The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland

Part 2

Part 1 details the lead up to the rebellion and the political organisation of the United Irishmen


The Rebellion

In December of 1796 a French Fleet appeared off the shores of Bantry Bay with 15,000 French soldiers and Wolfe Tone. Rough seas and inexperienced sailors prevented a landing which would have liberated the country from British rule. The British campaign of terror against the United Irishmen which followed was seriously undermining the organisation by 1798. In the Spring of 1798 pressure was mounting for a rising without the French and after the arrest of most of the Leinster leadership a date for the rising was set by those who escaped.

 

 

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 Dublin rising

The key to the rising was to be Dublin. It was intended to seize the city and trigger a message to the rest of the country by stopping the mail coaches. However although thousands turned out for the rising in the city it ended up as a fiasco with almost no fighting. The reasons why this happened and why there was no significant rising in Belfast can be found in the class basis of the leadership of the United Irishmen.

Once it was clear that the rising was going to happen without the French it was also clear that there was no mechanism to hold back the workers and peasants from going beyond the bourgeois democratic and separatist aims of the rising. The French Revolution had shown that particularly in the cities 'the mob' were capable of creating their own demands and attempting to implement them even where they went beyond the wishes of the leadership.

Lord Edward, Neilson and the others who planned the May 21st rising in Dublin were willing to risk this. But they were arrested and removed from the scene by May 19th. The British on the information of informers had seized Smithfield square which was to be the gathering point for the rising. In the confusion there was little chance of the rank and file of the United Irishmen gathering to create an alternative plan. And the second rank of leadership which could have created an alternative plan failed to do so precisely because it now feared the uncontrolled 'mob'. From the British side General Carhampton, had expressed this fear as "the city [would] be handed over to a municipality formed of the dregs of the people, who, armed with pikes and whiskey, would probably plunder and burn the town, and the whole kingdom then be undone for a century to come".[97 ]

Precisely as had been warned "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."[98]

The Wexford Republic

A limited rising happened around Dublin, just enough in fact to encourage the Loyalists and British forces to unleash futher terror in the rest of the country. In Wicklow and North Wexford this included the execution of over 50 United Irish prisoners, the attacking of civilians and the burning of cabins. Although Wexford had over 300 United Irishmen the bulk of them do not appear to have been preparing for a rising and would probably have been against one for the reasons outlined above.

A historian of the rebellion, Dickson reckons that "without a French landing and without the compulsion applied by the magistrates and their agents ... there would have been no Wexford rising at all".[99] and his account demonstrates that the early battles were spontaneous clashes. Indeed at the all important victory at Oulard there was no real commander and some of the United Irishmen were armed only with stones.

Nevertheless the Oulard victory demonstrated that even a well armed and organised British force could be defeated. This and the increasing desperate situation saw hundreds and then thousands flock to join the rebel hilltop encampments. The superior tactics, arms and training of the British forces was to prove a match for the rebels providing the army was not heavily out numbered. On the 4th and 5th of June the rebellion suffered its most decisive defeat at the battle of New Ross with over 10% of the Wexford rebels being killed or being massacred in the aftermath of the battle.

Meanwhile the rebels second (and final) major attempt to spread the rebellion to neighbooring counties had failed at the Battle of Arklow, also on the 9th June. The rebel army was increasing demoralised and restricted to defensive battles and guerrilla raids. On the 21st the final major battle was fought at Vinegar Hill after which the remaining rebels broke into small parties some of which carried out guerrilla attacks for three more years. It took some 20,00 British soldiers to crush the 30,000 rebels who were "utterly untrained, practically leaderless and miserably armed".[100]

Wexford town had however been liberated. At the time it was thriving and had a population of 10,000, many of whom were Protestants. After liberation a seven man directory of the main United Irishmen and a 500 strong senate took over the running of the town. Both of these included Catholic and Protestant members. In addition each area / district had its own local committee, militia and elected leader. The three weeks before it was retaken did not allow time for much constructive activity beyond the printing of ration coupons.[101]

Events in Antrim/Down

Robert Simms was Adjacent-General of the United Irishmen in the north and he simply refused to acknowledge that the signal from Dublin indicated he should rise. Instead, presumably in part for the class interests already outlined, he preferred to wait for the French.

The situation in the North had also changed since 1796. A savage campaign of British torture had terrified, disorganised and disarmed many of the United Irishmen. General Knox had told General Lake that his methods were also intended to "increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen". The Presbyterian link with America, once a recruiter for the United Irishmens cause had become a liability. France and America had fallen out and were now enemies. One observer reported of northern Presbyterians that"They now abhor the French as much as they formally were partial to them".

Nevertheless the rank and file were determined there should be a rising and the lower officers with Henry Joy MaCraken (who had just returned from jail in Dublin) forced Simms to resign on June 1st and got an order for a rising at a delegate meeting on June 2nd. This delay meant it was not till the 5th that the rising started in Antrim and the 7th in Down. In the course of this delay the Northern rising was further weakened. Three of the United Irishmen colonels gave the plans to the British taking away any element of surprise and allowing them to prepare for the rising.

More seriously rumours started reaching the north from the Wexford rebellion with the newspapers "rivalling rumour in portraying in Wexford an image of Catholic massacre and plunder equalled only by legends ...".[102] Many of these stories were false although Protestant men had been killed in Enniscorthy. The distorted version that reached the north by 4 June (before the rising) was that "at Enniscorthy in the county of Wexford every Protestant man, woman and child, even infants, have been murdered".[103] Alongside this were manufactured stories like a supposed Wexford Oath "I, A.B. do solemnly swear ... that I will burn, destroy and murder all heretics up to my knees in blood". In addition there was "ample time" before the battle of Ballynahinch on the 13th for news of the Scullabogue massacre to have reached the North.

Later commentaries have tried to deny the significance of the Northern rising or have claimed the many Presbyterians failed to turn out. However given all of the above what is truly remarkable is how little effect all this had, in particular as by the 5th the Wexford rising had clearly failed to spread. At this stage there were 31,000 United Irishmen in the area of the rising in the north of which 22,000 actually took part in the major battles (more turned out but missed the major battles).[104]

Like the Wexford rising the Northern rebels succeeded in winning minor skirmishes against the British but were defeated in the major battles by the British armies superior training, arms and tactics. As in Wexford the British burned towns, villages and houses they considered sympathetic to the rebels and massacred both prisoners and wounded during and after the battles. After the battle of Antrim some were buried alive.[105] In addition 32 United Irishmen leaders were executed in the North after the rising, including two Presbyteian ministers.

Henry Joy McCracken managed to go into hiding after the rising where he wrote a letter to his sister which neatly sums up the causes of the failure of the rising;"the rich always betray the poor". He was captured and executed in Belfast on July 16th. The key informer who betrayed the Dublin rising, Reynolds, had turned informer in 1798 because of fears of his ancestoral estates being confiscated.[106]

The last major battle of the Northern rising was at Ballynahinch on the 13th June. In Wexford the rebel army was dispersed at the battle of Vinegar Hill on the 20th June. By the time the French arrived in Killala in August it was two late although their initial success does suggest that either the Wexford or Antrim rebels may have been much more successful if they had the benefit of even the small number of experienced French Troops and arms landed at Killala.

Agendas in writing the history

It is rightly said that history is written by the victors. The British and loyalist historians who wrote the initial histories of the rising described it as little more then the actions of a sectarian mob intent on massacring all Protestants. Even reformers sought to hide from the program of 1798 to unite Irishmen regardless of Creed. After 1798 they turned to the confessional politics of mobilising Catholics alone. Daniel O'Connell, the main architect of this policy went so far in 1841 as to denounce the United Irishmen as "... wicked and villainously designing wretches who fomented the rebellion".[107]

The grave of Wolfe Tone who today is remembered as the main figure of the United Irishmen was unmarked until 1844. Around this time Ireland once again fell under the influence of a wave of international radicalism that was to climax in the European democratic revolutions of 1848. Part of this process was revealing the real causes and aims of the 1798 rebellion. The organisation of this period. the Young Irelanders, erected a plain black marble slab on Tone's grave and "celebrated the United Irishmen not as passive victims or reluctant rebels, but as ideologically committed revolutionaries with a coherent political strategy".[108] Paying homage at the grave of Wolfe Tone remains an essential annual rite for any party wishing to claim the republican legacy.

What is meant by this legacy became a battleground in the years that followed, at times literally! In 1934 when Protestant members of the Republican Congress arrived with a banner proclaiming 'Break the connection with capitalism' they were physically assaulted and driven off by IRA members.

James Connolly neatly described the Irish nationalist version of 1798 as "The middle class "patriotic" historians, orators, and journalists of Ireland have ever vied with one another in enthusiastic descriptions of their military exploits on land and sea, their hairbreadth escapes and heroic martyrdom, but have resolutely suppressed or distorted their writings, songs and manifestos.".[109] In short although the name of the United Irishmen was honoured their democratic ideas were buried even before the formation of the 26 county state.

The first response to the Loyalist history in Ireland was an alternative but parallel history produced to suit a Catholic and nationalist agenda. Both of these agendas neatly dovetailed in showing the rising as a fight for "faith and fatherland". This is illustrated by the treatment of two portraits of prominent figures in the rebellion. Lord Edward Fitzgeralds had his red cravat[110] painted out and replaced with a white one. Father Murphy had his cravat painted out and replaced with a priests collar! Within parts of republicanism and the left there have been attempts to rescue this history, starting with the memoirs of United Irishmen like Myles Burne who had chosen exile over compromise. But all too often this history has been crushed beneath histories designed to fulfil the needs of the British and Irish ruling class.

Of particular note is the way the women of 1798 have either been written out of history all together or exist only as the faithful wives of the nationalist histories and the blood crazed witches of the loyalist accounts. Like other republicans of that period the United Irishmen for the most part did not see a role for women although "one proposal was made that women should have the vote as well"[111]. Nevertheless a number of women including Mary Ann McCracken played an important role from an early period in promoting the organisation and a Society of United Irishwomen was established 1796[112] In the run up to the rebellion women were particularly active in subverting the Militia. They would swear in soldiers and also spread rumours that the troops were going to be sent abroad.[113] Women were active in the rebellion, not just in 'traditional roles' of medical aid etc but also in quite a number of cases as combatants. However almost all of these roles seem to be ones that individual women demanded and fought for, there is little evidence of any serious effort on the part of the United Irishmen to mobilise women.

Post rebellion republicans

In the immediate aftermath of the rising it was in the interests of those who had taken part to deny all knowledge or insist they were ignorant dupes or forced by 'the mob' to play whatever role they had. A song asks "Who fears to speak of '98". People researching oral histories have indicated that the answer was 'just about everyone' and indeed even the year of death on the gravestones of those who died in the rising was commonly falsified. The reasons were not just the British campaign of terror before the rising. This terror carried on into the following century with chapel burning's and deportations of cart loads of suspects.

In Wexford, where the death penalty still applied to anyone who had been a United Irish officer, it was a common defence for ex-leaders to claim they were forced into their role by mobs of rebels. This explanation was handy for both the official and Catholic nationalist versions of the history. It suggested that the Protestant portion of the leadership was coincidental in what was otherwise a confessional or sectarian rising, depending on your point of view. What made this deception possible was, unlike in most other counties, the membership roles for Wexford were never captured. This allowed ex-rebel leaders like Edward Hay to argue that "there were fewer United Irishmen in the county of Wexford then in any other part of Ireland"[114].

The Orange Order

On the loyalist side there was a desperate need for the Orange Order to minimise Presbyterian involvement in the rising so it could be portrayed as a sectarian and Catholic affair. So loyalist accounts have tended to focus on the Wexford massacres, often making quite false claims about their scale, who was massacred and why they were massacred. Musgraves (the main loyalist historian) in his coverage of the rebellion gives only 2% of his writing to the Antrim and Down rebellion while 62% of his coverage concentrates on Wexford.[115] What accounts they give of the Northern rising portray it as idealistic Presbyterians being betrayed by their Catholic neighbours and so learning to become 'good loyal Orange men'. The scale of British and loyalist massacres of these Presbyterians is seldom mentioned.

The Centenary & the Catholic Church

More then anything else the nationalist (and largely Catholic) history of the rising was determined by the needs of the Catholic church when faced with the nationalist revival and the socialist influenced Fenian movement one hundred years later. This is a history that had several aims; to hide the role of the church hierarchy in condemning the rising (and instead claim that the church led the rising); to blame the failure of the rising on underground revolutionary organisation (as an attack on the Fenians); and to minimise the involvement of Northern Presbyterians and democratic ideas. In so far as they are mentioned the view is that "it was the turbulent and disorderly Presbyterians who seduced the law abiding Catholics". [116]

This history has therefore emphasised the rebellion in Wexford and elevated the role of the handful of priests who played an active part. Father Murphy thus becomes the leader of the rising. The fight was for 'faith and fatherland', as a statue of a Pikeman draped in rosary beads which was erected in Enniscorthy on the hundred anniversary of the rising proclaims. Finally the role of the United Irishmen is minimised. The leadership role of United Irishmen like Baganal Harvey, Matthew Keogh and Edward Lough who were Protestant is hidden. The failure of the rebellion is lexplained' by the inevitability of revolutionary movements being betrayed by informers. Patrick Kavanaghs 'A Popular history of the insurrection of 1798' published in 1870 presents Father Murphy as the sole heart of the insurrection and the United Irishmen as "riddled by spies, ruined by drink, with self-important leaders ... ". [117]

Issues of '98

To a large extent these histories are the excepted ones. In this limited space it is impossible to address all the issues they raise. But there is a need for current revolutionary organisations in Ireland to dispel the illusions created of the past. This is particularly true with regard to Protestant workers in the north who are largly unaware that it was their forefathers who invented Irish republicanism, nor indeed that the first Republican victim of a showtrial and execution was a Presbyterian from Ballymena, Willam Orr.

The current debate on the release of political prisoners could be much informed if Orrs pre-execution words were remembered "If to have loved my country, to have known its Wrongs, to have felt the Injuries of the persecuted Catholics and to have united with them and all other Religious Persuasion in the most orderly and sanguinary means of procuring Redress - If these be Felonies I am a Felon but not otherwise ... "[118]

Was the rebellion Protestant in the north and Catholic in the south?

A more complex attempt to deny the legacy of 1798 is to suggest that the northern and southern risings were not really connected. That the northern rising was Presbyterian and democratic while the southern was Catholic and sectarain.

Although the rebels in the north were mainly Presbyterian and those in the south mainly Catholic both armies contained considerable number of both religions. I've already mentioned some of the Protestant leaders in the south. Indeed, if partly to head off sectarian tension within the rebel army, United Irishmen commander Roche issued a proclamation on 7th June "to my Protestant soldiers I feel much in dept for their gallant behaviour in the field". For the reasons discussed below the Wexford rising was seriously mired by sectarianism but right to the end there were Protestants among the rebels. Indeed it is still remembered around Carlow that afterward the battle Father John Murphy was hidden by a Protestant farmer only to be betrayed by a Catholic the next day.

It is true that in the north there were sectarian tensions present, a Catholic United Irish officer urged a column of Presbyterians to "avenge the Battle of the Boyne" just before the battle of Antrim! Also in the north at Ballynahinch the Defenders (who would have been overwhelmingly Catholic) fought as a distinct unit. However the figures show that thousands of Catholics and Protestants turned out and fought side by side in a series of battles despite the obvious hopelessness of the situation. Even in Emmet's abortive 1803 rising Thomas Russell succeeded in gathering a few rebels together in Antrim.

Protestants in Wicklow and Wexford

There were sectarian elements in the Wexford rising. To understand where these came from we need to look at events immediately before the rising. About 25% of the population was Protestant, these included a few recently arrived colonies that must have displaced earlier Catholic tenants and thus caused sectarian tensions.

The high percentage of Protestants in Wexford also made it possible to construct a militia and later Yeomanry that was extremely sectarian in composition, in the words of Dickson in Wexford "these Yeoman were almost entirely a Protestant force".[119] This Yeomanry was responsible in part for the savage repression that preceded the rising and the initial house and chapel burning during it. Col. Hugh Pearse observed "in Wexford at least, the misconduct of the Militia and Yeomanry ... was largely to blame for the outbreak ... it can only be said that cruelty and oppression produced a yet more savage revenge".[120]

When faced with a Protestant Landlord class mobilising Protestant local troops to torture them and burn their chapels it is perhaps unsurprising that many Catholics were inclined to identify Protestants as a whole as the problem. The United Irishmen organisation in the area before the rising was too small to make much progress in overcoming this feeling, and in fact one of their tactics added to the sectarian tension. There were Orange Lodges in Wexford and Wicklow and as elsewhere there is evidence that the United Irishmen deliberately spread rumours of an Orange plot to massacre Catholics. The intention was the Catholics would join the rebellion in greater numbers but such rumors inevitably heightened distrust of all Protestants.

The role of the Catholic church

Although by 1898 the Catholic church would choose to pretend it had led the Wexford rising in 1798 nothing could be further from the truth. Dr Troy, Archbishop of Dublin said within days of the rising (27 May 1798) that "We bitterly lament the fatal consequences of this anti-Christian conspiracy".

In fact the Catholic hierarchy was opposed to the radical ideas of the rebellion and especially since the opening of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth stood beside Britain and the Irish Protestant Ascendancy class. Three days after the rebellion had started the following declaration came out of Maynooth

"We, the undersigned, his Majesty's most loyal subjects, the Roman Catholics of Ireland, think it necessary at this moment publicly to declare our firm attachment to his Majesty's royal person, and to the constitution under which we have the happiness to live ... We cannot avoid expressing to Your Excellency our regret at seeing, amid the general delusion, many, particularly of the lower orders, of our own religious persuasion engaged in unlawful associations and practises"
(30 May 1798)

This was signed by the President of the Royal College of Maynooth and 2000 of the Professors and students, 4 lords and 72 baronets.[121] One of the Wexford rebels, Myles Byrne, wrote afterwards that "priests saved the infamous English government in Ireland from destruction".[122]

Individual Catholic priests like Farther Murphy did play an important leadership role in the rising alongside the mostly Protestant United Irishmen leaders. According to Dickson "at least eleven Catholic curates took an active part and of these three were executed".[123] But their own Bishop described the rebel priests after the rebellion as "excommunicated priests, drunken and profligate couple-beggars, the very faeces of the Church". [124] Priests played an important role in the leadership of the rising but the evidence shows they did this against the wishes of the hierarchy and out of a motivation to protect there parishioners from Loyalist atrocities. It also has to be said that many of these rebel priests did what they could to protect innocent Protestants.

The Wexford massacres

Throughout the Wexford rising sectarian tensions were never far from erupting. This was expressed throughout the rising as a pressure on Protestants to convert to Catholicism, particularly in Wexford town where "Among the insurgent rank and file ... heresy hunting became widespread ... Protestants found it prudent to attend mass as the only means of saving their lives"[125] When the rebels carried out massacres they often had strong sectarian undertones although the loyalist historians and indeed Pakenham, the most widely read historian of the rising are guilty of distorting the nature of these massacres by claiming only Protestants were executed.

Many other rebellions where considerable cruelty has been used by the ruling class see massacres of that class and their perceived agents. Massacres were also a feature of the rebellion in the north where no sectarian motive can easily be attached, The rebels near Saintfield led by James Breeze attacked and set fire to the home of Hugh McKee, a well known loyalist and informer, burning him, his wife, five sons, three daughters and housemaid to death. [126]

These historians are also guilty of ignoring or minimising the causes of most of the massacres, the far larger massacres by British army and loyalist forces of civilians, rebel prisoners and wounded. The murders of over 50 prisoners at Dunlarvin and Carnew from the 24th June was almost certainly a major force in sparking the rising in Wexford. The greatest of these was the massacres during and after the battle of New Ross where even the Loyalist historian Rev. James Gordon admits "I have reason to think more men then fell in battle were slain in cold blood"[127]. The scale of this massacre can only be guessed at but after the battle 3, 400 rebels were buried, 62 cart loads of rebel bodies were thrown in the river and many others (particularly wounded) were burned in the houses of the town. According to many accounts the screams of wounded rebels being deliberately burned alive may have played a significant part in the murder of 100 loyalist civilian prisoners at nearby Scullabogue on the morning of the battle.

At Scullabogue around 100 were murdered, 74 were burned alive in a barn, (nine of whom were women and 8 of whom were Catholic) and 21 men were killed on the front lawn. A survivor, Frizel stated that the cause was the rumour that the military were murdering prisoners at New Ross.[128] At least three Protestants were amongst the rebels who carried out these killings, the presence of Protestants amongst the murders and Catholics among the victims gives the lie to the claim that this was a simple sectarian massacre.

The leadership of the rebellion both United Irishmen and the Catholic priests tried to defuse the sectarian tension and prevent massacres. On 7th June Edward Lough of Vinegar Hill camp issued a proclamation "this is not a war for religion but for liberty".[129] Vinegar Hill was the site of many individual executions over the 23 days the rebel camp existed there. Between 300 and 400 were executed, most were Protestant although Luke Byrne one of the organisers of the executions is quoted as saying "If anyone can vouch for any of the prisoners not being Orangemen, I have no objection they should be discharged" and indeed all captured Quakers were released.[130]

A proclamation from Wexford on 9th June called to "protect the persons and properties of those of all religious persuasions who have not oppressed us"[131] and on the 14th June the United Irishmen oath was introduced to the Wexford army. None of this is to deny that there were sectarian tensions and indeed sectarian elements to the massacres, perhaps most openly after the rebel army had abandoned Wexford. Thomas Dixon and his wife then brought 70 men into the town during the night "from the northern side of the Slaney" and plied them with whiskey. The following day a massacre started at 14:00 and lasted over five hours. Up to 97 were murdered.

However even here not all the 260 prisoners from whom those massacred were selected could be described as innocent victims. One of those killed (Turner) was seen burning cabins in Oulard shortly before the battle there.[132] Another prisoner who survived was Lord Kingsborough, commander of the hated North Cork Militia and popularly regarded as having introduced the pitch cap torture.[133] Most significantly the massacre happened when the rebel army had withdrawn from the town and stopped when they returned.

Dealing with sectarianism

It is an unfortunate feature of some republican and left histories of 1798 that the sectarian nature of the Wexford massacres is either avoided or minimised. To northern Protestant workers today this merely appears to confirm an impression that this is the secret agenda of the republican movement. The stories both true and false of sectarian massacres in Wexford that were circulated in the North before and during the rising must have undermined the unity of the United Irishmen. Although the Wexford leadership did act to limit sectarianism in hindsight it is obvious that the United Irishmen were complacent about sectarianism amongst the Defenders and in Wexford more could and should have been done. In particular the final and most blatantly sectarian massacre at Wexford bridge could probably have been avoided if the Dicksons, the couple at the centre of it had been removed in advance of it. They had spent the period of the rebellion in Wexford trying to whip up a pogrom.

1798 and Irish nationalism

The debate around nation is in itself something that divides the Irish left. In particular after the partition of Ireland in 1922 there has been a real and somewhat successful effort to divide people into two nations. One consists of all the people in the south and the northern nationalists. Catholicism was a central part of this definition with the Catholic Church being given an informal veto for many decades over state policy. To a large extent this definition is tacitly accepted by many parts of the Republican movement today. Francie Malloys 1996 election campaign posters based on their being 20,000 more nationalists (i.e. Catholics) then Protestants in Mid-Ulster being a case in point. This has led to a situation where sectarian murders of Protestants are not treated as seriously by the republican movement as informers or even those judged guilty of 'anti-social' crime.

However the south has started to emerge from under the long dark shadow of Catholic nationalism, in the urban centres at least De Valeras comely maids at the Cross-roads and the threat of the Bishops crosier have faded into a distant and bizarre past.

However in the north the key to this project, the 'Protestant state for a Protestant people' is still strong. Particularly in recent years this has seen the political decision of northern loyalists to start referring to themselves as British or 'Ulster-Scots'. This is a quite remarkable robbing of even the history of loyalism, and would have been an insult to even the Orangemen of 1798, one of whom James Claudius Beresford declared he was "Proud of the name of an Irishman, I hope never to exchange it for that of a colonist".[134]

A couple of years after the rising Britain succeeded in forcing the Irish Parliament to pass an 'Act of Union' which effectively dissolved that parliament and replaced it with direct rule from Westminster. It is ironic that 36 Orange Lodges in Co. Armagh and 13 in Co. Fermanagh declared against this Act of Union. Lodge No. 500 declared it would "support the independence of Ireland and the constitution of 1782" and "declare as Orangemen, as Freeholders, as Irishmen that we consider the extinction of out separate legislature as the extinction of the Irish Nation".[135]

What was the nation fought for in 1798

The rewriting of the history of 1798 by loyalists and nationalist alike has a common purpose, to attempt to define being Irish as containing a requirement to being a Catholic. The greatest defeat of 1798 was the success of this project, in particular after partition when the southern and northern states adopted opposed confessional definitions of themselves. The legacy of that failure is that in 1998 we not only live on a divided island but the vast majority of our hospitals and schools are either Catholic or Protestant.

The United Irishmens core project, to replace the name of Irishman for the labels of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter was not an abstract nationalist one. It came from a concrete analysis that unless this was done then no progress could be made because a people divided were easly ruled. Here lies the greatest gulf with 'republicans' today who reverse this process and imagine that such unity can only be the outcome rather then the cause of progress.

The rebellion of the United Irishmen was not a rebellion for four abstract green fields, free of John Bull. It was inspired by the new ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty coming out of the French revolution. Indeed at first it did not even necessarily mean separation from Britain, as late as July 1793 Wolfe Tone wrote in a letter to 'Freeman's Journal' that he was "not yet an advocate of separation".[136] Separatism became a necessary step once it was realised that fulfilling these ideas required the ending of British rule. For many and indeed particularly for those who rose it also represented a rebellion against the ownership of land by a few and for some move towards an equality of property. Even the most aristocratic of the leaders, Lord Edward Fitzgerald had under the influence of experiencing life amongst the settlers and Iroquois of Canada returned "with idealistic 'Leviling' schemes - named after the Levellers"[137].

Those leaders who planned the rising dreamt of creating a new society. They were part of a revolutionary wave sweeping the western world, they were internationalists and indeed an agreement for distinct republics was drawn up with the United Scotsmen and the United Englishmen.[138] They corresponded with similar societies in Paris and London. Some like Thomas Russell were also active anti-slavery campaigners, others went on to fight with Simon Bolivar, the key figure in liberation of South America from Spanish rule. Everywhere struggles for democratic rights were breaking out, in 1797 the London poor stoned George III carriage shouting "Peace! Bread! No War! No King!".[139] and in that same year 50,000 sailors were involved in the Spithead and Nore mutinies setting up delegate committees in the British fleet with the aid of United Englishmen[140] and of course the United Irishmen who had been sent to the Fleet.

As Connolly puts it "these men aimed at nothing less than a social and political revolution such as had been accomplished in France, or even greater".[141]

We know a lot of the leadership of the United Irishmen were not so driven by ideals and indeed when the time came rather then risk what they had they stayed at home or even betrayed the rebellion. Few of the rank and file rebels were able to write therirmemoirs so we can only guess as to their motivations. None of this is to claim that socialism was on the agenda in 1798. Common ownership of the means of production would not become a logical solution for some years yet when large numbers of people started to work in situations where they could not simply divide up their workplace. But there is no denying that radical ideas that are well in advance of today's republicans were on the agenda of many in 1798 and we know from recent history that these ideas will be the most deeply buried and hardest to recover.

The central message of 1798 was not Irish unity for its own sake, indeed the strongest opponents of the British parliament had been the Irish ascendancy, terrified that direct rule might result in Catholic emancipation. Unity offered to remove the sectarian barriers that enabled a tiny ascendancy class to rule over millions without granting even a thimble full of democratic rights. The struggle has changed a little since as many of these rights have been won, but in terms of creating an anarchist society the words of James Hope, the most proletarian of the 1798 leaders still apply

"Och, Paddies, my hearties, have done wid your parties. Let min of all creeds and profissions agree. If Orange and Green min, no longer were seen, min. Och, naboclis, how aisy ould Ireland we'd free."


. Other articles by the same author.


971798: the United Irishmen and the early Trade Unions, Mary Muldowney in SIPTU Fightback No 7
98Quoted in Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII
99 The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p36
100The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p41
101The Wexford Republic of June 1798 : A story hidden from history, Kevin Whelan in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
102The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p262
103The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p260
104The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p267
105Revolt in North, Charles Dickson, 1960, p135
106Citizen Lord : Lord Edward Fitzgerald, 1763 - 1798, Stella Tillyard, p246
107Freeman's Journal, 22 May, 1841
108The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p167
109Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII
110 Which represented not only a revolutionary badge but a defence of the execution of the French king Louis.
111A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p71
112The Women of 1798 : Representations and realities by Dáire Keogh in 1798 ; 200 years of resonance, Ed. Mary Cullen
113The United Irishmen, Nancy Curtin, 1994, p171
114History of the Insurrection in the county of Wexford, 1798
115The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p138
116 The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p150
117The Tree of Liberty, Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760 - 1830, Kevin Whelan, p170
118Willam Orr, pre-hanging declaration, 2.45pm, 14 October 1796
119The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p13
120Col. Hugh Pearse in 'Memoir of the life and service of Viscount Lake' (1744 - 1808) p95quoted in The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p12
121The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p 16
122Memoirs, Vol. 1, p39 (1906)
123The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p 17
124'A vindication of the Roman Catholic Clergy of the town of Wexford during the late unhappy rebellion' pub 1799
125The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p 18
126APRN, 11 May 1998
127The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p116
128The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p129
129The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p126
130The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p77
131The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p126
132The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p62
133The Wexford Rising in 1798, Charles Dickson, 1955, p149
134Revolt in North, Charles Dickson, 1960, p243
135Revolt in North, Charles Dickson, 1960, p243
136The Burden of the present, Thomas Bartlett in United Irishmen: republican, radicalism and rebellion, Ed: Dickson et al, p 14
137Citizen Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Stella Tillyard, p113
138A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p72
139A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p78
140A history of the Irish Working Class, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1972, p78
141Labour and Irish History, James Connolly, Chap VII


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