Irish Voices in Defence of the Republic of Cracow: Selected Aspects of Irish Involvement – 2/II/2022

Antoni Ostrowski’s letter to Daniel O’Connell of November 1837 emphasises the significant involvement of this leading Irish politician in the broadly understood Polish Question. At the start of 1836, events on Polish territories had already provoked heated debates in the circles of the political elite of the West, despite the fact that matters concerning Poland were not in the centre of interest of the contemporary Powers. Nevertheless, one of the significant issues at that time was the incursion of the Austrian Army into the Republic of Cracow on 17 February 1836, and soon after the entry of Russian and Prussian troops.

The tiny Republic of Cracow[1] was created under the provisions of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) – as a result of disputes between the Powers – along with the Kingdom of Poland (under a personal union with Russia) and the Grand Duchy of Posen (incorporated into Prussia); Austria took the entire area located on the southern bank of the upper Vistula River. Not without influence in the creation of the Republic of Cracow was the then British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh (Robert Stewart, 1769-1822), Irishman, earlier the Chief Secretary for Ireland (1798-1801); perceived negatively in Ireland and known as the “Bloody Castlereagh” for the ruthless suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 – even though he was “instrumental in preventing the execution of United Irish prisoners[2] – as well as for the establishment of the union with Britain (1800).[3] Shortly before the anti-Napoleonic coalition (autumn 1813), Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski tried unsuccessfully to persuade Lord Castlereagh to rebuild Poland linked with Russia: first, by sending his emissary, Felicjan Biernacki, to London on a secret mission. Then he heard from the British secretary that Poland could not be resurrected by diplomacy, but by war: “It is impossible to restore Poland by negotiation, the only means to achieve it is through the sword.”[4] But at that time, nobody had considered the possibility of war. Moreover, Castlereagh was convinced that the Poles wanted to get from Moscow some of their “wishes in order to achieve complete independence”.[5] Prince Czartoryski was to answer him that it was a matter of the very distant future.[6] With regard to Cracow itself, Lord Castlereagh, who supported Austria against Russia’s demands to seize the entire Duchy of Warsaw, was to convince Czartoryski that Austria was very afraid of Russian ambitions when it came to Poland. He was to say: when “Moscow has Cracow [then it] is already at the gates of Vienna”.[7] In other words, there was no consent, primarily on the part of Austria, for Russia to have both Polish capitals (Warsaw and Cracow). Nevertheless, it is worth noting here that Daniel O’Connell had a different perspective on the actions taken by Castlereagh (as well as on him personally) at the Congress of Vienna regarding the Polish Question. He was very critical of him. Presiding over the anniversary of November Night in 1837 (see letter from Antoni Ostrowski to Daniel O’Connell from November 1837), O’Connell said of Castlereagh as follows: “What, however, did Castlereagh do? He was born in Ireland, but he did not belong to us, or to you, or to humanity. He bound the name of England to the transfer of Poland to the Emperor of Russia.”[8]  

Over two decades after its establishment, the Republic of Cracow was occupied for almost five years (1836-1841) with the aim of its liquidation. It is also worth noting that the Free City of Cracow at the time became an element of the game in the Eastern Question (the rivalry of European states for the territories of the Ottoman Empire), the subject of a game of Powers – Russia, supported by Prussia, in opposition to Britain, supported by Austria and France – in which Prince Adam Czartoryski, defending the Republic of Cracow, and his political camp in exile meant little. The latter defended the Free City of Cracow, pointing to the status of the city guaranteed by the provisions of the Congress of Vienna and refuted accusations that Cracow was a hotbed of conspiracies that would be dangerous for the neighbouring Polish provinces of the partitioning states.[9]

The decision to liquidate the Free City of Cracow had already been made under the Treaty of Cieplice in 1835. It was also decided there that Austria would annex the Republic of Cracow. However, Russia had been looking for favourable circumstances to carry it out since the accession to the throne of Nicholas I (1796-1855; from 1825 tsar of Russia, in the same year he also crowned himself king of Poland).[10] Ultimately, however, the intention to liquidate the Republic of Cracow was achieved only as a result of another Polish national uprising, namely, the fall of the  Cracow Uprising (February-March 1846), which combined both the national and social cause, including the immediate abolition of serfdom and the granting of land to the peasants. As a result of the uprising, the Republic of Cracow was abolished and annexed by Austria – “The Free State lasted thirty-one years, after which the resolve to put an end to any remains of Polish independence led to its abolition.”[11]

William Smith O’Brien. Source: George Francis Mulvany Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the Cracow Uprising was well publicised in the international press of the time, including the Irish press. Moreover, the advocate of the Polish cause, the Irish representative of Limerick in the British House of Commons, William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864) – Protestant, deputy of Daniel O’Connell during his arrest (1844) and spokesman for the Irish national cause, representative of Young Ireland[12] – during the parliamentary debate concerning Cracow in 1847, strongly spoke about the annexation of the Free City of Cracow. He was to say that “Ireland had been deprived of her nationality by acts scarcely less nefarious than those which had been employed in extinguishing the nationality of Poland…”[13] The annexation of the Republic of Cracow – according to the MP from Limerick – was a “flagrant” violation of the Vienna Treaty and it was the “duty” of the English Government at the time to cooperate with France “in protesting against the threatened proceedings of the Three Powers, which would at least have had the effect of causing some delay, and in all probability would have prevented the incorporation of Cracow by the Three Northern Powers”.[14] Everything could have gone differently – according to Smith O’Brien – if the British Government had decided to send a diplomatic agent to Cracow. Finally, he added (apparently after a French statesman): “the nationality of Poland is imperishable.”[15]

With reference to Smith O’Brien’s statement, it is worth mentioning that there was an unsuccessful attempt to send a British consul to the Free City of Cracow. This was undertaken by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, Henry John Temple (1784-1865), who came from the Irish branch of the Temple family. Palmerston owned a large estate in Ireland around the town of Sligo.[16] The occupation of the Republic of Cracow in 1836 came as a surprise to the British Government and caused outrage from the very start. On the one hand, this was dictated by London’s policy for the principle of the validity of treaties, as well as the assessment of the situation in which the Republic of Cracow found itself; and on the other hand, it was also about excluding Britain from the decision-making process on significant issues concerning the Continent, though such a right of decision was given to Britain by the Treaty of Vienna. Hence Palmerston’s strong reaction and intention to nominate another consul.[17] At that time, the British consul in Warsaw was Colonel Charles John Barnett (1790-1856), whose role – as well as that of his predecessors and successors – was primarily “to pay close attention to the interests of British trade and British subjects living in Poland”.[18] Barnett was sent by Palmerston to Cracow in order to obtain a more complete picture of the situation and to explore the possibility of developing trade relations with Britain; along with the occupation, Russia and  Austria introduced a system of trade blockades of the Republic of Cracow, making communication difficulties with the Kingdom of Poland and Galicia. The report submitted to Palmerston by Colonel Barnett was critical of the occupiers of the Free City of Cracow, emphasising their brutality and injustice towards innocent residents. Moreover, after returning to Warsaw, the British consul decided to intervene with Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich (1782-1856; viceroy of the Kingdom of Poland, 1832-1856), looking for opportunities to relax the trade policy.[19] He was then to hear the main argument concerning Ireland, which was used by the Russian political elite in the nineteenth century to undermine the moral arguments of the British Government regarding the Polish Question: “once you have settled things in Ireland, then you will tell me about Cracow” – said Paskevich to Barnett.[20] The Russian political elite at the time presented the problem of Russia’s relations with Poland as analogous to the complicated relations between England and Ireland.[21]

Shortly after the Austrians – and after them the Russians and Prussians – entered the Free City of Cracow, discussions were initiated in the House of Commons. Debates on the Republic of Cracow took place on 1, 18 and 30 March 1836; Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart also spoke about Cracow on 4 March of that year. Many politicians expressed their indignation primarily over Russia’s conduct. Among them was Daniel O’Connell, whose speech described in harsh terms the essence of the events taking place, so it is worth quoting this in a longer fragment. On 18 March 1836, during the debate on the occupation of Cracow, O’Connell stated that although the Republic of Cracow had not violated any part of the Treaty of Vienna, the three states – the “plundering Powers” – had committed “the grossest, most undisguised, and unmitigated violations of [the] treaty”.[22] In the view of the Irish leader, the so-called northern courts, the partitioning Powers of Poland, did not even pretend that this act was within the framework of the treaty of 1815, but simply brought their troops into a neutral area, which should have been protected by the guarantees of England and France. In this way, they dared to carry out an act which, “in the circumstances amounted to land piracy”.[23] O’Connell also drew attention to the fact that Austrian troops entered Cracow first: “It was said, that Austrians being sent to occupy Cracow, instead of Russians, greatly mitigated the evil.” But – as the Irish politician said with irony – this mitigation could be compared to “that kind which had been dealt out to the Spanish nobleman, who, being sentenced to be executed, pleaded the rights of nobility as an exemption from that punishment, and a silken rope was handed to him instead of a hempen halter”.[24] At the same time, O’Connell stressed that the great Powers seemed to forget about other parties of the Vienna Treaty, about England and France, which were treated in this matter “with the grossest contempt and contumely”.[25] He argued that the northern courts were wrong in their belief that England and the rest of Europe did not have too strong feelings for Poles. He warned that outrage was growing towards them “being so glaringly in the wrong in their oppression of Poland”, and that Russia could quickly find out that despite “arms of steel and a front of brass, her feet were of clay, and unable to support the cumbrous and unwieldy frame which she had placed upon them”. And he added: “With regard to Poland, the violation of the Treaty of Vienna was as glaring and flagrant a violation of good faith as had ever yet been recorded in the pages of history.”[26]

Finally, it is worth mentioning the words of Daniel O’Connell’s son, John (1810-1858), which were expressed more than a decade later, when the House of Commons discussed the ultimate liquidation of Cracow’s autonomy. He then gave his opinion on the events of 1846 that preceded this act. The national uprising that broke out in Cracow in February of that year, along with the Austrian-provoked revolt of peasants against the noblemen and landowners in Galicia, known as the Galician “massacre”, and the earlier arrests of the leaders of the conspiracy, could not succeed. Nevertheless, in this context, John O’Connell did not hide his sympathy for the participants of the Cracow Uprising and strongly protested against the “attempted vindication of the horrible massacre of the Gallician nobles”, as well as “the vindication … of the actions of the execrable and hideous monster who ruled Russia at the present moment”.[27]

Adam A. Kucharski and Robert T. Tomczak

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[1] The territory of the Republic of Cracow was also occupied by the Russian Army in the last months of the November Uprising (September-November 1831). The entire territory of this small state occupied about 1164 km2 and numbered 88,000 people (in 1815). This Republic included Cracow, three private towns (Chrzanów, Trzebinia and Nowa Góra) and 224 villages. After the liquidation of the Republic of Cracow in 1846, its population was 103,000, of which 34,000 inhabited Cracow; zob. Stanisław Grodziski, Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, jej lata i ludzie (Kraków, 2012), p. 20.

[2] Patrick M. Geoghegan, ‘Stewart, Robert’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (Stewart, Robert | Dictionary of Irish Biography ( (accessed 09 December 2022).

[3] See Patrick M. Geoghegan, The Irish Act of Union. A Study in High Politics 1798-1801 (Dublin, 2001), pp. 56-57.

[4] Eugeniusz Wawrzkowicz, Anglia a sprawa polska 1813-1815 (Kraków-Warszawa, 1919), p. 57; see also Radosław Paweł Żurawski vel Grajewski, Ostatnie polskie miasto. Rzeczpospolita Krakowska w „dyplomacji” Hotelu Lambert wobec Wielkiej Brytanii (1831-1845) (Kraków-Łódź, 2018), p. 28; Adam A. Kucharski, Placing Poland at the heart of Irishness. Irish political elites in relations to Poland and the Poles in the first half of the nineteenth century (Berlin, 2020), p. 74. 

[5] Castlereagh was to say these words in a direct conversation with Prince Czartoryski in March 1814.; Dziennik ks. Adama Jerzego Czartoryskiego 1813-1817, Małgorzata Karpińska (ed.; cooperation – Janusz Pezda) (Warszawa, 2016), p. 296.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dziennik ks. Adama Jerzego Czartoryskiego 1813-1817, p. 294; Żurawski vel Grajewski, Ostatnie polskie miasto. Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, p. 29.

[8] Freeman’s Journal, 2 December 1837.

[9] Żurawski vel Grajewski, Ostatnie polskie miasto. Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, pp. 333-336.

[10] At the congress of three monarchs in Münchengrätz (Nicholas I, Frederick William III, Ferdinand I), in 1833, liberal and revolutionary movements in Europe, and above all in Poland, had already been condemned. It was also discreetly decided that in the near future the liquidation of the Republic of Cracow, as a natural source of the Polish uprising, would be carried out; see Grodziski, Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, p. 55.

[11] Stefan Kieniewicz, ‘The Free State of Cracow 1815-1846’, in The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 26, no. 66 (Nov. 1947), p. 69.

[12] Daniel O’Connell considered William Smith O’Brien as the “ideal intermediary” for the national cause between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland; see Denis Gwynn, 'Smith O’Brien and Young Ireland’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 36, no. 141 (Mar. 1947), p. 39; see also Katarzyna Gmerek, 'William Smith O’Brien w Polsce i na Litwie w latach sześćdziesiątych XIX w.’, in Krzysztof Marchlewicz, Adam Kucharski (eds), Polska, Irlandia – wspólna historia? Poland & Ireland – a common history? (Poznań, 2015), pp. 36-49; Paweł Hamera, Irlandia na pomoc Polsce! William Smith O’Brien i kwestia polska (Kraków, 2022); Róisín Healy, 'An Irish Nationalist Perspective on Eastern Europe. William Smith O’Brien’s Travel Journals, 1861-1864′, Studia Historyczne, vol. LXI (2018), no. 4 (244), pp. 55-72.   

[13] HC 16 March 1847, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 91, col. 54.

[14] Ibid., col. 57.

[15] Ibid., col. 58.

[16] Herbert C.F. Bell, Lord Palmerston, vol. 1 (Hamden, 1966), p. 166.

[17] Żurawski vel Grajewski, Ostatnie polskie miasto. Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, pp. 335-336. See also Kieniewicz, ‘The Free State of Cracow 1815-1846’, pp 78-80.

[18] Lord Palmerston to C.J. Barnett, London 12 August 1833 (The National Archives, Kew-London, FO 65/210); quoted after (trans. from Polish) Krzysztof Marchlewicz, Dystans, współczucie i „znikomy interes”. Uwarunkowania brytyjskiej polityki wobec Polski w latach 1815-1914 (Poznań, 2016), p. 48. Both France and England had their consulates in Warsaw. The posts of these Powers have often been important tools in their games with Russia, whose interests in many areas have been contrary to the aspirations of both Western countries. Moreover, French and English public opinion favoured Polish aspirations for independence, hence the tsarist authorities invariably „suspected that the Polish conspiracy was being fuelled from Paris and London.”; see Stefan Kieniewicz, ‘Dwa konsulaty warszawskie wobec powstania styczniowego’, in Przegląd Historyczny, vol. 2 (1963), p. 182.       

[19] Żurawski vel Grajewski, Ostatnie polskie miasto. Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, pp. 205-206.

[20] Report by Ch. J. Barnett to H. Palmerston, 23 November 1837 (The National Archives, Kew-London, FO 65/237); quoted after (trans. from Polish) Żurawski vel Grajewski, Ostatnie polskie miasto. Rzeczpospolita Krakowska, p.206.

[21] As proof of this political manoeuvre see Kucharski, Placing Poland at the heart of Irishness, pp 136, 184-186 and 266.

[22] HC 18 March 1836, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 32, col. 421.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., col. 421-422. See also Adam Kucharski, ‘The Sense of Moral Argument. The Irish politicians in relation to Poland and the Poles in the House of Commons (1831-48)’, in Krzysztof Marchlewicz, Adam Kucharski (red.), Polska, Irlandia – wspólna historia? Poland & Ireland – a common history? (Poznań, 2015), p. 31. 

[27] HC 16 March 1847, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 91, col. 101.

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