United Irishmen

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United Irishmen. A society formed in Belfast and Dublin in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone and James Napper Tandy to agitate for parliamentary reform and equal religious rights. Revolutionary events in France made them more radical in 1793, while fears of growing catholic strength caused many protestants to secede and form the Orange Society. In 1795 the United Irishmen were reconstituted as a secret society pledged to work for a republic. A rising with French help was thwarted when the invasion force was scattered by a storm off Bantry Bay in 1796. The government now encouraged the Orange Society to help suppress the United Irishmen, which increased its appeal to catholic peasants resentful of tithes and rents. A rising fixed for May 1798 was aborted by the arrest or flight of the leadership and the peasants were routed at Vinegar Hill in June, shortly before Tone arrived with a small French invasion force. Irish-inspired subversion, also present in Britain in the later 1790s, was destroyed with the exposure of the Despard plot in 1802 and the failure of Robert Emmet's rising in Ireland the following year. Though some protestants remained in the United Irishmen, the society's legacy was one of anti-protestant republican nationalism based on armed struggle.

Edward Royle

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United Irishmen or United Irish Society, Irish political organization. It was founded at Belfast in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone. Disgruntled by the use of English patronage to control Irish politics, the organization aimed at legislative reform "founded on the principles of civil, political, and religious liberty." Yet there was, from the outset, an undercurrent of revolutionary striving toward independence that was encouraged by the progress of the French Revolution. Tone, with James Napper Tandy, started a branch at Dublin; this became the center of the movement, which spread rapidly throughout Ireland. The society was suppressed in 1794 and became a secret revolutionary organization. Tone was exiled and went to France to request aid. A French force did attempt an invasion in 1796, but it was wrecked off the southwest coast of Ireland. The British government waged a campaign of brutal repression in Ulster in an attempt, largely successful, to break up the cohesive center of the movement. In Mar., 1798, several southern leaders were arrested, and when rebellion did break out in May, it was in isolated, sporadic bursts. The only appreciable success was in Co. Wexford, but the rebels there were defeated in the battle of Vinegar Hill, June 21. Two months later a small French force landed, but it received almost no support and surrendered. A larger invasion force, led by Tone, was intercepted by the British navy, and Tone was captured. The force of the movement was spent, and it was not revived.

See studies by R. R. Madden (1858–60), R. Jacob (1937), and T. Pakenham (1969).