Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Radnorshire Example

It's often said that the Irish hunger strikes of the 1980s were an unforeseen consequence of Gwynfor Evans' successful threat to starve himself to death if the Thatcher government failed to live up to its manifesto commitment to establish a Welsh language TV channel.  Perhaps another Welsh example, indeed in part a Radnorshire example, led to an earlier event which set Irish history on an equally tragic path.

I've argued before that Radnorshire Rebeccaism in the 19C is faintly reminiscent of events in rural Ireland.  Perhaps I was wrong, but not in the way one might think. Rather than Radnorshire echoing Ireland,  it was the rebellious Welsh peasantry who provided an example to their more timid Irish counterparts.

Writing in March 1846 in the Freeman's Journal - Ireland's leading newspaper of the day - T. M. Ray, the secretary of O'Connell's Repeal Association, highlighted the successes of the Welsh Rebeccaites, including those of Radnorshire.  In a long essay he mentions the destruction of the Newbridge gate and details the way in which 200 armed marchers advanced to the Lion Inn in Rhayader, in open challenge to a cowed authority.

The Welsh, Ray wrote, "did not spend years upon years supplicating the legislature; they made no appeal to popular opinion, but took the brief method of physical force. At once - they annihilated nuisances, wrecked dwellings, burned farmhouses, put the landlords to flight, organised arms, beat the police, beat the constables, met the military sword to sword and put them to flight."  And what was their reward for these open acts of rebellion?  Well "the public authorities entered into negotiations with the "rebels" for the reestablishment of peace.  Such occurrence will hardly be credited in Ireland.  The lieutenants and magistrates suing with the "delegates" of the Ribbonmen and Molly Maguires for the cessation of hostilities."

This was at the height of the famine years and Ray contrasted the position of small farmers in rebellious Wales, forced to live on barley bread and buttermilk, flummery and potatoes,  with those in the more law abiding Irish countryside.  "Alas! Alas! how happy would be the small farmers of Ireland if they had only the certainty of fare which the Welsh mountaineers despise."

Ray's article may have had little effect on the breakaway, a few months later, from O'Connells Association,  which would lead in 1848 to the Young Ireland rebellion.  A minor affair but with long term consequences and perhaps inspired in a small way by the example of the Rebeccaites assembled at Rhayader's Lion Hotel.

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