1842-1849.

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