It was Brendan Behan who is supposed to have observed that the first item on the agenda of any Irish radical movement was ‘the split’. But it wasn’t just true of the Irish. The great British quasi-revolutionary organisation of the 1840s, the Chartists, also fell victim to vicious factionalism. But Behan wasn’t too far wrong, because at the centre of the dissension were two Irish journalists.
James O’Brien was born near Granard, Co. Longford in 1804 or 1805. Feargus O’Connor, born in 1794 or 1796, was from West Cork. Both studied at Trinity College and both are noted for the radical English newspapers they helped establish. In O’Brien’s case it was the Poor Man’s Guardian to which he contributed articles under the pseudonym ‘Bronterre’, before eventually adopting the nom de plume or nom de guerre as his middle name. O’Connor was the long-time editor of the much more celebrated Northern Star, named in tribute to the famous newspaper of the Ulster United Irishmen and for its home town of Leeds. Both men became central to the organisation and campaigning of one of the most important radical movements in British 19th century history.
The Chartists sought six basic demands – universal male suffrage for all men of sound mind over the age of twenty-one, the secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, the payment of parliamentarians, constituencies of equal size and annual elections.
The organisation drew its name from the 1838 People’s Charter, the document that encapsulated the six demands. Public meetings and demonstrations were held around the country but the original petition – with 1.3 million signatures – was rejected by parliament in 1839. A second petition, this time with three million signatories, followed in 1842. It too was rejected. An economic depression then led to strikes and violence, both of which became associated with the Chartist movement. In 1848, with a wave of revolutions taking place across Europe Chartism re-emerged in England and Wales as a vibrant radical force. The previous year Feargus O’Connor had been elected as MP for Nottingham. A new petition was prepared, the Chartists claiming it contained five million signatures. It may, however, only have amounted to around two million and many of those were proven to be bogus. The movement foundered when repressive legislation was introduced by the government and many of its leaders were arrested and deported.
Charged with sedition in 1840 James O’Brien served eighteen months in jail, during which time his wife and four children were virtually destitute. Feargus O’Connor was charged with seditious libel via the pages of the Northern Star in 1839 and also served eighteen months in prison. The split between the two men came about after their release from incarceration when O’Connor advocated support for the Tories against the incumbent Whig government in a general election of 1841. Their differences became intensely personal and were conducted in the columns of their respective newspapers. O’Brien referred to his compatriot as ‘The Dictator’- which was actually not a grossly unreasonable assertion – while O’Connor cruelly dubbed O’Brien, ‘The Starved Viper’.
Neither came to a good end. O’Brien died in his late fifties an impoverished alcoholic. O’Connor suffered poor mental health, possibly exacerbated or caused by syphilis. When he physically attacked a fellow MP in 1852 he was committed to an asylum. He died three years later, also in his late fifties.
Although Feargus O’Connor’s impressive ego was blamed by many contemporary commentators for the collapse of the Chartist movement few modern historians accept that the personality of one man could have had such a malign influence. By the end of WW1 all six points of the People’s Charter of 1838, other than annual elections, had been implemented, with the considerable bonus of female suffrage thrown in for good measure.
James Bronterre O’Brien, radical journalist and Chartist, died one hundred and fifty two years ago, on this day.
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