1. The disintegration of the Society of United Irishmen meant that it was unable to impose its grip on the long-awaited rebellion, which broke out in Ireland on 23 May 1798.
2. The rebellion therefore consisted of a series of separate uprisings, based primarily on local grievances rather than any overriding set of ideas or a concerted plan.
3. At the time, some members of the Ascendancy saw it as basically a Catholic rebellion against Protestantism.
4. In fact it was only among a minority in Ulster that French revolutionary ideas were important, and the rebellion there, as in the west of Ireland, was a limited affair.
5. The main area where the outbreak was bitter and protracted was in the southeast, especially in Wexford, and there it did take the form of something like a bloody religious war.
6. Groups of Protestants were massacred by Catholic insurgents, and the yeomanry responded in kind, sometimes resorting to a ‘scorched earth’ policy against Catholic property.
7. Given the strength and determination of the government forces, the rebellion had no real chance of success, and after General Lake’s victory at Vinegar Hill on 21 June, it rapidly petered out.
8. The captured rebel leaders were executed or suffered transportation, but the rank-and-file were allowed to return to their homes.
9. Although the rebellion lasted barely a month, it has been estimated that by the end of that summer the death toll on both sides amounted to about 30,000.
10. It has been suggested that ‘The 1798 rising was probably the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history’.
1. The fact that it was only in August, after the rebellion was more or less over, that the French made their invasion attempt ensured that it was virtually a doomed enterprise from the start.
2. The French landed in County Mayo in the west with barely a thousand men and were forced to surrender early in September.
3. By that time another French expedition, including Wolfe Tone, had set sail for Ireland, but it was scattered by a British naval force and most of the French ships were captured.
4. Tone was one of the prisoners taken. He was condemned to death as a rebel but cheated the hangman’s noose by committing suicide. He was only 35.
5. The hoped-for ‘Year of Liberation’ ended with the apparent triumph of the forces of reaction. But things were never to be the same again.
6. In the long run, the life and death of Wolfe Tone and the history of the Society of United Irishmen became part of the mythology of Irish republican nationalism, which adopted the society’s colour – green – as its symbol.
7. More immediately, the demand for fundamental constitutional change was gaining ground.
8. Even before the rebellion there were fears by members of the governing class both in Britain and Ireland that, as a result of the disagreements arising out of the constitution of 1782, the two countries would drift farther and farther apart. This was bound to risk the security of both.
9. The fears and doubts inspired by the events of 1798 meant, therefore, that the arguments in favour of a union of the two kingdoms became more powerful and imperative to the British government and its supporters on both sides of the Irish Sea.
The United Irishmen
1. Synonymous with the revolutionary events of the 1790s was the Society of United Irishmen, originally a constitutional organization founded in 1791, first in Belfast and a month later in Dublin.
2. It drew support mainly from Protestants, especially in Belfast, though Catholics joined the Dublin chapter in increasing numbers.
3. Aims included the extension of parliamentary reform, the end of corruption in politics, Catholic relief, and the further loosening of English influence in Irish affairs.
4. Elements contained within it included libertarianism, republicanism, dissenting traditions, Catholic emancipationism, patriotism, and Whig doctrine.
5. But beyond this – and even these aims assumed varied complexions in different branches of the Society – what bound this organization?
1. The name United Irishmen points to the aspirations of some of its founders, but these were largely to be disappointed, as this organization too was to succumb to sectarian fracturing.
2. While there is no doubt that the Society was inspired by the French Revolution, individual members drew their own lessons from events in France. Some revelled in its republicanism, others in its egalitarian rhetoric.
3. But such sentiment was not automatically compatible with religious pluralism.
4. A distrust of Catholics was retained by the many radically inclined Presbyterians who joined the Society, particularly in Belfast. In some minds, republicanism could easily be combined with the virtues of exclusionist Protestantism, and the French Revolution could itself be celebrated as a victory against the infidel Catholic Church.
1. The subject of the transformation of the United Irishmen from a constitutional to a revolutionary society is a fascinating but complex one.
2. The reasons for this change must be seen in the context of events in France, of course, but also in light of rising British panic about radical political activity in Ireland and in Britain.
3. Underlying this was a fear of French intervention in Irish affairs.
4. The government’s response was a series of laws which aimed to curb such activity.
5. This, coupled with a lack of parliamentary reform, encouraged the radicalization of the Society, which re-emerged in 1795, following its suppression in the previous year, as a secret, republican, and revolutionary organization.
6. A core of such advanced opinion had existed in the organization before its proscription, but government repression gave it the spur it needed.
7. Over the next four years it was restructured as a more disciplined and militarily inclined organization.
1. Links between the United Irishmen and other societies were increasingly established.
2. Co-founder and prominent United Irishman Wolf Tone had become president of the progressive Catholic Committee in 1792, encouraging Catholic involvement in the United Irishmen.
3. Severely curtailed in 1793, radically minded Volunteers also drifted towards the United Irishmen in the early 1790s.
4. Enthused by the French Revolution – often because it was seen as a Catholic triumph – Defenders also joined, and by 1796 a more formal link between the two organizations had been forged. In some areas, boundaries between the two organizations were in fact very fluid.
5. In addition to this, Tone and his allies had been cultivating links with French supporters in the hope of gaining military support for an Irish Republic. They had some success and a French ‘expedition set sail for Ireland in late 1796. It turned back because of poor weather, but news of the aborted expedition sent waves of alarm through the already apprehensive Westminster and Castle administrations.
The 1798 Rising
1. United Irish attempts to stage a revolution were pampered by a number of factors, including government repression and espionage, dissension within the movement itself, and disorganization.
2. Tone had gone into exile in 1795, first to America and then to France.
3. Ireland, meanwhile, was descending into further disorder.
4. The authorities clamped down on seditious behaviour.
5. Large numbers of suspected insurgents were imprisoned, weapons searches were undertaken, and martial law was finally declared in March 1798.
6. A government yeomanry corps had also been raised in 1796. Protestants dominated this force; which displayed an anti-Catholic character and close links with the Orange Order.
1. Radicals themselves were faced with a sharp choice given the infiltration of their organizations and the exile and arrest of some leaders.
2. A rebellion might fail, but delaying while the organization experienced further deterioration in fact guaranteed defeat.
3. The National Directory took the decision to rise, but the ensuing rebellion is better described as a series of local battles than a national campaign, though the scale of violence was huge.
4. Around 50,000 rebels were involved in the uprising.
5. The four main centres of violence were central Leinster, eastern Ulster, County Wexford, and Connacht, the latter largely as a response to a French landing at Killala Bay, County Mayo, in late August.
1. These battles were short-lived but bloody and, in Wexford in particular, naked sectarianism was in evidence. About 30,000 people had been killed by the end of the summer.
2. Tone was himself sentenced to death after his arrest off the Irish coast; subsequently he committed suicide in a last dramatic gesture.
3. Even after the last of the sporadic fighting had been suppressed, informal retribution and government retaliation against the insurgents continued.
4. About 150,000 people were subjected to flogging, transportation, or execution, though a number of sentences were commuted as post-rebellion panic died down.
1. The Rising was a traumatic episode whose impact on the subsequent history of Ireland was acute.
2. Allegiances had shifted rapidly during the crisis, not least because secular and republican aspirations could not in the end overcome older and ultimately more compelling confessional identities and suspicions.
3. As many historians have emphasized, the rebellion to unite all Irishmen in fact exacerbated divisions rather than removing them.
O’Connell: Innovation and Ambiguity
1. The nature of political life in early nineteenth-century Ireland derived its particular flavour from the fact that conflict between those defending and those challenging the status quo was beginning to be conducted in a new way.
2. But if this represented an innovation then the simultaneous survival of older forms of action and discourse meant that the ensuing reality was neither simple nor unambiguous.
3. Almost every interest was engaged upon an attempt to rescue something from the wreckage of the 1798 rebellion and the consequent Act of Union of 1800, for these together constituted that remarkable equation – a defeat for almost everyone and a victory for almost nobody at all.
The Union and its context
1. The political and economic ascendancy of the landed classes reached its peak about the middle of the eighteenth century, but from then onwards was increasingly challenged by a growing urban and trading middle class (which included many successful Catholic merchants).
2. Simultaneously a widening rural unrest manifested itself through the activities of agrarian secret societies – first specifically and then generically known as Whiteboyism – which, though not aimed at landed proprietors alone, helped to destabilize the existing political culture in at first minor and then more serious ways.
3. Furthermore, the various measures of Catholic relief passed by the exclusively Protestant Irish parliament in 1778, 1782, and 1793, which broadly allowed Catholics to hold land in the normal way and eventually granted them the vote, were actually imposed by the British government, so that articulate Catholics began more and more to see London rather than Dublin as the source of reform and political amelioration.
4. But revolutionary events in North America and France encouraged those of more radical tendencies to look to new shifts and expedients.
1. The Society of United Irishmen established in 1791 as the chief focus for such aspirations was and remained an eclectic organization. Increasingly revolutionary – and as a consequence losing a good deal of moderate support – it contained representatives of the three major religious traditions in Ireland: Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland (Anglican), and Presbyterian.
2. While much of its remembered rhetoric tended to stress the unity of all Irishmen, the various elements within it sustained distinctive and not always reconcilable ambitions, so that, for example, many Protestant United Irishmen looked to the establishment of an Irish republic in which they would play the dominant role regardless of the insistent fact that four-fifths of all those living in Ireland were Roman Catholics.
3. Even those who thought like Theobald Wolfe Tone, the young Protestant lawyer who in 1792 became assistant secretary to the Catholic Committee (a body seeking greater political rights for the genteel sections of the Catholic community), were by no means innocent of such aspirations.
4. But what Tone and others had come to realize was that effective revolution was impossible without mass support. It was, therefore, in part at least a sense of Realpolitik which persuaded them to overcome their aversion of the Catholic ‘lower orders’ – ‘the Irish, properly so called’ in Tone’s revealing phrase2 – and to seek to connect their own movement with the gathering discontents of that great threatening backdrop to the febrile de- bates of the revolutionary intellectuals – the Irish countryside.
1. The Whiteboy-type unrest which had existed since the early 1760s in the South of Ireland was, however, almost entirely concerned with specific local issues: rents; the availability of potato ground for labourers; tithes; evictions; even the dues levied by the Catholic clergy upon their parishioners.
2. Though obviously a disruptive force, it fired its ammunition in a scattered and disjointed manner and was generally strongest in those parts of Munster and Leinster where the United Irishmen were few and far between.
3. However, in the mid-1780s there appeared a somewhat different movement in that frontier area of southern Ulster where, almost uniquely, Catholics and Protestants both constituted significant elements within the population.
4. Here efforts by the gentry in Armagh to mobilize poorer Protestants by giving them weapons intermeshed with economic discontent among local weavers and sectarian disputes over land to produce an explosion of widespread unrest.
5. Protestant organizations such as the Peep-of-Day Boys and Catholic groups like the Defenders effectively combined elements of Whiteboyism and distinctly sectarian attitudes.
6. In addition, while the Defenders undoubtedly articulated notions of political revolution well before their association with the United Irishmen began around 1795, they did so in a traditionally Catholic manner which derived its inspiration from memories of earlier land confiscations rather than from Tom Paine, France, or the new America.
7. Above all, they generally aspired to Catholic dominance (rather than mere equality), while the United Irishmen tended to envisage a republic in which Catholics would – at least for a time – continue to play an inferior role.
1. Although, therefore, the simultaneous development at all social levels of a bitter Protestant reaction, notably in the shape of the Orange Order founded in 1795, helped to push Defenders and United Irishmen together, the unresolved tensions of that alliance and a vigorous military response by the government ensured the failure of the revolutionary enterprise.
2. It is in any case important not to exaggerate (although equally important not to minimize) the clarity of purpose of those involved. Many rank-and-file Defenders knew little of republics and cared less. Some merely wanted arms, others were motivated by the possibility of exciting activity for its own sake – a strand of attraction generated by almost all contemporary political or quasi-political organizations.
3. Indeed, the fluidity of the whole business is revealed in the way in which members of even such antagonistic bodies as the Orange Order and the United Irishmen could sometimes happily switch from one to the other, as occurred so dramatically in various parts of the country during and after 1796.”
1. As it happened, government arrests and internal contradictions combined to ensure that the rebellion which broke out in May 1798 ‘was not a United Irish one … but a protective uprising which a spent United Irish leadership failed to harness, indeed, in a very real sense, the whole episode is best described, not as a single rising at all but more as a series of separate incidents based upon a kaleidoscope of local issues and imperatives. Whether this had always been the likely outcome remains a matter of debate.
2. Certainly the problems involved in achieving any kind of all-Ireland mobilization were substantial from the very start and grew ever more so during the two years before 1798. While those with some kind of interest in rebellion were numerous enough, their disaffections consisted of materials not easily coordinated or reconciled.
3. The United Irish societies of Dublin and Belfast developed along very different lines.
4. The former, essentially a propagandist debating club whose members’ dramatic references to contemporary France disguised a firm adherence to the constitutional theories of Locke in preference to the democratic arguments of Paine, proved quite unable to establish daughter societies elsewhere in the South.
5. By contrast, the Belfast society, made up largely of Presbyterian merchants and linen drapers, stood at the centre of a network of similar bodies spread throughout the eastern and central parts of Ulster.
6. Again, the Catholic Defenders of Armagh and the surrounding areas – though temporarily integrated into the United Irish structure during 1795 and 1796 – depended upon sectarianism for much of their motivation and coherence and were thus significantly distinct from the single-mindedly agrarian secret societies of the rural South.
1. Nonetheless, neither the revolutionary sentiments nor the revolutionary actions of 1798 were simply matters of fissiparous localism.
2. Those who took up arms constituted more than a rabble devoid of serious political aims; and it is clear that their aspirations encompassed imperatives that went beyond the merely sectarians agrarian, or millenarian. Indeed, it is notable that Tipperary – the epicentre of contemporary agrarian disorder – was quiescent in 1798, while Wexford – a county remarkable for its agrarian harmony – rebelled.
3. More remarkable (and innovative) still was the manner in which the United Irishmen were briefly successful in turning existing feelings of local identity into a bonding agent for political mobilization and military cohesion. At Gorey Hill in Wexford contingents marched into the rebel camp chanting the names of the places from which they had come.
1. What, however, in the end torpedoed the chances of success was the way in which government repression succeeded in delaying things until the optimum moment for action had irretrievably passed away.
1. In addition, the bad weather which prevented General Hoche’s substantial French expedition from landing at Bantry Bay in December 1796 was undoubtedly a heavy blow, while the death shortly thereafter of Hoche himself (the leader of the pro-Irish party in Paris) deprived Tone of his main supporter in revolutionary France.
2. With the help of an augmented militia and the mobilization in October 1796 of an overwhelmingly Protestant yeomanry the government was able to undermine the organizational coherence of the United Irish system in North and South alike.
3. By late 1797 most of its leaders had either been arrested or had fled abroad. Among their followers the long months of delay had seriously damaged morale just at the time when military counter-measures, now more overtly Orange than ever, were heightening religious tensions as the yeomanry briskly burned down Catholic chapels in southern Ulster and raised the sectarian temperature all round.
1. Ominously the centres of revolt in May and June 1798 were located in Wexford and parts of south-eastern Ulster – both of them regions containing substantial numbers of Protestants and Catholics. The revolutionary contacts between the two areas proved virtually non-existent.
2. Indeed, the rebellion(s) of 1798, though initially planned to demonstrate an essential unity among Irishmen of every belief and station in life, ended up by revealing the exact opposite.
3. Neither the savage peasant populism that marked aspects of the Wexford rising nor the biblical millenarianism that, in the event, encouraged some northern Presbyterians to take part owed much to the United Irishmen.
4. The hoped-for French help arrived too late, though General Humbert’s tiny thousand-strong army which landed in County Mayo in August showed what might have been achieved with larger forces more carefully despatched.
5. The government received a severe fright, but emerged triumphant in the end. Tone was captured and committed suicide in prison having proved unable to ride the tiger he had so desperately attempted to mount.
1. While possibly as many as 50,000 men ‘turned out’ during 1798 – something of undoubted significance – they left their homes to fight for causes so different and sometimes contradictory that their actions almost certainly widened rather than narrowed the existing divisions of Irish society, above all those between Protestant and Catholic and between North and South.
2. And the savage reprisals which followed rubbed yet further salt into the fissured wounds thus so dramatically deepened and displayed.
3. In the longer term the effects of all this were of profound importance for Irish politics.
1. The secular republicanism of Tone, though not entirely destroyed, was to survive largely through the muffled and garbled filter produced by the sectarian concerns of the Defender tradition.
2. As a result Irish republicanism became an extremely eclectic phenomenon from which almost all groups could pick what they wanted and reject what they disliked.
3. Humanitarian philosophy jostled with sectarian triumphalism. References to ‘the common name of Irishman’ were intermingled with religiously exclusive attitudes. Social grievances coexisted with ideas of national independence. But ‘if there was something in it to appeal to everyone, there was also much in it to repel everyone’. And it was towards the working- out of these ambiguities that the politics of the ensuing century were in part to be directed.
1. The immediate consequence of 1798 was the passing two years later of the Act of Union.
2. Although at first resisted by a superficially curious alliance of Orangemen (who feared it would expose their sectarian activities to a wider and less sympathetic imperial gaze), old-style Protestant ‘patriots’ (who still cherished notions of colonial nationalism), and office-holders (who were simply worried about their perquisites), Pitt’s administration forced the relevant legislation through the Irish parliament by combining the carrot of patronage with the stick of fear.
3. Educated Catholics on the whole supported the measure because the government promised that emancipation (specifically the right of Catholics to sit in the new United Kingdom parliament) would soon follow.
4. But before long these positions were dramatically reversed as the Protestant ascendancy clung ever closer to Britain for support and the Catholics became restless when emancipation failed to materialize.
1. The details of the Union were simple enough. With the Dublin parliament abolished, a hundred Irish MPs, twenty-eight Irish peers, and four Church of Ireland bishops would sit at Westminster, while arrangements were made for the eventual merging of the two financial systems and the creation of a free-trade area between the two countries.
2. Given that the legislation in question was drawn up solely by the British government and was not the subject of negotiations as the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 had been, its economic provisions generally proved more favourable than many contemporaries expected or many later commentators have allowed.
3. The London parliament accepted it all with devastating casualness. Indeed, crucial decisions concerning the continuation of a separate Irish administration under a lord lieutenant and chief secretary were only reached, like some unimportant addendum, after the event.
4. But if in the midst of war with France the Union had somewhat jerry-built air, soon all concerned began to realize that the Protestant ascendancy was no longer in business on its own account but had been taken over by a larger international corporation, which, though itself ‘Protestant’, had different and more complex priorities at heart.