The Irish Universal Suffrage Association and the Seven Points of the People’s Charter

Chartists were few and far between in Ireland, where they faced not just the opposition of the state authorities and the Catholic church, but the active hostility of the hugely influential nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell and the violent interventions of his supporters.

The Seven Points of the Charter. Source: TNA 904/8. Click for larger image.

Despite these obstacles, between 1841 and 1848, a small but persistent Irish Universal Suffrage Association kept the cause alive and maintained links with the movement in England, its president Patrick O’Higgins taking an active part at Chartist conventions in Birmingham (1843) and Manchester (1844). There were, too, less formal connections with Irish radicals who had emigrated. The Barnsley Chartist Peter Hoey, who had left Drogheda for Yorkshire as a young man in the late 1820s, returned for several months in 1841 to organise a branch of the IUSA, and the Barnsley Chartists regularly passed resolutions and addresses on matters of Irish politics.

Daniel O’Connell held an almost unassailable place in the affections of the Irish working class, hailed as ‘the liberator’ for his part in Catholic emancipation, and a significant figure in the House of Commons where he tended to ally himself and his supporters with the Whig interest. He was an early supporter of the Chartist cause, signing the Charter itself as one of seven MPs credited (along with seven working men) as its authors. But his failure to oppose the Whigs’ Irish Coercion Act in 1833 had given English working-class radicals cause for concern that crystalised with his opposition to factory reform and trade unionism into outright animosity. That O’Connell and Feargus O’Connor shared a personal antipathy that neither attempted to disguise gave the two men’s supporters carte blanche to attack one another. The Chartists of Leicester thought O’Connell ‘one of the vilest of traitors and political apostates recorded in the annals of political delinquency’ (Chartist, February 2, 1839).

Support for the Charter in Ireland came mainly from working class radicals who had opposed O’Connell’s attacks on the Dublin trade unions in 1837 and 1838. But an initial public meeting on 13 August 1839 to form an Irish Chartist Association was violently broken up by a mob led by Thomas Ray, O’Connell’s placeman at the anti-trade union Trades Political Union. The Chartist Convention delegate Robert Lowery, who had been sent to Dublin to speak on its behalf, was forced to flee the meeting hall to escape injury. L.T. Clancy, who was the group’s secretary, later moved to London, and remained active there in Chartism.

The most prominent of the Dublin Chartists was Patrick O’Higgins. Born at Ballymagrahan, near Castlewellan, Co. Down in 1790, he became a wool merchant and was an active supporter of O’Connell until 1833 when the two men fell out. O’Higgins became increasingly radical, launching a newspaper titled the Tribune in 1834, with James Whittle installed as editor. O’Higgins argued that without universal suffrage an Irish parliament would be little better than Westminster –the key issue that would later divide Irish Chartists and O’Connellites.

In July 1841, O’Higgins was elected President of the newly formed Irish Universal Suffrage Association. Peter Brophy, a weaver who would later become a full-time organiser in England for the Miners’ Association, and W.H. Dyott, a radical printer and trade unionist opponent of O’Connell, both served as secretary at different times. In its first few months of operation, the IUSA recruited some 552 members, with a further 160 more in Drogheda – largely thanks to the efforts of Peter Hoey, whose confrontations with O’Connell and his supporters were reported enthusiastically in the Northern Star. Another Chartist group in Belfast succeeded in collecting 2,000 signatures for the 1842 Chartist petition, and in 1843, membership of the Chartist organisation peaked at 1,051.

‘What is a Chartist?’ Source: TNA 904/8. Click for larger image.

As with so much Chartist activity, however, the IUSA had been infiltrated by police spies, who sent regular reports to the Commissioner of Police at Dublin Castle. An account of its first committee meeting on 2 October 1841 recorded that those present included Patrick O’Higgins, Patrick Rafter, Edward, Deuprey, William Woodward, Thomas Wood, Henry Clarke, James Dillon, Henry Carey, Patrick McMahon, Richard Dunne, John Norton and Peter M. Brophy, and gave details of the posts they occupied in the organisation. The reports were accompanied by a copy of the IUSA’s four-page leaflet titled The Question “What is a Chartist?” Answered. It provocatively begins by quoting O’Connell’s earlier comment that ‘He who is not a Chartist is either a knave… or a fool’.

With a sense of the IUSA’s own place in history, Woodward had told the meeting that the organisation was ‘now commencing on the same principles as was done in the year 1794, when the people of Ireland demanded universal suffrage, vote by ballot and annual parliaments. He then produced a printed book which was published in that year, in which was the oath taken by the Army in raising the people the different codes used at that time, and the signs and passwords’. Woodward was swiftly warned, however, to leave the book at home in future as it would lead to all of them being arrested if found by the police.

Writing for Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society in 1984, Bernard Reaney noted that most Chartist groups were located in Ireland’s eastern counties, with Chartists at Lucan and Donabate, where Patrick Ryan, formerly the parish priest in Barnsley had been transferred and was continuing his support for Chartism, as well as in Dublin City. In County Meath, there were groups at Drogheda, Navan, Dunboyne, Athboy, and Balbriggan, and further north there were groups in Down and Newry. More widely, there was Chartist activity at Ballyragget in Kilkenny, Cashel in County Tipperary, Loughrea in Galway and in Sligo and Cork.

The version of the People’s Charter put forward by the Irish Universal Suffrage Association was unique for the seventh point it added to the usual six:

Though Britain’s Chartists never amended their own six point programme, the demand for a repeal of the union was included in the 1842 petition.

The IUSA was not a substantial presence in Irish politics, and in 1844, it fell silent. It briefly revived, again under O’Higgins in 1848 when, following the death of O’Connell, O’Higgins and other IUSA leaders shared a platform with the leading Irish Nationalist and editor of the United Irishman John Mitchel. O’Higgins was arrested in the government crackdown which also saw Mitchel, later an advocate for the American Confederate cause and slavery, transported to Bermuda.

In 1849, O’Higgins and his IUSA comrades became members of the socialist-inclined Irish Democratic Association. But the organisation lasted only a few months, and prison had destroyed O’Higgins’ health. He died in Dublin in 1854 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.

Notes and sources

O’Connell, Daniel (1775-1847), in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, Cambridge University Press 2009. Accessed 1 July 2024.

O’Higgins, Patrick, by Bridget Hourican in Dictionary of Irish Biography, Royal Irish Academy 2009. Accessed 1 July 2024.

‘Daniel O’Connell, repeal and Chartism in the age of Atlantic revolutions’, by Matthew Roberts in The Journal of Modern History, 90(1) 2018. Also available from Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive (SHURA). Accessed 1 July 2024.

‘Irish Chartists in England and Ireland: Rescuing the Rank and File’, by Bernard Reaney in Saothar 10, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society, 1984.

Ireland: Dublin Castle Records: CO 904/8 Ribbonism vol II, The National Archives.