“Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy”: Friedrich Engels and the Conditions of the Irish Working Class

[Cross-posted from The Irish Story]

In May 1856, an unassuming German industrialist and his common-law Irish wife arrived in Ireland for a tour of the country. Writing to an old friend in London, another ex-patriot German, the wealthy tourist described his trip, from Dublin to Galway and down along the west coast, the landscape, and the people he met along the way. Post-Famine Ireland was an island of ruins, some dating back to the early middle-ages, some more recent: “The land is an utter desert which nobody wants.” The level of policing was intrusive and shocking in “England’s first colony” and “I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country… armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.” Additionally, the locals, “for all their Irish fanaticism”, were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome: “By consistent oppression they have been artificially converted into an utterly impoverished nation and now, as everyone knows, fulfil the function of supplying England, America, Australia, etc., with prostitutes, casual labourers, pimps, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other rabble.” The German industrialist traveller was Friedrich Engels. His common law wife was Mary Burns (older sister of Lizzy Burns, who would later be Engels’ second wife). And his German correspondent in London was, of course, Karl Marx. Indeed, Engels ended his letter with a desire to write a History of Ireland and an admonitory request that his old comrade should visit Ireland: “Concerning the ways and means by which England rules this country – repression and corruption – long before Bonaparte attempted this, I shall write shortly if you won’t come over soon. How about it?”[1]

Lizzy Burns        Young Engels Lizzy Burns (1827-1878) and a young Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

In fact, Engels had long had a fascination with the Irish (not least with regards to his two Irish wives). Echoing his observations about Irish migrant labour in his 1856 letter to Marx, his famous 1844 work on The Condition of the Working Class in England features a detailed excursus on the Irish population in Manchester’s “Little Ireland” slum district. Engels described how Irish immigrants, with “nothing to lose at home”, were flocking to cities like Manchester in search of “good pay for strong arms”. At his time of writing, there were 40,000 Irish in Manchester, with similar numbers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Liverpool. London had 120,000. Yet Engels looked askance at a people who had “grown up almost without civilization” and were now importing their “rough, intemperate, and improvident” ways and “all their brutal habits” into Britain’s already overcrowded cities. The Irish arrived “like cattle” and “insinuate themselves everywhere.” In quasi-ethnographic terms, Engels claimed that “Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises as different from the Saxon physiognomy.” Focusing on “filth and drunkenness” and a “lack of cleanliness… which is the Irishman’s second nature”, Engels moved into a more racialised key, perhaps revealing his own biases along the way.

Little Ireland 1849

Little Ireland Plaque

“Little Ireland”, Manchester, 1849 and today

“The Irishman”, Engels wrote in the singular, “loves his pig as the Arab his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill.” Bearing in mind that “Arab” in the nineteenth century referred to Bedouins, rather than any Arabic-speaking person, it is clear where Engels was placing the Irish in a broader racial hierarchy. They were a people with “a southern facile character” and “For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane.” They were too different, and too backward, to ever be properly assimilated into British life: “even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilized, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.”[2] In many ways, he presented Irish immigrants to industrial Britain as exhibiting what he and Marx would later call “the idiocy of rural life”, a backward people who would soon be submerged by the dynamics of industrial capitalism.[3]

Yet his moralizing tone and his racial determinism could also accommodate a certain envy about Irish political power. Writing in June 1843 for Der Schweizerische Republikaner [The Swiss Republican], Engels eyed up Daniel O’Connell’s famous monster meetings with leftist jealousy:

“The wily old fox gets around from town to town always surrounded by two hundred thousand men, a bodyguard such as no king can boast of. How much could be achieved if a sensible man possessed O’Connell’s popularity, or if O’Connell had a little more sense and a little less egoism and vanity! Two thousand men, and what kind of men! Men who have nothing to lose, two-thirds of them not having a shirt to their backs, they are real proletarians and sansculottes, and moreover Irishmen – wild, headstrong, fanatical Gaels. If one has not seen the Irish, one does not know them. Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy.”[4]

As Engels gained in philosophical sophistication, his use of such overtly racialized language tailed off. His earliest writings on Ireland date from only a few months after his first meeting with Marx; they had met at the offices of the Rheinische Zeitung [Rhinelander Newspaper] in November 1842, shortly after which Engels’ stern father dispatched his troublesome twenty-two year-old son to the family’s cotton mills in Manchester.[5] First by correspondence, later in person, Marx and Engels developed their materialist understanding of history and social change. Increasingly, Engels explained people’s behaviours not in terms of inborn racial tendencies but in terms of material conditions under industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, the Irish continued to occupy a curious status for Engels. They were now the living exemplars of a pre-capitalist social formation, and visiting contemporary Ireland provided a front-row seat to the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism.

Ermen and Engels Mill, adjacent to the  Manchester-Liverpool Railway Line

The Ermen and Engels Mills, adjacent to the Liverpool-Manchester trainline

In the notes for his sadly unfinished History of Ireland – begun around 1870 – Engels traced Irish economic development back to their “ancient origins”. Engels even flirted with self-taught Irish language classes for his study of Irish history, only to admit his frustration with this “philological nonsense” to Marx.[6] It was Ireland’s “obvious… misfortune”, Engels said, to be so geographically close to England, which retarded the country’s trajectory out of feudalism and into capitalism: “the English assisted nature by crushing every seed of Irish industry as soon as it appeared.”[7] Whilst preparing for this work, Engels had come to feel that “communal ownership of land was Anno 1600 still in full force in Ireland.”[8] Pre-capitalist forms of social organisation and property-ownership lingered on in Ireland long after they had disappeared in Britain. In a letter to Marx in early 1870, Engels confessed that “The more I study the subject, the clearer it is to me that Ireland has been stunted in her development by the English invasion and thrown centuries back”.[9]

Marx had similar views. Writing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, he placed the restructuring of land-ownership in post-Famine Ireland in a longer history of land enclosures in early modern England and the Highland Clearances in post-1745 Scotland. In his florid journalistic prose, Marx spoke of how “the pauperised inhabitants of Green Erin” were being “swept away by agricultural improvements” and by the “breaking down of the antiquated system of society.”[10]

For Marx, as for Engels, Ireland still displayed traits of feudal property-ownership but was now being violently dragged into capitalist modernity.   Yet, this traumatic transformation also held out a revolutionary possibility. In contrast to the “solid, but slow” conservatism of “the Anglo-Saxon Worker”, Irish immigrant labourers had a “revolutionary fire”.[11] Not fully schooled in the rules of private-property, they carried their essentially non-capitalist consciousness to the very heart of capitalist Britain. This was a contradiction that needed to be exploited politically. Just as he had written in Der Schweizerische Republikaner in 1843, Engels continued to feel that the Irish could be the ones to bring down the British state. Marx similarly saw Ireland as the “weakest point”[12] in the British Empire, and looked forward to a social revolution that would be “Ireland’s Revenge” upon England.[13]

Indeed, Engels and Marx were of one mind in their view that Fenianism, a product of this contradiction, could be a revolutionary force on both sides of the Irish Sea:

“What the English do not yet know is that since 1846 the economic content and therefore also the political aim of English domination in Ireland have entered into an entirely new phase, and that precisely because of this, Fenianism is characterised by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement.”[14]

Which is to say, by Marx and Engels’ lights, Fenians were unconscious socialists. Giving voice to the resentments of dispossessed Irish peasants, they stood in unwitting opposition to the transformation of rural Ireland into a capitalist economy. Not that this detracted from Engels’ perception (at the time of the 1867 trial of the “Manchester Martyrs”) that the leaders of Fenianism were “mostly asses”.[15]

Engels’ later writings, though, were less hopeful for the revolutionary future of Ireland. Visiting Ireland again in September 1869, with Lizzy Burns and Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, he saw some important changes. Dublin was now “unrecognisable”. Trade was at a high level at the port and the city had acquired a newly cosmopolitan air: “On Queenstown Quay I heard a lot of Italian, also Serbian, French and Danish or Norwegian spoken.” All of this portended a regrettable conclusion: “The worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, that is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad.” [16] It would appear that Ireland had made the leap from feudalism to capitalism before Engels or Marx could finish theorizing the transformation.

Old EngelsEngels, 1891

Indeed, in an 1888 interview with the New Yorker Volkszeitung [New Yorker People’s Newspaper], Engels confessed that “A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time. People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be ruined once more.”[17] Looking to a bleak future, Engels made the intriguing prophesy that for socialist revolution to take root, Ireland would have to wait for a mortgage-backed financial crisis to ruin the country!

[1] Letter from Engels to Marx, 23 May, 1856. Reprinted in full in L.I. Golman, V.E. Kunina, eds. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971) 83-85

[2] All quotes are taken from the chapter on “Irish Immigration”, in The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press/Oxford World Classics, 1999) 101-105

[3] The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) 84

[4] ‘Letters from London’ (1843). In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 33-36

[5] Tristram Hunt. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (New York: Henry Holt, 2009) 63-64

[6] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[7] Friedrich Engels, ‘History of Ireland’. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 171-209

[8] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 279-280

[9] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[10]New York Daily Tribune, 9 February 1853, 22 March, 1853. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 53-58

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Confidential Communications’. Die Neue Zeit, 28 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 160-163

[12] Letter from Karl Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 290

[13] Karl Marx. ‘Ireland’s Revenge’. Neue Oder-Zeitung, 16 March, 1855. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 74-76

[14] Letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 30 November ,1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 147

[15] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 145

[16] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 27 September, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 273-274

[17] 20 September, 1888. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 343


Pádraic Ó Conaire, Sinn Féin, and the Workers of Ireland

There were a number of pamphlets published at the height of the Irish War of Independence that simultaneously point to the marked social strife of this period whilst also promoting a harmonious cross-class vision of an Irish people united in shared pursuit of national liberation. A representative example is the 1921 discussion of The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail [Republican Lecture Group]. Though seeking to present an image of aloofness from petty ideological squabbles, the pamphlet’s clerical author, S. O’Ceileachar, did claim that strikes were the product of unions’ “selfish” demands for higher wages. O’Ceileachar also openly stated that “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system” and “whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”.[1]


At first glance, the 1919 work Should the Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Fein? might appear to be cut of the same cloth, its title the kind of purely rhetorical question that should be answered with a resounding “Yes”.   In actual fact, it is something far more idiosyncratic. Couched in Orthodox Marxist language, this anonymously written pamphlet trenchantly critiques the politics and class interests of Irish nationalism, and astutely places Irish economic and social development in some broader historical contexts.[2]

The author, a pseudonymous “Charles Russell”, promises to “dissect and lay bare” the “real nature” of Sinn Féin, which lays covered by a “mystical atmosphere”. This is a situation exacerbated by the fact that, in the modern world, “workers are rendered docile and submissive by venal intellectuals and subsidised newspapers.” Thus, because of this miasma, Irish people have failed to see Sinn Féin for what they really are: “The “Sinn Fein” system of society is the most complex, subtle, and contradictory. It is but the new name for developed capitalism in Ireland, using Nationality and the Irish language as a cloak to reach its goal.” While Sinn Féin might baulk at any collaboration with “English capitalism”, “Russell” points out that they are “quite prepared to accept in its stead German and American capitalism.”   He also takes issue with the very idea of freedom espoused by the party. Employing a Marxist base-superstructure argument, “Russell” states that:

“People’s views are, in the main, the product of their particular social environment – they see the world from the point of view of the class into which they are born and with which their interests are bound up. Consequently the members of the small commercial firm (the germ of the large industrial concern) burn with injustice and struggle to break the bonds that interfere with the expansion of their business. They bawl at the tops of their voices for freedom, like their brothers of the 18th century in France, but bye and bye we shall see that the freedom they desire (also like that of their French brethren) is commercial freedom – the liberty to exploit nature and the worker to the fullest extent possible.”

In other words, Sinn Fein’s revolution will be a bourgeois revolution. Instead of supporting this, “We, who are working men, should concern ourselves with the bands that bind us to the wheel of capital – that doom us for ever to the toil and sweat of slavery.” “Russell” sums up his critique of Sinn Féin’s capitalist nationalism thusly: “The continuance of the private property system is the central idea in the movement, and so long as private property remains the miseries that necessarily flow therefrom will remain also and continue to afflict the workers under the Irish Republic” and “So long as private property is the order of the day it matters little to the propertyless Irish worker (the vast mass of the population) who rules Ireland.”

“Russell” couches his critiques of Sinn Féin in standard Marxist terms: workers create wealth socially, but profits are held privately; unemployment is caused by overproduction; rationally organised production exists within a system of market anarchy; capitalist production requires peace but creates war. Sinn Féin are thus doomed to fail because capitalism is doomed to fail, as it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

While the language could be polemical, a common trait in contemporary socialist literature, there was also a clear intelligence at work here. The various problems identified by this pamphlet – the critique of official intellectuals and the role they play in maintaining dominant ideologies, the analysis of nationalism’s universalizing discourse and how that elides the competing social interests in favour of a harmonious vision of cross-class (but in actuality, bourgeois) harmony, the selectively defined notion of freedom that prevails in capitalist societies – all of these are familiar questions in twentieth- and twenty-first century academic writing.

Nonetheless, it also seems that “Russell” recognised how contentious this anti-nationalist critique of Sinn Féin could be in 1919; the author proceeds to claim that, in fact, it is Sinn Féin who are the truly anti-national force. Their proposed system of land tenure is “entirely foreign to Gaelic ideals as well being, from its very nature, opposed to a real virile National life.” It is telling that it as at this point that the pamphlet draws on familiarly national language of virility and the rebuilding of a pre-Norman Gaelic Ireland. He proposes a communal system of land ownership that, “Russell” claims, is the same as that which existed in the clan-system of Gaelic Ireland. Capitalist private property is thus presented as an insidious Anglo-Norman importation: “The whole Island was replanted in the good old English landlord and tenant style. The system was universally established from North to South, from East to West. The land that was communally owned by the Gaelic Clansmen became the fee-simple estate of Protestant, Catholic and Puritan landlord” and “the old Gaelic land system never again made its appearance in Ireland.”

The argument was clearly developed in a careful and judicious manner, making it doubly frustrating that the pamphlet’s pseudonymous author, “Charles Russell”, remains unknown. When the Cork Workers’ Club, a short-lived schism from the British and Irish Communist Organisation, reissued this pamphlet as part of a historical document series in 1977, they could do little but say that “Russell” was a self-described “wage slave of Ireland”[3] – which tells us little other than that this orthodox Marxist saw himself in correctly orthodox terms!

O Ceallaigh Signature 1

O Ceallaigh Signature 2 - From a 1932 Letter

What could be Ó Ceallaigh’s signature on the 1919 pamphlet and what is definitely his signature on a 1932 government memo

A possible clue as to the author’s identity, though, can be found on the front cover of the National Library of Ireland’s copy of this pamphlet. As well as what appears to be the signature of future president Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh, scrawled across the middle of the cover, there is a name and address: “P O Conaire, 56 Mary Street”. It is tempting to think that this is the well-known writer and language activist Pádraic Ó Conaire. The National Library do not keep records of when or how they acquire pamphlets like this, but this would suggest that both Ó Ceallaigh and Ó Conaire owned this specific copy of the pamphlet.

O Conaire Name + Address“P O Conaire 56 Mary St”

Pádraic Ó Conaire lived a famously nomadic life, regularly moving between Galway, Dublin and London, though he does seem to have been in Ireland in 1919, when this pamphlet was published. There is a Mary Street in Galway but no number fifty-six. Dublin does have a 56 Mary Street, on the north side of the Liffey, and according to the 1911 census it was divided into what appear to be a series of flats. Apart from these speculative associations, though, there are also some good textual reasons to think that Pádraic Ó Conaire might actually have been “Charles Russell”.

Padraic-O’Conaire-Statue-with-Eamonn-DeValera-pic_NUIG 1935

Eamon de Valera unveils the famous statue of Ó Conaire, Galway, 1935

Aside from the Irish language prose for which he is usually known today, Ó Conaire was an avowed socialist; that this fact that has been smoothed over in favour of the far less contentious image of a hard-drinking bard, would surely confirm the views of “Charles Russell” (whoever he actually was).

In Cummanachas Céard San Am Ata le Theacht [Trade Unionism in the Future], a 1919 essay later republished by the British and Irish Communist Organisation as a part of a pamphlet on Marxachas-Lenineachas [Marxism-Leninism][4], Ó Conaire not only openly avowed his radical politics but did so in terms remarkably similar to those of “Charles Russell”. Like “Russell”, Ó Conaire’s political analysis was couched in a much longer historical frame: capitalism would eventually fall just as Constantinople once fell to “an Túrcach borb” [the terrible Turk]. Ó Conaire’s predictions were also familiarly Marxist: “go bhfuil lucht oibre an domhain, lucht soláthruighthe gach maoine, ag teacht i réim” [that the working class of the world, the class that produces all wealth, is coming into power].

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s recent biography, Réabhlóid Phádraic Uí Chonaire [Pádraic Ó Conaire’s Revolution] goes a long way to rediscovering this forgotten aspect of his career. And in a companion volume, An tAthrú Mór: Scríbhinní Sósialacha le Pádraic Ó Conaire [The Great Transformation: The Socialist Writings of Pádraic Ó Conaire], Ó Cathasaigh has compiled a extensive amount of Ó Conaire’s political prose, the bulk of which were originally published in well-known newspapers like The Freeman’s Journal or more obscure periodicals like An Branar [The Fertile Land]. Intriguingly, his socialist writings clustered around 1918-19, contemporaneous with Should The Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Féin?, and like “Charles Russell”, Ó Conaire’s short political essays showed a strong interest in developments in continental Europe [see, for example, his April 1919 piece on Drochobair san Ungáir, The Terrible Work in Hungary] and an intriguingly similar sensitivity to broader historical structures.

An tAthrú Mór

In any case, whether or not Ó Conaire was “Charles Russell”, one interesting aspect of his political writings definitely remains: the manner in which his Marxist writings were also an attempt to redefine the Irish language.  JJ Lee once said that “The preoccupation of “Irish-Irelanders” with legitimising their aspirations by invoking alleged precedents from the celtic mists have misled some observers into portraying them as simple reactionaries. In fact, far from prisoners of the past, the modernisers created the past in their image of the future.”[5] The Gaelic Revival should perhaps be more accurately called “The Gaelic Invention”, as Irish language writers sought to recreate modernity within a Gaelic idiom. Ó Conaire also seems to have been working in this mode, as he sought to create a modernised and socialist Irish language. His political prose is peppered with familiar Marxist slogans, albeit in Irish, as if he was trying to fuse Marxism and Gaelic League-ism. He talks of the need for aon chumann mór amhain [one big union] and says that this is one of socialism’s rosgcatha [an archaic term meaning battle-cries, here seemingly re-purposed to mean something akin to slogans]. With one eye on contemporary events in Russia, he spoke of the soon approaching “an t-Athrrach Mór” [the Great Transformation] that would be “an t-Atharrach tionnsgalach agus economic is mó dar thainic ariamh” [“the greatest industrial and economic transformation ever”]. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s edited collection corrects many of these anachronisms and replaces them with standardised spellings. Where Ó Conaire might have spoken of an t-Atharrach economic [The Economic Transformation], for instance, Ó Cathasaigh makes the subtle shift to an t-Athrach eacnamaíoch. Yet, as genuinely helpful as this might be to contemporary Irish language readers, it also means that something of historical interest is lost in the process. We miss out on how Ó Conaire was not just writing in the Irish language, he was perhaps also trying to create an Irish socialist language. What might appear to be anachronisms, could actually be rough-and-ready building blocks.

[1] Military Archives, BMH CD 250/4/16, S. O’Ceileachar, D.D. The Labour Problem (1921)

[2] “Charles Russell”. Should the Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Fein? (Dublin: W.H. West, 1918)

[3] Historical Reprints, No. 11, Sinn Féin & Socialism (Cork: Cork Workers’ Club, 1977).   My thanks to Benjamin Lee Stone, the Curator for American and British History, Stanford University Libraries, for his help in tracking down a copy of this pamphlet.

[4] Marxachas-Lenineachas (Belfast: Cumann Comharsheilbhe na hÉireann, 1968]

[5] J.J. Lee. The Modernisation of Irish Society (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1973) 141.