Irish Influence on British Radicalism

This article is based on Timothy Murtagh’s essay in The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, counter-intelligence and the revolutionary tradition in Britain and Ireland, a collection of essays published in 2019 by Manchester University Press, and was edited by Jason McElligott. Murtagh’s essay detailed the large group of Irish immigrants that moved to England after the Rebellion in 1789 and how they had a heavy influence on radicalism in London and other cities in England and Scotland. Murtagh considers how historians have disregarded Irish involvement in radical politics after the Irish Rebellion and tended to focus more on their involvement during the Chartist agitations of the 1830s-40s.

Lots of former Irish rebels moved to England after the Rebellion, with thousands moving to London. Even before the Rebellion in Ireland, United Irishmen in the 1790s were building a revolutionary underground in Britain. The United Irishmen hoped to persuade British radicals to include revolution by physical force in their plans for change. In the years following the failed Rebellion in Ireland, the government in Dublin believed that the radicals posed no real threat. This was because so many of them had fled abroad. Some went to the United States, but that was not easy for most, which led to thousands of rebels moving to England and Scotland. Not all who fled were rebels, some moved to Britain for possible employment in cities where manufacturing opportunities were growing. There are reports that many Irish immigrants worked as artisans and weavers across Northern England.

With the rising number of Irish immigrants living in cities like Liverpool and Manchester, the Mayor of Liverpool raised worries about the number of former rebels resident in these cities. They had allegedly set up a society for “Relief of the Poor Natives of Ireland” which he assumed to be a front for the United Irishmen. One of the men involved in this society was a founding member of the radical London Corresponding Society, a group pushing for the democratic reform of the Westminster parliament. The London Corresponding Society had many Irish members during the 1790s.

The Irish were at the forefront of local labour disputes and were more likely to participate in trade unions and secret societies in Britain than native-born Englishmen and Scots. In places like Liverpool and Manchester, there was a long history of political meetings that were almost completely arranged by the Irish. It was claimed that the Irish played a significant role in every major strike that took place in the Lancashire cotton industry after 1808. There were similar assertions during the 1810s about Irish involvement in Glasgow’s early trade unions.

Parliamentary reporting during this time had a significant Irish perspective. Peter Finnerty, who had been an editor of the United Irishmen’s Dublin newspaper, The Press and was sent to prison for libel, moved to London and started writing for the Morning Chronicle. Finnerty was later tried in 1810 for seditious libel. He continued to get himself into trouble with his next employer as well. He had started his own club named the Robin Hood Society, in 1808, which was a part of a small revival of similar radical clubs. Finnerty was also a part of informal tavern clubs that were known as ‘free-and-easies’. Later, Finnerty was linked with the radical group known as the Spenceans, who were eager to recruit among the Irish community in London.

In 1816, the Spenceans held a number of huge meetings in London and some even took place in Glasgow and Paisley later on in the year. Alexander Richmond, a spy within the weavers’ union, informed on the clubs to the authorities which resulted in many people around Glasgow being arrested. Richmond told the authorities that the clubs were formed under the model of the Irish rebels of 1798. Because these meetings were discovered in Glasgow and London, the government prohibited the meeting of large groups without the prior permission of magistrates. In London, radical clubs that had Irish members continued to meet in secret. A government spy claimed that Arthur Thistlewood, who was the most prominent advocate of violent insurrection during this period, was always looking to recruit more ‘determined Irishmen’.

The Irish involvement within the Cato Street Conspiracy was evident when the Irish carpenter, Richard Bradburn, was arrested and tried alongside Arthur Thistlewood and the other conspirators. The Irish bricklayer Thomas Dwyer was trusted by Thistlewood but he turned informer and betrayed the plot to the authorities. Following the arrests of the conspirators, the Irish remained influential in British radicalism. The Irishman John Doherty became one of the biggest advocates for trade unionism and factory reform, and ran a radical bookshop in Manchester. The prominent involvement of Irish men in the Chartist agitation of the 1830s and 1840s had deep roots in London and British radical politics of the previous decades.

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