Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation

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Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation

The Young Ireland movement had its origins in a discussion that took place in Dublin's Phoenix Park in the autumn of 1841 between three young nationalists: Thomas Davis (1814–1845), John Blake Dillon (1816–1866), and Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903). The three decided to establish a weekly newspaper, with Duffy as editor and proprietor, that would offer a fresh approach to Irish nationalism. They had in mind a publication that was more outspoken but less sectarian than other nationalist papers and that had a decided cultural emphasis. The result was the Nation, whose first edition on 15 October 1842 proclaimed its objective to be the creation of a nationality

which will not only raise our people from their poverty by securing to them the blessings of a domestic legislation to inflame and purify them with a lofty and heroic love of country, . . . a nationality which will be come to be stamped upon our manners, our literature, and our deeds—a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter, Mile-sian and Cromwellian. (Nation, 15 October 1842, p. 1).

The paper was an unqualified success: within a year it was selling 10,000 copies per week, a figure that suggested an actual readership of at least 100,000. Besides providing news of national and international events, it published articles by Davis and others on Irish history, literature, language, and art, as well as poetry and ballads from the pens of James Clarence Mangan, Jane Francesca Elgee (also known as "Speranza"), and scores of other talented writers. Davis and his colleagues believed that the key to Ireland's regeneration was an educated public, so to this end they promoted the establishment of "repeal reading rooms" in towns and villages around the country. They also sponsored the publication of a series of monthly volumes on Irish themes called "The Library of Ireland" and a compilation of patriotic poetry (The Spirit of the Nation) that appeared in countless editions.

Differences with Daniel O'Connell

The Young Irelanders—the nickname was meant to reflect their affinity with Young Germany, Young England, and similar groups of the time—formed an articulate and vociferous wing of the repeal movement whose views increasingly set them apart from the O'Connellite leadership. The brand of cultural nationalism that they expressed was attuned to that of their contemporaries in other parts of Europe. It emphasized the uniqueness of the Irish "race" and its cultural heritage, especially its language; it condemned England as the source of Ireland's ills ("Ireland must be unsaxonised before it can be pure and strong," wrote Davis); it resisted what it saw as a growing identification between Catholicism and the nationalist movement; it stressed collectivism and the needs of society rather than the individual; it advocated total separatism, what it called "simple repeal," and it condemned any political or constitutional arrangement that retained British control over Ireland. Ideas such as these were at odds with those of Daniel O'Connell, whose opinions had been formed during an earlier era and shaped in the give-and-take of everyday politics.

Differences between the Young Irelanders and O'Connell became pronounced in 1844 and 1845 as the British government commenced a program of "killing repeal with kindness" through a series of conciliatory measures. The most controversial of these was the Queen's Colleges Bill that placed restrictions on the teaching of religion and theology in the three colleges it established at Belfast, Cork, and Galway. O'Connell and most of the Catholic bishops condemned the measure for creating "godless" institutions, but Young Irelanders applauded it for promoting secular and mixed education, a feature that they hoped would encourage a more pluralistic nationality. Davis and O'Connell clashed bitterly over the measure at a famous meeting of the Repeal Association on 26 May 1845 and though they were reconciled afterward, their debate symbolized the widening gulf between the two versions of nationalism that the men represented.

Despite his outspokenness, Davis was a moderating force within the Young Ireland movement. His unexpected death in September 1845 allowed other, more militant voices to be heard. Among them was John Mitchel, who succeeded Davis as chief editorial writer for the Nation. An article that he contributed in November 1845 described how railways might be sabotaged and troops ambushed. The piece immediately brought O'Connell's wrath down upon the paper, which published a retraction of sorts, but the whole affair was a foretaste of what was to come.

The militancy of Mitchel and others needs to be seen against the backdrop of the Great Famine, which began at precisely this time and which colored many subsequent actions of the Young Irelanders. It seemed to many of them that the desperate conditions of the Great Famine called for desperate remedies and that the current crisis made the need for repeal more pressing than ever. They were openly critical of O'Connell for making overtures to the Whig party in hopes of gaining temporary concessions for Ireland on such matters as lower grain duties. This suggested to them that the older man was becoming "soft" on the issue of repeal. O'Connell responded in July 1846 by calling upon the members of the Repeal Association to adopt a resolution renouncing violence as a means of obtaining self-government for Ireland. This resulted in a series of lengthy debates that saw the Young Ireland leadership—including Mitchel, Duffy, the Protestant landowner and MP William Smith O'Brien, and a fiery young orator named Thomas Francis Meagher—walk out of the meeting and, in effect, secede from the Association.

The Irish Confederation and Rebellion

On 13 January 1847 the Young Irelanders formed a separate organization called the Irish Confederation which they hoped would become a less centralized and more democratic body than the Repeal Association. To this end they established clubs in Dublin and a number of provincial towns that were intended to give their members a sense of direct participation in national affairs. The Confederate Clubs sponsored lectures on a range of topics, created their own libraries and reading rooms, held formal classes and debates on various subjects, and provided social outlets for young men of various backgrounds. By the end of 1847 the clubs had attracted only a few thousand members. This changed in February 1848 when news arrived of the revolution that had broken out in Paris. During the next five months the number of clubs grew from around 30 to 225 and total membership rose to more than 40,000, most of it concentrated in Dublin and Munster.

Meanwhile, a split developed within the movement between Mitchel and his supporters, who advocated a French-style uprising, and those who, like Smith O'Brien and Duffy, favored a more moderate approach. The government arrested and convicted Mitchel in late May on a charge of treason-felony and sentenced him to transportation (exile) to Tasmania. With this, the other Young Ireland leaders and the clubs began to plan for an armed rising toward the end of the year, though they had few arms, little military experience, and no clear notion of what they hoped to achieve. The government forced their hand in late July by suspending habeas corpus, after which Smith O'Brien, Meagher, and a few others were arrested following a confused attempt at rebellion in south Tipperary.

The more prominent Young Irelanders suffered transportation or fled abroad, many of them going on to notable careers in politics, the law, and journalism in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere. The movement that they represented, though short-lived, had a profound impact upon Irish nationalists of the early twentieth century such as Arthur Griffith and Patrick Pearse, for it seemed to combine an exhilarating vision of Irishness and the Irish nation with heroic action.

SEE ALSO Balladry in English; Davis, Thomas; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Great Famine; Mitchel, John; Newspapers; O'Connell, Daniel; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Primary Documents: Speech on the Use of Physical Force (28 July 1846)


Davis, Richard. The Young Ireland Movement. 1987.

Nation, 15 October 1842.

Nowlan, K. B. The Politics of Repeal: A Study in the Relations between Great Britain and Ireland, 1841–50. 1965.

Owens, Gary. "Popular Mobilisation and the Rising of 1848: The Clubs of the Irish Confederation." In Rebellion and Remembrance in Modern Ireland, edited by Laurence Geary. 2001.

Sloan, Robert. William Smith O'Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848. 2000.

Gary Owens

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Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation

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