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225 years: Outbreak of the 1798 rebellion led by the United Irishmen

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Authored by Tommy Dolan
Published on 23rd May, 2023 7 min read

225 years: Outbreak of the 1798 rebellion led by the United Irishmen

Today (23/05/2023), 225 years ago, the United Irishmen launched a short, unsuccessful but nonetheless bloody and influential rebellion against British rule. Somewhere in the region of 50,000 rebels took to the field in the summer of 1798, faced by around 76,000 soldiers of the Crown.[1] The death toll remains a source of debate, but around 30,000 is typically advanced − although some estimates suggest that it may have been as high as 100,000.[2] 

Yet the United Irish Society did not espouse separatism, let alone insurrection, when it was founded in Belfast and Dublin in 1791. Revolutionary ideas emanating from America and France met with receptive audiences throughout Ireland, particularly in Belfast, then a hotbed of Presbyterian radicalism. But whilst its leading lights may have admired the late eighteenth century ideal of the enlightened, secular republic, the United Irish Society emerged, in Ian McBride's words, as a “constitutional pressure group”, seeking parliamentary reform and the end of the debilitating penal laws against Ireland’s significant Roman Catholic and Presbyterian communities.[3] The Declaration and Resolutions of the Society of the United Irishmen of Belfast was published in October 1791 and drafted by the Protestant barrister Theobald Wolfe Tone.[4] It called “for a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament” and for the “unity” of all Irishmen. 1791 also saw the publication of Tone’s An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, which, as his biographer Marianne Elliott has observed, “was to alter the course of radical politics in Ireland”.[5]

A 1964 postage stamp from the Republic of Ireland featuring the iconic image of Theobald Wolfe Tone. 

It was not until the mid-1790s that the United Irishmen morphed into a clandestine movement aiming at the establishment of an independent Irish republic and prepared to utilise French military aid to achieve this. Throughout 1795−96, the United Irishmen in Ulster also began to foster links with the popular Catholic secret society, the Defenders. Increasingly harsh repression of protest groups as a result of Britain’s war with revolutionary France was largely responsible for the Society’s shift towards militant republicanism, although its failure to generate meaningful constitutional reform via peaceful means also proved decisive. When a French fleet set sail for Ireland in December 1796, only to be dispersed by high winds, a government crack-down ensued. Martial law was declared in March 1798. Demoralised and deeply infiltrated, the United Irishmen nevertheless opted for rebellion.

The insurrection had three epi-centres: Leinster, Wexford in particular; eastern Ulster, and Mayo in the west of Ireland. A combination of local circumstances meant that the rebellion prospered for a time in Wexford. A French-style "republic" was even created in Wexford town, governed by a local directory and boasting a republican navy. The Wexford republic perished, however, when the insurgents were defeated at the battle of Vineger Hill on 21st June 1798. Although somewhat successful, the bitterly sectarian nature of the rebellion in Wexford earned it a subdued reputation and legacy – despite the Society’s sacred aim of fostering unity amongst religious denominations upon the island, Protestants were murdered at Scullabogue and on Wexford Bridge.

George Cruikshank’s depiction of the Scullabogue massacre from William Hamilton Maxwell’s History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798, with memoirs of the Union, and Emmett’s insurrection in 1803 (1887).

There was little communication between the insurgents in Leinster and Ulster, and seemingly not even very much between those within Ulster itself. General Nugent, commanding the Crown forces, exploited this and routed the insurgents at the battle of Ballynahinch on 13th June. An amnesty was offered to all except the rebel leaders which served to pacify the North. Half-hearted French aid arrived in August, but these invaders surrendered by September. A larger fleet was dispatched before this surrender was known about in Paris, but was dispersed off the coast of Donegal. The French flagship, the Hoche, was captured by the Royal Navy on 12th October 1798: Wolfe Tone was on board, having fled Ireland in May 1795. Tone committed suicide in his prison cell; “a quiet coda”, as Alvin Jackson has written, “to a rebellion that was already all but crushed”.[6]

The 1798 rebellion was a brutal but pivotal development in British and Irish history. In his study of Wolfe Tone, Thomas Bartlett went so far as to describe the 1790s as “the crucible of modern Ireland when separatism, republicanism, unionism and Orangeism captured the Irish political agenda for generations to come”.[7] Following the rebellion, Edward Cooke, William Pitt’s undersecretary, proclaimed that “Ireland is like a ship on fire, it must either be extinguished or cut adrift”.[8] The British government opted, of course, for a tighter relationship with a view to pacifying the sister island. The Anglo-Irish Union, which survives today (albeit in modified form), came into effect at the beginning of 1801. Catholic emancipation, a key aim of the United Irishmen, was ultimately achieved in 1829 via the efforts of Daniel O’Connell and his innovative Catholic Association.

The cult of Wolfe Tone as the “father” of Irish republican nationalism prospered from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, fostered by the ideologues of the Young Ireland movement. As Marianne Elliott has highlighted, Tone’s statement, penned in August 1796, that his aim was to “break the connection with England…To unite the whole people of Ireland, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter” remains one of the most quoted phrases in Irish history.[9] Tone’s grave at Bodenstown Graveyard in Co. Kildare is still deemed a hallowed site, especially in the eyes of Ireland’s republican movement.Members of the Sinn Féin leadership, (from left) Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Martin McGuinness, and Gerry Adams, at the annual Bodenstown commemoration, the high point of the Irish republican calendar, in 1997.References

[1] Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798−1998: war and peace (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 20.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ian McBride. Scripture politics: Ulster Presbyterianism and radicalism in the late eighteenth century (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1998), 12.

[4] The Declaration is reproduced in Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: prophet of Irish independence (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1989), 139−142

[5] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 3.

[6] Jackson, Ireland 1798−1998, 20.

[7] Thomas Bartlett, Theobald Wolfe Tone (Dublin: Dundalgan Press, 1997), 5.

[8] Oliver MacDonagh, Ireland: the union and its aftermath (London: Allen & Unwin, 1977), 16.

[9] Elliot, Wolfe Tone, 411.

Authored by Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan is Senior Editor at British Online Archives. He gained his PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016. Between 2019 and 2022 he was a post-doctoral fellow on the Leverhulme-funded project 'Rethinking Civil Society: History, Theory, Critique' at the University of York. He then joined the metadata team at the University of York library. Tommy has published in the Historical Journal, the Journal of the History of European Ideas, and Studia Hibernica. His research focuses on the way in which readings of history have influenced political thought in Ireland, particularly with respect to the architects of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Tommy is currently also co-editor of Writing the Troubles.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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