The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the late Eighteenth Century by Jim Smyth

Jim Smyth, The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the late Eighteenth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke & London, 1992, 251 p.

In writing about the radical politics and their grip on the lower classes of Ireland in the 1790s, Jim Smyth has delivered a seminal, if somehow unfinished, book.

Jim Smyth first reminds his readers (chap. 1) of the context of 18th-century Ireland: a society riddled with divisions, and where political and socio-economic classes are also defined by sects, thanks to the penal laws instigated since the victory of William of Orange against James II in 1690 to prevent the Catholics from claiming any participation in the government of the island by depriving them from the key-component of political power — land. Hence, the « men of no property » are, mostly, the Catholics and, as such, they are also a majority people without any participation in the « glorious British » (or Irish as the protestant nationalists defend louder and louder as the century progresses) Constitution.

This exclusion and marginalisation explains the prevalence of social and agrarian unrest during the 18th century (chap. 2). Jim Smyth argues convincingly that this unrest becomes more and more political from 1761 with the Whiteboys. That these movements are deemed sectarian by the Anglo-Irish Protestants is logical (but not entirely true) since the Catholics are those who were excluded from land ownership and so who had to suffer from any economic reversal of conjuncture but who still had to pay tithes to the Protestant Church of Ireland. Nowhere else than in the Armagh linen triangle these social and sectarian tensions were stronger, since this area was the most densely populated in Ireland and the three main denominations — Catholics, Protestants and Presbyterians — were present in a roughly equal proportion, a balance that was suddenly questioned when in 1778 and 1782 most of the penal laws were relaxed, enabling Catholics to bear arms and to have longer leases (something which was very interesting for Protestant landowners who then could replace Protestant tenants with Catholic ones, thereby securing faithful votes). Feeling threatened in their social as well as economic place of prominence, Protestant middle-to-lower class gangs, such as the Peep O’Day Boys, began to assemble and to lead raids against Catholics to « disarm » them. To protect themselves against such incursions of nightly terror, Catholics formed the « Defenders » — hence the name — in 1784 with an organisation based on the model of Freemasons (another clue of their middle-class composition).

The 1790s were then a rupture, especially with the 1792-3 campaign for Catholic emancipation led by the revived Catholic Committee (chap. 3). Defender agitation accompanied the popular mobilization organized by the Committee with the help of the United Irishmen. The French Revolution further politicised the Defenders who integrated prophecies and references to the American and French Revolutions in their catechisms. Jim Smyth argues (chap. 4), and makes a potent case, for the elaborate character of Defenderism which was not a simple sectarian movement of discontent but a complex mix of popular politics, Painite propaganda, French Revolution aspirations of liberty and equality and hopes for a radical reform. This radical ideology, the more dangerous because of its elasticity and adaptability, coupled with the threat of a French invasion, roused the fears of the Protestant elite who clamped down on Defenders and any organisations that looked like popular politics, including the Catholic Committee and the United Irishmen, in 1793-5 (chap. 5). But this conservative backlash, with its sectarian element and with its brutality (it was labelled as a « white terror ») further alienated the lower classes who learned to fear the « rule of law » and joined the Defenders in greater numbers than before, especially after the campaign of terror and dispossession and forced removal that were the « Armagh Outrages » (1795).

Dublin was also a hotbed of radical politics and popular mobilisation and Jim Smyth’s depiction (chap. 6) of the manner with which the Defenders and the United Irishmen allied themselves toward the end of 1795 and early 1796 in the alleys and taverns of the capital is very interesting, though still impressionistic because of the lack of more furnished sources. This alliance, it appears, was all the more feasible and easy because of the first moment of collusion between the two organisations in 1792-3 (as the continuity of personnel attests). This is why Smyth, challenging Mariannes Elliot’s conclusions, pleads to lower the importance of the Fitzwilliam episode (1796) and the 1796 rupture for the United Irishmen in explaining their transformation from parliamentary reformers to radical, republican revolutionaries seeking French help for an armed insurrection.

Finally, Smyth examines (chap. 7) how this mix of radical, revolutionary, republican and even « levelling » propaganda gave birth to a cohesive if not wholly coherent ideology that was instrumental in politicizing the lower classes and building a revolutionary movement that erupted in 1798. The authorities, with the conservative and pliable Lord Camden as lord-lieutenant, realized the threat posed by this movement and very quickly accentuated their campaign of repression and even terror (with General Lake in Connaught), helped in this by the newly born Orange Order (in 1795) which was quickly dominated by a landed leadership, as was the Protestant Yeomanry. When the Rebellion broke out, it was more a sign of the despair of the radicals than of their strength, having suffered from waves after waves of arrests and executions.

In this thorough book, Jim Smyth put to rest the thesis advanced by Marianne Elliott that the United Irishmen were only reluctant and reactive republicans and revolutionaries. Indeed, if their hand was forced by the intransigence of the « Protestant Ascendancy » (as it then defined itself), their radical and even republican demands were very much a part of their agenda at least since 1792. He also re-examines what the United Irishmen-Defenders alliance meant and while Smyth still qualifies the Defenders as « sectarian » he shows that their revolutionary zeal was fuelled not only by religious grievances but mainly from socio-economic ones and that their desires for political reforms were also potent motives.

Tom Bartlett, in his review of this book, regretted that Smyth had not, in his examination of « popular politics », taken into account the equally popular conservative side, i.e. the Orange Order. However, I find that in defining how the lower classes were those deprived of property for the most part of 18th century-Ireland, Jim Smyth was entailed in thus restraining his focus of study without raising such criticism. Tom Bartlett also — and there I find it is more warranted — points out the lack of any real investigation in the role that the Defenders played in the militia (after the removal of the incapabilities preventing Catholics to enlist in the army in 1793 by Pitt’s government) and, after the campaign of repression, in the Navy where numerous Defenders were sent and were they have played a central, if still ill-defined, role in the 1797 mutinies that nearly spelled disaster for England. Finally, I found that while Jim Smyth challenges Marianne Elliott’s view on the origins of Irish republicanism, he didn’t really departed from the mainly negative view on its birth, presumably because of its role in the catastrophic ending of the 1798 Rebellion. Writing that « the rebellion represented not only a defeat for the United Irish organisation but for the republican ideal », Jim Smyth is right — conservatism and religious sectarianism, bitter divisions then ran throughout the 19th century and played a part in the Irish civil war of 1922-3. However, in putting the blame on the Defenders, or in sharing the responsibilities between the Defenders and the Protestant authorities, in berating the United Irishmen for their ill-advised use of sectarian grievances, Smyth, as well as Elliott, neglects the importance of the compatibility between religious freedom and the Irish republic as it was envisioned and, perhaps more importantly, continues to give credence to the idea that the United Irishmen lost their enlightened, secular, cross-sectarian vision to succumb to the supposedly bitter and sectarian hatred of the Defenders. I think that this view must be challenged or, at least, re-examined, just as Smyth brilliantly re-examined the too easy division between the laissez-faire and liberal outlook of some United Irishmen and the social radicalism of other members when he demonstrated that both views were not incompatible at the end of the 18th century, before the historical developments made it otherwise. Hindsight can be misleading. I have a deep intuition that the sectarian divisions were not as prevalent as the 1798 Rebellion, and the propaganda developed by the Protestant Ascendancy, made us believe in its aftermath.

Cite this article as: Mathieu Ferradou, "The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the late Eighteenth Century by Jim Smyth," in "Aux Etats-Unis de France et d'Irlande", 8 février 2014, http://eufi.hypotheses.org/24, {ISSN 2498-0234}.

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