Edward McHugh (1853-1915): “The Irishman who had to explain he was not a Scotchman”

The place of the historic Irish diaspora is still explored today through choices in memorialisation. Dr Andrew Newby examines the legacy of Edward McHugh, a  nineteenth-century Tyrone-born social reformer whose life is being commemorated in Liverpool in June. How people like McHugh are remembered, as Irish nationalists, social reformers, or international socialists, continues to be discussed and inform our understandings of the place of Irish political communities in the past.


In April 1915, a large but diverse group of family members, land reformers, trade unionists and Irish nationalists assembled at Flaybrick Hill Cemetery in Birkenhead to pay their last respects to Edward McHugh, a Tyrone-born social reformer who had died the previous week after a long illness. In Liverpool and Glasgow, branches of the United Irish League held a minute’s silence at their weekly meetings. In the days and weeks that followed, obituaries for McHugh were published in newspapers and journals from New York to New Zealand.


My first visit to McHugh’s grave was almost exactly twenty years ago – 29 March 1999. In many respects, McHugh personified the complex (and fluctuating) strands of nationalism, socialism and trades unionism that were present in Irish diaspora politics in the late nineteenth century, and as such he had developed into a key figure in my own research. He was also very mobile – he lived many years in Scotland before settling in Merseyside, but was almost constantly on the move promoting, in the words of Michael Davitt, “any just cause that captures his adhesion”. Piecing together McHugh’s life was an enjoyable challenge, and during an archival visit to Liverpool I crossed the river to spend some time looking around his old haunts in Birkenhead. His grave lacked a headstone, and so I left some tulips and a hastily improvised memorial of my own. Only now, over a century after his death, is McHugh’s memory being revived. On June 29th 2019, another crowd will assemble in Flaybrick Memorial Gardens to inaugurate a new headstone, thanks to the publicity and fundraising efforts of Luke Agnew , the current sexton gravedigger at the cemetery and Mark Metcalf , a journalist and author.


McHugh was born into a Roman Catholic, Irish-speaking family in County Tyrone, likely the in the townlands west of Castlederg, around the Donegal border. At the age of eight, he emigrated with his family to Greenock. The Catholic Glasgow Free Press painted a stark picture of the conditions the young Edward McHugh and his family would have faced. It explained (11 Jul. 1863) how ‘Hundreds of poor creatures from Ireland… penniless and homeless, arrive in [Greenock] weekly in a quest of work, and an epidemic of typhus fever and small-pox, of a malignant type, rages in the town.’ Nevertheless, McHugh was able to secure an apprenticeship as a compositor and in 1869 he moved further along the Clyde to Glasgow to complete his training.

Glasgow in the early 1870s provided extraordinary opportunities for a young Irishman interested in political and social issues, and McHugh became increasingly associated with the radical Glasgow branch of the Home Government Association. By the early 1880s, when the land and Home Rule questions were taking on an urgent aspect in Ireland, McHugh was held in sufficiently high regard that he was appointed national organiser for the Land League in Scotland. The increase in radical activity around the 1881 Land Act caused some disquiet within Glasgow Irish circles. “Orion”, a correspondent to the Glasgow Herald (16 Apr. 1881) complained that the social programme advocated by Ferguson, McHugh and company “scare[d] away from the Land League the respectable Irishmen of the city and the clergy of Glasgow.”

At this stage, these complaints were generally dismissed, and indeed “Orion” was roundly booed at a monster meeting in Glasgow addressed by Parnell and T.P O’Connor the next week. It was also after this meeting that efforts were made to link the Irish Land War with the nascent crofters’ agitation in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Michael Davitt praised McHugh as “a man of remarkable ability and an ideal propagandist”, and as such he was dispatched to the Isle of Skye in 1882 in an attempt to guide the “Crofters War”  along Irish Land League principles. And while it is fair to say that McHugh’s message was not universally accepted by the crofting community at the time (being called “trusdair” [scoundrel] by some of the locals, according to police reports), he nevertheless helped pave the way for a highly successful tour of the region by Michael Davitt five years later.

The strong focus of Davitt’s Glasgow allies (a group that included McHugh’s fellow Ulstermen John Ferguson and Richard McGhee) on social issues was underpinned by a fascination with the “single tax” philosophy of the American theorist Henry George. This blending of internationalist radicalism with the narrower concerns of Irish nationalism, as well as this group’s tendency to ally with radical Scots, provoked considerable scepticism and even hostility within the city’s Irish community. Perhaps the best example of this occurred in November 1885, when the Henry George-inspired Scottish Land Restoration League fielded candidates in the general election. John Redmond addressed a monster crowd of Irish voters in Glasgow, stressing Parnell’s instructions to vote tactically for the Conservative party. An indignant Edward McHugh stormed up to the platform, amidst nationalist boos and hisses, to insist that any vote for the Conservatives would be a betrayal, and against the interests of the working-classes, including the vast majority of the Irish in the city. Similar tensions arose in 1888, when the Glasgow-Irish radicals promoted the candidature of J. Keir Hardie in the Mid Lanark By-election. They wanted to win the battle for Irish Home Rule, certainly, but they also wanted to ensure a socially just society in both Ireland and Britain once Home Rule had been enacted. Franchise extension seemed to make both of these aspirations reasonable.

McHugh made his only foray into organised politics in 1889, when he stood as a “working man’s candidate” in Glasgow’s municipal elections. The flamboyant socialist R.B. Cunninghame Graham, gave his support to McHugh:

“I am glad to hear you are standing for the Council… your advocacy of the cause of the dockers, the crofters, of Home Rule for Ireland, and the eight-hour day should entitle you to the suffrage of those who live by labour…”

Like his friend Michael Davitt, however, Edward McHugh did not feel cut out for formal politics, either on a local or national level, and was “happiest leading a crusade.” From 1889 onwards, with Richard McGhee, he led the new National Union of Dock Labourers during bitter dock strikes in Glasgow and Liverpool, before being invited to the United States to lead a new union of Longshoremen. He travelled widely in later life as an active social reformer, including a long voyage to Australia and New Zealand in 1912, always applying the “single tax” principles of Henry George to question of social justice.

McHugh (with Keir Hardie, inset) after his arrival in the USA.
Fort Wayne News, 6 Nov. 1896

I have always felt that the diversity of his interests meant that McHugh was not as well remembered as might be expected. He was too much of a internationalist socialist to be accommodated easily in Victorian Irish nationalism, and he demonstrated little active interest in Irish nationalism per se after he left Glasgow in 1889. And yet, especially in the 1890s, he was often perceived as too close to Irish nationalist interests to be trusted by many in trade unionism. Presumably as a result of his accent, he was most commonly taken to be a Scot (The New York Times, for example, [9 October 1896], wrote that “he was known as a comical Scotchman”), despite his own apparent protests that “he was not a Scotchman”. Later in life, McHugh was also referred to as “the English labour leader from Liverpool”, who was “laid to rest in his native city” (i.e. Birkenhead). He worked energetically for a variety of causes, all linked to land redistribution and workers’ rights, but was never really “owned” by one organisation or another.

Andrew Newby is Kone Foundation Senior Research Fellow at the Tampere Institute for Advanced Social Research, Finland. He also (since 2008) holds the title of Docent in European Area & Cultural Studies (University of Helsinki). A graduate of the University of St. Andrews (MA Hons) and University of Edinburgh (PhD), he has previously held academic positions at the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Helsinki and Aarhus. He is a specialist in the history and society of northern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A full list of publications can be seen here. Andrew can be contacted at andrew.newby[@]tuni.fi and on Twitter and Instagram

Select Bibliography:

Michael DAVITT, The Fall of Feudalism; or, The History of the Land League Revolution (London & New York, 1904).

James HUNTER, J., ‘The Politics of Highland Land Reform, 1873-1895’, Scottish Historical Review, liii (1974).

Andrew G. NEWBY, ‘Edward McHugh, the National Land League of Great Britain and the “Crofters’ War”, 1879-1882’, Scottish Historical Review, lxxxii (2003).

Andrew G. NEWBY, The Life and Times of Edward McHugh: Land Reformer, Trade Unionist and Labour Activist (New York, 2004).

Eric TAPLIN, ‘Irish Leaders and the Liverpool Dockers: Richard McGhee and Edward McHugh’, North West Labour History Society Bulletin, ix (1983-4).

Eric TAPLIN, ‘McHugh, Edward (1853-1915)’, in J. Bellamy & J. Saville (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography, vii, (London, 1984).

Eric TAPLIN, The Dockers’ Union (Leicester, 1985).

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