seamus dubhghaill

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


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

Birth of Mary Ann McCracken, Humanitarian & Social Reformer

Mary Ann McCracken, Irish businesswoman, radical humanitarian, supporter of the Society of United Irishmen and a noted social reformer, is born in Belfast on July 8, 1770.

McCracken’s father is Captain John McCracken, a Presbyterian of Scottish descent and a prominent shipowner. Her mother, Ann Joy, comes from a French Protestant Huguenot family, which made its money in the linen trade and founded the Belfast News Letter. Her liberal and far-sighted parents send her to David Manson‘s progressive co-educational school, where ‘young ladies’ received the same education as the boys. She excels at mathematics.

As an adult, McCracken manages a successful muslin business in Belfast, which pioneers the production of patterned and checked muslin. She runs the business together with her sister, and has at least one agent in Dublin.

McCracken is the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen. In the aftermath of her brother’s defeat at the Battle of Antrim on June 7, 1798 she helps Henry Joy and some colleagues hide in the hills of south Antrim, bringing them clothes and money. She is arranging for a ship to take him to the United States when he is recognised by three Carrickfergus soldiers and arrested there on July 7, 1798.

McCracken shares her brother’s interest in reviving the oral-music tradition of Ireland, and is a founding member of the Belfast Harp Society (1808–1813). She supports Edward Bunting in his collecting of traditional music, introducing him to people who can help, acting as his unofficial secretary and contributes anonymously to the second volume of his work The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1809. Bunting lives with the McCrackens for thirty-five years, before moving to Dublin 1819 and thereafter corresponds regularly with McCracken.

McCracken, like her brother, holds radical beliefs and these extend not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery. She is dedicated to the poor of Belfast and from her earliest childhood she works to raise funds and provide clothes for the children of the Belfast Poorhouse, now known as Clifton House, Belfast. Following a visit from Elizabeth Fry she forms the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and is chair from 1832–1855. Thanks to the efforts of the committee a school, and later a nursery, is set up to educate the orphans of Belfast. She takes particular pains to find a suitable teacher, displaying a high level of dedication and compassion for her cause. The committee also inspects the homes where children of the poorhouse are apprenticed out.

McCracken leads the Women’s Abolitionary Ccmmittee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement and continues to promote the cause long after the spirit of radicalism had died in Belfast. By the 1850s, the liberality of the 1790s had largely evaporated in the aftermath of the failure of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the subsequent executions or exile of the leading protagonists.

At the age of 88, McCracken is to be seen at the Belfast docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery is still practised. Her continued campaign long after the deaths of her counterparts serves to demonstrate the strength of radicalism that exists in certain circles of Belfast society at the close of the eighteenth century.

After her brother’s execution in Belfast, McCracken takes over the care of his illegitimate daughter, Maria, which is not universally accepted in her wider family. She lives with Maria and her family until her death at the age of 96 on July 26, 1866. She is buried in grave number 35 at Clifton Street Cemetery.

A blue plaque has been placed by the Ulster History Circle on the house at 62 Donegall Pass, Belfast, where McCracken lived for much of her later life.