Friedrich Engels on Ireland

Letter to Marx: ‘Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, bureaucrats, squires in pleasant profusion and a total absence of any and every industry, so that it would be difficult to understand what all these parasitical growths found to live on if the misery of the peasants did not supply the other half of the picture … of so-called self-government there is not a trace. Ireland may be regard as the first English colony, and as one which because of its proximity is still governed exactly in the old way, and here one can already observed that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies.’ Further, ‘Today England needs grain quicky and dependably - Ireland is only fit for cattle pastures’. (Incomplete Notes for a History of Ireland [1869-70]; quoted in Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 1991, Vol. 2, pp.118-19)

‘Irish history shows one what a misfortune it is for a nation to be subjugated by another nation; all the abominations of the English have their origins in the Irish Pales.’ Further, ‘the southern facile character of the Irishman, his crudity, which places him but little above the savage, in contempt for all humane enjoyments [...] ’ (Quoted in Roy Foster, Paddy and Mr Punch, London 1993, Notes, p.310; n.source.)

‘Those fellows are droll enough to make your sides burst with laughing; of mixed blood, mostly tall, strong, handsome chaps, they all wear enormous moustaches under collosal Roman noses, give themselves the false military air of retired colonels, travel round the country after all sorts of pleasures, and if one makes an inquiry, they haven’t a penny, are laden with debts, and live in dread of the encumbered estates court.’ (Letter of 23 May 1856; see Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Ireland the the Irish Question, ed. Richard Dixon, London 1971).

‘The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink. What does such a race want with high wages? The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by Irishmen. Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises at the first glance as different from the Saxon physiognomy of the native, and the singing aspirate Irish brogue which the true Irishman never loses.’ (Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England: From Personal Observations and Authentic Sources, Grafton Books, 1986, p.123.)

‘The lack of cleanliness ... which is the Irishman's second nature, becomes terrifying and gravely dangerous through its concentration here in the great cities ... He builds a pig-sty against the house wall as he did at home, and if he is prevented from doing this, he lets the pig sleep in the room with himself. The new and unnatural method of cattle-raising in cities is wholly of Irish origin. The Irishman loves his pig ... he eats and sleeps with it, his children play with it, ride upon it, roll in the dirt with it, as anyone may see a thousand times repeated in all the great towns of England.’ (The Conditions of the Working Class in England, 1845, pp.124-25.)

‘The weather, like its inhabitants, has a more acute character, it moves in sharper, more sudden contrasts; the sky is like an Irish woman's face: here also rain and sunshine succeed each other suddenly and unexpectedly and there is none of the grey English boredom.’ (Marx & Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, ed. R. Dixon, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.276; quoted in Marjorie Howes, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness, Cambridge UP 1996, p.23.)

‘But the Fenians themselves are being drawn increasingly to a type of Bakuninism, the [Invincibles] assassination of Burke and Cavendish could have pursued the sole aim of thwarting the compromise between the Land League and Gladstone … In this light the “heroic deed” in Phoenix Park appears as purely Bakuninist, boastful and senseless “propaganda par le fait”, if not as crass foolishness.’ (‘About the Irish Question’ [1888], K. Marx & F. Engels, On Colonialism, Lawrence & Wishart 1968, p.264; quoted in Emer Nolan, James Joyce and Irish Nationalism, Routledge 1995, p.126.)

Eric Hobsbaum, Independent on Sunday (9 Oct. 1994): ‘Engels was horrified by Fenian bomb at Westminster because as an old soldier he held war was waged against combatants and not non-combatants.’

Bibl., Freidrich Engels, ‘Letter to Margaret Harkness’, 1888; in George J Becker, ed., Documents of Modern Literary Realism (Princeton 1963), pp.483-35 [in Titley, An tÚrscéal Gaeilge, 1991]; Richard Dixon, ed., Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Ireland the the Irish Question (London 1971). See also Frank McGuinness, play Mary and Lizzie [play].

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