James Fintan Lalor receives respectful but brief mention in most general histories. He is part of a parade of mid-19th century figures seen variously as either part of a radical fringe or an inspiration to later generations. His name is well known but the details and importance of his life are understood by very few. That is why the initiative to hold this annual event is especially welcome. He is a fascinating personality from one of the defining periods of Irish culture and thought – perhaps even the single most important such period in our modern history.
Lalor is not a one-dimensional figure who offers himself as an ideological mascot to later movements. He is a challenging figure. In only a few years he changed his views on fundamental political and social issues in a dramatic way. At a time of unprecedented turmoil at home and abroad he responded to circumstances as he saw them. In doing this he went well beyond the often simplistic debates he had previously witnessed and participated in.
Ireland of today and Ireland of the 1840s are different in so many ways that to try to claim major similarities is not credible. The economic, political and social circumstances of this island have profoundly changed. While Ireland had many apparent trappings of democracy in the 19th century in reality this was a myth. It is impossible to miss the relevance to 19th century Ireland of the words of the Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, whose most important work concluded “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”
I don’t think we should have any nostalgia for a time defined by grotesque neglect, despair and starvation. I am absolutely committed to the principle of reconciliation and understanding – to taking much of the edge out of how we relate to history. However I could never accept the idea that there was benign governance from Britain.
This said, to try and draw direct links with events of then and now simply drains each of their proper meaning.
This said, I believe that there are important things that we can learn from Lalor and his contemporaries. They were not afraid to evolve, sometimes radically. They saw Ireland in its international context, drawing strength from an openness to ideas and people. They came to understand that social and national goals must be linked. Confronted with stark realities they worked to frame a new vision for their country.
I should say before I go further that I am fully aware of the risk which comes with a politician talking about drawing lessons from history. Throughout modern times there are countless examples of the abuse of history by politicians and activists seeking to twist it to serve their partisan interests. There is, I believe, currently a sustained attempt to effectively falsify significant parts of our modern history to serve party political ends. Rather than encouraging the more engaged, inclusive and questioning historical debate which we need there are those who are actively promoting a partisan and superficial view of our history.
As a society we must be vigilant against a cartoon version of our history which rips events and personalities from their context and tries to create a seamless narrative of objectives and means. As a general rule, we must always work against any party or faction which has an enforced groupthink about history. This groupthink allows no dissent and whitewashes even the darkest events. I have talked about this issue a lot in recent years and I do not intend letting it drop – because we can see every day how so are promoting a selective and distorted view of even very recent events.
Over the last twenty years we have had a period of real public engagement with our past. There has been a huge appetite to learn more about other traditions. We reached a stage where state commemorations could be open and generous.
No one should ever forget the incredible progress represented by a scene where the British Queen bowed her head in the memory of our successful revolutionary generation – and then, accompanied by a republican president, shared in paying respect to Irish people who died in a terrible European war wearing British uniforms.
When something like this can happen, or when a man like Ian Paisley could be warmly welcomed to the site of the Battle of the Boyne by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, I think we have every right to say that we as a nation have made incredible strides in dealing with our history.
But it is the nature of these things that if you take them for granted you can lose the progress. This, I fear, is what might be happening.
On one side the government is taking what can best be described as a tribal and ungenerous approach to many important events. The founding meeting of my party was chaired by Constance Markievicz, a leader of the Citizen’s Army and a key supporter of labour struggles a hundred years ago. I find it a remarkably regressive approach to history that we were not invited to even attend a single state-supported commemoration. It is as if some believe that each party should own pieces of history rather than share them.
Far more serious is the concerted attempt by the Provisional movement to claim retrospective ownership of groups and events which had widespread popular support which always contrasted with their repeatedly rejected, illegitimate and brutal campaign.
In the North the growing sectarian tensions of the last few years in part reflects the fact that the governments were too eager to declare the work of reconciliation over and left everything in the hands of two parties most interested in maintaining communal divides.
What is sinister about the Provisional’s approach is the enforced discipline in everything. There is no diversity, there is no dissent. No matter how appalling the action there is a vow of omerta taken even by its youngest members. Justifying the movement is always the number one priority and it still seeks to crush and marginalise anyone who breaks their silence.
Pre-20thcentury history has thankfully been relatively untouched by this partisanship. The commemoration of 1798 was a very good example, with public respect for the rebellion having been accompanied by a willingness to engage with different narratives. Tone’s noble and inspiring words about reaching across religious divides were not allowed to hide darker and more complicated events. No party or faction was given space to claim 1798 as theirs.
As we look at James Fintan Lalor and the events of his time we need to start by not projecting backwards ideological divisions and approaches which have a much more modern origin.
When you seek out information on Lalor there are two things which immediately stand out. First of all there is his extraordinary family. While his father was the first Catholic since the early penal laws to represent Laois in parliament, his parliamentary career was of little importance to him. It was for agitation on tithes and repeal that he was best known. In this he was a leading light of what was effectively the first ever mass political movement – and one which was known and respected throughout Europe. Two of his brothers also had exceptional careers, both here and in Australia.
The other thing which stands out from Lalor’s history is how a concern for the people of little and no property underpinned his beliefs from an early age. His letter to Peel calling for the Repeal Association to be supressed knocks apart any idea of a person who never faltered in his devotion to national separation – but there was a consistent and ever more radical empathy with those who were less fortunate than himself. He understood the idea that the welfare of the people could not be left in the hands of the landlord class.
As Brendon Deacy’s exhibition shows so well, his words remain stirring over a century and a half after his death. He and his colleagues were modern communicators. Mixing emotion and directness in a powerful way – and reflecting a generational movement seen through much of Europe. They were intensely modern.
It would appear that he was not as influential in the early stages of the Land League as we might have expected. I would be interested to hear why that may have been. What there is no doubt about is that the clarity of his writing and the radical linkage of separation and reform, particularly land reform, inspired many later revolutionaries.
The force of the land question when linked to the national question clearly terrified British governments. The scale of land reform during the rest of the century went against every other instinct of those governments.
When you look back at the achievements of radicals and revolutionaries of those times it is actually quite disrespectful to say that their struggle keeps going. The redistribution of land in Ireland was quite dramatic. While the issue of the competing interests of large landholders, small holders and farm workers has continued to some extent up to today, it is nowhere near the issue it was when the vast bulk of the land was owned by a few, often absentee, families.
As I have said, what I find particularly relevant for today is how Lalor and his contemporaries evolved their views and programmes to meet the reality of conditions as they changed. They drew on international ideas and they were what we today would call progressive in promoting the interests of all in society.
I think today we lack that that ambitious spirit and this is reflected in the failure to set out a clear vision for our future.
This week the government formally declared itself as the national saviour and said that seven years of tough choices are over. There are many other forums in which I have and will disagree with them about this. However, the thing which is most striking is that there is no social or economic vision for the future of the country. There are many small initiatives and even more big claims, but there is no vision.
‘The best small country in the world to do business’ is a good slogan and a laudable objective but it’s not a vision for a country. Having come through a traumatic period which has challenged many basic ideas, the one thing we could surely all agree on is that we have a duty to tackle the more fundamental issue of what sort of society we want to have and the role of the state in supporting this.
Why are we not talking about being the best small country in the world to grow old in, or be educated in or be an innovator in? Why are we not talking about the centrality of community to our identity or how we want to gain from and contribute to the wider world? A minor refurbishment to the way that things have always been done is not good enough.
The failure to implement any significant political reform is simply inexcusable. The Irish political system has failed, and I have been very candidate in talking about that failure and our role in that. If we keep going with the current structures and balance of powers then it will fail again.
We have a political system which is not expert enough, is not diverse enough and does not empower the people’s representatives to share responsibility for delivering good government.
During last year’s Seanad referendum the combined weight of Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, Labour and much of the media failed to persuade the people. Their highly conservative vision of concentrating power in the hands of the executive collapsed as soon as it exposed to scrutiny.
Our country needs a deep and radical reform to its politics. Until it is delivered the bond of trust between the people and their government cannot be restored.
We also need to go back to focusing on what the fundamental objectives of our republic actually are. We cannot allow a descent into cold managerialism – where you need a major reaction before public concerns are considered.
This is why there is no appreciation whatsoever of the value of community from the state. More and more communities feel that they have to fight to maintain even basic public services. In fact they are increasingly facing arguments that they are selfish and wasteful for wanting to keep services defined at the centre as being inefficient.
During my time in the Department of Education I confronted this directly in the form of proposals to push forward a programme to amalgamate and close small rural schools. I was told that they could not be justified on the basis of cost comparisons with large urban schools and that busing children longer distances was common in other countries. I rejected this idea and instead actually increased support of small rural schools. The implementation of this policy allowed marginal communities, especially those of minority religions, to regain confidence in their own viability.
Yet today, for the sake of amounts which genuinely are insignificant in the context of the total budget, provincial schools, health services, garda stations, post offices and other facilities are facing direct pressures to close because they have been labelled ‘inefficient’. The spiral of decline which is threatened by this policy is undoing twenty years of progress in rural regeneration.
I’m not comparing this to the devastating impact of policies in the 1840s, but when ‘efficiency’ becomes the dominant objective over community the results are always terrible for society.
I think we should be proud of the fact that the worst parts of the right-wing anti-state ideologies have been rejected here in the past. The Irish people have been very mature in refusing to see public affairs as a zero-sum game where the interests of different groups are set against each other.
I think the great responsibility of everyone involved in public affairs is to reject the obsession with short term tactics which is so evident and do the much harder work of setting out a clearer vision for the future.
Ireland’s return to growth is based fundamentally on the skills and work of the Irish people. There is no doubt about their ability to support a strong economy. What is absolutely in doubt is whether their politics can support a strong society.
The 1840s was a turbulent and destructive decade for our country. The problems of today come nowhere near their scale. However when we look back we can see core principles of Lalor and his contemporaries which are still deeply relevant. Radical reform of politics, a progressive view and support for communities are themes which we still need.