Militia service in Ireland already had a long enough history prior to the end of the 18th century. Every time that Britain was involved in trouble overseas, or when Jacobite rebellions reared their heads, local landlords and nobles in Ireland could be counted upon to rally together enough men to form a company or more, rudimentarily armed and trained, to form a possible line of defence. These militia units were often called, collectively, the “Volunteers”, though they largely acted independently of one another up until the 1770’s.
The more organised entity we know as the 18th century “Irish Volunteers” largely came into being in 1778, in the face of the American Revolution. As we have discussed previously, a large amount of Irish troops in British uniform were part of the forces sent across the Atlantic, and this caused some degree of consternation in parts of Ireland, with the Protestant Ascendancy fearing that the country was underdefended, and ripe for an invasion attempt on the part of France, with whom Britain was also at war.
The result was a more large-scale raising of militia, becoming known as a more concrete entity dubbed the “Irish Volunteers” (though, we must be careful to distinguish them from the 20th century organisation). Conventions were held in Dublin to determine a structure, and companies began to pop up all over – Volunteer records list as many as 300 or more by the 1780’s, that could consist of as many as 60 to 100 men, usually based around a parish. Unpaid, and reliant on their patrons to arm and clothe them, the Volunteers were a step-up from the usual militia. The fact that they existed independent of Dublin’s control, with significant numbers, must have caused some eyebrows to be raised.
That being said, the British authorities had a fairly low opinion of the Volunteers overall, only utilising them officially in circumstances where the established military could not be called upon. They were considered of low value when determining the possible resistance to a foreign invasion, and their service to the state often extended to no more than breaking up riots or warding off agrarian insurgents.
Following British naval victories in the early years of the conflict with France, the immediate threat of an invasion passed, and would never really come up again. The Volunteers were left as a quasi-army without a cause, but their leadership soon realised that their very existence gave them a degree of leverage over the British authorities.
The Volunteers were a remarkably liberal organisation in many respects. While predominantly Protestant, they held an ambivalent view of the Catholic population. Elements of its leadership pushed for the relaxation and then repeal of some Penal Laws, and many Catholics were able to enroll in Volunteer companies, especially in the south-east of the country. Sometimes though, this mattered little: as we have seen, large sections of the Catholic population remained suspicious and antagonistic towards the Volunteers, which they perceived as an uncontrolled armed wing of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Still, the Volunteers were a force for change. Their campaigning helped push through Catholic Relief Acts in 1778, and they later campaigned successfully for free trade between Ireland and England, with Volunteer demonstrations in major cities like Dublin and Belfast garnering a great deal of attention. The British administration in Ireland was more vulnerable than it liked to admit: in a time of war, it was thought that legislative concessions were preferable to antagonising an armed force that could be a potential enemy.
Probably the most significant achievement of the Volunteers, as a political force, was the so called “Constitution of 1782”, an act which granted legislative independence to the Irish Parliament. Volunteer pressure, in concert with the work and campaigning of personalities like Henry Grattan, who was himself a member of the Volunteers, helped put enough pressure on the British authorities to end centuries of legislative dominance over the Irish assembly, though the results of their action would barely last two decades.
For a few years then, the Volunteers were able to exert a remarkable amount of influence in Ireland, to the point of almost dictating policy to London. But it couldn’t last forever. The ending of the American conflict in 1783 essentially removed the Volunteers reason for existing, and with the (temporary) coming of peace on the European continent, London had less to worry about at home. While Volunteer companies remained strong in Ulster, with a lack of direction and a sudden roadblock to their political ambitions in place, they began to die out in the rest of the country. Political differences within the Volunteers also helped to hasten its demise, with a schism evident between more conservative elements and those who were more radical, and supported events like the French Revolution when it began in 1789.
In 1793, new laws essentially eliminated the last vestiges of the Volunteers, replacing it with a state-backed militia and yeomanry. Many former Volunteers would sign up with the new entity, while others looked for membership of organisations more in tune with their liberal outlook, such as the United Irishmen.
The Volunteers sent an extremely dangerous precedent with their existence. By arming themselves and acting of their own accord, and then using their existence as a means to pressure the government into acquiescing to their own political objectives, they firmly established a paramilitary tradition, which continued in Ireland for a very long time, arguably up to the modern day. While, like other organisations at the same time, they combined elements of what we would recognise as Irish nationalism and Irish unionism, their legacy has always been more associated with the Protestant Ascendancy and its desire to maintain its links with the British crown: the Volunteer motto “Quis Separabit?” or “Who shall separate us?” is a potent sign of this, with the slogan used by several Irish regiments in British service since then, while the 20th century Ulster Volunteers, who precipitated the Irish Volunteers of Eoin MacNeill, made plenty of effort to link their founding and activities to their 18th century equivalent.
So, as we approach the end of the 18th century in Ireland, we can begin to see a pattern of growing discord, armed groups and sectarian conflict. Between groups like the Whiteboys, Hearts of Oak, and the Defenders, Catholic agitation is clearly apparent. In groups like the Peep o’ Day Boys and the Orange Order, Protestant unhappiness is also very clear. And then, through the Volunteers, the new militia and the yeomanry, we can see armed entities, some state backed and some not, also become an issue that had to be dealt with. At the centre of the confluence would be the United Irishmen: but the details of their existence will have to wait a little while yet.
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