Ireland’s Wars: The United Irishmen

The 1798 Rebellion is an interesting one. In terms of the larger scope of Irish military history, it is a strange middle child, caught between the conflicts like the Nine Years War, Eleven Year Wars and the War of the Two Kings that are so far away they have long since faded from the popular consciousness, and the more recent and more vividly remembered, even celebrated, Irish revolutionary period. 1798 remains remembered, but only slightly so: people remember some of the key players, places like “Vinegar Hill” and songs like “The Minstrel Boy”, but the finer details have been fading away for some time now. In my school years, over a decade ago at this point, the rebellion was wedged into a section on revolutions after discussions on America and France, like a footnote to a larger seismic shift in world history.

But 1798 is very, very important to Irish military history. Here is the true start of Irish republicanism in a militant form, here is the first rebellion with a clear aim of creating a nation, free and independent, out of the island of Ireland. Here are the people who would inspire several generations after them, all the way to Pearse and company, who, whether they realised it at the time, shoved the leaders of 1798 off the perch of those best remembered.

For my “coverage” of 1798, I need to take a bit of a finicky approach. The preamble is complicated, and will need a few entries. The actual rebellion was one where the majority of “battles” were mere skirmishes that were aggrandised in local memory, which took place over a very short period of time. Thus, when it comes to the fighting, bar the really major engagements, I think I shall be taking a county by county approach, with Kildare and Wexford to be obvious priorities. And there is also the widely ignored aftermath to be considered, overshadowed to a remarkable extent by Robert Emmet’s “Rebellion”, when guerrilla bands spent several years carrying on the struggle that was put down so ruthlessly in 1798.

All of that is to come. For now, I would like to discuss the entity that has become intertwined with the events of 1798 to the point that the rebellion actually takes its name in the minds of many: the “United Irishmen”.

As I have previously discussed, there were a lot of reasons why Ireland produced no major rebellions or conflicts during the majority of the 18th century, but by the last decade things were changing fast. Henry Grattan’s reform movement had won some successes, but fallen short of its overall aims, leaving radicals dissatisfied. Entities like the Volunteers had shown the possibilities that could be grabbed with militant organisation and pressuring of local authorities. The repeal of the Penal Laws, while helping to sooth sedition in the short-term, was also driving forward a movement to get more rights and liberties for the Catholic majority. The ever-present land issue, that had led to the already discussed low-level conflicts of “Whiteboys”, “Hearts of Oak”, “Defenders” and “Peep O’ Day Boys”, was still at the centre of much resentment from the peasant class. And across the seas, events in the young United States of America and the even younger French Republic, were providing a potent example that many in Ireland had a mind to follow.

But still, the religious divide in Ireland prevented a common front to address these issues. It was more than just the split between Catholics and Protestants, with numerous different sects of Protestantism further complicating the matter. Many of these felt the same as Catholics, with the Protestant Ascendency dominated by traditional Anglicans. The mood was right among some minorities within all of these groupings, Presbyterians chief among them, for common cause to be found, even with Catholics.

Some in Belfast, based around the local Volunteers, wanted a new radical organisation founded in order to forward these views. Some looked to William Drennan, a local medical practitioner and one of the most notable advocates for political reform under the lines of Protestant nationalism. He, in turn, directed people to instead look to a 28 year old barrister of similar mind, named Theobald Wolfe Tone.

Born in 1763, Tone was an Anglican, of French stock, former religious refugees who had made a new life for themselves in Dublin. While training for the law he had become known as a fine debater, and had some inclination towards a military life, attempting to conjure up support for a mission to colonize Hawaii, and then trying to join the army of the East India Company. He was the author, anonymously, of An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, a tract that poured scorn on the parliament of Grattan and urged the various religious denominations of Ireland to unite in an effort to form a new, free country. At one point in this period, the latter half of 1791, Tone’s argument were viewed as too extreme, but things were fluid; when Tone got into the discussion again in October of that year, he found that many Belfast Volunteers suddenly viewed his manifesto of parliamentary reform, full rights for Catholics and condemnation of Britain, as too tame.

Together with Drennan and other like-minded individuals, all Protestants, Tone founded the Society of United Irishmen. They included Thomas Russell, a former Army officer, William Sinclair, a Presbyterian minister, Henry Joy McCracken, a Belfast industrialist and tradesmen James Napper Tandy. At the beginning, it was not an entity that advocated violent revolution as a means of achieving its aims, though many of its membership admired the people behind the recent conflicts in America and France. Starting in Belfast, another chapter was swiftly opened up in Dublin, before others were soon being organised all over, in places like Armagh, Clonmel, Limerick and Lisburn.

Recruitment was huge almost right from the start, with the society focusing on a battle of words and ideas. Effective use of pamphlets, broadsheets and the publication of a newspaper – the Northern Star – helped the Society spread its message throughout Ireland to a degree that would have been impossible only a short time before, reaching to every corner of the land. Meetings were held in chapels and other public spaces, bringing large crowds. They frequently echoed the ideas of men like Thomas Paine, who’s famous Common Sense and Rights of Man pamphlets were widely distributed in Ireland.

In the United Irishmen, many of the dissatisfied and seditious found an outlet, seeing fellow radicals who seemed more prepared to take a hard-line with Britain, and would not be bound by the internecine demarcations of religion. Soon, the United Irishmen were linking up with agrarian societies like the Defenders: all of this was watched with an increasing sense of worry by the state who, panic-stricken by events in Paris, were ceaselessly on the lookout for any entity that would attempt to create a similar environment.

By 1793, the membership of the United Irishmen had grown so much that the organisation was banned by the government upon the beginning of the war with Revolutionary France, but this did not destroy the society, merely moved much of its operations underground. Though its activities were briefly hampered, its membership remained at high levels, despite the overall structure and organisation of the United Irishmen remaining rather fuzzy, a topic for another day. Its newly outlawed nature increased the secrecy of the society, with members now taking oaths upon joining, such things actually being punishable with the death penalty under laws introduced in 1796. The war with France brought economic problems to Ireland, increasing resentment towards the government from some quarters.

British authorities continued to try and counter the influence of groups like the United Irishmen through legislative means, like the Catholic Relief Acts, and the founding of St Patricks College in Maynooth for the training of Catholic priests, a move that placed the Church firmly on the authorities’ side (though nothing of substance continued to be done on the land question). Though Tone did express some contempt for the Catholic underclass, he recognised that any future move against the state would need the Catholic population onside if it was going to succeed, and so he pressed with others for ideas like Catholic emancipation.

Drennan was the first leader to be arrested for sedition, in 1794, though he was acquitted of the charges eventually. Still, the act indicated the seriousness of the situation in terms of the government response, though such things only helped encourage those who were looking at military solutions to their problems. At the same time, the society itself was suffering a growing divide, between those who did not seek a break from Britain, merely an outlet to press hard or reform, and those who were set an instigating an armed rebellion at some time in the not too distant future. Amalgamation with Defender groups increased the militant aspects of the United Irishmen, making an armed uprising increasing likely, though plenty of the higher echelons remained opposed to such plans. But as time went on and the membership of the society increased, the divide became less about whether an armed uprising should take place, but whether an inevitable rising should be attempted with or without French assistance.

Tone certainly counted himself among the more militant, and it was he who helped the mission of Reverend William Jackson, an English exile in France, who travelled to Ireland to try and ascertain the possibilities for a French-friendly popular revolt there. Jackson’s mission was discovered by the authorities and he was arrested, later to die in prison: Tone, heavily implicated in documents discovered, arranged to leave the country. In this, the government acquiesced, as they would frequently at the time, happy to avoid creating martyrs for the still burgeoning nationalist cause.

Tone spent some time living in America, a place he came to dislike due to what he perceived as a deficiency in democracy and elitism in its leading figures. In 1796, inspired by like-minded United Irishmen, he travelled to France, to inquire as to the possibility of a military invasion of Ireland. There, he would meet some famous figures, from Irish and French history. There, he would provide the impetus for, potentially, one of the most fateful military operations in Ireland’s history.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The United Irishmen

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Antrim | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The 1798 Rebellion | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Fenians Prepare | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Arms Trial | Never Felt Better

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