Sunday, 13 November 2011

Irish Rebellion 1798 in Ireland

Irish Rebellion 1798 in Ireland


This was a time of considerable political thinking for Ireland with the existing government set in its ways and wary of anything that would shatter the status quo.  The ongoing French revolution was now having a profound impact on the thinking of politics in Ireland.

Open celebrations and marches in the support of the taking of the Bastille in France gave the conservative government some cause for alarm.  This led to the formation of the United Irishmen in 1791. This organisation hoped to attract people of different religions and unite them in a campaign for greater political and economic independence from Britain. It would prove significant in the Irish rebellion 1798.

The leader of this organisation was Theobold Wolfe Tone, a Kildare lawyer and was highly influenced by the events of the French Revolution.  Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin in 1763 and went on to become a barrister. He joined the United Irishmen in Belfast and due to the openness of that society availed of a more liberal audience willing to listen to his views.

He had initially visited the Northern Whig club in Belfast but he believed that were not radical enough for him and founded the Society of United Irishmen in 1791.  The main objectives of the United Irishmen were to include all religions and all social classes in a bid to reform parliament.  They believed that the current government was unconstitutional and that the grievances of all Irish people were being ignored and this needed to be addressed.

His requests for parliamentary reform pleased the Presbyterians who felt that a parliament full of Protestant landowners was not one best able to represent the interest of the mercantile classes.  He returned to Dublin and set up a branch of the United Irishmen there. The secretary of this movement was James Napper Tandy a Protestant shopkeeper from Dublin.  This branch was formed under the auspices of what was known as the Catholic Committee.  This was an organisation which had existed in Dublin to protect the interests of Catholics and to help repeal the Penal laws.

This committee was formed of two classes of people, the aristocratic and democratic.  The aristocratic element, although opposed to current government practise was much different in its approach to the democratic elements within.

The aristocratic were actually rather shocked by how radical the French revolution had become and objected to some of its methods.  However, the more radical democratic side of the party were in the strength and pushed forwards with more radical suggested reforms.  Many of the aristocratics left the organisation as they found the suggestions to revolutionary.  However, the movement grew quickly and became more radical.



In 1792 they met in Back Lane in Dublin and made a petition to the king for some reforms.  This was presented to the king and as a result a bill was passed through the Irish parliament which offered some relief to Catholics.

It meant they could open colleges which were linked to Trinity College, could serve on juries and become judges, enter both civil and military posts  and most importantly that any forty shilling freeholders could now vote for members of parliament.  It is worth noting that despite these reforms Catholics could still not actually become members of parliament.  The government kept a very close watch on this organisation and many of them were fined and imprisoned for various breaches.  Acts were also passed that increased the size of the militia, prevented unlawful assemblies such as that which had taken place in Back Lane and a Gunpowder Act to prevent the importing of arms and gunpowder.

Sensing a rebellion in 1793 in the South-East of Ireland, the government encouraged the set up of a militia in 1793 and then a Yeoman Corps a year later.  These were typically headed by a local landlord or magistrate.  This allowed regular troops to be used elsewhere.  The Yeoman were dominated by Orangemen and given quite a free reign.

Their heavy handed approach only drove the United Irishmen underground and encouraged a growth in membership with a more radical approach.  The government’s approach of using informers proved much more effective and many were arrested.   For some time towards the end of 1794 there was a sense of some hope in Ireland with a sense that Catholic emancipation was possible.

Pitt had sent the Earl of Fitzwilliam to bring this about and he was met with some enthusiasm.  A key ingredient to this was to allow Catholics to sit in parliament, but this would require a bill to be passed through parliament.

A Lord Beresford who had served in Ireland met with the king and after that meeting persuaded the king that to allow Catholics into parliament would greatly weaken the Protestant religion.  The king then imposed his right of veto and the potential bill was scrapped dashing completely the hopes of the United Irishmen and Catholics generally.

Lord Fitzwillam then left Ireland and was replaced by Earl Camden.  Grattan tried to push his bill through the Irish parliament but it met with a heavy defeat.  The people then suffered a great sense of frustration and with hopes fading of emancipation looked to alternative methods to achieve their objectives.  They now seriouslly considered revolution, foreign aid mainly from the French and the creation of a republic.

The United Irishmen now became a more secretive underground organisation and as such also became an illegal gathering under the new laws.  It also suffered greatly from informers who were high up in the organisation.

Wolfe Tone, who had been compromised in a trial was forced to leave Ireland, but he left promising that he would turn to the French and Americans for help.  He went to France and sent back an agent with information who was also compromised by an informer.  As a result, Tone was forced to flee to America and from there he went to France to continue to petition for their help.

Until 1795 young Catholic men who wanted to become priests had been forced to go to Europe, mainly France, to receive this education.  The government were aware of how revolutionary France had become so decided to allow these young men to stay in Ireland and set up a college at Maynooth.  Also in 1795, Lord Edward Fitzgerald a major in the British army joined the United Irishmen.  He had been removed from the British army as he was sympathetic to the French revolution.

Tone who was a Protestant had done much to try and unite Protestants and Catholics but in Ulster specifically, the bitter strife had kept them apart.  The forming of the Orange Order only made the gap wider as their intent was to rid Ulster of all Catholics.  The United Irishmen movement did however continue to grow and in 1795 they numbered over half a million.

In 1796 with the French still at war with the English, Tone at last persuaded the French to help.  Lord Fitzgerald and Arthur O’Connor who were now in the United Irishmen met with a General Hoche to plan a French invasion of Ireland to defeat the English.  43 ships manned by over 15,000 men carried Hoche and his second in command General Grouchy along with Wolfe Tone to sail for Ireland on the 17th December.  Bad weather which included strong winds and fog now played their part and only 16 of the 43 ships made it into Bantry Bay in Ireland.  They waited there for the arrival of Hoche but with his failure to arrive, the French left and returned to France having not set foot on Irish soil.

Following this a strict Act was passed allowing magistrates to arrest anyone they chose.  In Ulster a General lake was given command of the army in Ulster.  The United Irishmen then suffered greatly due to the ruthless actions of General Lake and his troops whose actions were primed by sectarianism.  He introduced martial law and removed all arms, suppressed their newspaper the Northern Star and arrested many on the committees.

Arthur O’Connor was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle.  Lake also brought over militia from England and they were let loose on the people and they essentially did what they pleased.  This only succeeded in filling the ranks of the United Irishmen.  Henry Joy McCracken led the Ulster rebellion but it was quickly defeated by Colonel Durham’s militia in Antrim.  Henry Joy McCracken was born into a prosperous Presbyterian family in Belfast and was one of the founder members of the United Irishmen.  He was arrested in 1796 and eventually hanged in Downpatrick in 1798.

The French did try again in 1797 but once again the weather proved unfavourable and when the depleted fleet arrived, they were easily defeated at Camperdown.  A few more French expeditions did sail to Ireland but the British navy captured many of them in Donegal.  Among those captured was Wolfe Tone, who was recognised and informed on by an old college friend.  He was taken to Dublin, court matialed and sentenced to death, but apparently committed suicide before his execution.
Irish Rebellion 1798

With the ongoing unrest a rebellion was inevitable but in truth it was at best a shambles.  It was poorly organised, poorly communicated and the implementation was feeble.  The government spies were well informed and new the date when the rising was to to happen, that being the 23rd May 1798.  The main leaders were all arrested before that date and these included Arthur O’Connor, Oliver Bond and a Father O’Coigley who was sentenced to death and hanged at Maidstone.

Lord Edward Fitzgerald was also arrested when he was informed upon by a Francis Higgins eager to get the bounty for his information.    Fitzgerald who had been ill in his bed fought back against his arrest and was eventually shot in the shoulder and imprisoned.  He did however die from his wounds.  Two brothers Henry and John Sheares both barristers and leading United Irishmen were also arrested and hanged.  Only five minutes after this execution did a reprieve arrive for Henry Sheares.

Throughout the rest of the country signals had been agreed to start the rising.  Dublin now under martial law and with many of its leaders arrested could not rise.  The rest of the country were badly organised, largely without arms and the rising was at best only a partial rising. 4,000 Irish men were defeated at the Hill of Tara and only in Wexford was there any real sense of a full rising.

This was not actually planned or linked to the United Irishmen in Dublin, but was borne out of hatred for the militia and the military who had inflicted great suffering upon them.  When a small chapel at Boleyvogue was burned to the ground, Father John Murphy along with a Father Michael Murphy took leadership of the rebels and defeated the North Cork militia close to the town of Enniscorthy.

They then camped out on Vinegar Hill and then marched towards Wexford town.  The garrison stationed there fled and left the town to the rebels who then drank and plundered and exacted some terrible revenge against those they considered to be enemies.  They released a Protestant called Bagenal Harvey who had been imprisoned by the government and made him their general.


The 1798 rebellion in Ireland is still discussed today and is a significant milestone in understanding Irish History.  I would now recommend reading about the 1801 Act Of Union in Ireland.

He was a man who lacked any real military skill and those under him continued to be lacking in discipline and intent on drinking heavily and causing mayhem.  He was eventually replaced by Edward Roche.  Terrible attrocities were carried out by these out of control rebels and this included the buring to death of over 100 Protestants who had been locked into a barn.

The rebels did attempt to march on Dublin but they were defeated when General Lake and some 20,000 men attacked Vinegar Hill.  Many rebels were arrested and hanged including Bagenal Harvey and Father John Murphy.  The country was now fully at the mercy of the militia and they wreaked havoc on the Irish peasantry.  Many chapels and dwellings were burned to the ground and many were arrested and torutured.

A Lord Cornwallis was appointed Lord Lieutenant and his first task was to put an end to the continuing attrocities taking place across Ireland.  The French then returned and were faced down by Cornwallis.

Matthew Tone, the brother of Wolfe Tone was among the French and he was arrested and hanged in Dublin.  Soon after another French fleet arrived, and this time Wolfe Tone was on board and he was arrested. He cut his own throat with a penknife in jail before he could be hanged.

William Pitt, the British Prime Minister knew that military action would not be enough to suppress these various uprisings and so he planned to unite the British and Irish parliaments and make Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.

This was rejected in the Irish Parliament by just five votes, and with promises and propaganda, bribes and honours, this was over turned in another vote by 43 votes in favour of the motion.  The Act of Union was passed on 1st January 1801 and the Irish Parliament was abolished.

You should now read the Irish History Act of Union 1800