seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of James Bronterre O’Brien, Chartist Leader, Reformer & Journalist

James Bronterre O’Brien, Irish Chartist leader, reformer and journalist, dies of complications from bronchitis on December 23, 1684.

O’Brien is born near Granard, County Longford, in 1804 or 1805. He goes to a local church school, where one of his teachers recognises his intellectual abilities and arranges for him to be educated at the progressive Lovell Edgeworth School. In 1822 he proceeds to Trinity College, Dublin, where he wins several academic prizes including the Science Gold Medal. After studying law at King’s Inns, he moves to England in 1829 with the intention of becoming a lawyer in London.

In London he joins the Radical Reform Association where he meets Henry Hunt, William Cobbett, Henry Hetherington and other leaders of the struggle for universal suffrage. In 1836 he joins the London Working Men’s Association.

O’Brien begins contributing articles to Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian. He signs these articles with the pseudonym ‘Bronterre’ and he eventually adopts it as his middle name. He works very closely with Hetherington and when he is imprisoned for publishing an unstamped newspaper, O’Brien takes over the editorship of Poor Man’s Guardian. He and Hetherington also collaborate on other unstamped newspapers such as The Destructive and the London Dispatch. In 1837 he begins publishing Bronterre’s National Reformer. In an attempt to avoid paying stamp duty, the journal includes essays rather than ‘news items.’ During this period, he and Hetherington lead the struggle against the stamp duty and are consistent in their arguments that working people need cheap newspapers that contain political information.

O’Brien is influenced by the socialist writer François-Noël Babeuf, who had been executed during the French Revolution. In 1836 he begins publishing translations of Babeuf’s work in the Poor Man’s Guardian. He also includes Filippo Buonarroti‘s account of Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals. He becomes fascinated with the history of radicalism and begins work on books on Maximilien Robespierre, the French Revolution and the English Commonwealth. However, the authorities raid his house in 1838 and seize his manuscripts and the projects are never completed.

In 1838 O’Brien adds his support for a more militant approach to winning the vote that is being advocated by Feargus O’Connor and George Julian Harney through the London Democratic Association. However, he, unlike O’Connor, refuses to support the use of violence to achieve universal suffrage. He argues that the Chartists should adopt a policy that is midway between the petitioning supported by William Lovett and the Moral Force Chartists, and the violence being threatened by O’Connor’s Physical Force group.

After Bronterre’s National Reformer ceases publication, O’Brien works for O’Connor’s Northern Star. His articles play an important role in increasing the circulation of what had become the most important of the radical newspapers. As well as writing for the Northern Star, he also finds time to publish his own newspaper, The Operative.

O’Brien continues to be active in the Chartist movement and in 1840 he is arrested and charged with making a seditious speech in Manchester. He is convicted of sedition and sentenced to eighteen months in Lancaster Prison. When he is released from prison he finds it difficult to continue working with Feargus O’Connor. The two men disagree over the issue of physical force. Another source of dispute concerns parliamentary elections. O’Brien favours the idea of putting up Chartist candidates whereas O’Connor prefers the tactic of putting pressure on the Whig government by threatening to vote for Tory candidates. He is involved in standing Chartist candidates against Government Ministers in key seats, particularly in standing against Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston in Tiverton.

O’Brien finally breaks with O’Connor when, along with Henry Vincent and Robert George Gammage, he joins the Complete Suffrage Union. He continues to publish newspapers. He joins with his old friend Henry Hetherington to revive the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1843 and this is followed by the National Reformer in 1844. These newspapers are not a financial success and by May 1847, both papers cease publication.

After the failure of these two newspapers, O’Brien concentrates on writing for other publications such as Reynold’s Weekly Newspaper and the Glasgow Sentinel. He also gives public lectures and in 1851 he opens the Eclectic Institute in Denmark Street, Soho, London, where adult education classes are offered in English, French, science and mathematics.

By the 1850s O’Brien’s poverty begins to damage his health. He suffers from bronchitis and his Chartist friends attempt to raise money in recognition of the great sacrifices that he had made in the struggle to win universal suffrage and the freedom of the press. However, the damage to his health is so bad that he spends his last years bed-ridden. He dies on December 23, 1864, and is buried in Abney Park Cemetery.


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Birth of Chartist Leader Feargus O’Connor

feargus-edward-o-connorFeargus Edward O’Connor, advocate of the Land Plan and prominent Chartist leader who succeeds in making Chartism the first specifically working class national movement in Great Britain, is born near Castletown-Kinneigh, County Cork on July 18, 1796.

O’Connor is born into a prominent Irish Protestant family who claims to be the descendants of the 12th-century king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. He is educated mainly at Portarlington Grammar School and has some elementary schooling in England.

O’Connor practices law but exchanges law for politics when he enters the British Parliament in 1832 as a member for County Cork. Unseated in 1835, he turns to radical agitation in England, although he continues to press Irish grievances and to seek Irish support. As a result of his humour, invective, and energy, he becomes the best known Chartist leader and the movement’s most popular speaker. His journal, the Northern Star (founded in 1837), gains a wide circulation.

O’Connor’s methods and views alienate other Chartist leaders, particularly William Lovett, but in 1841, after spending a year in prison for seditious libel, he acquires undisputed leadership of the Chartists. Failing to lead the movement to victory and vacillating in his attitude toward the middle class and toward the People’s Charter, a six-point bill drafted and published in May 1838, he begins to lose power, although he is elected to Parliament for Nottingham in 1847. The failure of the People’s Charter in 1848 marks the beginning of the end for O’Connor, whose egocentricity is already bordering on madness.

The circulation of the Northern Star falls steadily and it loses money. O’Connor’s health is failing, and reports of his mental breakdown regularly appear in the newspapers. In the spring of 1852 he visits the United States, where his behaviour leaves no doubt that he is not a well man.

In 1852 in the House of Commons O’Connor strikes three fellow MPs, one of them Sir Benjamin Hall, a vocal critic of the Land Plan. Arrested by the Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, he is sent by his sister to Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke‘s private Manor House Asylum in Chiswick, where he remains until 1854, when he is moved to his sister’s house. He dies on August 30, 1855 at 18 Albert Terrace, Notting Hill Gate and is buried on September 10 in Kensal Green Cemetery. No fewer than 40,000 people witness the funeral procession. Most Chartists preferred to remember O’Connor’s strengths rather than his shortcomings.


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Publication of the First Issue of the “Northern Star”

northern-starThe first issue of the Northern Star, the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen, is published in Belfast on January 4, 1792. It is published from 1792 until its suppression by the British army in May 1797.

The publication of an Irish newspaper that reflects and disseminates liberal views is an early goal of Irish republicans in the late 18th century. By the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in October 1791, the project is well underway and the first edition of the Northern Star appears in Belfast in January 1792. Like the United Irishmen, the first financial backers of the Northern Star are Presbyterian and one of the United Irish leadership, Samuel Neilson, is made editor.

Political content dominates the Northern Star but its publication of local news, as opposed to the focus on British and international affairs of other Irish newspapers of the time, brings it wide popularity. Leading members of the United Irishmen are regular contributors and mixed direct political analyses with cutting political satire. William Orr is among those who contributed to its content and his letters lead to his eventual arrest and execution under the Insurrection Act of 1797. The newspaper also enjoys an excellent voluntary distribution network as its penetration follows rapidly wherever the United Irishmen set up new branches. It was estimated that for each copy of the Northern Star sold there are at least five readers, as the reading aloud of articles from the paper is a regular feature of United Irish meetings.

The newspaper is initially protected from the authorities due to the support of well-connected liberals but following the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France in 1793 and the subsequent banning of the United Irishmen as a seditious body it begins to draw increasing attention. The massive popularity of the newspaper protects it from serious harassment until January 1797 when the establishment goes into a state of panic following the French invasion scare at Bantry Bay. The paper is alleged to be behind the Dublin-based Union Star, a militant, low-circulation newssheet, often posted in public places, which specializes in naming informers, “notorious Orangemen,” and other enemies of the United Irishmen, being regarded by Dublin Castle as a republican hitlist.

The extensive distribution network and potency of the Northern Star in spreading United Irish opinion alarms the authorities and possession of a copy comes to be regarded as an admission of seditious intent. The end finally comes with the uncovering of supposed United Irish infiltration of the Monaghan militia in Belfast, which results in the execution of four soldiers. General Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake, already engaged in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, is quick to put much of the blame on the Northern Star and requests permission to suppress the paper.

As it turns out, official suppression is not necessary as on May 19, 1797, three days after the execution of their ex-comrades, a mob of Monaghan militiamen anxious to prove their loyalty attack the offices of the Northern Star and destroy not only the printing presses but the building itself. The attack results in the demise of the Northern Star to the undoubted satisfaction of the authorities as no action is taken against those involved in the destruction. The Chartist movement later pays tribute to the Northern Star by using the same name for their newspaper that is founded in 1837 by Feargus O’Connor.