This is the third in a series of seven blog posts highlighting and summarizing important events in Irish history, and Burns Library resources which aid in further study of the topic. Burns Library holds many Irish history resources and is an invaluable resource for scholars in this field.
John Burk, in 1799, noted that much writing was produced on the 1798 Rebellion before his volume, History of the Late War in Ireland. (Burk, 1799, IV) Burns Library has many sources available on this topic, spanning from the late 18th century to the modern day, including Burk’s work, which provides a contemporary account of the rise of the United Irishmen and the Rebellion itself. Joseph Stock’s A Narrative of What Passed at Killalla provides further insight into the French connection to the rebellion. Burns Library also holds works on major figures in the 1798 Rebellion, including Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCraken. The rise of the United Irishmen, their continuous presence after this conflict, and government documents relating to them can also be researched at Burns Library.
The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland occurred in the Age of Revolution, following the footsteps of the American and French Revolutions. The 1798 Rebellion is also referred to as the United Irish Rebellion, after the group which planned and carried it out. Initially formed by Ulster Presbyterians, the United Irishmen wanted parliamentary reform in Ireland and greater Irish representation within the British parliamentary system, they did not set out to rebel. The United Irishmen wanted to bring Ireland together under a common identity as Irish people, avoiding sectarian religious divides which they believed to be imagined and imposed by British rule and influence. (Burk, 1799, 37)
Historian John Killen argues that the ideals of the United Irishmen had three main features: first, that men were born free and equal in terms of their inalienable rights; second, the major tenets of these rights were liberty and freedom from oppression; lastly, that Catholic emancipation was necessary to ensure these rights and political sway were guaranteed to ALL Irishmen. (Killen, 1997, 3) The Protestant Ascendancy, the minority group which held the political power in Ireland, was resistant to the goals of the United Irishmen, seeing both Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform as threats to their monopoly on political control, a monopoly which was derived from the support and legitimacy it received from the British.
English opposition to the United Irishmen was severe, and, in 1794, the English issued a proclamation “repressing all seditious associations” as a means to dismantle the United Irishmen. (Burk, 1799, 34) John Burk argued that this brutal suppression of the United Irishmen by the English led to plans for an armed rebellion, stating the English actions were so severe and lawless “that is was highly imprudent to oppose it, except by general insurrection.” (Burk, 1799, 43-44)
The United Irishmen were suppressed in several ways throughout the 1790s. Irishmen were encouraged to inform on each other and could even be tortured if they were believed to have relevant information on the whereabouts or identities of those affiliated with the United Irishmen. This process of terror and turning people against each other was effective and severely weakened the United Irishmen infrastructure. (Burk, 1799, 47) Another way the United Irishmen were suppressed was through print culture. The United Irishmen used newspapers such as the Northern Star, which they produced, to communicate their ideology. Northern Star lauded the French revolution as a victory for democracy and liberty, which was one of the main reasons it was shut down. (Killen, 1997, 3) This newspaper was banned by England in 1797, the printing press used for its creation destroyed, and the ability to spread of United Irishmen ideology was stymied. (McDowell, 1984, 42) O’Neill Library has a complete run of the Northern Star on microfilm. Burk argued this severe suppression—violence, executions, extortion, as well as the 1797 implementation of the Oath of Allegiance to King George III —drove the United Irishmen to rebellion. (Burk, 1799, 60-65)
Leadership formed an official plan for an insurrection in July 1797, but decided to delay their plans until the arrival of promised French support. (Burk, 1799, 65). The French had previously tried to aid Ireland with the failed invasion at Bantry Bay in December, 1796. Wolfe Tone, representing the United Irishmen, had negotiated with France for a small fleet to invade Ireland, the idea being that once local Irishmen saw the invasion begin, they would rise up and fight alongside the French. Due to several factors including lack of following the coordinated plan and bad weather conditions, this attempt at invasion failed. (Burk, 1799, 55-56)
United Irishmen continued to be arrested, including much of the leadership. Burk claimed, “if all the civil and military officers of the United Irishmen should be arrested in one night, in three days their places would be filled up”. (Burk, 1799, 88) Support for the United Irishmen cause was evident when new leadership polled the counties about rebelling without French aid, and received positive responses. The signal to begin the rebellion was to be burning mail coaches, but this plan was given up by an informer. (Burk, 1799, 89-90) Despite the lack of an official signal, a rebellion did occur, but it was less coordinated than planned.
The British had dismantled much of the United Irishmen organization before the outbreak of fighting, so the rebellion was quelled quickly in most areas, the exception being County Wexford. According to one historian, “in no other part of Ireland did the royal troops meet such long and stubborn resistance.” (Tuite, 1898, 36) The fighting in Wexford was particularly violent, culminating in the battle of Vinegar Hill in June 1798. The rebels held the high ground, but the well-armed English encircled them and a brutal, two hour battle ensued, with rebel forces, generally armed with only pikes and firelocks, taking significant casualties. (Tuite, 1878, 33)
F. Tuite provides a detailed account of the battle and casualty numbers in Ireland’s Revolt in ’98,which can be found in the Burns Library Irish collection. The defeat at Vinegar Hill was the last major battle, after which the rebellion devolved into sectarian violence. (Bartlett, 2011).
Expected since May, the French successfully landed in Ireland in September of 1798. 1,000 men with arms and supplies arrived in Ireland under the command of general Humbert. (Tuite, 1878, 52) The French forces experienced some initial success, but, along with the Irish rebels who joined them, were eventually encircled by a exponentially larger Royal force. The ensuing Battle at Ballinamuck lasted until September 8th, 1798 when French General Humbert surrendered. French combatants were treated as prisoners of war and permitted to go back to France. The Irish rebels were “given no quarter”, and violent executions followed. (Tuite, 1898, 62)
The consequences of the 1798 Rebellion were severe in terms of loss of life and sectarian violence. The political result of this rebellion was the Act of Union of 1801, which solidified English rule in Ireland under an official union of the kingdoms. One historian claims this union officially robbed Ireland of her Parliament. (Tuite, 1898, 101) More on the Act of Union, what it did, and its impact will be the subject of my next post!
- Sadie Sunderland, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of History
Bartlett, Thomas. “The 1798 Irish Rebellion.” BBC History. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/irish_reb_01.shtml (accessed 8/6/2018)
Killen, John, ed. The Decade of the United Irishmen: Contemporary Accounts 1791-1801. Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1997.
McDowell, R.B. “Irish Newspapers in the Eighteenth Century.” The Crane Bag 8, no. 2 (1984): 40-43.
Burk, John. History of the Late War in Ireland, with an account of the United Irish Association from the first meeting in Belfast, to the landing of the French at Kilala. Philadelphia: Printed by Frances and Robert Bailey, 1799.