Revolution and Rebellion

Eleanor Hull
Revolution and Rebellion

The Revolution in France was profoundly stirring the whole of Europe. With hope and anxiety, and finally with terror, the neighbouring countries were watching the progress of events, as they rapidly passed from the attempted restoration of the States-General and the fall of the Bastille to the foundation of the National Assembly, the execution of Louis XVI, and the violence and convulsions of the Revolution.

Ireland, so lately stirred by the assertion of American Independence, was again to be wrought up to a pitch of ardour by the explosion occurring in France, which, in the words of Wolfe Tone, “had blown into the elements a despotism rooted in fourteen centuries”; the attitude of every man toward the French Revolution became the test of his political creed.

On the questions of Parliamentary Reform and Catholic liberties the Dissenters of the north, especially those of Belfast, had stood in the forefront as leaders; they now proclaimed themselves convinced republicans.

Theobald Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone

They read Tom Paine’s Rights of Man with avidity, and they celebrated the fall of the Bastille in 1789 with enthusiasm. While aristocratic political clubs in London were sending addresses of congratulation to the Jacobin Club in Paris and to the French Convention, asserting that “revolutions will now become easy,” the Society of United Irishmen was being formed in Belfast with similar principles.

Tone in Belfast in October, 1791, and Napper Tandy in Dublin a month later, both republicans, organised the first branches; but not all the members looked on the French Revolution, as Tone did, as “the morning star of liberty to Ireland.”

The Committee had no official alliance with the French till the August of 1796, though communications had been in progress long before; it was the exasperation caused by the passing of the Insurrection Act of that year that attracted them toward the more violent methods in progress in France. Their original programme was more modest.

“All we wanted,” said Arthur O’Connor, when he was examined before a Special Commission in the spring of 1798 as to the origin of the Association, “was to create a House of Commons which should represent the whole people of Ireland, for which purpose we strove to dispel all religious distinction from our political union; after we had destroyed your usurpation of our national representation and had set up a real representation of the whole people of Ireland we were convinced there was no evil which such a House of Commons could not reach.”[1]

Later on, the aims of the Society widened. When the Chancellor put to McNevin, another member of the Society examined by the Commission, the question “Was not your object a separation from England?” his reply was:

“Certainly it became our object, when we became convinced that liberty was not otherwise obtainable …; it is a measure we were forced into; inasmuch as I am now, and always have been, of opinion that if we were an independent republic and England ceased to be formidable to us, our interest would require an intimate connection with her.”

The articles of Association and Tests taken by the members were of the same character. They aimed at an “impartial and adequate representation of the Irish nation in Parliament” and the establishment of a “brotherhood of affection and communion of rights” among Irishmen of all religious persuasions. They called on the Government to concede their appeal for reform and not to “drive the people into republicanism.”[2] Up to 1794 the chief object of the body was to break the oligarchy of Fitzgibbon and the Beresfords and to restore the government of the country to the constitutional sovereign and the representatives of the people.

The horrors of the Parisian massacres of September, 1792, the reforms granted in 1793, and the dangers of a war with France, for a time disquieted a people whose views of the changes going on abroad were as yet unformed and whose Government, led by Grattan and his party, was warmly in favour of giving every support to England in the prosecution of hostilities with France. But from 1795 or 1796 onward, a change of feeling turned the Society from a small body in favour of reform into a formidable military organisation demanding separation.

The growing sympathy with France, encouraged by the teachings of Tone, Hamilton Rowan, Emmet, McNevin, Arthur O’Connor, and others, took root, especially in the North, and the Society of United Irishmen spread with extraordinary rapidity.

In 1796 the organisation was reformed. The disbanded Volunteers poured into the branches, and in a few weeks there were eighty societies in Belfast alone. A military organisation was grafted on to the civil, the civil officers receiving military titles; and a Directory was formed after the French pattern to direct their movements.

There were soon 72,200 men in the Ulster division and large numbers were signing the Test in Leinster. The Belfast body rose from 2,000 to 99,411 men; and arms, including pikes, cannon, bayonets and guns were rapidly collected. By the outbreak of the rebellion in 1798 the total number of members amounted to 500,000 men, of whom 279,896 were armed.[3]

Lord Edward Fitzgerald

Lord Edward Fitzgerald
From the painting by Hugh Douglas Hamilton in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Among the leaders was the younger brother of the Duke of Leinster, a youth beloved by all for his frank and open nature, unselfishness of purpose, and beauty of person, but whose rash confidence and impetuosity unfitted him for the part he proposed to himself as the director of a rising against the Government.[4]

The Society began seriously to look to France to support a rising with troops, and regulations were set on foot. Already in 1794 William Jackson had been arrested for bringing over proposals from the French Directory, and Hamilton Rowan, Wolfe Tone, and Lord Edward FitzGerald were in constant secret communication with the French Government.

All that was taking place was well known to the authorities, for the association was riddled through and through with informers, many even of the prominent members of the committee being in receipt of regular sums of money for giving information to the Government at the very time that they were directing the affairs of the Society.

Thomas Reynolds, a silk manufacturer in Dublin, on whose information several of the Leinster leaders were taken in March, 1798, and who subsequently gave evidence against them, was one of the most trusted of their leaders. He was an intimate associate with Tone and others up to the very outbreak of the rebellion. On his information the members of the provincial committee at Oliver Bond’s house, of whom he was one, were arrested, and soon afterward, Thomas Addis Emmet, Dr. W. J. McNevin, and Lord Edward FitzGerald.

Even men who were employed as professional advocates of the United Irishmen at their trials, and who were thus admitted into the inner workings of the Society, were at the same time receiving sums of money from the Government for the betrayal of these secrets, and were playing a double part throughout.

Counsellor Leonard McNally, at whose house the meetings were held, and M‘Gucken, engaged as solicitor to the United Irishmen, were among those paid and pensioned for their services. It is one of the worst features in Irish secret societies that informers have never been wanting for rewards and pay.[5]

A variety of causes, among which the rise of the Orange Society was one of the most important, led to the rapid expansion of the United Irishmen, and brought the idea of armed intervention, assisted by France, into repute.

On September 21, 1795, the first Orange Lodge was formed in the obscure village of Loughall. This association arose out of the earlier societies known as “Protestant Boys,” “Peep o’ Day Boys,” and “Wreckers,” whose activities in Armagh, Tyrone, and Down had kept the country in a state of disturbance since 1784. Their object had been the purely sectarian one of ejecting the Catholic peasantry in the North from their lands and tenements, visiting them at night, breaking up their furniture and insulting their persons.[6] They proposed to plant colonies of Protestants on the farms of the ejected Catholics. They had been resisted by the adherents of a Catholic Association called “the Defenders,” and the members of both organisations being drawn at first from the lowest orders of the peasantry, fought and harassed each other with impunity.

The Catholics settled in the north had in many cases passed into Ulster from other districts of Ireland to supply the place of the Ulster tenants who had emigrated to America at the commencement of the Civil War, either owing to penal laws against the Presbyterians, and to lack of work, or on account of the clearances by their landlords of lands that had hitherto been put down in tillage, now transformed into pasture and grazing fields.

The original owners who remained looked on these immigrants from the south as interlopers and did their best to force them to return to their own counties; by 1796 it was generally believed that seven thousand Catholics had been burned or driven out of Armagh. The ejected people wandered about committing outrages and indulging in faction fights, or temporarily made their way to other parts of the country, only to return in the periods of quiet.

During 1793–95 the North had seemed to be settling down, the good feeling engendered by the united efforts of both religious parties for reform and emancipation having had a healing effect on local feuds. But the disappointment felt at the withdrawal of Lord Fitzwilliam and with him of all immediate hopes of the bestowal of full Catholic rights led to a fresh outburst of inflamed religious antipathies.

The result on the Protestant side was the revival of nearly extinct organisations under the new name of Orangemen. They acted as a counterblast to the United Irishmen and to the Republicans. Lord Gosford, who was appointed co-Governor of Armagh by the ascendency party in order to spite Lord Charlemont, who had hitherto held the post, reported, in an address to the magistrates of the county:—

“It is no secret that a persecution, accompanied by all the circumstances of ferocious cruelty which have, in all ages, distinguished that dreadful calamity, is now raging in this country. … The only crime which the wretched objects of this merciless persecution are charged with is a crime of easy proof—it is simply a profession of the Roman Catholic faith. A lawless banditti have constituted themselves judges of this species of delinquency, and the sentence they pronounce is equally concise and terrible; nothing less than a confiscation of all property and immediate banishment.”[7]

The Orange Society was formed to support the Protestant ascendancy; their oath of allegiance made this even a condition of their defence of the King and his heirs; and it seems well established that they were encouraged by the Irish Government, who provided them with considerable sums of money.[8]

The effect of their treatment of the peasantry and of the shelter afforded to their acts by the junto at the Castle stimulated the opposing societies into greater activity; and where one Orange Lodge sprang up, ten branches of the United Irishmen would immediately be established.

A universal fear spread through the country among the Catholics that they were to be exterminated, and it was diligently whispered in the poorer districts that an oath to this effect was to be administered to every member of the Orange Society.

Though Lord Castlereagh, during the examination of Arthur O’Connor, denied that the Government had anything to do with the Orange Society or with “the oath of extermination,” he did not deny its existence. It was, however, solemnly denied by the heads of the Orange Lodges.

Whether such an oath was taken or not, the effect of these two societies, formed to oppose each other, was to throw the North into two opposite and violently antagonistic camps, in which they have remained ever since. But it was only gradually that the two parties adopted their later religious and political distinctions.

The Society of United Irishmen had originally been formed by Presbyterians, and it was the Presbyterians who at first most readily accepted the idea of a republic in Ireland. They had watched with sympathy the founding of the American Republic overseas, and they were ready to welcome similar efforts in France. Wolfe Tone believed that Ulster would rise if a French force were landed at Carrickfergus or in Carlingford Bay.

The first conflict between the two bodies, called from the spot near which it was fought, the Battle of the Diamond (September 21, 1795), had little to do with politics; it was a local attempt on the part of the Catholics to drive out some new Protestant settlers who had taken their tenancies, and was the climax to a series of outrages on both sides arising out of similar causes.

But the identification of the Orangemen with the ascendency party and with William of Orange, the source to which the Catholics traced the infliction of the Penal Code, gradually gave the Society a violently partisan aspect, and their processions and celebrations, symbols and songs, which are full of memories of terror to the Catholics, have served to accentuate the political differences between the “Orange” and the “Green” ever since.

They came later to symbolise the distinction between loyalty to the Crown and disaffection; they have certainly done much to increase a disloyalty that was, at the time of the foundation of the first Orange Lodge, practically non-existent among the Catholic population.

Though, in our own days, the celebrations are chiefly regarded as a popular demonstration and have lost much of their acrimonious character, the narrowness of the views they represent and the danger of inflaming partisan passion, should make the continuance of such party demonstrations on either side impossible. They should be discouraged by every right-thinking person.

The effect of this new cleavage, now fast being forced into lines of religious animosity, is testified to by a letter from a speaker who had addressed a meeting of nearly two thousand Presbyterians at Omagh on the necessity of forming volunteer corps to resist the French. He says that the strongest spirit of loyalty prevailed and hatred of the Roman Catholics was very great; should one of them join any of the corps, they would never unite with them. “This violent change,” he continues, “has been wrought within a year.” He considered the change as being fraught with the best consequences to the King and constitution.

As a matter of fact, in proportion as the United Irishmen allied themselves with France, in the hope of establishing in Ireland an independent republic, the main body of the Protestant Ulstermen was thrown on the opposite side. An independent republic was one thing, but a republic gained by French arms and under French auspices was quite another.

France was then the most powerful and dreaded enemy of Britain; her fleets were watching the English shores and an opportunity was being anxiously awaited when a naval descent might be attempted. The Orange party, making their choice between adherence to England and adherence to France, chose the former, and they have ever since maintained their position as convinced supporters of English rule, while the opposite party became, on the whole, violently anti-British and looked to France as the deliverers of Ireland.

This anti-British attitude was best represented in the character and writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone. Like many of the insurrectionary leaders he was a Protestant. He was born in Dublin on June 20, 1763, and educated at an English school and at Dublin University, for which he had ever a sincere affection. He then passed on to the Middle Temple as a student of law, of which, after keeping eight terms, he says he knew “exactly as much as he did of necromancy.” He had, in fact, no taste for the law, his earliest ambition being for a military life; but he threw himself into politics, having “speedily made the great discovery” that “the influence of England was the radical vice of our government, and that Ireland would never be either free, prosperous, or happy, until she was independent.”[9] These views, to which he adhered through life, he advanced in a pamphlet which attracted some public notice, Sir Henry Cavendish remarking that “if the author of the work were serious he ought to be hanged.”

A political club established by Tone in Dublin numbered among its members Dr. William Drennan, Joseph Pollock, Thomas Addis Emmet, Peter Burrowes, John Stack, and Whitley Stokes, both the last-named being Fellows of Trinity College and all of them, as well as Tone’s close friend Russell, men of cultivation and true lovers of their country.

The Hon. George Knox, afterwards Member of Parliament for Dungannon, though he differed from Tone in politics, was also reckoned among his friends; and it is a testimony to the worth of Tone’s personal character that men of rectitude and high attainments like these preserved for him a real esteem even when his political activities and views far outran their own. Of Stokes, one of the most erudite of a great family of scholars, Tone says that he was “the very best man that he had ever known.”

The opinions of Tone were on a different plane from those of the Whigs, with whom he hoped at first to unite. He held the connexion with England to be in itself the root of the evil, while they believed the connexion to be salutary, though the mode of its exercise was often pernicious.

Tone’s first exertions were made on behalf of the Catholics, who were, as a body, very slow to move on their own behalf. His pamphlets were welcomed by a few of their leaders and by the great body of the Belfast Protestant Volunteers, who were at this time making considerable exertions on behalf of Catholic liberty, and who elected him a member of their corps.

He was shortly afterwards appointed to succeed Richard Burke as agent and assistant secretary to the Catholic Association on the suggestion of his friend John Keogh, and in that capacity he accompanied the deputation to London in 1792; and he set himself resolutely to effect the union between the leaders of the two religious parties which resulted in the Acts of Relief of that and the following years.