The 1798 rebellion in Ireland

Part 1

200 years after its occurrence the 1798 rebellion remains an unanswered question looming over Irish politics. The bi-centenary, co-inciding with the 'Peace process' has attracted considerable discussion with the formation of local history groups, the holding of conferences and large scale interest in the TV documentaries and books published around the event. It lacked the mass mobilisations of the 1898 centenary. On the 15th August 1898 100,000 people gathered at the top of Grafton Street in Dublin to take part in the dedication of the first stone of a statue of rebel leader Wolfe Tone. But right now we live in a period devoid of mass politics. Discovering the legacy of 1798 may be part of the process of re-discovering mass politics today.


This article is a draft from which the article 1798 published in Red & Black Revolution No 4 was prepared. However that final article was only around 7,000 words whereas this draft had 15,000 words. The final article thus left out much of the information in this draft, in particular the sections on the United Irishmen's preparation for the rebellion. So I decided to also make the draft available, as below. If I ever have the time I'll tidy it up (and proof read it!!) for publication.
Andrew Flood
Oct. 1998

I finally completed the long version in June 2007 - you will find it here. I'll leave this draft online so links to it don't go dead but that final version has everything that is in this and more as well as hopefully being a bit more coherant.

On overview of the Rebellion

The foundation of the Belfast and Dublin societies of United Irishmen took place in the Autumn of 1791. This initially reformist organisation demanded democratic reforms including Catholic emancipation. In response to popular pressure the British government which effectively ruled Ireland initially granted some reforms. This period of reform ended in 1793 when war broke out between revolutionary France and Britain. The United Irishmen's journey to revolutionary separatism was only completed with the Cave Hill oath of June 1795. From this time on their program was for a revolution that with French backing would break the connection with Britain and usher in democratic reform.

In December of 1796 the United Irishmen came the nearest they would to victory when 15,000 French troops arrived off Bantry Bay. Only the bad weather and poor seamanship of the Jacobean sailors prevented the landing and saved Britain from defeat. After Bantry Bay Irish society was bitterly polarised as loyalists flocked to join the British army and the United Irishmen's numbers swelled massively.

By the Spring of 1798 a campaign of British terror was destroying the United Irishmen organisation and many of the leaders had been arrested. The remaining leaders felt forced to call an immediate rising, before French aid would arrive. The date was set for May 23rd. A series of factors undermined the rising in Dublin. However it sparked major risings in Wexford in the south and Antrim and Down in the North. These saw large scale battles in which tens of thousands participated. Elsewhere there were minor skirmishes particularly around Dublin. After the defeat of the main risings a small French Army landed on the west coast of Ireland at Killala on August the 22nd. Although there was almost no revolutionary organisation in that area thousands flocked to join them and the subsequent army succeeded in inflicting one major defeat on the British. By the Autumn the rebellion had been defeated, tens of thousands were dead and a reign of terror had spread over the country.


The rising of the moon

An analysis of the development of the left, Irish republicanism and working class struggles 1780 - 1798 & 1880-1923

The articles it includes are

You can download this pamphlet as a PDF file


The International Context

The roots of the rebellion can be found in the transatlantic democratic revolutions that swept America and Europe at the end of the 18th Century. The American Revolution of 1771-81 and the French Revolution of 1789 were key events which inspired a democratic revolutionary movement in Ireland.

The American Revolution

The American revolution, despite its deep flaws was the first great democratic revolution against the monarchy and for republicanism. Events in the US were followed with keen interest, particularly among Presbyterians in the North as "There was scarcely a family in the north of Ireland which did not have relatives living in the colonies"[1]. Many had emigrated, some in a search for religious liberty, others to escape high rents. Some 250, 000 Presbyterians emigrated to the US from Ulster from 1717 to 1776.[2]

There were popular displays of support for the American rebels through out the north. John Cladwell described how "..on the news of the battle of Bunker Hill, my nurse Ann Orr led me to the top of a mount on midsummer eve, where the young and the aged were assembled before a blazing bonfire to celebrate what they considered the triumph of America over British despotism"[3]. The contemporary historian Dr Campell describes how local Presbyterians "heard with pride that they comprised the flower of Washington's army".

The French Revolution

The key to understaind the ideas that led the Irish rising of 1798 are to be found in the French revolution a decade earlier. The French revolution of 1789 was seen to follow on and extend the promise of the American revolution. It was far more radical and saw the more direct involvement of the popular masses. Wolfe Tone described how "the French Revolution became the test of every man's political creed, and the nation was fairly divided into two great parties - the aristocracy and democrats".[4]

In July of 1791 at the Belfast Bastille Commemoration a Declaration of the Volunteers and Inhabitants at Large of the town and neighbourhood of Belfast was distributed which said

" ... if we be asked what the French Revolution is to us, we answer ... It is good for human nature that the grass grows where the Bastille stood. We do rejoice at an event that means the breaking up of civil and religious bondage ... We do really rejoice in this resurrection of human nature, and we congratulate our brother man coming forth from the vaults of ingenious torture and from the cave of death."[5]

For the Northern Presbyterian radicals France offered hope of change at home. Samuel Barber is his final sermon as Moderator of General Synod in 1791 said of France "that nation ... will now be the refuge and asylum of the brave and good in every nation".[6] France was not just seen as a refuge but also as an example that in the words of the paper of the United Irishmen, Northern Star, proved to the "people of every country ... that when they are oppressed, they have the power to redress"[7] The Northern Star went so far as to defend the execution of King Louis as "as the only mode of protecting internal tranquillity".[8]

Importantly, as France was a Catholic country ,the revolution there demonstrated to sceptical Northern Presbyterians that Catholics could act independently and against the teachings of their church. Wolfe Tone asked "Look at France; where is the intolerance of Popish bigotry now? Has not the Pope been burned in effigy in France."[9] Suddenly a new stratergy became apperant of the mass of the people striking for change. Previous reform movements had focused on lobbying of the Anglican Irish and British Parliaments.

Some of the rebellions leaders had spent time in France in the early 1790's, John Sheares attended the execution of Louise and once waved his red handkerchief under Daniel O'Connell's nose "saying it was stiff with the king's life-blood".[10] Lord Edward wrote to his mother from Paris that "the energy of the people is beyond belief - I go a great deal to the assembly"[11]. Together with Paine in late 1792 they discussed in some detail a plan to start a rebellion in Ireland.[12]

The British recognised the importance the French connection had in mobilising mass support behind the United Irishmen, particularly after Bantry Bay. General Lake wrote in March of 1797 that "The lower order of people and most of the middle class are determined republicans, have imbibed the French principle and will not be contented with anything short of a revolution".[13]

However this close identification with revolutionary France was to prove a two edged sword for the United Irishmen. In February 1793 Britain declared war on revolutionary France. Forced to choose sides many of the early middle class membership of the United Irishmen deserted their ranks. In an atmosphere of patriotism and propaganda the presence of a French 'spy' Willam Jackson became the excuse for the raiding and disbanding of the Dublin Society in May of 1794.

Within the United Irishmen some saw the French influence as destructive as too much reliance came to be placed in French intervention rather than Irish self-organisation. The United Irishmen James Hope described how before the rebellion "The majority of the leaders become foreign-aid men and were easily elevated or depressed by the news from France, amongst their ranks spies were chiefly found"

The Rights of Man

The identification with American or France was through sympathy with the political demands/program of those revolutions. This was particularly the case in the north where popular support for the United Irishmen was linked to a search for a just and democratic society. One in which all would be citizens rather then subjects.

The high demand for political literature and papers that was evident throughout the 1790's indicates the influence of revolutionary ideas. First amongst these was a two part pamphlet called 'The Rights of Man' written by Thomas Paine. This pamphlet, starting as a defence of the French Revolution, argued that hereditary monarchy was unnatural and advocated a republican form of government. It was published in March 13 1791 and by July of 1791 the Dublin Whig club had already published a cheap edition for mass circulation.

By late 1793 over 200,000 copies of parts one and two had been circulated in Britain and Ireland.[14] Paines prosecution for seditious libel by the British government only boosted its popularity and one United Irishman, Leonard McNally writing in 1795 described how "His works are in every ones hands and in every one's mouths. They have got into the schools and are the constant subjects of conversation with the youth" [15]

The political context in Ireland

Ascendancy & penal laws

Ireland of the 1790's was ruled by Anglican (Church of Ireland) landowners and aristocrats. The mass of the population were not Anglican and so even if they could accumulate wealth they were excluded from political power. Outside of Ulster and Dublin they were overwhelmingly Catholic. Ulster was dominated by Presbyterians (Dissenters) who had moved there in the previous centuries, displacing the earlier Catholic settlers of that region. The complex religious divide along class and geographic lines had been created by the British ruling class as a mechanism to 'divide and rule'. It included a codified system of religious discrimination known as the Penal Laws.

The previous 150 years in Ireland had been marked by two vicious wars where the combatants were mobilised along religious divides, with Catholics and Protestants (including the Presbyterians) on opposite sides. Each side in these wars claimed religious motives and the religious divide led to various sectarian massacres. This period of massacre and counter massacre created the sectarian politics that have dominated Ireland since.

The penal laws were designed to draw a religious barrier between the landlord class (which would be restricted to Anglicans) and the Catholic / Presbyterian peasantry. Catholic landlords could retain their land but only at the price of converting. Between 1703 and 1788 some 5,000 Catholic landowning families became Anglicans[16]. In addition by becoming agents for absentee landlords many of the Catholic gentry went underground. It's calculated that "If one includes 'convert' estates, the figures for 'Catholic' ownership of land reaches about 20%"[17].

In addition to breaking up Catholic owned estates the Penal laws also ruled that "No prelate was allowed to reside in Ireland under a penalty of being hanged, drawn and quartered. ... No Catholic could serve in the armed forces or possess arms... nor ride a horse worth more then £5. They could note vote or be members of parliament or citizens of an incorporated town"[18]. In short even if Catholics could acquire wealth they were still excluded from any participation in decision making.

The Penal laws also banned Mass and education, Presbyterians were subject to similar laws. A Test act excluded them from local government. In 1713 a Westminster act made Presbyterian schoolteachers liable to three months imprisonment and Presbyterian - Anglican marriage was also made illegal.[19] As late as 1771 four Presbyterians were arrested for holding a prayer meeting in Belturbet.[20]

So called democratic politics in Britain at the time excluded all but rich men from electing MP's. Rotten boroughs where the MP would be elected by a handful of voters were not uncommon. But in Ireland the situation was far worse, according to a letter the United Irishmen sent to the English Society of the Friends of the People;

"The state of Protestant representation is as follows: 17 boroughs have no resident elector; 16 have but one; 90 have 13 electors each; 90 persons return for 106 rural boroughs - that is 212 members out of 300 - the whole number; 54 members are returned by five noblemen and four bishops; ...

With regard to the Catholics, the following is the simple and sorrowful fact: Three millions, every one of whom has an interest in the State, and collectively give it its value, are taxed without being represented, and bound by laws to which they have not given consent."[21]

By 1793 the laws discriminating against Presbyterians had largely been abolished (in part to head off revolt and in part to halt the loss of labour through emigration) and the worst of the penal laws against Catholics had been abolished. However as the above quote demonstrates Ireland was still ruled by a tiny minority of wealthy Anglicans.

Religious tensions

It is inevitable that both the history of religious war in the 16th and 17th century and inequalities still present in the 1790's led to sectarianism in the general population. If anything the period from the 1780's on was remarkable for the fact that these sectarian tensions temporarily retreated into the background.

Armagh was the major exception to this, here the population was evenly divided three ways between Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics. Under the Penal laws Catholics were not allowed to have arms but some of the more radical Volunteer companies had been recruiting and arming Catholics. In the 1780's a Protestant and loyalist force started dawn raids on Catholic homes, searching for arms. These were know as the 'Peep-O-Day boys'. In 1795 one such raid at 'The Diamond' near Dunmurry saw many Catholics killed. It was in the aftermath of this clash that the Orange Order was formed.

It was in the interests of both the Irish landlord class and the British government to promote sectarianism. As the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh pointed out of the land struggle in the 1780's "The worst of this is that it stands to unite Protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens, good-bye to the English interest in Ireland".[22]

Land conflicts

Central to understanding the desperate nature of the 1798 rising were conditions for the peasantry. For the most part they had no rights, were treated as animals and were completly alienated from the Landlord class. In 1831 there were 1,500 absentee landlords living outside Ireland who owned 3,200,000 acres and a further 4,500 absentee landlords living in Dublin and owning 4,200,000 acres[23] There were famines in 1740, '57, '65 and '70. The first of these killed 400,000.[24]

The complete subjection the Peasantry were subjected to is hinted by a traveller through Ireland at the time who wrote

"A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottier dares to refuse to execute. ... Disrespect, or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security. A poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift a hand in his own defence . . . Landlords of consequence have assured me that many of their cottiers would think themselves honoured by having their wives and daughters sent for to the bed of their master - a mark of slavery which proves the oppression under which such people must live."[25]

Another source of resentment was tithes. Everyone regardless of their religion was required to pay a tithe to the local Anglican clergy. These payments were often the at the centre of agrarian struggle, the resolutions below were adopted at a mass meeting of Munster Peasantry in 1786

"Resolved - That we will continue to oppose our oppressors by the most justifiable means in our power, either until they are glutted with our blood or until humanity raises her angry voice in the councils of the nation to protect the toiling peasant and lighten his burden.

Resolved - That the fickleness of the multitude makes it necessary for all and each of us to swear not to pay voluntarily priest or parson more than as follows: ".[26]

In this period the working class was starting to develop and assert itself. Even in apparently rural areas many were at least somewhat dependant on manufacture for part of their income. The United Irishmen organisation in the north outside Belfast was to be focused on the 'Linen Triangle'.

There were at least 27 labour disputes in Dublin from 1717 to 1800 and the formation of the early trade unions had started[27]. "There were 50 combinations in 27 different trades in Dublin in the period 1772-95. There were at least 30 food riots ... in the period 1772-94. ".[28]A handbill entitled 'The Cry of the Poor for Bread', from Dublin in 1796 read

"Oh! lords of manors, and other men of landed property, as you have monopolised to yourselves the land, ... can the labourer, who cultivates your land with the sweat of his brow, the working manufacturer or the mechanic, support himself, a wife and 5 or 6 children? How much comfort do you extort from their misery, by places, offices and pensions and consume in idleness, dissipation, riot and luxury?"[29]

Previous rebellions had concentrated on winning back the land for the old Catholic Gentry. In addition to families who converted in order to maintain their lands, many others became middlemen (who sub-rented to smaller tenants). In Co. Dublin 60 of the previous land owning families were middlemen, in South Co. Wexford there were 21.[30] These families were frequently indistinguishable to the outsider from the peasantry but "Especially in remote areas, or on the estates or absentee landlords, these old families retained effective cultural control of their communities"[31]. They regarded themselves as above the peasantry and disliked the new 'gentry' of whom they said "It is not right that sons of churls or labourers should behave as the son of the gentlemen"[32] In turn even the Catholic new gentry like Lord Kenmare said of them "Every one of them thinks himself too great for any industry except taking farms. When they happen to get them, they screw enormous rents from some beggarly dairymen and spend there whole time in the alehouses of the next village"[33]

By the 1760's as capitalism had begun to penetrate Irish agriculture and enclosures began to create middlemen with vast landholdings the social bond that held this dispossed gentry to the peasantry began to break. Catholic as well as Protestant landowners and middlemen became targets for the various agrarian secret societies.

Secret societies

The complete absence of democratic rights made it impossible for ordinary people to organise in any public manner. But the harsh repression peasants lived under generated resistance. Peasant organisations throughout the 18th Century were in the form of secret underground societies. Their members would often operate at night and in disguise, taking direct and often violent action against local oppressors.

In the 1760's one such society was the Oakboys, particularly strong in the counties of Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone. It mainly organised against the system of compulsory and unpaid road repairing.[34] In 1762 the Whiteboys, an anti-enclosure movement involving poor Protestants and Catholics, were active.[35] The Steelboys of the 1770's were one of the most powerful. They organised in the counties of Down and Antrim and were for the most part Presbyterian and aimed at the abolition or reduction of tithes and were also against enclosures.[36]

These societies could at times make mass public appearances. James Connolly notes of the Steelboys that "In the year 1772 six of their number were arrested and lodged in the town jail of Belfast. Their associates immediately mustered in thousands, and in open day marched upon that city, made themselves masters thereof, stormed the jail, and released their comrades".[37]

This suggests elements of federation beyond the local level. The Defenders were organised nationally in Lodges.[38] The British Viceroy Camden claimed "They meet in bodies of several hundreds and on some occasions 3,000 or 4,000 had assembled".

The volunteers

If the secret societies represented the peasantry in the years before the rising the Volunteer movement was the clearest expression of progressive middle class and even ruling class organisation. It had arisen as a volunteer body to defend Ireland from invasion but by the early 1790's under the influence of the French and American revolution had evolved into a radical body seeking democratic reform.

However its structure prevented it from being open to anything but the wealthy. Even its public demonstrations which were well disciplined parades of uniformed men excluded the vast bulk of Irish society who could not afford the uniforms.

In their search for democratic reforms, which above all else meant giving the Irish parliament power to pass economic laws the Volunteers provided an initial organisational focus for all the young middle class men radicalised by the American and French Revolutions. Many of the older United Irishmen leaders started off as Volunteers. Later the Volunteers served as a mass front through which the United Irishmen could operate. The 1792 Volunteer organised Bastille Day celebration was particularly important.[39]

The high point of the radical volunteer movement was the Dungannon convention of February 1792, when delegates claiming to represent 1,250,000 endorsed both Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. However as an omen of troubles ahead they refused to condemn war against France. As the masses became radicalised and the demand for Catholic emancipation and radical parliamentary reform was pushed up the agenda the Volunteers split and the leadership dropped into inactivity. For the most part they failed to resist the British attempts to disarm and disband them from 1793 and indeed "Up to that date ... their only military engagement had been to suppress a strike of cotton workers in Belfast."[40]

The United Irish Men

From the early 1790's the British were becoming increasingly wary of the way in which the Northern Presbyterians were seeking to overcome sectarian divisions. The Viceroy Westmoreland wrote on the 26 July 1791 "the language and sentiments of these dissenters is to unite with the Catholics and their union would be very formidable. That union is not yet made and I believe and hope it never could be".[41]

Their fears were to prove well founded, already several of the most radical figures in the Volunteers, the Whig Clubs and the supporters of Catholic emancipation were engaged in discussion. On the 18th October 1791 the Belfast United Irishmen formed with 36 members. On the 9th November the Dublin society was founded. Two days later the Home Sec. Grenville observed of their call for Irishmen to unite that "there is no evil that I should not prophesy if that union takes place".

Although many of the United Irishmen started off as reformists looking for an equal relationship with Britain they were significantly different from the earlier movements. Instead of lobbying the Irish ascendancy or British Parliaments for reform they aimed for mobilisations of the population. They attached no limitations on Catholic emancipation and openly looked to a future where all would be equal citizens.

Their class basis

However they were initially drawn from the same circles as the Volunteers, the Protestant middle class, and in particular the legal professions. Nancy Curtains study of the class composition of the early United Irishmen (before 1794) shows that nearly 70% of them were "merchants and gentlemen".[42] Only some 20% of the membership were artisans, clerks and labourers. When a committee of 21 drafted the political program in December of 1792 they rejected a property qualification in order for men to vote. But this almost split the committee down the middle and was carried only by a vote of 11 to 9.

They came to stand for class conflict, but this was not the class conflict between worker and boss we speak of today. The class conflict they spoke of was to be between industry and aristocracy. Many were hostile to the developing union movement although "Thomas Russell ... defended the journeymen weavers in an industrial dispute with local linen merchants and the 'Northern Star' ... applauded the defeat of an anti-combination bill in the House of Lords"[43]

Importance of ideas

For their time however the United Irishmen were "in the vanguard of European radicalism".[44] In January of 1794 their 'Dublin Plan of Reform program' included 300 electoral divisions, a vote for all men over 21, representatives to be over 25 but not required to own property and all representatives to be paid and elected annually. This represented a radical program even in comparison with the wave of European revolutions in 1848, some fifty years later. It would be well over a hundred years before suffrage at this level became common in Europe.

The United Irishmen were republicans but at the time this was a very ambiguous term. As John Adams put it, the republic "may signify anything, everything or nothing".[45]. The 'Northern Star' best summarises what they stood for when it proclaimed "Liberty, or Freedom consists in having an actual share in the appointing of those who frame the laws and who are to be the guardians of every man's life, property, and peace".[46]

The French expeditions of 1796 and 1798 carried copies of 'An Address to the People of Ireland', to be distributed on landing. This outlines the program that would be implemented if the rebellion had been a success.

"The aristocracy of Ireland which exists only by our slavery, and is maintained in its pomp and splendour by the sale of our livers, liberties and properties, will tumble in the dust; ... we shall have a wise and honest legislature, chosen by the People, whom they will indeed represent. and whose interest, even for their own sakes. they will strenuously support. ... Your peasantry will no longer be seen in rags and misery, their complaints will be examined, and their suffering removed; ... The unnatural union between Church and state ... will be dissolved".[47]

Organisational structure

The United Irishmen operated in the manner of the society they wished to create. That is they were a mass, democratic organisation open to all who took the oath. At first each local society was organised autonomously of the others. The Dublin Society was relatively public in its dealing until May of 1794 when it was raided. As well as regular meeting of all the membership it had a Publication committee which produced pamphlets and also monitored pamphlets being produced by others; The Correspondence Committee which normally had a dozen members dealt with national and international correspondence. The officers posts were rotated every three months

In Dublin applicant members could be vetoed by any existing member although this was rare. Well known international republicans like Tom Paine and Thomas Muir were made honouree members

Initially there was little formal contact between Dublin and Belfast. From the start the Belfast society was more secretive, with a secret committee from 1791. It is probable that one of the key organisers Samuel Neilson led a secret Belfast Committee of Public Safety from an early date, he certainly proposed a similar structure for Dublin in January of 1794.

Neilson also published The Northern Star, the United Irishmen's main paper until it was finally forced to close in 1796. At the end of the 18th Century the new technology of cheap mass printing and the mass literacy that accompanied it made possible the spread of democratic ideas. In the north many Presbyterians could read because they had a strong desire to read and study the bible. Literacy rates among adult males in parts of Ulster were the highest in Europe, as high as 76%.[48]

Elsewhere also there was a "revolution in English language literacy" in the 1790's as a result of work carried on by itinerant school masters in rural Ireland. These were often radicals themselves.[49] Even in areas were literacy was very low oral reading was common, one United Irishman travelled Galway reading political literature to gatherings of peasants. Printing was seen as important because in itself it was a political act as it treated the masses as citizens who should be involved in politics.

There is little doubt that this educational work played a major part in building mass support for the later rebellion. Observers reported that the Northern Star was "So ardently ... sought for and enjoyed by lower orders" while later rebels explained that "If it were not for newspapers we would not know that Napper Tandy or Thomas Paine were in existence". One English traveller in Ulster in June 1796 wrote "I often meet Sir John's labourers walking to work and reading their papers as they move along".[50]

The Northern Star reached a circulation of 5,000 making it not only the highest circulation Irish paper of the times but also giving it a higher circulation then the English Times. In 1795 Paines 'Age of reason' was distributed among Belfast mill workers and discussion groups were held about it.[51]

The police chief in for small town of Athlone warned "The press is destroying the minds of the people in this country ... ".[52] The government reacted to mass literacy and the printing of 'dangerous ideas' by attempting to tax litreature out of the hands of ordinary people. Although this had an effect on circulation it also meant that people would gather in pubs and coffee shops to read a copy of the paper there and that it would be passed from hand to hand. It is estimated that between 20 and 50 people read each copy of the Northern Star.[53]

This gathering of people to read seditious literature had obvious advantages. One Loyalist writer commented in 1794 that "In the coffee houses of Dublin there is that kind of conversation which in London would produce serious consequences".[54] Prosecuting counsel John Schoales recorded in 1797 that "The Northern Star [is] the principle and most powerful of all the instruments used for agitating and deluding the minds of the people. ... The lowest of the people get it. It is read to them in clusters. A whole neighbourhood subscribe to it".[55]

The United Irishmen made use of other means of getting the word out, the Earl of Westmoreland observed in 1792 that "they set ballad singers in the streets".[56] Indeed they translated the 'Ca Ira' and 'The Marseillaise' for publication along with specially written Irish ballads. Leaflets were also produced. The Dublin Society distributed 5,000 copies of the letter announcing its foundation in 1792. 20,000 copies of Gratten's 1795 address to the house of parliament were distributed in Dublin within hours of it being given.

As the United Irishmen moved from reform to revolution after the raids of 1794 so their organisational structures changed. On 10 May 1795 a new constitution was approved, under this each club would split in two once it had 36 members. The clubs meet monthly with much of the business being conducted by committees between meetings. Each town or parish sent delegates to a regional committee. The national executive directory consisted of a director and one member from each of the four provinces. By the spring of 1798 the instruction was that "No society should consist of more then 12 members .. thoroughly well known to each other".[57]

Although it was later fashionable to criticise the United Irishmen's revolutionary organisational structures as being responsible for the informers that plagued the rebellion this is not how the British viewed it at the time. Camden wrote after the failure of the 1796 arrests to break the northern organisation that "It is therefore the regularity of their system which is to be dreaded more then any individual ability" [58 ]

In fact the United Irishmen successfully turned informers into double agents and they recruited the man responsible for opening the mail in the Post Office. British counter measures were to prove successful from 1797 but in August of 1796 John Beresford capturing the panic of the ruling class wrote "We are in a most desperate situation, the whole North, Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon, Galway, the county and city of Dublin ready to rise in rebellion, an invasion invited by ambassadors, our militia corrupted, the dragoons of Ireland suspected; the United Irishmen organised, the people armed ... our heads are in no small danger, I promise you".[59]

In the period before 1795 the United Irishmen were not yet a mass organisation. They had grown since 1791 but relatively slowly, in July of 1794 the Dublin society had only 250 members. The structural changes in 1795 represented a turn to mass recruitment based on the new objectives of the society, revolution and separation from England. By Feburary of 1798 the United Irishmen claimed 500,000 members of whom 280,000 were said to be battle ready.[60]

Leadership Vs masses

According to the Report of the Secret Committee of the House of Lords in June of 1791, shortly before the United Irishmen were formally founded Tone, Samuel Neilson and others in the north circulated a Secret Manifesto to the Friends of Freedom in Ireland. Towards the end this contained a description of past movements that was to prove accurate as a description of events in 1798

"When the aristocracy come forward, the people fall backwards; when the people come forward, the aristocracy, fearful of being left behind, insinuate themselves into our ranks and rise into timid leaders or treacherous auxiliaries. "[61]

Once the United Irishmen had decided to take the direction of rebellion they had to win the mass of the people actively to join in such a rebellion. To do this they highlighted the economic consequences of reform. Gaining the vote for rich Catholics landowners would mean little to those paying rent for this land.

Dr Willam James MacNeven under interrogation by the House of Lords in 1798 when asked if Catholic emancipation or parliamentary reform mobilised 'the lower orders' said "I am sure they do not understand it. What they very well understand is that it would be a very great advantage to them to be relived from the payments of tithes and not to be fleeced by the landlords"[62] In 1794 they asked "Who makes them rich. The answer is obvious - it is the industrious poor".[63]

Nancy Curtin points out that "Some united Irish recruiters ... suggested that a major redistribution of land would follow a successful revolution"[64] and that as a result "To a certain extent republicanism became associated in the common mind with low rents, the abolition of tithes and a tax burden borne by the wealthy and idle rather then by the poor and industrious"[65]

The Union doctrine; or poor man's catechism, was published anonymously as part of this effort and read in part

"I believe in a revolution founded on the rights of man, in the natural and imprescriptable right of all citizens to all the land ... As the land and its produce was intended for the use of man 'tis unfair for fifty or a hundred men to possess what is for the subsistence of near five millions ..."[66]

Before 1794 the role consigned by republican leaders to the masses was fairly passive displays of support for change. For example Illuminations (where people put lights in their windows) were important to show the level of public support.

Following the 1794 banning of the Dublin United Irishmen the masses became more actively involved. Riots were organised by the United Irishmen particularly those around Camden's arrival in March 1795 when aristocrats were stoned in the streets. Rioting continued throughout April, the rioters included students from Trinity College. By the summer the United Irishmen were giving up on this tactic and beginning underground insurrectional organisation.[67]

As public demonstrations were banned various ruses were used to gather United Irishmen together. Race meeting were used as pretexts for mass assemblies. Mock funerals with up to 2,000 'mourners' would be held, sometimes the coffin would actually contain arms. Or alternatively there would be enormous turnouts for the funerals of relatively unknown ordinary people. In the countryside mass potato diggings (often for imprisoned United Irishmen) were organised and often conducted as military drills. These were a way of seeing who would turn out and how well they would follow orders. All of these gatherings unlike the Volunteer style parades gave the masses an active and central role.

The following of orders was central to this process as the United Irishmen's leadership wanted to be able to control and discipline the masses in the event of a rising. This was also why a French landing was central. The French army would help not just to beat Britain but also to control the masses. The original strategy for the rebellion saw only a few thousand United Irishmen joining the army of the French to be quickly disciplined. The rest would act "to harass the escorts of ammunition, cut off detachments and foraging parties, and in fine, to make the King's troops feel themselves in every respect in a foreign country"[68]

This is the context that Tones "Our freedom must be had at all hazards. if the men of property will not help us, they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community - the men of no property"[69] must be taken. Yes the United Irishmen had turned to the 'men of no property' but the leadership still intended to run the show and with French help hold back the masses if necessary.

After 1794 with the turn towards revolutionary politics and the need to mobilise the masses the class basis of the United Irishmen underwent a radical change, Dublin membership of artisans, clerks and labourers rose to nearly 50% of the total.[70] In Dublin there were also working class republican clubs independent of the United Irishmen. A member of one such club, 'Hugenots' published several issues of a broad sheet called The Union Star.[71] This named leading loyalists and suggested they should be assassinated. The United Irishmen leaders formally condemned the Union Star.[72]

Other popular political societies in Dublin in 1790's included 'the strugglers'. One judge referred to "the nest of clubs in the city of Dublin". Their membership was said to consist of "The younger part of the tradesmen, and in general all the apprentices".[73] The informer Higgins described these clubs as comprising "King killers, Paineites, democrats, levellers and United Irishmen".[74]

The link with the defenders

A central part of the strategy of mass rebellion was to build links with the already established movements, and in particular the Defenders. It was also hoped the links with the Defenders would help win over the Militia.[75] The Defenders were already politicised to some extent by the hope of French intervention and their anti- tax and anti-tithe propaganda. They proclaimed "We have lived long enough upon potatoes and salt; it is our turn now to eat mutton and beef" [76]. They had links with France, as early as 179277.

The Defenders in Armagh had started as a local 'faction' (gang) and were initially non-sectarian, their first Captain being Presbyterian.[78] . They then grew out of the political agitation around the arming of Catholics (and the Peep-O-Day Boys opposition to this) which had "the full support of a radical section of Protestant political opinion" [79] in Armagh. These origins are important to understand as later historians have attempted to portray the Defenders as a Catholic sectarian organisation, a sort of mirror image of the Orange Order.

Despite their rural origins the Defenders were not a peasant movement but "drawn from among weavers, labourers and tenant farmers ... and from the growing artisan class of the towns"[80]. Late 18th century Armagh experienced rapid social change generated by its thriving linen industry"[81]. The Defenders spread well outside Armagh. By 1795 there were some 4000 Defenders in Dublin, closely linked with many of the republican clubs in the city. Their spread there was facilitated by "the pre-existence of illegal 'combinations' (proto-trade unions)". The complex nature of the Defenders is illustrated as "in Dublin there were Protestant Defenders"[82] even though "revenge against Protestants was certainly an important element in Defender thinking"[83].

In 1795 up to 7,000 Catholics were driven out of Armagh by Orange Order pograms. Many Catholics saw the hand of the government behind this making them more sympathetic to the United Irishmen. The United Irishmen provided lawyers to prosecute on behalf of the victims of Orange attacks. "Special missions were dispatched there in 1792 and again in 1795 and senior figures like Neilson, Teeling, McCracken, Quigley and Lowry worked the area ceaselessly ... ".[84] Many expelled Catholic families were sheltered by Presbyterian United Irishmen in Belfast and later Antrim and Down.

The United Irishmen were aware that the nature of these attacks had inevitably introduced sectarianism into the Defenders. But they saw this sectarianism as being due to the influence of priests and directed only against Protestant landlords. This was to prove a serious under estimation of the problem, particularly outside of the north. But the link withe the Defenders did bring recruits. Robert Wadell a Co. Down magistrate, reported in July '96 that Orange attacks "have driven some hundreds to join the United Irishmen".[85]

Defenders at local level were led by Catholic, "alehouse keepers, artisans, low schoolmasters and a few middling farmers". At regional level they were led by a "handful of really successful Catholic families".86 It was these families who were to provide the link with the United Irishmen through the names mentioned above. Later this limited contact would prove to be a problem as many of these individuals were killed or jailed before the rebellion got underway.

1798 and the colonial model

There is a strong argument for saying that the 1798 rebellion represents the first anti-colonial struggle of the modern era. After the French Revolution 'the people' had started to move to centre stage. They were no longer just foot soldiers for various factions of the ruling class but instead the much feared 'mob' which was beginning to insist that it could run society. Time and again wealthy naionalists would show they would sacrifice 'the nation' to protect their wealth and class. At best they were treacherous allies in the struggle against colonialism.

Every national liberation struggle since has been marked by the tension that caused the failure of the rebellion. A nationalist and middle class leadership needing to turn to the masses in order to defeat the colonial power but having to seek safeguards against the masses gaining such power that they go on to smash the class system itself. On the other side of this equation 1798 saw the use by Britain of many of the core tools of modern colonial wars.

Dividing the poor

One of the most successful British strategies of 1798 and the years that followed was to encourage the growth of sectarianism in order divide the workers and peasants of Ireland. It would be an oversimplification to claim Britain invented this sectarianism, the tensions were already there but it provided the careful nurturing in which it grew. Key to this process was encouraging the growth of the Orange Order and sectarian warfare in Armagh. Kevin Whelan summarises the benefits of this project as "It inserted an implacable barrier to the linking of the United Irishmen and Defender territories; it stopped the spread of radical Freemasonry; it pulled Protestants in general firmly to a conservative pro-government stance; it split the nascent Presbyterian - Catholic alliance in mid-Ulster; it checked United Irishmen infiltration of the yeomanry and militia".[87]

General John Knox was the architect of this policy and described the Orange Order as "the only barrier we have against the United Irishmen".[88] In 1797 he wrote "I proposed some time ago that the Orangemen might be armed and added to some of the loyal corps as supplementary yeomen ... They are bigots and will resist Catholic emancipation".[89] Later he wrote to the administration in the castle that "the institution of the Orange Order was of infinite use".[90]

Many mechanisms were used to promote the Orange Order but most importantly its members were effectively given impunity (as many death squads still are today in Latin America) for pogroms against Catholics. One victim recalled "every magistrate in Ulster, but one or two, was an Orangeman, and no justice could be obtained either in courts or law ... ".[91] In fact in 1795 this policy was so obvious that Camden complained "some of the magistrates have been incautious enough not to carry on this measure so secretly as to have escaped the notice of the public". [92]


From 1796 Britain carried out a campaign of terror directed against the United Irishmen and the Defenders. The law and constitution were effectively suspended. Camden ordered General Lake to take action "if necessary beyond that which can be sanctioned by the law".[93] Lake himself said "I am convinced that the contest must lay between the army and the people". Nancy Curtain describes how "From the beginning of 1796 hundreds of men were seized and disposed of without the formalities of charge or trial"[94] as suspect's were jailed, sent to the British fleet in their thousands or simply killed.

A number of ways of terrorising the general population were used including house burning's, crop destruction, confiscation of food and goods and rape. Against specific individuals a wide range of tortures were used which include pitch capping where the victims head was set alight, half-hanging where the victim was repeatedly hung until they passed out and flogging with hundreds of lashes to the point where the victims skin would split and their innards be exposed. After Anthony Perry was pitch capped, it "raised all the skin of his head and part of his face"[95] and in fact unknown numbers if victims died during and after these tortures.

Alongside these deaths were dozens of executions of United Irishmen. You could be executed for allegedly swearing new members into the United Irishmen. In April of 1797 four United Irishmen from the Monaghan militia executed in front of thousands of other soldiers who were then marched by the bodies.[96] These executions although they created martyrs like Willam Orr were effective at challenging and undermining the United Irishmen's organisation in the Militia in particular.

Alongside this a campaign was launched against the United Irishmen's publications. Those who were sympathetic to the United Irishmen were bribed or threatened into silence. Those like the Northern Star or The Press which could not be bought were physically closed down so that by the spring of 1798 there were no radical or opposition papers in print. This allowed the pro-British press to spread, unchallenged all sorts of lies before and during the rebellion.


As well as the stick Britain used the carrot to buy off sections of the population, in particular wealthy Catholics who were given additional rights and the Catholic hierarchy who were given a college at Maynooth in 1795.

Part 2 of this article details the events of the rebellion and how it was interpretated afterwards

1The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 16
2A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p51
3The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 18
4quoted in Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII
5Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII
6Presbyterian Radicalism Pieter Tesch in United Irishmen: republican, radicalism and rebellion, Ed: Dickson et al, p46
7Northern Star, 3 March 1792
8Northern Star 26 Jan. 1793
9An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, Wolfe Tone
10Citizen Lord : Lord Edward Fitzgerald, 1763 - 1798, Stella Tillyard, p163
11Citizen Lord : Lord Edward Fitzgerald, 1763 - 1798, Stella Tillyard p136
12Citizen Lord : Lord Edward Fitzgerald, 1763 - 1798, Stella Tillyard, p153.
13The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 120
14The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p179
15The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 180
16A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p57
17The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p6
18A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p52
19A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p51
20A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p51
21Address from the United Irishmen of Dublin to the English Society of the Friends of the People, dated Dublin, October 26, 1792, Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII
22A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p68
23A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p55
24A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p54
25Arthur Young, in his Tour of Ireland quoted in Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, chap IV
26Munster peasantry, in 1786, in Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap IV
27The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 147
28 The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p92
29Quoted in The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p46
30The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p7
31The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p8
32 quoted from Pairlement Chloinne Toma/is The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p9
33The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p13
34Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap IV
35A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p59
36Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap IV
37Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap IV
38The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p161
39The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p229
401798: the United Irishmen and the early Trade Unions, Mary Muldowney in SIPTU Fightback No 7
41Revolt in North, Charles Dickson, 1960, p91
42The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994
431798: the United Irishmen and the early Trade Unions, Mary Muldowney in SIPTU Fightback No 7
44The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p26
45The Burden of the present, Thomas Bartlett in United Irishmen: republican, radicalism and rebellion, Ed: Dickson et al, p2
46Northern Star, 28 Jan. 1792
47A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p75
48The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p66
49The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p.9
50The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p66
51The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p63
52The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p64
53The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p176-8
54The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p177
55The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p69
56The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p193
57The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p84
58The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p. 111
59The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p113
60The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p255
61Quoted in Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII
62The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p28
63The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p76
64The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 120
65The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p. 119
66quoted in 1798: the United Irishmen and the early Trade Unions, Mary Muldowney in SIPTU Fightback No 7
67The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p240
68Citizen Lord : Lord Edward Fitzgerald, 1763 - 1798, Stella Tillyard, p234
69A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p74
70The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994
71The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p225
72The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p225
73The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p77
74The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p79
75The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p167
76The Defenders, p19, Deirdre Lindsay, in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
77The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p162
78The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 149.
79The Defenders, p18, Deirdre Lindsay, in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
80The Defenders, p20, Deirdre Lindsay, in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
81The men of no popery, p29, Jim Smyth in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
82The Defenders, p20, Deirdre Lindsay, in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
83The Defenders, p22, Deirdre Lindsay, in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
84The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p128
85The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p 163
86The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p41
87The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p124
88The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p119
89The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p124
90The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p120
91The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p123
92The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p120
93The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p125
94Revolt in North, Charles Dickson, 1960, p121
95The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p44
96The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p173

Part 2 of this article details the events of the rebellion and how it was interpretated afterwards

Other articles by Andrew N. Flood