Revolution and Rebellion (2)

Eleanor Hull
Revolution and Rebellion | start of chapter

Meanwhile, Ministers in Dublin were watching with anxiety the rapid growth of the revolutionary spirit and the dissensions that were disturbing the Northern counties. Measures to meet the emergency were brought forward in swift succession.

An Insurrection Act of a very stringent kind was passed and it was followed by an Indemnity Bill to absolve magistrates from the consequences of their acts if, in suppressing any disorder, they exceeded their powers under the law.

Such measures had been carried on other occasions of a similar kind. They placed in the hands of the local authorities almost unlimited powers without any check on their misuse, and the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act soon afterwards left the whole population at the mercy of the officials.

All suspected persons could be incarcerated without trial for lengthened periods; and even men of position like the Hon. Valentine Lawless, afterwards Lord Cloncurry, passed some years in the Tower without trial or any explanation given as to the reasons for his imprisonment.

On the other hand, under the law dealing with “disorderly characters,” which included all found out of doors after prohibited hours and gave the magistrates summary powers to send them to the fleet, hundreds of men were drafted off to the Navy without warning or excuse.

The English Navy was manned very largely by Irishmen, many of whom had been captured by these violent means;[10] and it was proved to be the spread of revolutionary doctrines among the seamen which brought about the mutiny of the Nore in 1797, thus rendering the fleet helpless at a critical moment.

Considering the hardships of their position and the neglect and miseries to which such sailors were exposed at all times, the wonder is that the men of the Navy so seldom showed signs of rebellion or disloyalty.

Even the English Government shrank from the almost unlimited powers over a whole population now placed in the hands of the magistrates. Only the existence of a widespread and dangerous rebellion could justify such powers and in 1796, when these Acts were passed, there was no such rebellion in the country, the disorders being purely local and confined to the North.

Grattan, who had approved the earlier measures, grew alarmed. “I know not,” he cried, “where you are leading me—from one strong Bill to another—until I see a gulf before me at whose abyss I recoil.”

Everything depended on the prudence and humanity with which the new ordinances were used, but prudence and humanity were hardly to be found in the system of repression now being resorted to. Despairing of being of future use to his country, and deeply disapproving of the appointment of General Lake to the Northern command, Grattan decided to withdraw from Parliament, and he also threw up his post in a corps of yeomanry which he had recently joined. In the terrible days that were to follow, Grattan’s great influence played no part.

The current of popular feeling had, indeed, passed beyond the range of the constitutional reforms advocated by Grattan and his party. In 1792 Lord Edward FitzGerald had met Paine in Paris and had become his devoted admirer. “We breakfast, dine, and sup together,” he writes; “the more I see of his interior the more I like and respect him.”

The ingenious and stirring mind of Paine attracted FitzGerald, though it never attracted Tone; his Rights of Man, published in the previous year as a reply to Burke’s French Revolution, exactly harmonised with FitzGerald’s views.

It became the accepted political manifesto of the revolutionary party, and some of its phrases, such as, “Lay the axe to the root, and teach Governments humanity: it is their sanguinary punishments which corrupt mankind”; “Political liberty consists in the power of doing whatever does not injure another … the law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to Society,” were as applicable to Ireland as they were in France.[11]

In Paris Lord Edward met Pamela, known as the adopted daughter of Madame le Genlis, and popularly believed to be the child of the Duke of Orleans, whom he married, returning to Ireland in 1793 with his young bride.[12]

On his arrival, he realised how far his now avowed republican principles separated him from Grattan and his friends of the constitutional party, though he did not become a United Irishman until 1796, when he joined about the same time as Arthur O’Connor, Thomas Addis Emmet, and McNevin, who subsequently directed the movements of the Society.

The growth of republican sentiments, the unrest in the North, and the recurrence of frightful scenes of outrage and increase of assassinations had alarmed the Government, but though they were closely watching developments, it cannot be said that they acted hastily.

On April 24, 1794, Rev. William Jackson, the intermediary who had brought over proposals from the French authorities with plans of an invasion, was arrested, but he was not tried until the following year, when he died in the dock of poison administered by his own hand.

Tone, Hamilton Rowan and Napper Tandy were deeply implicated in his actions; and they fled to France or America accompanied by Reynolds, the informer.

Tone sailed to Philadelphia, with the full knowledge of the Government, taking his wife and children with him. He landed on August 1, 1795; but finding the Americans, to a far larger extent than he had dreamed, “high-flying aristocrats,” devoted to order and authority, he speedily wearied of them and began to regard his Philadelphian fellow-townsmen with “unqualified dislike.”

Hoping to find more sympathy in France, he took leave of his old friends Napper Tandy and Rowan—the latter a man of good position and high principles—and sailed for Havre, arriving in Paris on January 1, 1796.

He found the French Ministers busied with plans for an invasion of England by way of Ireland, and by means of letters of introduction he got into communication with the French Executive.

The account of Tone’s long-delayed hopes and of the heart-sickness that came over him as he kicked his heels in Paris, waiting from month to month for the French authorities to come to some decision, are graphically told in his Memoirs; in spite of their garrulity and bombast and the sharp comments he makes both upon his own and his countrymen’s weaknesses, we feel that in practical details, Tone was able to offer sound military advice to the French Government.

He insisted on the folly of sending small and ill-equipped expeditions, or giving the command to men who were unknown, even by name, in Ireland; he pointed out the best places to effect a landing, strongly advising some place near Dublin or Belfast, and not, as actually occurred, in the south-west of Ireland; he urged the strongest reasons for seizing the moment to effect the crossing when the English fleet was unfit to sail, being held up by the mutiny at the Nore; and he contested some French military opinions founded upon ignorance of the country, in spite of his very imperfect mastery of the French language, with good sense and skill.

For himself he asked nothing but to be associated with the expedition in some military or official capacity. In case of success this would place him in a position of some authority, and in the event of discomfiture he believed the French uniform would secure him a military trial.

General Hoche recognised his ability and became his fast friend, consulting him in all details relating to the expedition. Naval jealousies and the incapacity of some of the officers employed delayed the embarkation, and when the vessels at last set sail, wind and storm, the old allies of England, separated the ships so that only a part of them reached the shelter of Bantry Bay, where, in the absence of General Humbert, who arrived too late, his second-in-command, General Grouchy, refused to land.

Tone proposed a wild scheme of advancing with the 6,500 men they had with them. “It is altogether an enterprise truly unique,” he comments; “we have not one guinea; we have not a tent; we have not a horse to draw our four pieces of artillery. The General-in-Chief marches on foot; we leave all our baggage behind us.”[13]

But the landing could not be made; and no sign of interest appeared on the shore, where the southern Irish peasants, then popularly supposed to be in a state of rebellion against the English Government, were engaged in boiling potatoes for the English regiments as they hurried down to repel the French invasion.[14] After six days in Bantry Bay, within five hundred yards of the shore, the disheartened commanders ordered the return to Brest in the face of a furious gale. “I do not wonder,” writes Tone, “at Xerxes whipping the sea; for I find myself to-night pretty much in the mood to commit some such rational action!”[15]

Though fresh French expeditions were planned from time to time and the Irish Government was kept in a continued state of watchfulness, the descent on Bantry proved to be the only attempt of importance; the premature death of Hoche, and the attraction which Egypt and the East exercised over the mind of Buonaparte, who was now fighting his way to power, diverted the fleets prepared for Ireland to other projects, and Tone, watching events impatiently from Paris, saw one hopeful plan after another come to nothing.

The ignorance of conditions and views in Ireland shown by the French authorities is curiously illustrated by their enquiring of Tone whether Chancellor Fitzgibbon would not join them if their soldiery effected a landing.

Tone’s prophecy of a hundred thousand men ready to rise in the south on the arrival of the French had vanished into thin air. Lord Camden’s dispatch on the dispersion of Hoche’s fleet reported that “the general good disposition throughout the South and West was so prevalent that, had the army landed, their hope of assistance from the inhabitants would have been disappointed.”

Dr. Hussey declared to Burke that “there were not five Catholics in the kingdom worth £10 who would not spill their blood to resist a French invasion.”

In the South, among the Catholic population, revolutionary ideas had taken practically no root, the gentry being fervent monarchists and the peasants taking no interest in affairs that had for them no meaning.

The clergy, who dreaded the introduction of religious free-thought or atheistic teaching such as they saw spreading in France, exhorted to loyalty, and Dr. Moylan, the Catholic Bishop of Cork, issued an appeal to his diocese to resist—an appeal that would undoubtedly have cost him his head had the invasion succeeded.

From the Counties of Kerry, Galway and Mayo came reports of the readiness of the people to support their landlords in opposition to the enemy, and the cities of Cork, Galway, and Limerick vied with each other in proofs of their loyalty to the Government. The yeomanry declared their readiness to march anywhere with General Hutchinson, even without their arms.

Only in and near Belfast was any spirit of disaffection shown. Lord Camden, who had succeeded Lord Fitzwilliam as Viceroy, wrote that the North was “ripe for revolt.” It was said that “loyalty was apparent everywhere, except in the North.”[16]

Yet even in the North republicanism had not gone very deep and was confined almost entirely to the Presbyterian youth of the towns. In the country districts there was so little stir among the peasants that Neilson, the editor of the Northern Star, had shortly before complained that the great mass of the Catholics were “bigots to monarchy.”[17]

In November, 1797, Lord Carhampton having resigned the command of the army, Sir Ralph Abercromby was appointed to succeed him. He was a humane man and a capable commander, a person, who, in Lord Camden’s words, “thought deeply and wisely” on the matters that came under his observation. As that of a Scotsman with much foreign service behind him who came to Ireland with an unprejudiced eye, his frequently repeated testimony to the disposition to peace and quiet among the inhabitants is particularly valuable.

What he did find gravely amiss was the bad position of the troops. He found them scattered all over the country in small parties guarding the houses of the gentry and performing duties that of right belonged to the magistrates and resident landlords. The want of control to which this dispersion led had resulted in a military licence which the proprietors used for their own purposes to harass and oppress the tenants.[18]

Of all this a capable officer would necessarily disapprove and Abercromby exerted himself to the utmost to correct abuses, restore discipline, and concentrate the loose bodies of soldiery in centres where they could be kept under observation and control.

But he found his efforts thwarted by the gentry and magistracy, and but feebly supported by the central Government. Shortly before, General Lake, who had the Northern Command, had issued a proclamation under the authority of the Lord Lieutenant, superseding the ordinary law, and placing unlimited powers in the hands of the military.

Though acknowledged to be illegal, the proclamation was held to be justified on the ground of necessity. Addresses against the misuse made of the military authority and against the excesses of the troops were sent up by the Northern counties and by the city of Dublin, but were met by fresh proclamations making any assemblies unlawful; and the instructions sent out by Abercromby were undermined by the “unrelenting hostility to the people and ardent desire for the most severe measures” which he found to be the prevailing tone of Dublin Court conversation.

Lord Camden was not the man to take a firm stand. Personally amiable and with good intentions, which might have sufficed in ordinary times to carry on the Government, he was too weak and wavering to resist the influences around him and he was always ready to agree with the last adviser. He had allowed himself to fall completely under the power of the Court oligarchy, from whom Sir Ralph could expect no support, and who seemed bent on stirring up, rather than quieting, any disaffection that was abroad in the country.

In the South, the General could find few signs of any widespread disturbance. After making a tour of inspection he wrote to the Duke of York that while he admitted that dissatisfaction did exist, he ascribed it to the usual causes, “the old grievances of tithes and oppressive rents.”[19]

There were, in fact, no purely political movements in the South such as were stirring in the North, though the local causes of unrest were always present. “I have the satisfaction to assure your Excellency,” he writes to Lord Camden from Cork, “that the country through which I have passed is in a state of tranquillity. Of this I have had the fullest assurance from every gentleman with whom I have conversed.”[20]

It is necessary to emphasize this point, because it is commonly supposed that the rising of “the ’98” was the outcome of the disloyalty of the Catholics of the South of Ireland. Exactly the reverse of this appears to have been the case; the Catholics of the South were at the moment giving reiterated expressions by word and act of their support of the Government and desire to preserve the quiet of the country.

But a few months later, one part of the South was in a flame. Even then it was in Leinster, not in Munster or Connacht, that the rebellion broke out; chiefly, indeed, among the descendants of the old Norse and Norman settlers of the loyal town and district of Wexford, where insurrections in the past had been rare.