The policy of active disarmament was, in the view of the Dublin-based government, paying dividends. In the east, the midlands and Munster, the strength of the United Irishmen and their armies seemed smashed under the weight of the often brutal actions of the military and local militia units, as pikes and arms were given up en masse. The repressive policy that had set fire to so many homes in South Kildare now moved north: Celbridge, Maynooth and Kilcock soon had their share of smoke rising from thatched roofs. The effect was largely the same as everywhere else: whatever feelings of vengeance the actions incurred, they also resulted in the locals handing in their weapons.
But problems remained in the capital itself, which was so peaceful most of the time it became a topic of suspicion. A mass uprising in Dublin itself was a nightmare scenario for the government and the Ascendency, but it was unclear whether the United Irishmen, still reeling from the decapitation of their leadership, had the capability to do so.
Actions were taken. Trinity College was purged of alleged radical elements: one of its students who now fled persecution was a young barrister in training named Robert Emmet, younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet. Increased reward money was offered for those leaders still at large. Particular attention was being paid to the whereabouts and activities of Lord Edward FitzGerald, who naturally was now the pre-eminent symbol of the United Irishmen in Ireland. The organisation still looked to him for leadership and hope, while the government felt that his capture, or enforced exile, would be a crucial step on the road to eliminating the subversive element entirely.
FitzGerald, for his part, was surprisingly aloof and blasé about his current status. Having avoided arrest, he stayed in Dublin, moving from safe house to safe house, but never really taking the steps to conceal his identity that he should have. Neighbours knew who he was, he took walks outside at night and visited his wife disguised as a woman. He also still met other members of the Directory at times, without proper precautions – it is possible that informers were present at these meetings – and took rides outside the city limits and back to reconnoitre possible marching routes.
On May 20th, his luck ran out, when Dublin police discovered his latest safe house and came to arrest him. A fight broke out. FitzGerald killed one officer with his sword and brawled with another down the stairs, before being shot in the shoulder and subdued.
His arrest was a disaster for the United Irishmen, who were already well into preparations for FitzGerald to be escorted from the city to command a larger section of the army they were getting ready to spring into action on the outskirts of Dublin. Whatever about his actual military experience – something that was in desperately short supply among the United leadership – his symbolic power was also immense. His capture and imprisonment were terrible blows, to an organisation that was rapidly coming to a critical point.
The rebel leadership was by now ridden with informers, men promoted too rapidly due to the sudden circumstances whose loyalty should have been far more suspect. They included Catholic barrister Francis Magan and a young militia officer named Captain Armstrong, two men who almost instantly fed information about United Irishman plans to the Castle. The authorities were stunned by some of the reports, which indicated that the United Irishmen were planning to go ahead with a rising, for as soon as May 1st.
The report was an exaggeration, but only just. The United Irishmen, those still firmly committed to the cause, were going to go ahead with a rising, but it would take place later than the start of May. The French had, by now, admitted to the Directory that they could not have any troops in a position to invade Ireland soon, and even when they did, months from then, it would not be a gigantic, all conquering force of French veterans, but a smaller army designed to be the core of a peasant military. 5’000 men were promised, but only as early as August.
The new leadership elected to begin preparations for a more immediate rising, with their thinking also influenced by the damage done in parts of the country by Abercromby and Lake’s disarmament campaign. Offaly, Laois and large parts of Munster seemed to have no more elements of organised United Irishmen. If things stayed as they were, the organisation would soon be incapable of rebellion. For many in the higher echelons, it was now or never, their previously vast peasant army disintegrating before their eyes.
Dublin was a main target. Aside from its obvious symbolic importance, one of the biggest cities in the British Empire, it was the site of the head of government in Ireland, a vital port and a location of much supplies and other associated war material that the United Irishmen desperately needed. Any nationwide rising would be stillborn if nothing was done around Dublin, and so a complex three pronged assault was thought out. Three armed columns, of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow men, would assemble to the north, south and east of the city, and attack three targets at night: the military camp at Loughlinstown to the south, the Chapelizod artillery barracks to the north and the city centre itself in the middle, with the Castle and its government to be seized.
The new executive aimed for a co-ordinated nationwide rising to take place at the same time, and warnings to prepare were sent out to whatever units were still in being. Of course, for something as bedraggled and holed as the United Irishmen, the plan was too complex, liable to go entirely belly up if even the smallest element went wrong. Much was being left to happenstance and overly-positive thinking: for example, there was much hope that sympathetic members of the military and militia would simply hand over army barracks without a fight (most of the militia in the Dublin region was Catholic).
Much thought also went to the North and its largely silent contingents of United Irishmen, who had not sent returns for number of available troops for some time. And, crucially, beyond this attack on Dublin from the surrounding counties, precious little had been agreed or even discussed in terms of wider strategy, even by the likes of FitzGerald. Vague notions of guerrilla warfare, in Dublin and without, had crossed Lord Edward’s mind, but nothing concrete had been elaborated upon. What was planned, to its fullest extent, was essentially a coup aimed at the Dublin administration and that was all. How to handle the rest of the country, or the possibility of counter-moves from the other side of the Irish Sea, were things that did not factor into the short-term thinking that dominated the United party at that time.
But, faced with a choice between an attempted rising in the short-term or inevitable defeat beyond that, the executive maintained its position. There was still discord, but now it was more between those who feared the results of a peasant-driven national insurrection, liable to be bloody and uncontrollable, and those who wished to hold out for French assistance and a more well-ordered rebellion. By the middle of the month, the date for the rising had been agreed: May 24th.
FitzGerald’s arrest left the government crowing and the United Irishmen devastated. Men like Lawless had already left Ireland, dissatisfied with the heedlessly violent direction the movement was taking, and the Sheares brothers, their activities and movements betrayed by Armstrong, were arrested soon after as well. Henry Sheares was captured with a proclamation, not dissimilar to the one that would become famous in 1916, that was due to be made public in a few days. It called for the “Sons of Ireland” to “Arm yourselves by every means in your power, and rush like lions on your foes”. In terms of the legality of the arrests, the document was a smoking gun of planned insurrection. Sam Neilson, the former newspaper editor, was one of the only men of note left, which might have been more to do with his status as a known alcoholic than government lapses.
Camden, stung a bit by the rhetoric employed and harassed by vengeful members of the Ascendency, agreed for the disarmament campaign to come to the capital, and soon hundreds of yeomanry were let loose in areas of Dublin under heavy suspicion of supporting and harbouring United Irishmen. Homes and warehouse were searched at the point of a bayonet, and burned if anything suspicious was discovered. Floggings began. Regiments were moved into the city for defence, and strategic points manned, though Camden was painfully aware how vulnerable Dublin was regardless, its walls not what they once were and even the Castle no longer defensible from any kind of sustained military attack.
The government hoped that the arrests and the disarmament would have ended the rising before it began, but despite the information given by numerous informers, they were still caught off guard when it became apparent that the plans for rebellion within Dublin were only the opening part of a more nation-wide effort, an effort that had already seen the fuse lit.
May 23rd came, and suddenly Camden and his government were inundated with information and rumours of assembly notices, columns outside Dublin preparing for attack and a general sense of rapid alarm among the citizenry, who only a few days before had believed that the prospective rebellion had been completely crushed. Wild gossip spread like wildfire of United Irishmen cells preparing to raise havoc in the city streets. Artillery was moved to protect Dublin Castle.
It was mostly imagination. The movement inside Dublin had fallen to pieces when the leadership was arrested or left, and where once on army of 8’000 had seemingly stood ready, now few could be found. That night, the pitiful remains of the Directory did meet, and it was agreed that Neilson would be tasked with getting out of Dublin and delivering messages to the Colonels attempting to assemble troops in Kildare, Meath and beyond. The Directory were attempting to have any kind of cooperative action at this point, but Neilson was the wrong choice for the job. During this mission he stopped in a public house, became inebriated, walked to Newgate prison to hurl insults at its gaoler and was promptly arrested. If one image could sum up the paucity of the United Irishmen’s leadership in those last hours before the point of no return, it is the shambling Neilson being dragged inside a prison, drunkenly insulting his enemies, while failing to carry out his duty.
It was actually Neilson who is credited with the operation to signal the beginning of the rising, which he presumably came up with in one of his sober moments. The mail coach system, operating out of Dublin to the corners of Ireland, was a vital method of communication at the time, and the coaches would leave Dublin late at night or in the early hours of the morning, their regular rides a sure symbol of the operation of the government and the status quo. In order to send the signal that the rising was to begin, the United Irishmen planned to intercept and destroy the coaches. When they failed to arrive at their interim and final destinations, it would be as effective a sign as any that the moment had come. Groups were already assembling, but they still awaited the go from an actual higher authority.
Men were detailed to stop the coaches that night, but inevitably, things went wrong. Four of the five coaches would be unscathed in their initial journeys, some even passing by fighting that had already broken out – perhaps making a mockery of the idea – and others actually riding through United barricades. One was stopped and burned at Santry, its passengers left unharmed, but the bonfire did not have the desired effect.
As the coach heading for Munster passed through Kildare, a body of rebels under a man named Michael Reynolds took action. Near Naas the coach was stopped, set ablaze, and its passengers killed. By that moment the rising had already begun in parts of Kildare, but it is as suitable an event to point to as any other when it comes to determining the beginning of the 1798 rebellion. It was the early hours of May 24th.
The man who had, perhaps, done as much as any other to bring that rising into being, would not live long enough to see its full results. Edward FitzGerald’s wound had been to his arm but, in the unsanitary prison conditions of Newgate, and denied proper medical care for too long, inflammation and infection set in. FitzGerald became delirious and, on the 4th of June, he died. We will never know what his presence in the rebellion proper might have meant, but his effect on the United Irishmen – in promoting the rebellious course and galvanising the movement aimed at the creation of a free republican Ireland – can never be denied. It was easy for those inclined to turn FitzGerald into a romantic hero. He would not be the last to come out of 1798.
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