THE LEGACY OF JAMES FINTAN LALOR
His is not a name well known to the casual student of Irish history. His contemporaries, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Davis, Thomas Francis Meagher, John Blake Dillon, John Mitchel, and Charles Gavan Duffy have acquired almost legendary status in the Irish nationalist canon. Such fame has eluded a man seen by many as their philosophical and intellectual superior, James Fintan Lalor.
In one sense at least Lalor’s father, Patrick, otherwise a rather mainstream O’Connellite, is almost as interesting as his eldest son. Patrick Lalor, was the first Roman Catholic MP (1832-35) for Laois (Queen’s County). In 1831 he announced that he would refuse to pay tithes (a tax on produce owed to the Church of Ireland) and that he intended to take a leaf from the book of the Quakers and base his opposition to tithes along civil disobedience lines.
In so doing he was one of the earliest progenitors of what would become, in the 1880s the sport of ‘boycotting’. Before Patrick Lalor’s sheep were seized to pay his ‘church cess’ he painted the word ‘tithe’ on each of them in a vivid red. He asked his neighbours not to bid on the animals when they came up for auction. His campaign was successful. Lalor’s sheep remained unsold and were shipped to Britain. There the red paint also had a salutary effect and the boycott continued. Lalor had made his point. According to one account, however, the big losers were the sheep, who ‘died at the side of the road’.
So Patrick Lalor was a good many years ahead of his time.
As with the father so with the son.
James Fintan Lalor, born in 1807, did not have a particularly easy life. A childhood accident left him deformed and his health was always delicate. He also had a hugely problematic relationship with his father. His rejection of O’Connell’s Repeal movement (and his offer to the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, to do anything in his power to crush it) may have resulted in or from that sense of alienation from his surviving parent – his mother having died when he was younger. We are not entirely sure whether the father-son animosity in any way informed Lalor’s attitude to the Repeal Association or whether his emphatic rejection of repeal as a flawed policy was what actually caused the rift with his father.
It was the Great Famine that spurred Fintan Lalor into action. In a harbinger of the Land War of the early 1880s he sought to found a Tenant Right organisation and encouraged tenants to withhold rents. He was, therefore, already an advocate of ‘strategic default’ in the 1840s. In a series of ground-breaking letters to the Nation newspaper he announced his presence while pouring cold water over the much vaunted campaign for repeal of the act of Union (‘a petty parish question’).
For Lalor political activism in Ireland began and ended with the struggle for the land of Ireland and, ultimately, all politics proceeded from the barrel of a gun. He had no confidence that the concessions required to improve the conditions of a starving peasantry could be wrested from the establishment peacefully.
Lalor was an agrarian radical who claimed that the land of Ireland belonged to the people of Ireland ‘from the sod to the sky’. It is never quite clear from his writings whether that was intended to mean ALL the people of Ireland or just those currently paying rent to often rapacious landlords. In a letter to the Nation on 19 April 1847 Lalor proposed an association between landlord and tenant. In a very real sense his memorandum could have been written in 2008 as the country approached the end of its rope.
He began by insisting that ‘Society stands dissolved … and another requires to be constituted.’ He went on to demand a new ‘social constitiution’ – ‘political rights are but paper and parchment. It is the social constitution that determines the condition and character of a people … we are now living in the midst of a social anarchy in which no man knows with certainty what he is or what he can call his own. Never was government or guidance more necessary to a people; but government or guidance there is none, for the one great purpose needed … a new structure of society has to be created.’ The more naïve amongst us cherished fanciful notions in early 2011 that just such fundamental societal change was on the horizon.
Lalor, however, rather spoils the effect of his rhetoric by adding a postscript. Such is the state of the nation that ‘a clear original right returns and reverts to the people – the right of establishing, and entering into a new social arrangement. The right is in them because the power is in them. The right lodges where the power lodges.’
‘The right lodges where the power lodges’ – a dangerous assertion, given that power, rather than democratic rights, did not necessarily rest with the majority but with those strong and resourceful enough to wield it, whatever their numerical strength. The extreme social disruption caused by the Famine may have led to the expectation that civil society would be reformed and social conditions ameliorated. While that did happen to a limited extent it was a phenomenon based on demographic arithmetic rather than revolutionary change. There were far fewer people, so the cake was divided up just a little more evenly.
As far as our own post-Apocalyptic society is concerned it is merely a case of ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. Were Fintan Lalor writing today he would be as disappointed with the lack of political change wrought by the crisis of modern capitalism as he would have been by the state of Ireland in the 1850s. However, he was spared the resurgence of the landlord, the middleman and the gombeen man. His health failed and he died in 1849.
The landlord, the middleman and the gombeen man, however, survived and thrived. They remain with us today.
I’ll be interviewing said James Fintan Lalor (aka actor Paul Meade) in Mike Finn’s ‘From the sod to the sky’ at the Dunamaise theatre in Port Laoise on Friday 20 September as part of the JFL School. I’ll also be chairing a session on Saturday afternoon on ‘A Vision for Ireland’ – more info on http://www.jamesfintanlalor.ie