In June of 1795, several Irish Protestants gathered on top of Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast. They swore, “never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence“. Three years later as many as 100,000 rose against Britain in the first Irish republican insurrection. (Quinn, 2002)
Ireland during the 1790s was a land of uncertainty, much of which caused by the dramatic interplay between the Society of United Irishmen (UI) and the Irish government. The Society’s stated goals of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform were contrary to the conservative administration’s aims, but the Society enjoyed much popular support and its numbers increased throughout the decade. UI activities culminated in the ultimately futile 1798 rebellion.
The Origins of the Rebellion and the Society of United Irishmen
During the 1780s, a few liberal members of the ruling Protestant Ascendancy, led by Henry Grattan, organized as the Irish Patriot Party and campaigned for: reform of the Irish parliament; a lessening of British interference in Ireland’s affairs; and expanding the rights and voting franchise for Catholics and Presbyterians. Backing them up were the Irish Volunteers, a large militia formed in 1778, due to the threat of invasion by France, which commanded widespread Protestant support. This militia group served largely as a bargaining tool for the Irish Patriot Party politicians in their bid to gain greater powers from London, without having to fire a shot in anger. Similar to the American colonists before 1776, they arranged local “non-importation agreements” in 1779, where the signatories undertook not to buy British goods as a form of Boycott protest.
The primary aim of the Irish Patriot Party was complete self-government. Other aims included:
- A more open trade policy between Ireland and the rest of the world. Since the 1650s, the Navigation Acts had greatly restricted Irish overseas trade. Merchants had to sell through England and could not trade directly with other countries or even the rest of the British Empire. In addition, the British banned the export of a number of Irish goods, including wool.
- Abolishing controls such as Poynings’ Law, which gave the English Parliament a veto over laws passed by the Irish Parliament. While the Patriots and the viceroy Lord Lieutenant of Ireland led Irish administration often disagreed strongly on how to govern the country, they shared a belief that Ireland should have greater self-government.
Reform of the Navigation Acts in December 1779 was the Patriots’ most useful achievement, and fostered a modest economic boom in the 1780s. From 1780, the Irish Parliament refused to vote for taxes to support the British government in and out of Ireland. Other than this, they had limited success such as establishing Grattan’s Parliament and the repeal of some of the discriminatory Penal Laws. They fell short of many of their aims. When the parliamentary reform movement collapsed in 1784, it left radicals without a political cause.
By the mid-1780s, radicalism in Ireland was taking a new, bolder form, reflected in the letters, penned by William Drennan, and published in the Belfast Newsletter and in various pamphlets. In them, he attacked leaders of the Volunteers such as Henry Grattan and Earl Charlemont for their conservatism and restraint, and at the political establishment for preventing the reform of the Irish parliament. Most notably was his appeal for all Anglicans, Dissenters, and Roman Catholics to unite as one uniform society; however, he accepted that this would only appeal to the minority within each denomination. (Barrington, 1830)
Also founded in 1789, the Irish Whig party soon became an alliance of radicals, reform-minded parliamentarians, and dissident representatives of the governing class. By 1791, this alliance however was already fracturing, and people such as Napper Tandy set up several rival Whig clubs in Dublin and Belfast. Another grouping was a “shadowy” organization of eleven people headed by Samuel Neilson, later to be editor of the Northern Star – the newspaper of the United Irishmen, which sought to move the recently revived Volunteer movement in as radical of a direction as possible.
The French Revolution that had started in 1789, and had so far remained largely bloodless with the French king forced to concede effective power to a National Assembly, inspired and increased the Irish reformists radicalization. This enthusiasm for the French Revolution resulted in great Irish interest in Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which defended it, and around 20,000 cheap copies were printed for distribution in Ireland. A couple of months later, the Belfast Volunteer company gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. The intention was to announce a new radical society during the celebrations and for William Drennan, to give a declaration of establishment and to add in resolutions. Drennan refused due to the short notice of the request and suggested that they ask Theobald Wolfe Tone. (Barrington, 1830)
Tone’s reformist radicalism had advanced beyond that of the Whigs, and he proposed three resolutions for the new society, which he named the Society of United Irishmen. The first resolution was for the denouncing of the continuing interference of the British establishment in Irish affairs. The second was for the full reform of the Irish parliament and its representation. The last resolution called for the political union of religious faiths in Ireland to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen” and sought to give Catholics political rights. The Belfast Volunteers dropped this last proposal to ensure unanimity for the proposals among the people.
This seemed to delay the launch of the new society and by August 1791, Tone in response to the rebuff of his third resolution, published An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, which argued why they should be included in attempts at reform. That October, Tone attended a debate on the creation of a new society by a group of people including Neilson. Here he found the temperament of the Irish nationalists had changed and his resolutions and were now seen as “too tame”. On 14 October, the core committee drafted a new set of resolutions. The Belfast branch of the UI adopted them on 18 October, and the Dublin branch adopted them on 9 November. The main problem they identified for Ireland was the issue of national sovereignty:
“We have no national government; we are ruled by Englishmen, and thus servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption; whose strength is the weakness of Ireland.” (Barrington, 1830)
All attendees at the first meeting of the Belfast branch were Protestant. Two (Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell) were Anglicans and the rest Presbyterian; most of whom worked in the linen trade in Belfast. Along with Tone and Russell, the men involved were William Sinclair, Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, Henry Haslett, Gilbert McIlveen, William Simms, Robert Simms, Thomas McCabe and Thomas Pearce. (Yoakam, 2009)
The UI quickly developed a strategy of spreading its ideals by means of pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers, ballads, “catechisms” and travelling emissaries. The Belfast Newsletter was a liberal newspaper, and the society desired a publication of a more radical nature in Belfast, resulting in the Northern Star. It was successful, both commercially and politically and had a wide readership until its suppression in 1797.
As 1791 ended, there were other lesser branches of the UI forming in a number of places such as Armagh, Clonmel, Limerick, and Lisburn; yet Belfast and Dublin retained their primacy. While the UI was growing slowly throughout the countryside, the popularity of the UI continued to expand throughout Ulster, especially among the Presbyterians.
Members of the UI had a range of differing and divisive views and opinions, some of which persisted even when the society had moved firmly in one direction. Whilst many of the divisions were between members, there were also significant differences between the Belfast and Dublin branches.
The problem of forming universal policies troubled the early years of the society. Issues such as universal male suffrage, restricting the franchise, and secret balloting etc. divided members of both the Belfast and Dublin branches. One of the issues behind these differences was worries about how the bulk of the population—who were property-less and thus without a vote—would use empowerment other than in a destructive way.
Another divisive issue was that of Ireland’s relationship with England. From the beginning, the UI sought a fully independent and representative parliament for Ireland, free from interference by the British establishment, while still retaining the Union of Crowns—ideals that followed those of the Irish Patriot Party. Others, such as Tone, thought that complete separation would be a blessing for Ireland, yet refrained from mentioning anything of the sort in the society’s resolutions. Even when the society had resolved to set up an independent republic, and instigated the Irish Rebellion of 1798 to achieve it, there were still members who sought to retain a shared monarch as long as Ireland had a free parliament.
The makeup and conduct of the two main branches of the UI also revealed stark differences in approaches to achieve freedom. An internal committee that met in secret headed the Belfast branch, made up of a close-knit group of predominantly middle-class Presbyterians from the town. The Dublin branch however held its meetings in public, and of its membership of 400, 140 were identified as Catholics,while only 130 could be identified as Protestants. This membership consisted of people from a range of occupations, including around 50 members from outside Dublin itself. When Neilson, from the Belfast society, recommended the Dublin society form an inner committee to thwart informants, they outright refused.
Religious Equality and Catholic Emancipation
The ideal of religious equality and Catholic Emancipation was a central commitment of the UI. The reform movement on the early 1780s was limited to the Protestant minority in Ireland, and many saw this as key to the failure of it to gain emancipation. Wolf Tone and others realized that this movement was “built on too narrow a foundation“, and that for it to be successful it would need the support of Catholics themselves. Even though Tone sought equality with Catholics, if pressed, he would not deny that “Irish Catholics were ignorant and bigoted“, and that the pope had “more power in Ireland than was desirable“, yet blamed this on their persecution by the establishment. (Connolly, 2008) Tone believed that a liberal Catholic would continue to practice their belief, but not fully abide by the outdated dictates emanating from the Vatican. As support for his idea, he noted how the Catholic people of France had risen up against their monarch and burnt effigies of the pope.
In 1790 the Catholic Committee, which had lain dormant since 1784, reorganized and began seeking further reforms and relief bills for Irish Catholics. Some Catholic Committee members such a John Keogh had already joined the UI, and Tone became secretary of the Committee.
The methods employed by the Catholic Committee to advance their cause resulted in mixed feelings among the UI, with some fearing that if things advanced too far, then they would lose the moderate conservatives in the society. Drennan also observed that the Catholics sought to have “two strings to their bow” so that if one failed they could try the other. This was a reference to their willingness to work with either the government or the Protestant radicals to achieve their aims.
In 1791, the government passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791, which gave some concession. In 1792, a town meeting in Belfast saw a declaration in favor of full Catholic emancipation, opposing suggestions for a gradual process. In attempting to prevent union of the Catholic Committee and radicalized Protestants, the government during 1792 passed more bills repealing laws against Catholics. Despite this, while they could appeal for further civil rights, the government still refused Catholics full political enfranchisement. This refusal only helped cause the union that the establishment sought to prevent.
By working together, the Committee and the UI in 1793 had earned even more concessions for Catholics, resulting in the dissolution of the Committee and thus an end to their alliance. In a parting show of support, the Committee declared its support for parliamentary reform. Emancipation however still had not been secured, and the UI continued to press for it.
Meanwhile, the authorities watched the spread of the UI with growing alarm.
Following the French declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, the English government outlawed the UI and it went underground, becoming determined to force a revolt against British rule. The leadership divided into those who wished to wait for French aid before rising and the more radical elements that wished to press ahead regardless. However, suppression of a bloody preemptive rebellion, which broke out in Leitrim in 1793, led to the former faction prevailing. The UI sent emissaries to France to forge links with the revolutionary French government and they sent instructions to all the UI membership to wait for French help.
Worried by the continued activities of the UI, the Dublin administration conceded some reforms, allowing Catholics the vote, to become barristers and to enroll at Trinity College Dublin in 1793. In 1795, they abolished the Hearth Tax, paid by all households, and founded St Patrick’s seminary at Maynooth. Additionally, they changed the militia laws so that Catholics were expected to join the militia and to inform on any United Irish activities.
To further counter the UI; in 1794, the authorities came up with the extremely radical proposal for annually elected parliaments, with 300 equally sized electoral districts where all men over the age of 21 would have a vote. The Dublin government however would not commit to abolition of the House of Lords, or even to removal of the monarchy.
In 1794, William Drennan became the first leader of the UI arrested and tried for sedition, followed by the Reverend William Jackson, as the authorities began to react to the growth of the organization. In 1795, the government solidified the loyalty of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church with the founding of Maynooth College. At that time, the Church and the French Republic were enemies because of the de-Christianization of France by the French revolutionaries so there was no love lost between the Church, and the French-leaning UI.
Finally, Wolf Tone’s efforts to garner French support succeeded with the dispatch of the Expédition d’Irlande, and he accompanied a force of 14,000 French veteran troops under General Hoche back to Ireland. This force arrived off the coast of Ireland at Bantry Bay in December 1796 after eluding the Royal Navy. Unremitting storms, indecisiveness of leaders and poor seamanship all worked to prevent a landing and the French fleet returned home. The veteran army, intended to spearhead the Irish invasion, split up and marched off to fight in other theatres of the French Revolutionary Wars. The despairing Wolfe Tone remarked, “England has had its luckiest escape since the Armada.” (Tone, 2001)
What followed was an insurgency by the UI and other Irish nationalist groups. The British government responded to the threat it represented by sweeping up much of the UI leadership and imposing martial law beginning 2 March 1797. While conducting house-to-house searches, ostensibly looking for weapons, it used tactics including house burnings, half-hangings, and pitch capping in an attempt to gain information about the insurgents and their plans. In May 1797, the military in Belfast violently suppressed the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star, in an attempt to break the movement by cutting off its communication channels.
By early 1798, the UI membership on the ground (by now approximately 280,000 sworn members) was under severe pressure, suffering from the terror of a roving campaign of disarmament while under instructions to do nothing until the arrival of French aid. In March 1798, the government arrested most of the UI leadership resulting in preemptive risings braking out in Tipperary; however indecision still divided the remaining leadership. Finally, the unrelenting pressure led the militant faction of the UI to set the date for a general uprising on 23 May without French aid. However, information from the informers Thomas Reynolds and Francis Magan led to the arrests of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Samuel Neilson shortly before the rising and even more crucially, foiled the planned rising in Dublin which was to be the central core of the planned rebellion. (Dunlop, 1893) On the 5 June, Sir Edward Crosbie of Carlow became the first person, thought to be a UI member but probably not, executed for treason for involvment in the uprisings. (AskAboutIreland and the Cultural Heritage Project, 2015)
General Napper Tandy, a leader of the uprising, authored a proclamation entitled ‘Liberty or Death’:
“Can you think of entering into a treaty with a British Minister? A Minister too, who has left you at the mercy of an English soldiery, who has laid your cities waste, and massacred inhumanely your best Citizens. Horrid crimes have been perpetrated in your country, your friends have fallen a sacrifice to their devotion to your cause, and their shadows are around you and call for vengeance … wage a war of extermination against your oppressors, the war of Liberty against tyranny, and Liberty shall Triumph.” (Musgrave, 1802)
Nevertheless, tens of thousands rose in the surrounding counties. The resulting rebellion, severely hampered by a lack of coordinated leadership, was less than successful. Government troops crushed the rebellion with vicious brutality. The rebellion met with little success except in Wexford where a number of massacres of loyalist civilians, largely Protestant, raised the fear of sectarianism. The Government seized upon this to weaken the non-sectarian appeal of the United Irishmen. The eventual arrival of 1,000 French troops in Killala, County Mayo in August was too little and too late to turn the tide for the Rebels. In October, the Royal Navy intercepted and defeated a supporting French fleet of 3,000 troops near Lough Swilly, capturing Wolfe Tone in the uniform of a French Colonel.
At the trial following his capture, Wolfe Tone told the Court:
“From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish nation, and felt convinced, that while it lasted, this country would never be free or happy. In consequence, I determined to apply all the powers which my individual efforts could move, in order to separate the two countries.” (MacManus, 1921)
After the Court Martial denied his request for a soldier’s death by firing squad, Wolfe Tone cheated the hangman by cutting his own throat.
Suppression of the rising was followed by a period of renewed repression of the United Irishmen as the general amnesty offered by Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis specifically excluded rebel leaders many of whom were United Irishmen. However the United Irishmen still managed to survive as both a functioning clandestine organization and as a military force with several rebel bands still active, though severely reduced and confined to a few counties.
Even before the uprising in County Antrim, some Belfast merchants, who had been ardent supporters of revolution, abandoned the radical cause for economic reasons. Events in France, such as the Reign of Terror and the invasion of Holland and Switzerland also helped cool the support of some conservative Irish. Thomas Percy, a Church of Ireland clergyman, stated:
“A wonderful change has taken place amongst the republicans in the North, especially in and near Belfast. They now abhor the French as much as they were formerly partial to them, and are grown quite loyal”. (Stewart, 1998)
During the rebellion itself, sectarian massacres of Protestants by Catholic militias in County Wexford did much to dampen support in Ulster for the rebellion. Government agents, seeking to increase Protestant fears and enhance the growing division, spread news of these massacres, most notably the one at Scullabogue. By mid-1798 a schism between the Presbyterians and Catholics had firmly developed, with radical Presbyterians wavering in their support for revolution. The government capitalized on this by starting to act against the Catholics in the radical movement instead of the northern Presbyterians.
Prior to the rebellion, anyone who admitted to being a member of the United Irishmen was expelled from the Yeomanry. Now, former Presbyterian radicals were now able to enlist in it, and many saw it as their chance to reintegrate themselves into society. Anglican priest Edward Hudson claimed, “the brotherhood of affection is over“, as he enlisted former radicals into his Portglenone Yeomanry corps. On 1 July 1798 in Belfast, the birthplace of the United Irishmen movement, it was claimed that every man wore the red coat of the Yeomanry. (Blackstock, 1996)
AskAboutIreland and the Cultural Heritage Project. (2015). Trial and Execution of Sir Edward Crosbie. Retrieved from Ask About Ireland: http://ams2-aai-web-1.anu.net/reading-room/history-heritage/history-of-ireland/1798-in-carlow/trial-and-execution-of-si/index.xml
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Yoakam, K. L. (2009). Harp Music and Irish Nationalism: Turlough O’Carolan’s Musical Legacy (1760-1840). Ann Arbor: Proquest, Inc.