Ireland's Hope: The “peculiar theories” of James Fintan Lalor

by James P. Bruce

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This work offers a comprehensive analysis of James Fintan Lalor’s intellectual formation and his awkward relationship with the wider nationalist movement in mid-century Ireland. Most importantly, and what makes this work highly relevant to historians of nineteenth-century Ireland and those interested in land reform in general, is the detailed study of Lalor’s ideas within the political contexts he articulated them, as well as the formative influences on his work. This significant close reading of Lalor’s letters and published work usefully contextualises his varying and sometimes contradictory expressions on land tenure, showing how they were shaped by the exigencies of contemporary economic conditions and Lalor’s own particular social, political and familial circumstances. Given that, as the book clearly identifies, previous work on Lalor has often tried to fit him neatly into a specific (and often anachronistic) ideological tradition, this is an important corrective, and where the work makes its most original contribution.
Of interest to scholars of the Irish land question more broadly is the range of contemporary context regarding Lalor’s associates, confidantes and competitors in the national movement. One thing that emerges is just how common the precepts and premises upon which Lalor made his deductions about land and sovereignty actually were – even if others were led to varying conclusions. In highlighting Lalor’s general lack of academic knowledge on the question of property rights, the author brings in to focus both the generality of Lalor’s presumptions and the originality of his conclusions. The author makes a very strong case and clearly explains how Lalor’s conception of a ‘right to the land’ functioned to justify ownership of moveables but not the land itself, only in usufruct, and how this underpinned a democratic-republican understanding of national sovereignty.
The work also surveys the historiography effectively. Many assessments of Lalor and his work have sought to identify him as either a utopian land nationaliser, or simply a confused proponent of peasant proprietorship. This book corrects this false dichotomy by showing the complexity of contemporary understandings of the land question. The assessment offered here of Lalor as a ‘de facto land nationaliser’ is well supported by the evidence, and entirely consonant with what could be claimed within the realms of political possibility at the time.
There is much to commend in the quality of the scholarship, not least the broad range of secondary material consulted and the excellent and extensive archival work. It is well written, clear and concise. However, it retains the considered, perhaps even cautious, tone and historiographical focus of a scholarly study rather than a book for a more popular audience. This does not appear to be much of a drawback since there is a strong academic interest in nineteenth-century Ireland and the land question to which this book will be highly relevant. […] This excellent and detailed study is certainly an important contribution, not only to the study of Lalor himself, but to the land question in mid-century Ireland more broadly.

Dr Andrew Phemister
National University of Ireland, Galway

In 1847 and 1848 a little-known farmer named James Fintan Lalor wrote a series of newspaper articles in which he outlined his vision for Ireland after the Great Famine. Although they have been reprinted and republished many times since, until now there has been no systematic study of the principles and proposals that Lalor expounded. In this book, the author considers Lalor’s brief career as a writer and offers new insights into his treatment of national and land questions.
By elucidating Lalor’s ideas on these questions, exploring possible influences on his thinking, and assessing the impact of his writings on his contemporaries, the author seeks to address what he regards as two deficiencies in the historiography. The first of these is the tendency to assign only a minor, supporting role to Lalor during the brief heyday of Young Ireland. Academic studies typically portray him as little more than a catalyst in the radicalisation of figures like John Mitchel, rather than as a profoundly original thinker in his own right. The second issue is the commonly held perception of Lalor’s proposals on land tenure as foreshadowing the creation of a “peasant proprietary” later in the century. The author argues that Lalor advocated a much more radical plan that would link his two primary objectives: the creation of a sovereign Irish republic, and transfer of control over landholding from a small number of landlords to the entire Irish people.
By comparing and contrasting Lalor’s theories with those of earlier figures such as Thomas Paine and James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien, this ground-breaking book broadens the perspective on Lalor and his writings beyond the context of Irish nationalism. As the author concludes, Lalor’s unique contribution to Irish radical thought merits a more prominent place in nineteenth-century intellectual history than it has hitherto received.
This book will be of great value to anyone interested in Irish history since 1800, especially in the areas of the Great Famine, the Young Ireland movement, and the Land War.

ABBREVIATIONS

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER ONE
JAMES FINTAN LALOR’S “PECULIAR VIEWS ON THE TENURE QUESTION"
1. Duties vs. rights: Land tenure in Ireland
2. James Fintan Lalor: Background
3. Academia and Lalor
4. Lalor’s early writings
5. Lalor and the Irish Confederation
5.1. The Nation articles
5.2. Lalor’s “private exhortations and remonstrances”
5.3. Defeat at Holy Cross
6. Lalor and The Irish Felon
6.1. “The Faith of a Felon”
7. Lalor the revolutionary
8. “This island-Queen”

CHAPTER TWO
“DESTITUTE OF BOOKS”: LALOR’S LITERARY PRECURSORS
1. Inspiration and influence
2. Acquiring “pure English’
3. British radicals and land tenure
3.1. William Ogilvie
3.2. Thomas Spence
3.3. Thomas Paine
4. The United Irishmen
5. Chartism and the Irish
5.1. Thomas Ainge Devyr
5.2. Feargus O’Connor
5.3. James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien
6. Thomas Davis
7. A French connection?
8. 1848 and the rise of Socialism
9. Blackstone and Locke

CHAPTER THREE
“I SOMETIMES WISH FOR SOME ONE TO SPEAK TO”: LALOR AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
1. Lalor’s peers
1.1. John Marnell
1.2. William Conner
1.3. William Sharman Crawford
2. The Lalors of Tinakill
2.1. Patrick (‘Patt’) Lalor: paterfamilias and reformer
2.2. Richard Lalor: brother and reluctant ally
3. Young Ireland
3.1. Charles Gavan Duffy
3.1.1. The Tenant League
3.2. Michael Doheny
3.3. Thomas Devin Reilly
3.4. John Mitchel
4. Readers of The Nation and The Irish Felon

EPILOGUE

CONCLUSION

BIBLIOGRAPHY

FURTHER READING

INDEX

James P. Bruce was born in Dublin, Ireland. He spent the greater part of his adult life in banking, before setting up his own marketing consultancy in 1997. Ten years later he published his first book, Faithful Servant: A Memoir of Brian Cleeve. Researching the book involved many hours in libraries and archives. Stimulated by this experience he enrolled as a mature student at Trinity College Dublin in 2008. He graduated with a BA in History and later moved to University College Dublin, where he completed an MA in the History of Religion and Society. In 2019 he was awarded an MLitt by the University of Oxford. He continues to write for both general and academic audiences and currently hosts a podcast series entitled Talk About Ireland.

Ireland, Famine, Land, Nationalism, 19th-century, Newspapers, Chartism

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