The Young Irelanders

During the 1830s the Catholic Daniel O’Connell formed the Repeal Association in Ireland to attempt to repeal the "Act of Union" between Ireland and England which had resulted in the loss of many basic human rights for the Irish Catholics. Because of his Parliamentary efforts, some rights were given back to the Catholics via the Reform Act of 1832, the Tithe Act Reform of 1838 and the Irish Poor Law and Municipal Reform Act, etc. But his ultimate goal of repeal of the Union so that an Irish Parliament would make domestic laws for Ireland did not occur. Various Tenant Rights Acts were also defeated. His original intent of Catholic Emancipation was only partially fulfilled and the Catholic peasant was still not much better off than before.

By 1843 O’Connell was assisted by new allies–-a group of middle-class young men, half of them Protestants, who later became known as Young Ireland. Their newspaper "The Nation" advocated repeal of the Act of Union. Some of these men included "Honest" John Martin (a Presbyterian from Co. Down), Charles Gavin Duffy (a Catholic from Ulster), Thomas Davis (a Protestant from Cork), John Mitchel (a Unitarian from Co. Down), and William Smith O’Brien (a Protestant from Limerick and a Member of Parliament). Many of these men joined for varying reasons, but Martin joined for the pure love of justice and love of his native land.

The Young Ireland group split with the Repeal Association in 1845 after O’Connell retired and his "obnoxious" son, John, took over the Repeal Association. John Martin was foremost in attempting to get John O’Connell to account for irregularities in the Repeal Association’s funds. For his efforts he was expelled from the Association and joined with the other Young Irelanders to continue the cause of repeal of the Union.

And then the Irish Potato Famine began...

Through "The Nation" and "The United Irishman" newspapers, the Young Irelanders wrote one article after another arguing that the Irish people could, through an Irish Parliament, better handle the famine rather than the British Parliament sitting in London who didn’t have a daily view of the Irish peasants dying by the hundreds of thousands. Political frustrations increased. People were dying and these brave men felt helpless to stop it. Britain’s response was to pass Coercion Bills and to Suspend the Habeas Corpus Act and to demand that various sections of Ireland were "Proclaimed Districts" where no one but Loyalists could own or keep a gun or weapon. They also passed the Treason/Felony Act to stop the inflammatory articles printed by Young Ireland in their newspapers. Thus, Freedom of the Press no longer existed in Ireland–-or the right to bear arms–-or the basic rights of an accused to know why he was being arrested and imprisoned. And the Young Irelanders, John Mitchel and John Martin, were the first arrested under these British laws directed exclusively at the Irish people. They were convicted by carefully packed juries.

Some Young Irelanders then tried to begin a violent insurrection in Co. Tipperary at Ballingary to overthrow the British Government rule in Ireland. It failed miserably–partially because the peasants were so malnourished and partially because the Catholic Priests refused to give their support to such actions they felt would result in many deaths and imminent failure. These Young Irelanders, including Smith O’Brien, were eventually caught and sentenced to death (later commuted to transportation). Seven Young Irelanders were eventually transported to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). Four of them escaped to America with the aid of Irish-Americans (Mitchel, Meagher, McMahon, O’Donaghue). The remaining three, "Honest" John Martin, William Smith O’Brien, and Kevin Izod O’Dogherty were granted "conditional" pardons in 1854 and "unconditional" pardons in 1856 and allowed to return to Ireland. Martin continued to argue for Irish rights and for Irish Home Rule as a Member of Parliament until his death. Martin was succeeded in Parliament by Charles Parnell, who continued the work for Home Rule. O’Dogherty also became a Member of Parliament, but eventually settled in Australia, where he practiced medicine and politics.

While some may argue that the Young Ireland movement was a failure, it was the forerunner of the Home Rule movement and also the later Fenian movement. The Young Ireland movement was an attempt by BOTH the Irish Catholics and the Irish Protestants to bring about equality for ALL Irish peoples regardless of religion or political persuasion or class structure.


Article written by Suzanne Ballard, March 29, 2000


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