Born in Tinnakill House, in Co Laois, in 1807, Lalor was a precursor to the agrarian agitation of Michael Davitt and the Land League.
But Lalor formed his ideas during the Great Famine, and that catastrophe ruled out any meaningful organisation, even as it proved that he was right about an inequitable system.
Lalor also suffered from a congenital spinal disease, so monster meetings would never be his forte. He died, aged 42, following imprisonment, after a failed uprising in 1848.
“I would say he is in the subconscious of the nation rather than the consciousness,” says Michael Parsons, president of the Laois Heritage Society. The society, and the local council, are changing that, with the first James Fintan Lalor School taking place this weekend, at the Dunmaise Arts Centre, in Portlaoise.
The aim, says Parsons is “to celebrate James Fintan Lalor and to provide a platform for thinking about where we are and where we are going.”
Lalor expressed his ideas in a series of letters to The Nation and the Irish Felon, two nationalist newspapers. His rousing style was typified by the signoff he wrote in the last of them: “Remember this — that somewhere and somehow, and by somebody, a beginning must be made. Who strikes the first blow for Ireland? Who draws first blood for Ireland? Who wins a wreath that will be green forever.”
Lalor’s historical impact is best seen through the many admirers inspired by those words. Pádraig Pearse was reading him in the weeks before the Easter Rising, with Lalor’s prose style reflected in the Proclamation; Connolly admired his socialist ideas; while for Jim Larkin, who named the ITGWU pipe band after him, Lalor was revered alongside Davitt. “Pearse called him one of the four evangelists of Irish freedom,” says Parsons. “He was a rare thinker, but because he did not draw blood, he is maybe not in the same pantheon as others.”
The school opens with a play, From the Sod to the Sky, by Mike Finn. It’s a two-hander, with Paul Meade playing Lalor and Myles Dungan interviewing him. Séamus Hosey will deliver a lecture on Lalor on Saturday.
The core of the school is three debates that apply Lalor’s thinking to present-day Ireland: ‘A Country in Crisis’ is chaired by Diarmaid Ferriter; ‘A Vision for Ireland’ is chaired by Myles Dungan; and ‘Politics and the Press’ is chaired by Ruth Dudley Edwards.
“We are not coming simply to venerate and throw sugar on a patriot,” says Parsons, “but to look at his work and his legacy. We want to think about where are we now. Of course, we are in a better place now than 150 years ago, but I would suggest that there is a crisis in the country, a kind of existential crisis about who are we and where do we want to go. So, hopefully, some of the speakers might engender thought about ways forwards. What sort of Ireland do we want for the people of Ireland? That’s a real question.”
It’s the kind of question Lalor both asked and answered in his uncompromising style. He saw beyond the consensus, nowhere more clearly that his dismissal of Daniel O’Connell as insufficiently radical. At a time when our own politics can wear one down with a timidity dressed up as pragmatism, perhaps this is a good time to remember Laois’s revolutionary.
* For more information, see www.jamesfintanlalor.ie.