State of Ireland during the Eighteenth Century

Taken from The British Empire in the Nineteenth Century (Chapter V.) by Edgar Sanderson (1898)

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Early in 1795 Lord Fitzwilliam, a distinguished Whig statesman, an avowed and warm supporter of Catholic emancipation, had arrived in Dublin as viceroy. Many Catholic petitions were presented, asking admission to Parliament, and large numbers of Protestants were in favour of the measure. Then the viceroy, after a reply expressing his sympathy with the Catholics, was suddenly recalled, and this step has been held to have greatly conduced to the subsequent rebellion. The "United Irishmen", largely composed of Presbyterians, now became a secret society, and adopted republican views, aiming at revolution, and separation from Great Britain, instead of merely the reforms which they had vainly striven to obtain.

An alliance with France was sought, and the Directory sent an armament, under their famous young general, Lazare Hoche, in 1796. The hostile fleet was dispersed by a storm, and the enterprise was abandoned. Excessive punishment followed this failure in Irish rebellion. The Catholics in Ulster had already been driven by thousands from their homes, and Lord Gosford, the governor of Armagh, declared that " neither age nor sex, nor even acknowledged innocence of any misconduct, is sufficient to excite mercy, much less to afford protection. The only crime with which the objects of this ruthless persecution are charged is simply a profession of the Roman Catholic religion". Before the attempted French invasion, the Irish parliament had passed two Coercion Acts, giving large powers of arrest to magistrates on mere suspicion. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended; martial law was proclaimed; and the country was placed in a state of siege.

After the failure of Hoche's expedition the Irish Catholics were delivered over to the tender mercies of the "Orange" yeomanry and of militia regiments from England. The grossest outrages were rife, including methods of torture called "half-hanging", "pitch-capping", and "picketing". "Half-hanging" consisted in stringing up the victim, cutting him down, and allowing him to struggle back to life again. "Pitch-capping" meant the pouring of hot pitch on the head, allowing it to cool, and then roughly tearing off the "cap" thus formed, bringing with it the hair and portions of the scalp. The fearful device of "picketing" placed the bare soles of the tortured man on pegs driven into the ground, with their pointed ends uppermost. His whole weight was thus supported on a most sensitive part, and exquisite pain was caused.

The gallant Scottish soldier, Sir Ralph Abercrombie, was appointed to the command of the army in Ireland in December, 1796, and in one of his letters he declares that "here (in Ireland) every crime, every cruelty that could be committed by Cossacks or Calmucks has been committed by the troops". He issued a general order, severely rebuking the "licentiousness which must render the troops formidable to every one but the enemy", and he stoutly refused to withdraw this order at the request of the viceroy, Lord Camden. Within four months he resigned his command to General Lake, being unable to check excesses, and resolved not to play the part of an executioner.

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