Review: A History of Irish Republicanism in Dundee

by Sean Bell

For a city with a reputation as “a radical toun”, as distinguished by the Irish element of its identity as anywhere in Scotland, the independent historian Rút Nic Foirbeis understandably found it “a strange oversight” that so little has been written concerning Irish republicanism in Dundee. Should anyone wonder if that is because there’s little worth writing about, Foirbeis’s monumental new study should set them straight.

It is no surprise that Foirbeis identifies her project’s origins in the winter of 1988/89, during a spell with the Dundee Oral History Project; the book she has finally produced certainly reflects a quarter-century of scholarship. Indeed, the level of meticulously researched detail is often dizzying, yet never irrelevant – this is no desperate attempt to draw barely connected tangents or unimportant ephemera into a debatably coherent whole, but an organic work charting the evolution and coaction of republicanism, socialism, nationalism and radicalism within the City of Discovery.

The purview Foirbeis undertook came with both advantages and challenges; histories of Irish republican activity in the 19th century are frequently patchy, written long after the fact and subject to revision and romanticisation, depending upon the agenda of their authors; meanwhile, primary records of republican organisations – especially those like the famously secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) – are either sparse or hidden behind the subterfuge made necessary by their clandestine activities. Ironically, the records of the police and government Irish republicans spent so long fighting have become key sources in documenting those years of struggle.

Fortunately, Dundee – city of journalism, along with jute and jam – had, in the latter half of the 19th century, the advantage of a newspaper industry that was “one of the most advanced in the British Isles”, a pertinent reminder that the journalism of today can become the history of tomorrow, and that the steady dissolution of that trade harms not only our understanding of the present, but the ability of future generations to do the same.

From her starting point in the 1840s, Foirbeis quickly identifies recurrent themes and conflicts. Around the same time Karl Marx was sharing his first drink with a rich kid named Engels, a movement to end the union between Ireland and Britain was gaining momentum, initially in the form of the Loyal National Repeal Organisation (LNRO). It was not long, however, before the divisions between constitutionalists and revolutionaries would become apparent. In 1846, the Young Irelanders withdrew from the LNRO, along with many Dundee Repealers, after Daniel O’Connell – later known to some as ‘the Liberator’ – ruled out the possibility of pursuing their political goals by force of arms.

“When we find a popular leader turning around upon a number of patriotic gentlemen,” they proclaimed, “and declaring that they are violating the law – the law that says Irishmen must be ruled by Englishmen – we cannot restrain our indignation.” Early plans for rebellion, much like the Chartists’ simultaneous hope for insurrection in London, were quickly frustrated, and the movement for Irish freedom settled into the “the old secret means” which would characterise it for decades to come.

As Irish immigration exploded in the wake of the Great Hunger, those who ended up in Dundee found no salvation: fleeing famine, they found pestilence instead, and by January 1848, the death rate from typhus in Dundee was averaging 15 per day. Reflecting on the ‘Great Calamity’ the Irish people could seemingly not escape, Foirbeis describes it as “the combined consequences of unjust land laws, ecological disaster, displacement and poverty”. The anger this inspired amongst the city’s Irish community would inform republicanism in Dundee for years to come.

Pictured: A modern view of Lochee, long associated with Dundee’s Irish population.

Foirbeis’ chapter on mid-19th century Fenianism provides an early example of the complicated and often fractious nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Irish nationalism: after clumsily attacking a series of Dundee reading rooms set up by the National Brotherhood of Saint Patrick, “the clergymen and their conservative allies inadvertently created the situation they were anxious to prevent… and left a more defiant, rebellious body of men whose growing literacy and knowledge of Irish affairs conspired to provide their radical nationalism with a new political edge.” Students of history will recognise how vital this stage is in the maturation of any successful revolutionary movement.

Despite the benefits reaped from priestly condemnation, Irish nationalists in Scotland would find a more sympathetic clerical figure in Father Patrick Lavelle, ‘the patriot priest of Partry’, who gained fame fundraising for homeless parishioners evicted by their landlord, the Anglican Bishop Thomas Plunkett. Widely seen as “the personification of Irish resistance to British injustice”, Lavelle’s fiery rhetoric and barnstorming visits to Scotland helped cement a Scottish base of support for Fenianism – which, ironically, was increasingly concerning itself with deeds rather than words, as well as the grim discipline which would later come to typify certain physical force republican groups.

Following the publication of an anonymous letter from ‘A True Celt’ in the Dundee Courier, a response – allegedly from “One of the Fenian Brotherhood, Dundee branch” – issued an ominous warning: “If your correspondent writes any more epistles of a like nature he will be as well to make all necessary arrangements for his funeral. The Fenian Brotherhood do not believe in discussing their principles in the columns of Dundee newspapers – indeed I may say they disapprove of discussion altogether. We know the secret of our power, which does not consist in argument.”

This culture of secrecy did little to protect the Fenians from infiltration by police spies, and Foirbeis makes a compelling case that it became a “double-edged sword” which contributed to the failure of the abortive Fenian Uprising of 1867, many lessons of which the IRB would stubbornly refuse to learn. The organisation was not immune to adaptation however, and in 1873 committed to lending their support “to every movement calculated to advance the cause of Irish independence” – a canny move in light of the Home Rule movement which was growing in influence, particularly in Scotland.

James Connolly’s memorial plaque in the Cowgate, Edinburgh.

Far more pivotal and transformative was the emergence of the Irish National Land League, the key principles of which – “that the poor tenant farmers should not have to pay unfair rents, and that those who lived and worked on the land had the right to own it” – found a deeply receptive audience in Dundee’s Irish community, for whom the Famine was a still-painful memory, and rack-renting landlords a present reality. The impact of the Land League – a “seminal” influence, Foirbeis notes, on the worldview of the Scots-born Irish revolutionary James Connolly – was the clearest demonstration yet of the interplay between the material conditions of the working-class and the development of not just Irish republicanism, but Scottish nationalism and socialism as well.

Placing itself within these contexts, more than any prior participation in broader movements, helped expose Dundee to political currents it had difficulty producing itself. While Edinburgh was becoming “the seed bed of socialism in Scotland”, Dundee “lacked a similar cosmopolitan dynamic”, Foirbeis writes. Despite this, socialist politics developed a foothold in Dundee nevertheless, just in time for Connolly’s arrival in the city, shortly after he ‘discharged’ himself from the British Army.

That it was Dundee’s socialist activity which attracted Connolly has been the received wisdom since C. Desmond Greaves’ influential 1961 biography, and it was indeed this version of history that I (being a distant descendant of Connolly) had always heard. Foirbeis, however, notes that there was already significant crossover between Dundonian socialism and its Irish political scene, and so the argument could be made that the city’s influence upon Connolly’s political development may be even greater than previously expected.

The turn of the 20th century saw even more tumultuous national and international events play out in Dundee as much as anywhere, from the growth of trade unionism and the Suffrage movement to the outbreak of the First World War and the sudden, shocking advent of the Easter Rising. The latter conflicts would establish a clear divide between old school, anti-revolutionary reformists and Home Rulers, and those who reacted to the history unfolding before them with a new and furious militancy.

Dundee’s response to the Rising was undistinguished; shortly after news of the insurrection broke, the city’s Home Rulers united in a statement condemning an “act of treachery not only to the Empire but also to Ireland”. If there was any sympathy for the rebellion in the Dundonian Irish community, it went unspoken – something Foirbeis finds unsurprising: “While the Irish in Dundee enjoyed a greater level of acceptance than their compatriots in other Scottish cities, they were also aware that anti-Irish prejudice was an intrinsic part of Scottish society, and that attitudes could sharply shift in times of crisis.”

Such caution was hardly confined to Dundee, but as Irish republicanism regrouped in the wake of the execution of the Rising’s leaders, its forces in Scotland went to work once again: by 1920, the Scottish Brigade of the Irish Republican Army comprised of five battalions and 24 companies, their chief role being the procurement and trafficking of arms. Between 1919 and 1921, “Scotland contributed more in the way of material aid to the Irish liberation struggle than any other country”. It has been suggested that, per head of population, no town in Scotland procured more arms than Dundee; Foirbeis’ account of Cathy and Lena MacDonald, Dundee’s most prolific IRA gun-runners, is among the book’s most fascinating sections.

This period of intense Irish republican activity in Scotland largely came to an end in the mid-1920s – a time which, not coincidentally, also saw a dramatic upsurge in anti-Irish Catholic prejudice, arguably stimulated by the 1923 publication of the Church of Scotland report ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality’. This document – which laid blame upon the Irish for every ill facing Scotland except the weather – was enthusiastically endorsed by Dundee’s press (now the fiefdom of DC Thomson), behind whose “anxieties about the Irish menace… lurked a fear of a red one”.

The bigotry promoted by the Thomson papers and their religious allies may not have been an entirely accurate reflection of the Dundonian people’s true feelings, but it nevertheless engendered an environment which would dampen republicanism within the city for decades. Even after the Troubles saw the revival of physical force republicanism, Dundee’s re-engagement with events in Ireland was “slow off the mark”. Yet just as in the days of the Land League, outrage in the face of injustice would stir Dundee’s radical instincts once again.

In 1976, the ‘Special Category Status’ of republican prisoners was removed as part of the British strategy of portraying the violence in Northern Ireland as “not a political struggle against the British State but a regional crime wave”. Even in the face of concerted political and legal censorship and repression, the subsequent H-Block protests triggered the rise of a network of Irish solidarity groups across the UK.

Pictured: An edition of International Socialism from the early 1970s. (Credit: Splits & Fusions)

In Dundee, many of these efforts were under the direction of socialist republicans, including local members of the International Socialists (IS), and Foirbeis’s diplomatic description of their activities will probably be considered fair by those old enough to remember them: “For all their flaws, the Trotskyite groups encouraged their members to explore a wide range of literature and ideas.”

One of these ideas was that Marxism in Britain had until that point shown insufficient concern for anti-imperialist struggles, whether in Palestine, South Africa or Ireland, and that this should be redressed. It is not unreasonable to draw a line between this conclusion and the pro-Palestinian solidarity movement of today.

Unlike the non-republican United Troops Out Movement (UTOM), activists in Dundee could afford not only to be radical, but open about their radicalism, as “political loyalties were not as intense or toxic as in the west central belt”. The activist John Malone recalls: “Other UTOM branches couldn’t believe it when we said we could sell AP/RN [An Phoblacht/Republican News] unmolested. Only now do I realise what a revelation [this was], for in certain parts of Glasgow you could get your throat cut for wearing a Celtic scarf.”

For some, this is where a sense of familiarity – not always fond – may creep into their reading; not just the names of semi-obscure, semi-notorious socialist grouplets that, “like Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party… had more syllables than members”, but the sectarian pettiness, in-fighting and recriminations so many have, not incorrectly, come to associate with the postwar British left.

Foirbeis does her best to outline all this in the least byzantine manner possible; it is even more to her credit that none of these diversions overshadows a key conclusion – that underpinning the history she has recounted “were issues of class, culture and nationality, whereby overlapping Scots and Irish identities enhanced and strengthened others and begat a more radical and distinctly Scottish form of pro-Republican solidarity”.

By explicating the curious alchemy behind that solidarity, Foirbeis has produced not only a worthy work of history, but an instructive lesson deeply relevant to the present, which modern Scotland should not ignore.



Sean Bell is a writer and journalist based in Edinburgh. His work has appeared in The National, The Herald, Source and Jacobin.

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