The run-up to the year 1798, and the events that took place then, require a bit more complicated backstory if they are to be understood properly. In this entry, I’m going to take a look at the general state of things in Ireland around 1797, the status of the government and the activities of the United Irishmen, in the aftermath of the failed French invasion.
Ireland at this time was a nation in crisis. War, the financial requirements of a large garrison and agrarian agitation was producing an economic crisis, with the Dublin administration close to bankruptcy, increasingly reliant on direct support from London. The dangers of invasion from France was still quite real, with even a pre-consular Napoleon Bonaparte briefly involved in yet another plan to send troops to Ireland, going so far as to meet with Wolfe Tone and to assemble a fleet. But, in the end, he would turn south and attempt an invasion of Egypt instead, once again dashing the hopes of Tone and his confederates.
But even with this, in Dublin Castle, headquarters of the British administration in Ireland, dread of a French invasion continued to be the scene of much fear. The head of the government there was John Pratt, the Lord Camden, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant in 1795. He faced a difficult task. Aside from the general problems of the country, his own government was ripe with inefficiency and corruption, almost entirely drawn from the Protestant Ascendency. His cabinet held a large degree of power over him, despite Camden’s nominal authority: they included the Lord Chancellor Lord Clare, the Irish Parliament’s Speaker John Foster and the Commissioner of Revenue John Beresford.
Beresford was a particular problem, asserting a large amount of power through hard won connections and political patronage, something he mixed with an intense loathing for any kind of reform to anti-Catholic legislation. Camden’s immediate predecessor, the Lord FitzWilliam, had caused outrage by sacking Beresford, seeking to combat corruption and siding with those arguing for Catholic emancipation: it wasn’t long before FitzWilliam was recalled and Camden appointed – and he promptly put Beresford back where he had been, tellingly – an act in Irish political history that remained incredibly controversial in 1798. On the whole, it was not an executive authority to provoke a great feeling of faith that the growing crisis could be managed.
Camden watched as agrarian outrages grew in scope, with particular trouble in the midlands, amid reports of houses being raided for arms and trees being cut down to produce pikes. He thought many of the reports and many of the complaints from the upper class directed to him were exaggerated, and resisted calls for martial law to be proclaimed in certain areas. He believed that many of those complaining were causing the very problems that were the source of the unrest, but was too weak to actually resist the clamour. Martial law was declared in some areas, an action that only served to inflame local tensions. The wars of secret societies and the murder of local magistrates continued to put the pressure on. Members of the Protestant Ascendency began to coalesce in towns and the larger country houses, in a situation that was not all that dissimilar to the way that much ground was ceded to Catholics on the early days of the 1641 rebellion and the preceding time of the War of the Two Kings. Camden continued to insist that if only the local authorities would “feel their own strength” then they would be capable of imposing order, but the early months of 1798 had him as beleaguered as ever.
The United Irishmen watched this all with interest of course. In this period they remained underground and, indeed, actually attempted to quell signs that they were planning a rebellion, telling members to avoid dress and hair styles associated with radical elements and to keep any preparations as hushed as possible, not wanting to tip the authorities off. Informers let the government know that a greater danger was in seemingly quiet areas, such as Dublin. In the meantime, the United Irishmen continued to recruit more members and to organise themselves.
That last part was a bit tricky. Like any good secret society worth its salt, the United Irishmen left behind few primary sources of their organisational make-up. It was a provincial thing, with Ulster and Leinster both having their own branches that largely operated independently of each other, with much smaller organisations in Munster and Connacht. Any “national executive” or “executive directory”, in the style of that which ruled France, was mostly a pageantry of the mind, an entity that met briefly a few times to encourage greater participation between Leinster and Ulster, with only partial success. The Ulster branch took precedence at first, but the Leinster version was largely constituted by 1797. It’s first executive contained men like Arthur O’Connor, Henry Jackson, William James McNeven, and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who had returned home from his foreign machinations the previous year. These men headed the movements aims to recruit more and more men, with the middle-class occupations of law, medicine and yeomanry increasingly targeted.
The leadership themselves were doctors, barristers and landowners, a mix of Catholic and Protestant, a true cross-section of upper-class society in Dublin at the time. On their overall aim, there was little disagreement: by 1797 and the early days of 1798, the society was set on forcing a complete separation from Britain, where once they had merely agitated for reform by political means. But the divide came between those who believed that such a thing could only be possible with outside – meaning French – support, and those who believed that the Irish alone could achieve the required result. The more radical element included men like FitzGerald and O’Connor, who had seen the failures of the French first hand, and believed that the country was sufficiently well-organised and prepared that an overthrow of the British establishment could be attempted. Men like barrister Thomas Addis Emmet and Catholic campaigner Richard McCormick were leading lights of the more moderate element, who feared a violent anarchic state in Ireland. They held sway for the moment, after the society received assurances of continued support and future assistance from France: but the tide could not be held back forever. Such prevarication drove O’Connor to despair, to the point where he even briefly left Ireland.
This divide in the society – it would be a bit much to describe it as a “split”, with harsh words being as far as the disagreement usually went – was seen obviously in the media war, with O’Connor’s The Press, the publication that had taken over from the banned Northern Star, attempting to agitate the peasantry to form a vast army for the society, or at least so informers told the government. It frequently carried messages that called for the Irish to “avenge the murder of her slaughtered patriots”. Another broadsheet, the Union Star run by a Catholic gunmaker named Watty Cox, openly called for the creation of an Irish Republic, appealing directly to sectarian pro-Catholic mind-sets by launching savage attacks on the aristocracy and Anglican authorities. Ironically for such an apparent firebrand, Cox would agree to inform on the society when he was eventually tracked down and arrested.
When Arthur O’Connor was arrested on charges of sedition – he would eventually be released on conditions that he must exile himself to France, where he later served as a Napoleonic general – Camden took the further step of having The Press shut down, hoping that these twin actions might prove a fatal blow to the United Irishmen. But he was mistaken. The society survived and continued to grow, and the moderate element were delighted that O’Connor and his militant publication were out of the picture.
By this time, informers were claiming that the United Irishmen could call upon 300’000 sworn members to aid any attempted revolution: undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the society had reached an immense size, though even if they had those numbers, such men were ill-equipped if at all, with little training and little effective leadership. And, of course, the movement was also full of those who were willingly passing information to the authorities. Such things we have seen time and again when it comes to Catholic soldiers in Irish military history. However, even with these deficiencies, a coordinated rising would leave the British administration badly beset, and that was before the possibility of a battle-hardened French Army being thrown into the mix.
In Dublin, the cabinet prevaricated in the early weeks of 1798, arguing over the possible benefits and detriments of arresting the known ringleaders, whether such an action would cut off the head of the snake, or simply provoke it into biting its attacker. Those of a Protestant Ascendency leaning argued hard for arrests, while Camden limply resisted. They were still arguing when the report of an informer named Thomas Reynolds changed everything.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.