by Terry Dunne
On Sunday the 5th of October 1873 Maryborough hosted a rally spoken at by controversy provoking Thomas Mooney. Mooney wrote in the U.S.-based Irish World newspaper under the appropriate pen-name ‘Transatlantic’, appropriate as he divided his time between London, Dublin and San Francisco. The paper was then the largest selling publication catering to an Irish-American audience and would become known for its support for the ‘skirmishing’ wing of the Fenian movement, that is the advocates of bomb and bullet in small doses as opposed to patient preparation for putsch. Mooney was born in the fateful year 1798 and had written for the Young Ireland linked Nation in the 1840s, before emigrating to the United States.
The Irish World was founded by Patrick Ford, who learned his trade and the foundations of his politics with anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, later, after an interval of war service in Union blue, he edited Reconstruction-era South Carolina Leader, aimed at the newly freed people of the South in those brief years between the end of the Civil War and the start of Jim Crow. The Irish World’s global perspective was perhaps best epitomised by a volume of essays by Ford with the excellent title The Criminal History of the British Empire, where he addressed, amongst other things, famine in India.
Mooney’s visit to Maryborough was under the banner of the new Irish Agricultural Labourers’ Union, a body which had been founded less than two months before at a conference in the Egmont Arms hotel, Kanturk, on the 14th and 15th of August 1873. The Queen’s County was an outlier in being represented at this otherwise Munster-dominated meeting. The foundation of the new organisation was preceded by a speaking tour by two delegates of the England-based National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (N.A.L.U.), William Gardner, an ex-soldier who had served in Ireland and who hailed from the union’s Warwickshire heartland, and Peter O’Leary, a Clonakilty man who lived in London. Likewise, the Queen’s County appears to have been the sole Leinster presence on their itinerary in the summer of 1873. O’Leary and Gardner had linked in with Kanturk-based P.F. Johnson, a leading light in local agitations, particularly in the amnesty call for imprisoned Fenians. Johnson had already, independently of N.A.L.U., formed a labourers’ club in his north Cork town.
The two strands that fed into the leadership of this new flurry of organising, the influence of N.A.L.U., and the networks of Irish nationalists, came undone. Joseph Arch, the Primitive Methodist preacher who led N.A.L.U., was unwilling to break with the Liberal Party which at this stage did not support Home Rule. For their part local Irish nationalists tended to reduce unionisation into a mere subordinated adjunct of the campaign for self-government. N.A.U.L. had a particular reason for having an interest in Ireland – the year previous Irish migrants had been recruited to break a major strike in Warwickshire and migratory Irish farm labourers were a common feature of rural England, although their numbers were not what they had once been. As the ‘Address from the English National Labourers’ Union to the same class of workmen in Ireland’ put it: “We have seen you thrown on the shores of England to wander about without a place to lay your head, enduring the greatest hardships and privations, and doing the most laborious work at the lowest rate of wages, simply because you were strangers.”
At Maryborough on the 5th of October 1873 Thomas Mooney advocated a radical re-distribution of farmland – with the resource to be allotted according to size of family, along with the necessity of arming and the desirability of republican government. He met condemnation from the pulpit and the press. This was the era when a bishop declared – “eternity is not long enough, nor hell hot enough to punish such miscreants”.
Mooney’s visit was part of a phase known as labour nationalism, the development of often short-lived rural and general labour unions linked to the Home Rule movement, most notably the Land and Labour Association of the early 1900s. Arguably this contributed to the growth of a much socially broader and more rural constituency for Irish nationalism. As such it was an essential precursor to what was to unfold in the revolutionary years between 1911 and 1923. The role of Mooney and The Irish World underlines for us the extent to which Irish nationalism was a diasporic phenomenon, shaped in migrant communities in the seething metropolises of New England and the Midwest as beside the cottage fireside backhome.
By and large labour nationalist organisations were very much house-trained cats, certainly by comparison with some of the wildcats associated with the Transport Union circa 1911 to 1923. They also often had very brief life-spans and were overshadowed by the much more prominent mobilisation of tenant-farmers. That said although the Irish Agricultural Labourers’ Union did not outlive the decade similar organising efforts continued on in a more intermittent and local basis over subsequent decades – for instance in the mid-1880s there was a Mountrath Labourers’ and Artisans’ League.
The Irishman, 10 May 1873.
Leinster Express, 11 October 1873.
Pamela L. R. Horn, ‘The National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in Ireland, 1873-9’, Irish Historical Studies 17 (1971), pp. 340-352.
Fintan Lane, ‘P. F. Johnson, nationalism, and Irish rural labourers, 1869–82’, Irish Historical Studies 33 (2002), pp. 191–208.
Niall Whelehan, ‘Skirmishing, The Irish World, and Empire, 1876–86’, Éire-Ireland 42: 1-2 (2007), pp. 180-200.
J. W. H. Carter, Land, Crime and Politics in Queen’s County, 1882-1916 (Portlaoise, 2013).
Dictionary of Irish Biography entries for Thomas Mooney and Patrick Ford: