Revolution and Rebellion (3)

Eleanor Hull
Revolution and Rebellion | start of chapter

It is therefore our duty to ask what it was that brought about this sudden change of feeling, and by what means the peaceful inhabitants were goaded into rebellion. The first cause was undoubtedly that pointed out by the Commander-in-Chief, the dispersal of the troops all over the country without proper command, the constant use of them by the country gentlemen to execute the law, and the alarming relaxation of discipline to which this state of things gave rise.

“The best regiments in Europe,” as Abercromby said, “could not long stand such usage.”[21] He speaks of “the very disgraceful frequency of courts-martial and the many complaints of irregularities in the conduct of the troops; … the licentiousness of the army being such as to render it formidable to everyone but the enemy.”[22]

Lord Moira, in the Irish House of Lords, supported Sir Ralph’s report of the excesses committed by the troops and the distracted state of the country. Eventually Abercromby, conscious of the insubordination of the army and the lack of support he was meeting with in stemming it, saw no course open but to resign. Men who “for more than twelve months had employed the army in measures which they durst not avow or sanction,” were not the sort of authorities under which it was possible for an honest officer to work, and he sent in his resignation on March 24. “The late ridiculous farce,” he writes, “acted by Lord Camden and his Cabinet must strike everyone. They have declared the kingdom in rebellion, when the orders of his Excellency might be carried over the whole kingdom by an orderly dragoon, or a writ executed without any difficulty, a few places in the mountains excepted.”[23]

On Sir Ralph’s retirement General Lake was appointed to his post. His taking over of the command was followed by an immediate change of military policy. Troops were placed at free-quarters over large districts in the South “for the restoration of tranquillity,” as Sir James Stuart cynically remarked, and were guided in their actions by commands directed to irritate and infuriate the people upon whom they lived; they were, in fact, let loose upon a peaceful population and were encouraged to exercise uncontrolled military violence toward them.[24]

In three weeks from the date of Lake’s appointment and the issuing of the new orders the population was in rebellion. The people who the year before had welcomed the British troops and aided them to resist invasion were now driven by the behaviour of the soldiery and yeomen, regulars and militia alike, composed of English, Irish, and Hessians, into a fury of revenge.

Lord Cornwallis, who was sent over to succeed Lord Camden as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in June, 1798, found the worst spirit prevailing. He came unwillingly, for he considered that the post he was to occupy “came up to his idea of perfect misery.” “The principal persons of this country,” he writes soon after his arrival, “and the members of both Houses of Parliament, are in general averse to all acts of clemency … and would pursue measures that could only terminate in the extirpation of the greater number of the inhabitants and the utter destruction of the country. The words ‘Papist’ and ‘Priest’ are ever in their mouths and by their unaccountable policy they would drive four-fifths of the community into irreconcilable rebellion.”[25] Again, on July 13, he writes:

“The importance (of the rebels’ acts) is purposely exaggerated by those who wish to urge Government to a continuance of violent measures, or, according to a fashionable phrase of some men of great consequence here, to keep Government up to their traces. I apprehend that I am suspected of not being disposed to set my neck stoutly to the collar.”[26]

“Even at my table,” he adds, “where you will suppose I do all I can to prevent it, (the conversation) always turns on hanging, shooting, burning, etc., and if a priest has been put to death the greatest joy is expressed by the whole company. … There is no law in town or country but martial law and you know enough of that to see all the horrors of it.”[27]

It was this state of things that sent men by the thousand into the society of the United Irishmen, in the hope of self-preservation. In four months Dr. McNevin was able to organize 70,000 men in Leinster alone, and the number of those who had subscribed to the Test was brought up to nearly 500,000 able-bodied men, of whom some 300,000 were regularly organized. It was only the lack of competent military leaders and discipline that prevented them from making themselves masters of the kingdom. Most of the original leaders were now in the hands of the Government.

In 1796–97 the republican journals in Belfast were suppressed, and the editors and chief contributors, Tom Russell, Neilson, and Arthur O’Connor, were arrested. The arrest of the Dublin Committee soon followed.

Yet there was little sign of undue harshness in their treatment; O’Connor was released but he immediately went over to Paris to concert fresh plans in company with a priest of the name of O’Coigley, or Quigley, who was captured on his return and executed.

Later, T. A. Emmet, McNevin, and O’Connor were reprieved on their engagement to make statements before a secret committee, in which they were not to be called upon to implicate any friends; and they, with a large number of suspects and members of the Dublin Committee were, after imprisonment in Dublin, sent to Fort George, near Inverness, where they remained till 1801, when peace was proclaimed.

Oliver Bond, a wealthy Dublin merchant, who was regarded as the mainspring of the movement and acted as its secretary, was arrested with fourteen members of the Leinster Directory at his own house, where a meeting was being held, through the treachery of Thomas Reynolds. Many efforts were made to save him, but he was condemned to death for high treason. He died suddenly in prison. The two Sheares, Henry and John, were captured a fortnight before the rising on the information of their supposed friend, Armstrong. In spite of the splendid advocacy of Curran,[28] supported by Plunket, in a trial that lasted through the night, both brothers suffered death, with one or two others of lesser note.

Lord Edward FitzGerald was still going about in Dublin and there seems to have been a general desire to spare one so highly placed and so warmly beloved. For a month he lay hidden in a house near the canal and even Chancellor Fitzgibbon, now become Lord Clare, was anxious for his escape. “For God’s sake get this young man out of the country,” he had said to one of Lord Edward’s nearest relatives a few days before the arrests of March 12; “the ports shall be thrown open to you and no hindrance whatever offered.”

Unfortunately, the young conspirator remained in Dublin. On the evening before his arrest, on May 18, 1798, he took refuge in the house of a man named Murphy in Thomas Street, though a reward of £1,000 had been then offered for his person.

The next day he was followed to this house and his room was entered by Major Swan and Major Sirr, as he was resting after dinner. Lord Edward surrendered after a short struggle in which he, as well as his assailant, were wounded, his host being also taken away to Newgate. On June 3 he succumbed to his injuries, one of his captors, Captain Ryan, also dying of his wounds.

Murphy, who was confined for a long time in prison, describes Lord Edward as one of the bravest of men; in height he was about five feet seven inches and with a very interesting countenance—arched eyebrows, fine grey eyes and high forehead, with thick brown hair, inclining to black.[29]

Aristocrat and Protestant as he was, he won an abiding place in the affections of his countrymen. His friend, Lord Cloncurry, speaks of him as “brave to a fault” and possessed of a strong religious belief which, combined with his love of country and desire to relieve the sufferings of his fellow-countrymen, impressed upon his patriotism a character of solemn enthusiasm that supplied the place of commanding talent and well fitted him to influence men.[30]

The capture of the leaders and the death of Lord Edward FitzGerald left the insurgents without a recognised centre. In many cases they persuaded or forced the gentry of their own neighbourhoods to act as their leaders; and some respected and influential landlords, who had no love for rebellion, but hoped by their influence to control their tenants, thus became involved in the rising and suffered the dreadful consequences.

In this way Protestant gentlemen like Cornelius Grogan of Johnstown, an infirm old man, who was forced on his horse with threats that he would be shot if he refused to lead the tumultuous host that surrounded him; John Henry Colclough, who had sat in four successive Parliaments as Member for Wexford and Enniscorthy; and Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, a liberal and patriotic Protestant gentleman, became technically ‘rebels’ and were hanged together after a mere form of trial on Wexford Bridge, their heads being spiked by order of General Lake.

Acts of barbarity were committed on both sides, and terrible deeds of murder and revenge defaced the rising; in many cases, no quarter was received or given; but it is well attested that in numerous instances the insurgents behaved with great humanity, shielding and helping those that were in their power and endeavouring to allay the spirit of cruelty and plunder. Protestant clergymen testified to the respect with which the young girls who were in their power were treated.[31]

Similar humanity cannot be found in the annals of the other side: the executions were merciless, two hundred persons being executed at Carlow alone, including Sir Edward Crosbie, against whom no charge whatever was proved. Any disposition to accept terms of surrender from the rebels on promise of their lives by the county magistrates was met by sharp reproval from Lord Castlereagh, who was acting as Chief Secretary in the absence of Pelham, and who was at a later date to act with Cornwallis in carrying the Union.

The rebels had at first some successes; they took Wexford and burned Enniscorthy after a desperate conflict. At New Ross, where Harvey had been the nominal leader, the battle lasted ten hours, the main assault having been led by a Wexford boy at the head of from two to three thousand pikemen; but the town caught fire and the insurgents, who had been drinking, were killed as they slept.

At Vinegar Hill, where the longest resistance was made, over ten thousand Irish were encamped under their chosen leader, a priest named Father John Murphy of Boulavogue. The burning of their churches and the cruelties inflicted on their people incited the priests to join in the rising.

General Lake attacked with about thirteen thousand men in four separate columns, but the accidental delay of one of these bodies under General Needham—Needham’s Gap, as it came to be called—enabled parties of those insurgents who survived the heavy fire of grape-shot and musketry to escape; they wandered about the country in straggling bands, and were abandoned to the tender mercies of the yeomanry.

Among the appalling deeds committed during two years of terror the worst was perhaps the massacre of the loyalist prisoners at Scullabogue House after the battle of New Ross. Some fugitive rebels from the town broke into the house where the prisoners, mostly Protestants, were confined, and, pretending that they had orders from Harvey, they murdered thirty-seven of them in cold blood, setting fire to the barn in which over a hundred others were locked up. This deed, which was wholly unauthorised by the leaders and committed by a set of irresponsible runaway men, naturally aroused the bitterest feeling, and partly explains the savage retaliation of the Government troops.

It was only a matter of time for the regular army to crush the rebellion. Ulster, where the United Irishmen had pressed for a peaceful solution and the adoption of Ponsonby’s Reform Bill, in 1797, had since that date been dragooned into preparations for a rising; and a less formidable outbreak in Antrim and Down was suppressed by the military.

Too late to be of use, after the rebellion was crushed, the last French attempt to effect a landing on Irish shores was made by a small force under General Humbert, who, impatient of the delays of his Government and spurred on by Wolfe Tone’s unceasing efforts, had collected a sum of money on his own account, raised a small force and sailed without the sanction of his superiors for the bay of Killala in Mayo, with two Irishmen, of whom one was Tone’s brother, as his guides. It was a foolhardy experiment, made more foolhardy by the conduct of the General, who lost time drilling the countryfolk and enjoying the hospitality of the Catholic Bishop of Killala instead of making an immediate advance.

Lake crossed the Shannon with considerable forces, but these were routed at Castlebar by the French. Their flight was so precipitate that the event became known as the Castlebar Races. Hundreds of them joined the French, until the arrival of superior forces under Lord Cornwallis brought the skirmishing of Humbert’s army to an end. He surrendered, on September 8, at Ballinamuck, and the French returned home.

Matthew Tone and Teeling were carried to Dublin in irons and executed. Hearing of Humbert’s adventure, the Directory had hurried off reinforcements to support their General, and a small fast-sailing boat, the Anacreon, under General Hardy, and with Napper Tandy and a body of United Irishmen on board, reached the island of Raghlin off the coast of Antrim on September 16, where they heard of Humbert’s surrender.

Re-embarking in great haste, they stood out for Norway. Napper Tandy, who had been boasting that thirty thousand men would rise on his appearance[32] was delivered up to the Government and sentenced to death, but through the intervention of the French Government he was released.

Wolfe Tone was a man of a different fibre. He had followed with the main body of the French squadron in the Hoche with eight frigates carrying some three thousand men and seventy-four guns. On October 11 they entered Lough Swilly but they were closely followed by a squadron under Sir John Borlase Warren, who engaged them; after a well-matched fight of some hours the French tricolour went down. Thus ended the series of attempts made by the French to land on Irish shores.

It is to be remembered that these incursions were not merely isolated efforts organized by Irishmen on behalf of their own country; they were part of a deliberate effort of France to invade England by way of Ireland, one incident in a desperate war in which the whole of Europe was involved. It was in this light that they were regarded both by France and England, and it was to this that they owed their importance in the history of the time.

Wolfe Tone, who fought with intrepidity and desperation, “as if he were courting death” was the only Irishman on board the Hoche. Being recognised by a former friend, he was taken to Dublin and tried by court-martial. He appeared in court in the French uniform of a Chef de Brigade and pleaded his French commission as entitling him to the death of a soldier.

Curran exerted himself to the utmost on his behalf, and Lord Kilwarden, the Chief Justice, made a vigorous attempt to take Tone out of the hands of the military and have him tried by the Court of King’s Bench, which was then sitting; but Tone in spite of these efforts, was condemned to be hanged.[33]

He anticipated his fate by opening a vein in his neck, and, after lingering in prison for some days in agony he expired. His own account of his main aims was stated to have been “to subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connexion with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country.”[34]

An aftermath of the rebellion of ’98, and the only overt sign of disaffection which followed the Union, was the brief rising of Robert Emmet, the son of a Dublin Court physician and brother of Thomas Addis Emmet, who had quitted a good position at the Irish Bar to follow the projects of the insurgents.

Brought up in the atmosphere of disaffection, young Robert Emmet early showed similar tendencies. For his inflammatory speeches he was expelled, with eighteen other young malcontents, from Trinity College, and he had to take refuge abroad, where he carried on his schemes for the separation of his country from England.

His youthfulness—for he was only twenty-four when he was executed—his love-story with Sarah Curran,[35] his idealism and promise of talent, and the dignity of his final speech from the dock have inscribed his name on the hearts of his nation, and his portrait may still be found in many cottages side by side with that of the Virgin.

Though he aimed at complete separation and intrigued with the Directory of Paris, his patriotism revolted from the idea of seeing Ireland reduced to a dependency of France, and he hastened his own plans to prevent the accomplishment of those which were being matured abroad.

The carelessness with which the Castle in Dublin was guarded nearly placed it in his hands, and for two hours Dublin was at the mercy of the insurgents.

A victim of the rising was old Lord Kilwarden, the humane judge who had tried to save Wolfe Tone; he was pulled out of his carriage and murdered as he was entering the city from his house at Rathfarnham to try to stop the rising.

A man whose life Emmet had spared betrayed his hiding-place and he was taken with several of his associates, most of them leaders in the ’98 rising; but the lives of most of the subordinates were spared on their making a full confession. Robert Emmet suffered death.[36]