From Ribbons to Reform
Alexander O’Fhailghigh on the politics of the Irish working class in early 19th century Scotland.
The impact of mass population movements across the North Channel which separates Ireland and Scotland has left their mark on the history of both countries for millennia. One of the less well known episodes is the role that Irish emigrants played in the development of radical working class politics in the first half of the 19th century in Scotland.
The majority of Irish emigrants to Scotland during the early 19th century came from South Ulster. Following the 1798 rebellion, the Irish economy had experienced a boom. High agricultural prices during the Napoleonic wars had rewarded labour-intensive tillage rather than pasture farming, providing regular employment to labourers and small tenants in Ulster. With the end of the wars, inflated grain prices fell by as much as 50%, landlords began to shift from tillage to grazing, raising rents, evicting tenants and enclosing common land.
The collapse of the agricultural economy was accompanied by a drastic decline in rural- based domestic industry. In the grip of the economic depression after 1815, the woollen and cotton industries collapsed, and the linen industry was transformed. Mass emigration followed, with over one million people migrating from north central Ireland before 1845, mainly to Scotland, elsewhere in Britain, the US and Canada. Rural communities didn’t simply emigrate but also sought to redress their grievances through the formation of Ribbon societies; so-called because of the green ribbons sometimes wore by members.
Following in the footsteps of the Whiteboy movements of the 18th century, Ribbon societies became widespread throughout North-Central Ireland. Composed almost exclusively of Catholics, they were organised on a parish basis, with members using signs and passwords to help hide their activities from the authorities. The Ribbonmen’s goals were to prevent or revenge evictions, prepare for a millenarian confrontation with the Protestant Ascendancy and in general to defend the rights of labourers and small tenants.
The Ribbon societies were described by the early 19th century British administrator George Cornewall Lewis as “vast trades union for the protection of the Irish peasantry”. Ribbon societies also followed the Irish emigrants to Scotland and Northern England. In Scotland the Ribbon Societies provided protection for Irish navvies during the construction of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Canal and the railways during the 1810s and 1820s, and were involved in the 1830s in violent conflict with members of another organisation which now spanned the North Channel – the loyalist Orange Order – which had adherents among Protestant Irish emigrants and local Scots.
The Irish in Scotland quickly became a notable force in Scottish radical movements. Scottish workers (in particular handloom weavers) had been similarly affected by the economic depression, and between 1816-1820, a powerful radical movement grew up. Following the killing of 15 radical protesters by soldiers and the injuring of hundreds more in the Peterloo Massacre near Manchester in August 1819, demonstrations and military-style drilling swept the central belt of Scotland. This radical wave was led in many cases by handloom weavers whom, in the Glasgow area 30% were of Irish birth.
In Ayrshire, the Commander of the county’s yeomanry, Colonel Alexander Boswell, noted how widespread the “poison” of radicalism had spread. He had to deal with “a very great influx of Irishmen, who are bad subjects and not easily controlled”. In Glasgow, the Lord Provost stated: “The very worst and most daring of our population are in this suburb- the Calton and round about it. They are almost all Irish weavers. Their threatenings have been vicious…”
During the week of strikes and unrests of April 1820 which became known as the Radical War, Calton was one of three areas in Glasgow which were surrounded by soldiers. Following the repression of the Radical War, a new movement emerged, with the organisation of the Union of Cotton spinners. The Irish were dominant in this union, which was a powerful force in Scottish industrial politics during the 1820s and 1830s.
George Miller, a Glasgow employer, in his evidence to the Report on the State of the Irish poor (1834), stated: “It is believed…that the union could never have acquired that degree of consistency that it now possesses had it not been for the daring character of the Irish.” The Report declared that “In Glasgow and in its neighbourhood, the formidable union of the cotton spinners was first organised by the Irish, who… were at first almost exclusively employed in the cotton factories of Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire.”
The group was represented on the Glasgow Traders Committee during the 1820s and 1830s and effectively led the movement for the reform of factory conditions. It led two notable strikes in 1824 and 1837, and funded the working class newspaper, The Liberator. The Cotton Spinners and unaffiliated Irish were also present in the great Glasgow processions for the Reform Bills in 1831 and 1832. So noteworthy was their involvement that it earned the attention of Father Andrew Scott. In March 1833 he informed the Vatican that in Scotland the Irish: “Have naturally keen dispositions and passions, and since the famous reform bill was mooted, they have become keen politicians.”
With the end of the 1830s came the rise of the Chartist movement, the first mass movement of the British working class that demanded sweeping political reform, its central demand being a vote for every man, not just property owners. While the Chartist movement had many Irish leaders, there was little evidence of mass support amongst the Irish community. This was due to the personal and ideological acrimony between Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, and the middle class champion of Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell. In Feargus O’Connor, Daniel O’Connell faced a serious threat to his overwhelming power within the Irish community. Therefore he advised the Irish in Britain to remain aloof from the Chartists and join his Repeal Movement. The conflict frequently displayed itself in Glasgow, in childish mudslinging between the Chartists and Repealers.
There was very little real difference between these movements as both sought implementation of the Charter and Repeal of the Union. Indeed Catholic Irish Labourers were to the forefront of those attending the reform procession in Glasgow which launched the Charter campaign in May 1838. It seems likely that many of the Irish in Scotland were often involved in both, as was the case for a young Irish tailor Robert Crowe: “Before I reached my nineteenth year (1843) my spare time was divided between… the repeal movement under Daniel O’Connell, and the Chartist or English movement under Feargus O’Connor.” But no official alliance could ever happen while O’Connell held unassailable power.
By 1848, given the failure of the Charter petition, death of O’Connell and the hope present in the examples of European armed revolutions, the situation had developed to such an extent as to make an alliance possible. In March, riots erupted in Glasgow during a period of high unemployment. A meeting on Glasgow Green was held on the morning of Monday 6th March. The principal speaker was “a man…with a strong Irish accent” who said “that if they should not get immediate relief that they were to take it.” After the meeting broke up the crowd raided a number of gunshops. Amid the commotion it was claimed that cries of ‘Bread or Revolution’ and of ‘Vive La Republique’ were heard. The next day the army and police repeatedly attacked the protestors. Workers from the local mills soon came out to support them. 36 Irishmen were arrested for their part in the riots.
In Edinburgh the Irish Repealers achieved an alliance with the Chartists, became involved in a small riot and proposed forming a Chartist National Guard. In July the Young Ireland allied Irish Confederates under D’Arcy McGee mustered the support of 400 men and planned to “seize two or three of the largest merchant steamers in the Clyde” and carry the small army to Mayo. “It would,” McGee wrote, “be like hitting the enemy in the back of the head.” One Confederate orator in 1848 summed up their faith in the alliance: “Let the Chartists of England and Irish Repealers unite in one grand body, and all the powers of England, and foreign assistance to help them, could make no impression upon the phalanx they would present”.
The Irish and Chartists appear to have tentatively planned a coordinated revolutionary activity for 15th or 16th August, centred in Manchester. The authorities intervened before it could be put into action, arresting 15 Chartists leaders, including eight Irish men. By this point the Young Irelander Rebellion had failed and the Chartist Movement faded with a whimper following mass arrests. These decades of radicalism was followed by a period of extraordinary political and social conservatism. A sudden conversion of the Irish community to isolationist Catholicism and constitutional nationalism came about due to a period of trauma inflicted against the community in a short number of years. The events of 1848 caused huge anti-Irish hysteria, with racial and sectarian tensions only further inflamed by the flood of Famine refugees.
The Irish community in Scotland responded by retreating into a self- enclosed world with the paternal Catholic Church providing much of its social needs. The Irish in Scotland went from being well-respected members of the Radical working class, to being feared outsiders that hid away in their increasingly ghettoised communities. Over the next 30 years the Irish in Scotland would be preoccupied by the Nationalist cause, not regaining its reputation for radicalism until the rise of the Labour Movement in the late nineteenth century.