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Spotlight is finally on Glandore man name-checked in Karl Marx’s book

January 26th, 2023 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

A portrait of William Thompson by George Chinnery, circa 1830.

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BY ROBERT HUME

WILLIAM Thompson, dubbed by James Connolly as ‘the first Irish Socialist’ has finally been acknowledged in a  local exhibition.

When his father, John, died in 1814, William inherited the lucrative family business, including a fleet of trading vessels, and a 1,400-acre estate at Carhoogarriff, overlooking Glandore harbour.

Five years later, at a Cork literary society lecture, he was stunned to hear a ‘gentleman’ claim that the poor should count their blessings and feel grateful to the rich.

Since visiting France in his youth, William had sympathised with the revolutionary ideals of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, the breaking up of large noble estates, and on returning to Ireland reputedly walked around with a French tricolour at the end of his walking stick.

The Cork gentlemen’s words reinforced his sense of guilt in being ‘one of the idle classes’ who spent their evenings in ‘stupid, disease-engendering gluttony and drinking’ while living on the produce of the labour of others.

John Thompson had been a prosperous merchant, former high sheriff of Cork and city Lord Mayor. But William had no interest in status and building up the family business. His concern was public welfare, not private fortune.

Exactly 200 years ago this month, while staying in London with his philosopher friend Jeremy Bentham, Thompson was putting the final touches to his 600-page book The Distribution of Wealth (1824).

Like Bentham, he believed in ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’

In 1829, turning his back on a life of luxury, he drew up plans for a model co-operative community at Carhoogarriff in West Cork.

Labelled by admiring locals a ‘magician’ who would banish society’s ills, and an eccentric – he apparently ‘licked honey off a mouse’ – Thompson’s workers (women as well as men) would keep all the produce they could grow.

On his death in 1833, at the age of 57, he was in the process of giving generous leases to tenants, and building them cottages and allotments, even a school for their children.

When his will was read, Thompson’s relatives were dismayed to find he had bequeathed most of his estate to the co-operative movement. His sisters and nephew contested the will, arguing he was insane.

Largely unknown today, Thompson anticipated many of Karl Marx’s theories and coined terms the great philosopher subsequently used, though Marx only acknowledged the West Cork man in a paltry footnote in Das Kapital.

Talk to the Land at the Sirius Art Centre in Cobh casts light on Thompson’s revolutionary proposals. The free exhibition will be open to the public from February 8th to 11th.

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