Scotland and the struggle for Irish freedom 

by C. Desmond Greaves, 1973

Scots steel tempered wi’ Irish fire

Is the weapon of desire. 

  •         Hugh MacDiarmid, The Weapon

It has been said that many of the mysteries of European history would be mysteries no more if the Celtic peoples were not assigned the purely passive role imperial writers attribute to them. Hence a thorough study of Scottish-Irish relations would be very valuable. The following remarks may not be fully valid but will serve to open the subject up for discussion.

The Scots were of course originally one people with the Irish, and in the first period after the separation this identity was a recognised political fact. In the feudal period Ireland became the object of dynastic rivalries. Then under capitalism arose the special colonial position of Ireland, for which the Scottish bourgeoisie shares the blame with the English. As capitalism gave rise to the working class, in this period also arose proletarian solidarity with the Irish cause. The course of Scottish-Irish relations was thus intimately involved with the course of the class struggle in Scotland.

The Normans first landed in Ireland in 1169. Such is the antiquity of the struggle we are discussing. After 382 years of almost continuous warfare, Cromwell completed the conquest and substituted for the (modified) clan system colonial feudalism. Now in 1169 Scotland was a sovereign state – subject of course to the homage William 1 did Henry II for his southern fiefs – and in 1173 intervened in the civil war that raged in England. But there seems to have been no conception of alliance or co-operation between the two Irish-speaking countries, despite Henry’s difficulties on the continent.

The feudal struggle

This was characteristic of feudalism. A central authority ruled over constantly shifting and interlocking fragments. The Scots and Irish regarded themselves as communities, but they were not yet nations. The coordination of the forces of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, frequent in former days, seems to have been the product of the several centuries during which the Irish were the strongest power of these islands and held large tracts of Britain.

Frequently Scottish feudalism – which must not be identified with English – looked to France as a counterweight to Norman England. But the Irish orientation was not absent. Thus nine years after William Wallace was captured and murdered, Robert Bruce was crowned king in opposition to the claims of Edward of England. There was an immediate response in Ireland. Domhnall O’Neill, styling himself “rightful heir to all Ireland”, sent a remonstrance to the Pope which announced that Robert’s brother Edward Bruce had been elected King of Ireland as “descended from our most noble ancestors”. He was crowned at Dundalk on May 1st, 1316. He carried out a brilliant military campaign against the English but was unable to win the support of the entire people. Munster failed to rise, and he was finally defeated and killed in 1318. The attempt to bring in the stranger was based on feudal practise. Perhaps it failed because feudalism was insufficiently established in Ireland.

The English monarchy was nevertheless grievously weakened by its defeat at the hands of the Scots. Its control of Ireland correspondingly lessened. The result was the recovery of the clans and an innovation in which Scotland was also concerned. In the mid 14th-century the first Irish standing army appeared, recruited from Irish-speaking inhabitants of Argyll and the islands. They were the famous gall-oglaigh, foreign soldiers, or gallowglasses. No longer need the clansman after a successful battle rush home to gather the harvest while his enemies recuperated. This was a new institution within the clan system, and clearly it contributed to the development of Irish feudalism, but being of native origin it bore seeds of further change.

Through the long and unequal struggle that followed between Scotland and England the Irish question was constantly involved, and a thorough-going Marxist history would be very useful. There must be plenty of capable young students in the Scottish universities. Another useful work would be a study of the influence of the Irish question on the growth of the English nation.

The increasing dependence of Scotland on England is illustrated by the fact that in 1364 the Scottish Parliament promised Edward III a contingent of troops for one of his Irish expeditions. At the same time there was a steady development of trade between the two countries, and a growth of the towns in consequence. The old linguistic and ethnic identity still exerted its influence, and if Ulster was independent of the English crown, so the Lord of the Isles could afford to ignore the Scottish, and there was constant interchange between the Lordship and the Ulster coast.

Reformation and Plantation

And so till the Reformation in Scotland introduced a fresh element. This is of course a vast subject. According to Thomas Johnson it was disastrous for the working class.1 The barons seized supreme power and appropriated church lands and church wealth estimated as a third to a half of the total wealth of Scotland. The bourgeoisie benefitted no doubt from this act of “primitive accumulation”, but were secondary. Beggars and vagrants swarmed the roads and before long Scots were being shipped to America and the West Indies by the thousand. At the same time those with special skills, for example miners, were forcibly retained. In 1606 and 1607 laws were passed forbidding workers to leave their employment without permission.

There is badly needed a Marxist study of this period of upheaval in Scotland in conjunction with the emigration to the north of Ireland. Since the robbery of the church did not benefit the bourgeoisie in the main, and Scotland’s part in the plunder on the “Spanish Main” was subsidiary to England’s – as is evidenced by the Darien effort which was to have redressed the balance somewhat – Scottish capitalism intensified exploitation at home. The reduction of Ireland by Cromwell and the continuation and intensification of the Elizabethan policy of plantation and settlement provided the context for emigration from Scotland to Ireland.

English appropriation of Irish land proceeded under the cloak of religion. Catholics were not allowed to hold land. But where could the new owners find tenants? This is where the Scots came in. Some went from inducements, some as adventurers, but Johnson certainly implies – and I defer to Scottish historians on this point – that others were helped on the way, possibly among other things by evictions. He says that “in two years alone 10,000 Scots were emigrated to Ireland”.

The period of Scottish settlement of north-eastern Ireland, which was of course in no way a complete settlement, was one of the most savage repression and persecution of the Scottish people. The emigrants took with them a strongly developed independence and a thirst for freedom which required several centuries of imperial villainy to pervert, and at that only pervert, not destroy.

Marxist historians usually say of the Cromwellian settlement in Ireland that the English revolution was halted in its tracks by the appropriation of the land of the Irish. The nation which oppresses another forges its own chains, and this is the classic instance. The Scottish bourgeoisie, economically weaker than the English, and more oppressive at home, having assisted the aristocracy to make a meal of the church estates, hesitated to do more than bark for the bones. They and the aristocracy joined the Cromwellian conspiracy against the Irish, and the logical end of the road was the Union in 1707. Without expressing any opinion upon what degree of autonomy the Scots should seek in the future, history seems to teach that it can never be attained under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, for the development of that class depended on the Union with England. And as the Irish settlement was an essential aspect of this Union, the Irish could expect just as little from Scottish capitalism as the Scots. One speaks of course of the main body of the bourgeoisie, not of sections influenced by other classes.

Jacobitism is a subject too complex to be discussed here. It should be studied neither from Jacobite nor “good old cause” histories. Catholic Ireland of course naturally figured in Jacobite calculations. But Jacobitism was never the Irish choice. The Irish name for James II of England was “Seamus a’chaca”, “James the shit”, which speaks for itself.

Out of the Cromwellian maelstrom emerged the Irish nation, in which the leading force was a none too vigorous bourgeoisie, which looked forward to English mercantile restrictions and backward to the massive starving peasantry behind, and gradually plucked up courage and looked for allies. The slow gathering of the national forces during the 18th century, concluding with the use of the American revolution to wrest legislative independence from the English Parliament, is one of the epics of Irish history, an epic of mass persistency and endurance. During the same century the Scottish bourgeoisie, growing steadily richer on the labour of expropriated highlanders and others, likewise plucked up courage – safe under the English umbrella – to challenge the corrupt oligarchy. There was thus some parallel between the two countries. Moreover, the growth of capitalism was creating a working class, not fully conscious of itself, but in both countries influencing the development of a left wing, especially among the petite-bourgeoisie.

Orangeism and nationalism – the 19th century

It was under the influence of the French revolution that the Irish bourgeoisie formed the powerful but temporary alliance with the peasantry that was broken by the counter-revolution which began in 1793. One of the factors in breaking this alliance was the newly founded Orange  order. In Scotland as in Ireland the cry went up for political democracy. A narrower but  comparable alliance grew up, and the radical United Scotsman were in fraternal relations with the United Irishmen. It is worth mentioning here that there are reports that Highlanders in the English army on occasions refused to fire on the Irish during the counter-revolution. Thus the oldest bond of solidarity between the Irish and Scottish peoples still retained its force as the new one was first forged.

At this time began the reverse emigration of the Irish into Scotland. There had of course been Irish emigration for centuries, but nothing like the flood in the 19th century. The Union of 1801 exposed Irish industries to English competition. It is worth noting that in the troubles in Scotland in 1816 and afterwards, the immigrant Irish rebels played an important part in the popular cause. The events of the turn of the century show that as soon as the Scottish people established a political existence, opposition to the aristocracy meant support for the cause of Irish freedom.

Of course one must not exaggerate. During the first third of the 19th century the average Scottish worker viewed the Irish immigrant with hostility. This was understandably less with immigrants of the Presbyterian faith, who were more easily assimilated. These, however, came back with an ancestral guilt in their minds, from the crime of the land seizures. The effects of the Union of 1801 were less severe in north-eastern Ireland than elsewhere, but emigration was nevertheless substantial. The area most affected was the West of Scotland. And a little story from the official history of Orangeism will illustrate how the aristocracy exploited the situation.

At Lord Kenyon’s residence, we are told, the Duke of Cumberland presiding, there were glowing reports of Colonel Fairman’s tour of Scotland at which many new lodges of the Orange Order were established. This was on 4th June, 1833, a ticklish time for the ruling class. The seed was sown. Two years later, on 12th July, 1835, riots took place that have become famous in history. The most serious in Scotland were at Port Glasgow where Catholic and Protestant immigrants worked together as sugar boilers and dockers. These were the early days of Trade Union organisation and in the run up to Chartism. The aristocracy attempted to fuse Orangeism and Scottish Calvinism – if one may use the word in a general sense – to delay the development of working-lass consciousness. This was true to historical type. Theocratic Presbyterianism, created to squeeze concessions from the aristocracy and simultaneously keep the workers in order, was taken up as a handy tool by which the Anglo-Irish aristocracy attempted to split the Scottish workers on the basis of Irish immigration. The growth of solidarity took place against constant efforts by the ruling classes to obstruct it. At the vast Chartist meeting in Glasgow Green in 1842, the demand for the Repeal of the Union received full support. In those days solidarity was in the ascendant. But after the decline of Chartism, particularly when the establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in Britain afforded the excuse, anti-Catholic and implicitly anti-Irish organisations revived. It was the remnant of these which Mr Ian Paisley recently selected for the kiss of life. During periods of relative quiescence in the Labour Movement, the Irish, driven so to speak into a political ghetto, concentrated on developing their own immigrant organisations, based less on their actual situation in Scotland than on their former situation in Ireland and contemporary events at home. Of the powerful Fenian organisations established in Scotland during the 1860s and 1870s, James Comedy noted that they were always more radical than their counterparts at home. In other words, they were unconsciously influenced by their class position.

Both Davitt and Parnell enjoyed great support in Scotland after revival of the Labour movement in the 1880s. David toured the Highlands for land reform, holding many a meeting where today you would be hard put to find a fox. The land question was to the fore in Scottish socialist thinking. But it was of less consequence in England, and perhaps this is one case where the influence of English thinking obscured the completely distinct character of the Scottish land question. Parnell was made a freeman of the City of Edinburgh. Even the bourgeoisie recognised him. During the 1880s the great mass struggles of the Irish people for land took place alongside the re-awakening of workingclass action in Scotland, and it is no accident that the forerunners of the modern Communist movement, James Connolly and John Leslie in Scotland, constantly pointed out the identity of these struggles.

Scottish socialists

During the ensuing period, say from 1880 to the early 1920s, the Irish question dominated British politics, and the factors whose origin has been sketched above played a weightier part. The west of Scotland was of course the cockpit. As far back as 1851 no less than 16% of the population of Glasgow was Irish and Catholic. To these must be added the Protestant Irish. The years brought both multiplication and replenishment.

The Social Democratic Federation and its successors, the British Socialist Party and the Communist Party, maintained the Marxist position on Ireland based on the right of self- determination of nations. It is only necessary to mention such names as William Gallacher, Bob Stewart and Jimmie Shields to evoke lifetimes of devoted effort.  In the midst of the Black-and-Tan terror in Ireland John MacLean wrote his celebrated pamphlet, The Irish Tragedy, Scotland’s Disgrace,prompted by the misuse of Scottish regiments to dragoon the Irish people. It is extremely interesting to note that there are references to disaffection in Highland regiments as in 1798. It is astounding that sentiment can live on for a thousand years and still exert political influence. A Marxist should conclude there is no such thing as simple “backwardness” but a special form of complexity. For John MacLean did not get his general strike and the “backward” Highlanders bent army regulations. Perhaps, as Marx said of the Irish, the Highlanders suffered because they were too advanced!

Apart from the Marxists however, despite much goodwill, there was also much uncertainty and confusion in the Scottish Labour Movement. A study of the influence of the Irish question on the evolution of the Scottish Labour Movement explains the emergence in Scotland of men like Leslie and Connolly. But it also explains those of Connolly’s Scottish lieutenants who could not understand how he “got mixed up” in Easter 1916. And Leslie’s failure to understand.1916 was his first move to the right, which finally brought him into association with Dan Irving and Jack Jones, the three of them being hooted off an Edinburgh platform for attacking the Russian Revolution. The leaders of the Labour Party followed the Liberals in capitulating to the Unionists over Home Rule, and while they accepted the self-determination stance of 1920, did little to implement the decisions and resigned themselves readily when the Treaty purported to take Ireland out of British politics.

During the revolutionary period of 1919-21, of all the leaders, John MacLean seems most strongly of the view that the Scottish workers themselves must pass from words to deeds. If he had had his way, not a few Highlanders but the mass of the Scottish working class would have said “enough”. But the past survives into the present. Glasgow contained two immigrant populations, differently orientated towards the Irish question. There was a tendency for practical Trade Unionists anxious for unity on immediate questions to content themselves with generous expressions of opinion, and not really think their way through to a conclusion on the Irish question. This left the nationalist Irish in the political ghetto, which housing arrangements had indeed made a physical ghetto, where their efforts to assist the movement at home were seconded by the most advanced of the Scottish workers, who were unable however to bring their movement as a whole into effective action.

It is possible that even today many people would consider this situation the most natural in the world. Yet it grew out of the history of the movement. Anybody who reads the files of Forward will be struck by the fact that until 1919 the Irish question was consistently raised only by Wheatley’s Catholic socialists. The problem remains today. It is essential for the unity of the Irish people, but also essential for the unity of the Scottish people, that the principle of freedom for Ireland should be the common possession of all progressive forces in Scotland, irrespective of ethnic origin.

The future

Where do we go from here? Bought. Drawing parallels from England can have only restricted value. Scotland is a far more complicated place. It has its own unresolved national question. Its problems will never be solved from outside by “regional” devolution. The need is for a constitutional organisation which will enable the Scottish people themselves to use their own initiative in deciding the issues that affect them, while maintaining the principle of the unity of the workers of Britain against an imperial ruling class. At present the political action of Scottish people in respect of Ireland proceeds through the Union Parliament at Westminster. Is for the Scots to decide whether they can develop separate relations with Ireland based on the various national organisations that do exist, for example the Scottish TUC, which already has a long established “special relationship” with the Irish TUC.

In Scotland the descendants of the Irish must far outnumber the native-born. This creates a tendency to live in the past as far as Ireland is concerned. The success of such organisations as the Connolly Association has been based on the conscious decision of newly arrived immigrants to link up with the working-class movement, to urge their fellow immigrants to do the same, and to solicit the support of that movement for Irish freedom. It would seem to be the simple and obvious means to an agreed objective. But it has never taken root in Scotland and one wonders why. Perhaps because of the historical developments and consequent rooted traditions indicated above. 

There is another feature of the situation. Most of the new immigration into Scotland is from the northern counties of Ireland. Here fifty years of frustration and impotence arising from Partition have produced the results we all know. The “Provisionals” are not the product of the principle of “vahlence”,  as Mr Whitelaw2 calls it, but a reaction to imperialist intransigence that keeps every door barred. More than elsewhere, the west of Scotland reflects the frustrations and divisions in Northern Ireland, as well as the fine qualities of heroism and determination. 

We thus seem thrown back on Westminster. Can the Scottish people be won to throw their full weight against the Tories through their democratic organisations, members of Parliament etc.? The struggle for a complete change of policy in relation to Ireland, based on the principle of withdrawal, has to be seen as an integral and necessary part of the whole struggle for political democracy and socialism in Scotland and the other countries of the island of Britain.

1 Thomas Johnston, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland, Glasgow, 1947

2  William Whitelaw, 1919-1999, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland  1972-73, later 

   Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister to Mrs Margaret Thatcher

[This article was originally published in “The Scottish Marxist”, No.4, June 1973]