On 14 September 1835, Daniel O’Connell, Member of Parliament for Dublin City, made his first and only visit to Newcastle upon Tyne as part of a ten-day tour of northern England and Scotland. Six years before, ‘King Dan’, through his energetic mobilisation of the Catholic Association, had forced a hostile Tory government to yield Catholic Emancipation.
O’Connell was not, however, visiting Newcastle at the request of a Catholic or Irish organisation. Rather, he was accepting an invitation made two years earlier by the Northern Political Union. This alliance of middle-class Radicals and Whig reformers, founded in Newcastle in 1831, praised O’Connell as ‘the emancipator of Ireland and the best friend of the British people’.
As O’Connell progressed from Manchester to Glasgow, enthusiastic crowds greeted the ‘Liberator’ at every stop, and it was no different in the North East of England. And it is the composition of these crowds on Tyneside and not the Northern Political Union that interests us here.
After brief stops in Durham City and Chester le Street, O’Connell and his son, Morgan, arrived in Gateshead, from where they were escorted across the Tyne by ‘an immense crowd’ sporting tokens of ‘the national colour of the Emerald Isle’ in their hats and coats, and clearly determined to observe the day as ‘a holiday’.
Once in Newcastle, the procession moved to St Nicholas’ Square, where O’Connell was to be officially welcomed by the Political Union’s leadership, though the crowds were so large that one reporter complained that he could neither hear the speeches nor had enough room to take notes.
But who were these people who were so determined to see ‘King Dan’?
Whilst the crowds will have included English and Scottish-born Radicals, the local newspapers particularly identified Irish ‘workmen and mechanics’, including many who had ‘poured in from the surrounding countryside’ for the ‘holiday’.
Until the 1840s, Irish migration to the North East of England remained low. Then the unprecedented growth of the region’s heavy industries, coinciding with famine at home, provided work for thousands of Irish migrants, the majority of whom were Catholics from Ulster and Connacht. The North East, however, was not devoid of Irish migrants before that decade and, in June 1841, the census recorded 8,264 Irish-born people in Newcastle and County Durham. This population included navvies, labourers, factory hands, tinkers, hawkers, and seasonal farm labourers. And it would have been similar classes of Irish ‘workmen and mechanics’, who turned out in such numbers to see O’Connell in September 1835.
But had these Irish workmen assembled spontaneously or had they been organised?
An Irish Catholic migrant labourer arriving on Tyneside in the 1830s for the first time and looking for work and shelter would not have been without support on his arrival. There was the Catholic Church, though there were as yet too few priests and missions on Tyneside to provide the degree of support, even control, seen later in the century. More importantly, however, would have been men from the migrant’s own parish back home in Ireland, who had already settled on Tyneside. And, though evidence is lacking, by the 1830s, echoing what had happened in Liverpool, Tyneside was almost certainly home to Ribbonmen in whose lodges new migrants would be welcomed and assisted in return for their allegiance.
Emerging in Ireland in the 1810s, Ribbonism was an illegal, oath-bound, Catholic secret society that gained widespread support among the peasantry and urban proletariat, especially in Ulster, before spreading to Britain, where it provided Catholic migrants with continuity, support, and purpose in an alien, and often hostile, Protestant environment.
As has been shown, however, in the first full-length study of Ribbonism in Ireland and Britain, Ribbonism was not just about protecting its members from attack or finding work or providing communal support. Rather, Ribbonmen, shaped by the 1798 rebellion in Ireland and the French Revolution, expressed ‘a sense of Irish national identity that combined a fervent Catholic sectarianism with an aspiration to achieve, by force of arms if necessary, some conception of an autonomous, democratic, and egalitarian Ireland’. And, as such, Ribbonmen must be considered as Irish nationalists.
Opposed by the civic authorities and the Catholic Church, the Ribbonmen were also condemned by Daniel O’Connell as ‘the great enemies of the repeal of the Union’ and ‘the greatest enemy to Ireland’. So, in order to hide their activities from prying eyes, Ribbon lodges adopted the legitimate role of friendly society. In Liverpool in 1834, Ribbonmen formed the ‘Liverpool Hibernian Benevolent Burial Society’. And that same year, on 19 November, ‘The Newcastle Hibernian Benevolent Society’ was officially registered as a friendly society. Was this too simply a front for Newcastle’s Ribbonmen?
In spite, however, of his outspoken opposition to Ribbonmen, among the flags welcoming O’Connell to Tyneside in September 1835, was one of green silk bearing on one side ‘Daniel O’Connell, the Friend of the People’, and on the other ‘The Newcastle upon Tyne Hibernian Society’. Had this society organised the tumultuous reception for ‘King Dan’?
The Newcastle Hibernians’ support for O’Connell, however, was short lived. His whole-hearted support for the employers during strikes in Dublin in 1837 combined with his half-hearted opposition in 1838 to the new Irish Poor Law tarnished ‘King Dan’s’ crown in the eyes of these increasingly radical Irishmen. So, when the Hibernians paraded with their green flag in Newcastle on 26 December 1838 as part of a Chartist demonstration, O’Connell’s name had been ‘expunged’ from the flag, because, commented The London Dispatch, ‘the traitor has long since deserted the cause of the labouring people’.
Note: The later history of Hibernians/Ribbonmen in the North East of England, including their brief flirtation with Chartism, will be explored in a future blog.
John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse: The History of the Liverpool-Irish, 1800-1939 (Liverpool, 2007).
Roger Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie. The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle 1840-1880 (Sunderland, 2005).
Patrick M Geoghegan, Liberator: The life and death of Daniel O’Connell 1830-1847 (Dublin, 2012).
Kyle Hughes and Donald M. MacRaild, Ribbon Societies in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and its Diaspora (Liverpool, 2018).
Joseph Lee, ‘The Ribbonmen’, in T. Desmond Williams (ed.), Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973).
Donald M. MacRaild, The Irish Diaspora in Britain, 1750-1939 (Basingstoke, 2011).
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all newspapers have been accessed from the British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
 Invitation to Daniel O’Connell, Esq. M.P.: The letter of the Council of the Northern Political Union, to Daniel O’Connell, Esq. M.P, Newcastle, 1833. National Library of Scotland, Crawford MB.1710. https://digital.nls.uk/188069877
 Newcastle Courant, 19 September 1835.
 Patrick M Geoghegan, Liberator: The life and death of Daniel O’Connell 1830-1847 (Dublin, 2012), pp. 73-74.
 Evening Chronicle, 17 September 1835; The [Dublin] Pilot, 18 September 1835; Newcastle Courant, 19 September 1835.
 Newcastle Courant, 19 September 1835.
 Evening Chronicle, 17 September 1835.
 See Roger Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie. The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle 1840-1880 (Sunderland, 2005), chapter 1 ‘Enumerations’, pp. 8-20.
 John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse: The History of the Liverpool-Irish, 1800-1939 (Liverpool, 2007), pp. 97-98.
 Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie, pp.34-36; Joseph Lee, ‘The Ribbonmen’, in T. Desmond Williams (ed.), Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973), p.27; Donald M. MacRaild, The Irish Diaspora in Britain, 1750-1939 (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 114-115.
 Kyle Hughes and Donald M. MacRaild, Ribbon Societies in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and its Diaspora (Liverpool, 2018).
 Hughes & MacRaild, Ribbon Societies, p.3.
 Freeman’s Journal, 8 January 1831.
 Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse, p. 98.
 Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, ‘Private Bills, Friendly Societies, Poor Laws (Ireland), etc’, Jan-Jul 1837, vol. 51, p. 20.
 Newcastle Courant, 19 September 1835.
 Geoghegan, Liberator, pp. 102-103.
 The London Dispatch, 30 December 1838. This newspaper, published 1836-39, had been ‘established by the working classes for the protection of the rights of labour’. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/titles/london-dispatch