In the halls of government in Dublin, the people in charge were furiously debating whether the time had come to arrest the known leaders of the United Irishmen. The hardliners thought such a move would deal a fatal blow to the cause before it could commence a revolutionary attempt, while those opposed, ever getting outshouted, worried that such an act would only make martyrs and encourage greater dissent. Then another informer report radically changed the situation.
Thomas Reynolds was a 27-year-old Catholic, a successful silk merchant, with family connections to Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward FitzGerald. In 1797 he had been convinced to join the United Irishmen, claiming that he did so out of a belief that the organisation was committed only to the achievement of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Reynolds was no high flyer initially, more concerned with his ambition to get out of trade and become part of the country gentry, an aim aided by Edward FitzGerald, who helped Reynolds gain the lease on a small castle in Kilkea, Kildare. Later, FitzGerald asked Reynolds a favour: if he wouldn’t mind becoming the United Irishman Colonel for Kildare in his place, as he was worried by growing government attention. Reynolds gladly took up the post, which led to positions on the Kildare Committee, and then the Leinster Directory.
According to Reynolds, in 1798 two members of the more radical faction took him aside and told him about their larger plans for insurrection, that apparently included the assassination of over 80 members of the government. Reynolds, he claimed anyway, was horrified, but hid his feelings. In February he made contact with government through a third party, and on condition of his anonymity, he produced copies of Supreme Executive minutes.
The documents were a thunderbolt for the government. They indicated that the United Irishman’s prospective army outnumbered government forces at least five to one in Munster, Leinster and Ulster, and that a rising was imminent, with each county tasked with appointing a General of their forces and begin surveying the land for military engagements. Claims were made that a significant portion of the armed forces in Ireland, and the militia, were ready to defect to the rebel’s cause. Faced with such, apparently airtight, evidence of the United Irishman’s “diabolical plans”, Camden had little choice. Enticed by further information that the Leinster Directory would be secretly meeting in Dublin on March 12th, he gave the order for arrests to be made.
The meeting took place at the home of Oliver Bond, a woollen merchant in Bridge Street. That morning the authorities swooped in, arresting ten provincial delegates and two members of the Supreme Executive, along with many crucial documents. Other leaders, locations known, had their homes surrounded the same day, escape impossible.
Two members of the Executive escaped capture. The first was Richard McCormick, a moderate, who had not attended the meeting out of fear, and then fled abroad. The second was Edward FitzGerald. His escape was an embarrassment to the government, and FitzGerald, the exact details of his escape fuzzy, went into hiding. Camden would have been happy enough if FitzGerald would quietly leave the country – he was still gentry after all – but the young firebrand did not go. A huge reward was soon posted for information leading to his capture.
The government would also be disappointed with the short-term effects of the arrests. The papers seized were not the hoped for smoking guns of rebellious intent, and the British intelligence network reported soon after that the United Irishmen were proceeding with their business, electing new delegates and continuing preparation for a rising. Certainly, there was unrest among the organisation, and fear, but the United Irishmen did not collapse. Two barristers, John and Henry Sheares, and Samuel Neilson, former editor of the Northern Star, now became the leading active figures of the Leinster Directory. They were leading an organisation that was increasingly committed to a rebellion in the short-term, with or without French help.
Camden had other problems. As all of this was going on, an embarrassing scandal for his administration erupted as the commander-in-chief of British military forces in Ireland, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, had issued a general order severely criticising the military in Ireland, accusing it of carrying out atrocities on the local population, being ill-disciplined as well as completely unready and incapable of standing up to an enemy in the field of battle. Abercromby, disgusted by the state of the army he was tasked with commanding, felt he had to speak out, but his actions caused a great deal of embarrassment for Camden, who had to deal with furious letters from London demanding to know why such things were being said publically.
Abercromby’s concerns, from troop behaviour to the terrible status of artillery in the country, were perfectly legitimate. But the manner in which he broached them trod on many toes, and at a time when a national rebellion seemed to be imminent. Abercromby wanted to end the policy of numerous small garrisons scattered throughout Ireland, something done partially out of the insistence of Protestant gentry, who increasingly wanted more and more government protection from supposed enemies in the countryside. Abercromby, who had first hand experience earlier in his career with the way said peasantry were treated by the gentry, preferred fewer garrisons and concentrated troops numbers in the face of possible foreign invasion, and further felt that local magistrates should be pushed to exert law and order themselves, without recourse to the national government constantly.
While Camden hoped the crisis would blow over, most of his cabinet, parts of the Parliament, superiois in London and even serving army officers – like the next most senior military leader, General Gerald Lake – were dead set against Abercromby. The commander-in-chief was obligated to offer his resignation.
All of this came at an awful time. In Munster, there were numerous reports of organised units marching into towns, posting guards, and then ransacking homes for arms and money. The Ascendency sent shriller and shriller messages to Dublin seeking help, claiming that large parts of the country were lawless, already in a state of insurrection. Attacks on villages, it was claimed, were happening in broad daylight, with magistrates and gentleman having their arms, and even their lives, stolen. Army units that happened upon apparent rebels acquiring arms refused to engage them in Kildare. Local authorities seemed paralysed.
Camden, pressured from all sides and unable to hold his own, agreed to institute martial law over the entire country, which came into effect with a proclamation on March 30th. A policy of disarmament would be executed against all seditious elements, with the military empowered to, essentially, act in pursuit of this objective as it saw fit. Somewhat awkwardly, Abercromby, his proffered resignation accepted, remained in command of the military as the campaigns began. Despite his personal misgivings over the policy put before him, he dutifully moved to obey orders. A civilian targeted campaign to be carried out by a military beset with poor leadership and discipline problems: truly, a perfect storm was in the offing.
In some areas, where Abercromby was able to exert some direct control, the disarmament campaign actually yielded positive results. Abercromby issued deadlines for arms, be they guns or pikes, to be handed into government authorities. After that, his soldiers would be sent to live at “free quarters” in the targeted districts, allowed to live off the land and do as they pleased. It was, essentially, the threat of collective punishment as a last resort. Across Ireland, from Cork to Kildare, areas held out as the days – ten was the number Abercromby settled on – ticked by. When they were up, the General was as good as his threat, and his soldiers were let loose in April.
All over Ireland, the effect was immediate. Within days, the authorities were overflowing with handed in arms and pikes, as the lower classes tried to save their homes, possessions and land from indiscriminate plundering, burning and killing. The lower classes, with little to lose, were happy to commit themselves to the cause of the United Irishmen but, with nowhere near the ideological strength or political sophistication of the movements leaders, many quailed under a government onslaught. Laois was seemingly pacified in just a few days, with Abercromby insisting on as little force being used as possible. The coastal areas of Cork, under the oversight of General Sir John Moore, had similar success, with relatively little harm to the population once it became clear that the military meant what it said. The terror and fear was great, but with Moore personally supervising, excesses were curbed. With the areas disarmed, the repression ceased.
But events were already overtaking Abercromby, who was merely caretaking for a short time before General Lake took over his position. Lake, a blunter individual with little appreciation for the subtle, disliked Abercromby’s leniency, and under him things rapidly got out of control. His tactics, while less infamous then, had worked in reducing the threat of the United Irishmen in Ulster the previous year, and now he turned to the rest of the midlands and east. In Offaly and Kildare, entire villages and towns were plundered or burnt, sometimes by militia units with no direct supervision. Peasants and priests were beaten or killed indiscriminately. Highway robbery and murder carried out by yeomanry became a common occurrence. Ironically, Thomas Reynolds, his service to the government a secret to nearly everyone, suffered greatly as his castle seized, largely wrecked, and he himself arrested – he was still a prominent United Irishman – a short time later. He would be eventually released.
In Athy, Kildare, at the beginning of May, wooden triangles began to appear, at which those suspected of being United Irishmen, or of hiding arms or for any old reason, were tied and flogged by the authorities. They soon began to appear in other places, and became a symbol of British repression in the immediate preceding time of the rebellion seared into the national consciousness. Blacksmiths, natural targets for accusations of making and hiding pikeheads, were common victims. Pikes and arms were recovered, but Kildare, perhaps the most organised of the counties in terms of United Irishmen plans, did not break. Where Abercromby’s actions had resulted in a firmer success in Laois and Cork, Lake’s was only provoking fury and a desire for revenge in Kildare.
Things were even worse in places like Wicklow, always dodgy territory for government forces. There, the disarmament campaigns carried an even nastier sectarian edge in difficult country, and atrocities were widespread, practically sanctioned by local authorities. The local militia were viewed as highly suspect, and many of their membership were purged in this time. Pikes were found or handed in: indeed, they soon became expensive items, as common people became desperate to have anything with which to hand into the bloody-minded troops who continued to burn homes and farms, and brutally torture those who resisted or simply refused to aid them.
The Irish government watched proceedings from Dublin. While the Ascendency representatives were hay with Abercromby’s absence and a harsh policy against perceived threats, there were also rumblings of unhappiness when gentry land and homes were destroyed. But the results spoke for themselves. Thousands of guns and pikes recovered, and seditious elements utterly smashed in large parts of the country. As May continued, Camden and his cabinet had reasons to be optimistic.
On May the 19th, they found another one, when Lord Edward FitzGerald was arrested.
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