Lalor, James Fintan (1807–49), nationalist writer, activist, and agrarian reformer, was born 10 March 1807 in Tinnakill, Queen's Co. (Laois), eldest among eight sons and three daughters of Patrick Lalor, a substantial tenant farmer and middleman, of Tinnakill, Queen's Co., and his wife Anna (née Dillon) of Ards, King's Co. (Offaly). Patrick Lalor was active in the campaign for catholic emancipation and a leading figure in the anti-tithe campaign of the 1830s. A close ally of Daniel O'Connell (qv), he served as MP for Queen's Co. from 1832 to 1835. A younger son, Richard (1823–93) served as MP for Queen's Co. from 1880 to 1892; Peter (qv), the youngest member of the family, emigrated to Australia, where he led a miners’ rising at Eureka Stockade in 1854 and served as a member of the Victoria legislature.
A childhood injury left James Fintan Lalor with serious health problems and a permanent hump, which might explain why his formal schooling was limited to twelve months at Carlow College (February 1825 to February 1826). His early adult life remains obscure; he is reputed to have been apprenticed to a local surgeon and to have worked in a chemistry laboratory, and he may have helped to manage the family's landholdings. According to Lilian Fogarty he spent some time in France, but there is no evidence to support this claim. It is known that he was in Tinnakill in 1831. During the 1830s he appears to have made contact with William Conner (qv), the agrarian radical, but again the evidence is obscure. By 1840 he was secretary to the Shamrock Friendly Society at Raheen, Queen's Co., which was close to the family home. Following a disagreement with his father, probably over political matters, he left home in 1844. The next two years were spent in Dublin and briefly in Belfast; he attempted to establish a bank for the poor in Dublin, and made an unsuccessful application for a position as librarian and teacher in the Belfast Mechanics Institute. In March 1846, sick and impoverished, he made peace with his father and returned to Tinnakill.
The formative influences on Lalor's early political views were William Conner, who held a number of public meetings in the midlands during the 1830s, and Lalor's antipathy to Daniel O'Connell and the repeal movement, a stance that could be read as a rejection of his father's politics. When Patrick Lalor addressed a repeal meeting in Ballinakill in 1843, James Fintan was the only one of his sons who was not present to lend support. In a letter to the British prime minister, Sir Robert Peel (qv), written in the same year, Lalor expressed the view that any improvement in the condition of the people would only be achieved by a conservative government, the leadership of Ireland's landed proprietors, and the suppression of repeal agitation. He offered to keep Peel informed about ‘the present agitation’. He also indicated that he expected that he would soon ‘be obliged to join the Conservative party openly and actively’ (quoted in O'Neill/Ó Néill, 1948, 1962, 2003), although there is no evidence that he did so. Lalor wrote at least one further letter to Peel in July 1843, which does not survive, but we know that Peel referred it to the home secretary, Sir James Graham. Lalor's distaste for O'Connell and liberalism, and his hopes that landed proprietors might provide an alternative leadership, were views that were widely held in Ireland in the early 1840s, most especially within the ranks of the Young Ireland movement. But as the famine unfolded, Lalor's programme for social and political change in Ireland became much more radical.
On 11 January 1847 Lalor wrote to Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), the editor of The Nation, a letter prompted by Young Ireland's plan to hold a national convention to determine a new political programme, following their final break with O'Connell in July 1846. In the letter Lalor set out his preconditions for supporting the convention – a more wide-ranging and loosely defined goal of national independence in place of repeal, and a programme which gave a central role to land reform. He also urged Duffy to oppose any resolution that would confine the movement to moral force. In the months that followed Lalor poured out his views on the Irish question, and most specifically on the primacy of the land question, in private letters to Duffy, John Mitchel (qv), and other Young Ireland leaders, and in three letters that were published in The Nation between April and July 1847. In the first, a revised version of an 1844 paper, which proposed the creation of an agricultural association, comprising landlords and tenants, he described how the failure of the potato had undermined the social fabric of rural Ireland, with small tenant farmers being reduced to the status of labourers. With the dissolution of the pre-existing land system, Lalor claimed that property rights now reverted to the people. He urged the landlords to demonstrate their allegiance to Ireland by working to build a new social order, and a new agricultural system, warning that if they continued to clear estates of small tenants, revolution might follow. Later articles expanded on how a new land system might be implemented; he suggested establishing an assembly where landlord representatives would bargain with representatives of tenant associations to agree a land settlement. If landlords were not agreeable to this, he urged that the tenants embark on what he termed ‘moral insurrection’ – a nationwide rent strike. But the leaders of the Irish convention refused to entertain Lalor's proposals, because they were convinced that any political settlement for Ireland would fail if it did not secure landlord support. In June 1847 Lalor informed Mitchel that the time for appealing to landlords had ended. His object was now to repeal the conquest. This private letter contains one of Lalor's most quoted statements: ‘that the absolute (allodial) ownership of the lands of Ireland is vested of right in the people of Ireland’.
With no prospect of securing the support of the Irish convention, Lalor decided on more direct action. He tried to link up with P. B. Ryan, a brewer from Borrisoleigh, who was attempting to establish a tenants’ association. On 24 July 1847 the Tipperary Vindicator published a letter from Lalor, urging the establishment of tenant defence associations to prevent mass evictions. But he was soon in dispute with Ryan and with William Conner, and a public meeting organised by Lalor and Michael Doheny (qv) at Holycross, Co. Tipperary (19 September 1847), ended in disarray and the collapse of plans for a tenant association and rent strike.
In January 1848 Lalor rejected an invitation from John Mitchel to assist him in establishing a new journal, the United Irishman, despite Mitchel's support for a rates strike. However, in June, inspired by the revolutions that were sweeping Europe, he moved to Dublin to assist John Martin (qv) and Thomas Devin Reilly (qv) in editing the Irish Felon, one of the radical newspapers established in succession to the recently suppressed United Irishman, publishing seven articles in the five issues of that journal. When police raided the offices of the Irish Felon in July 1847, seeking evidence for the trial of John Martin, Lalor left Dublin. Arrested in Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, on 28 July, the eve of the attempted rebellion at nearby Ballingarry, he was brought to the bridewell in Templemore before being transferred to Nenagh. On 13 August he was transferred to Newgate prison in Dublin, where he remained until his release on 13 November because of ill health. Although Isaac Butt (qv), defence counsel for John Martin, identified Lalor as the author of some of the most inflammatory articles in the Irish Felon during Martin's trial, Lalor was never charged with any offence. He remained in Dublin in the months immediately following his release from prison. By April 1849 he was involved in a new secret society with Thomas Clarke Luby (qv) and John O'Leary (qv). Lalor spent the summer in Limerick attempting to secure support for a revolution, and once again attempted to set up a newspaper. A rising was planned throughout Munster, and on the night of 16 September 1849 Lalor prepared to lead an attack on Cashel barracks, but then decided to call it off, because the rebel force was inadequate. The proposed rising was a fiasco, but he managed to return to Dublin without being arrested. He died 27 December 1849 at his lodgings in Great Britain St. (now Parnell St.). The cause of death is not stated; he is buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
Lalor was very much a fringe figure in the complex political events of the famine years. Arthur Griffith (qv) described him as ‘rather in the [Young Ireland] movement than of the movement’. He failed to win any significant support for his views; indeed there appears to be a pattern of personal disputes, disagreement, and frustration with possible allies. Most of his political engagement took the form of letters from Tinnakill, and it would appear that he had difficulty collaborating with others, perhaps because of the isolated nature of his life, his personal disfigurement, and his personality.
Lalor's significance for Irish history remains problematical. He has retrospectively been credited as the first person to recognise the potential offered by linking land reform to a campaign for independence. John Devoy (qv) described him as ‘the real father of Fenianism’, reflecting his involvement in proto-Fenian secret conspiracies, but the Fenian programme did not follow his example in giving a central place to land reform. Lalor is not cited in the burgeoning literature on Irish nationalism or the land question during the 1860s and 1870s, and he does not feature in any of the major public speeches associated with the Land League. T.W. Moody (qv) claims that Michael Davitt (qv) first read Lalor's writings in 1880. If Lalor's views had an impact on the New Departure, it probably came through John Devoy and Clan na Gael. In 1881 Thomas Clarke Luby published a series of articles about him in the Irish Nation. Four years of Irish history, 1845–49 (1883) by Charles Gavan Duffy devoted a chapter to Lalor's policy, which included extensive excerpts from his writings. Describing him as ‘a new tribune of the people’, ‘an isolated thinker’, Duffy praised Lalor's original thinking, while condemning his ideas as utterly impractical. The first collection of Lalor's writings, with an introduction by John O'Leary, appeared in 1895.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, Lalor was being reinterpreted as an agrarian socialist, although a close reading of his writings suggests that he was primarily concerned with the condition of small tenant farmers, and that he believed in private property rights, with qualifications. In The fall of feudalism in Ireland (1904) Davitt claimed that Lalor – ‘the wonderful little hunchback from the village in Queen's County’ – had made John Mitchel into ‘an agrarian revolutionist’, and ‘indirectly’ given Henry George the ‘social gospel of land nationalization’. James Connolly (qv), in his Labour in Irish history (1910), presented Lalor as a champion of working-class democracy, an ‘apostle of revolutionary socialism’. P. H. Pearse (qv) espoused Lalor in his 1915 pamphlet ‘Ghosts’, and again in ‘The sovereign people’ (March 1916), describing him as the fourth evangelist of Irish nationalism, with Thomas Davis (qv), Mitchel, and T. W. Tone (qv): ‘the immediate ancestor of the specifically democratic part of the movement, embodied to-day in the more virile labour organisation’. Pearse's citation probably ensured Lalor's long-term place in the pantheon of Irish history. The decade immediately after 1916 saw the publication of several editions of his writings. Since that time Lalor has been invoked by left-wing republicans and by those campaigning for land redistribution, or measures to protect small farmers and farm labourers.
In 1933 the National Graves Association erected a bilingual tombstone on his grave. Laois county council commissioned a sculpture by Rory Breslin to mark the bicentenary of his birth. Some personal papers relating to James Fintan Lalor can be found in the Luby collection (NLI); papers relating to the Lalor family are also in the NLI.