Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union

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Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union

The basic strategy of the United Irish leadership remained unchanged between 1795 and 1803. The vigilance of the Irish administration following the declaration of war on France in 1793 and security contingencies adopted to combat the Catholic insurgents known as the Defenders ensured that the republican organization could hope to triumph only with the assistance of foreign allies. The raising of the Irish militia in 1793 and the civilian yeomanry in late 1796 represented major accretions of the state's garrison strength. The recall of the liberal Viceroy Lord Fitzwilliam in 1795 at the behest of Irish ultraconservatives had closed with finality the option of peaceful reform of Parliament and set the stage for armed conflict on Irish soil. Lord Camden, Fitzwilliam's hard-line successor, actively fostered Protestant sectarianism and loyalist supremacy by permitting state agents to assist the newly formed Orange Order. Orangemen frustrated United Irish efforts to infiltrate the yeomanry and militia, and the gradual spread of their lodges exacerbated popular fears of loyalist atrocities.

The French government was expected to provide the men and material necessary to render the United Irishmen effective auxiliaries who, from 10 May 1795, re-coalesced as an oath-bound revolutionary body. New dynamism was injected by Theobald Wolfe Tone's successful negotiation of the French fleet, which moored in Bantry Bay, Cork, under General Lazare Hoche in late December 1796. The French forces were prevented from disembarking by severe weather conditions, but the scare strengthened the hand of republican militants. This reprieve spurred Camden into a sustained crack-down on the Ulster United Irishmen in the spring of 1797. The "dragooning of Ulster," characterized by house burning, mass deportation of suspects, and murderous rampages, was followed by the extension of martial law into midland and southeastern counties. The key issue between March 1797 and May 1798 was whether the United Irishmen could retain sufficient cohesion to offer support to the French. Executions, such as that of Antrim's William Orr, proved counterproductive, but the shooting of militia infiltrators probably reduced the prospect of mass defections. Camden's cultivation of the ultraconservatives introduced the unpredictable element of loyalist extremism into Irish politics, while the concurrent isolation of liberal magistrates exacerbated grievances in counties in which martial law was either threatened or enforced.

Rebellion of 1798

The United Irish leadership, contrary to popular belief, was never penetrated by agents of Dublin Castle, although an intelligence breakthrough led to the arrest of senior activists in Leinster on 12 March 1798 and left the organization in the hands of a coterie headed by Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Samuel Neilson. Capturing Dublin was the primary focus of the Fitzgerald/Neilson faction, which with great reluctance decided to rise without the French, whom, it was assumed, would quickly rally to the United Irishmen. The dispatch of Napoleon's army to Egypt in mid-May 1798 greatly lessened this prospect. United Irishmen reasoned that a surprise revolt in the capital, aided by rebels from adjacent counties, would disrupt military communications long enough for their members to overcome local garrisons. Disaster struck when Fitzgerald was detained on 19 May, a blow seconded by the loss of Neilson on 23 May, the day set for the rebellion. While the turnout of city rebels that night was much more significant than once believed, a last-minute warning enabled Dublin Castle to occupy the chosen mobilization sites with government forces. Skirmishes ensued in the northern and western suburbs of Dublin, and by daylight much of Kildare was in rebel hands.

The manner in which the rebellion commenced ensured that the effort was a disjointed series of minor actions rather than a massive blow to government interests. The first news available from the censored press was of numerous rebel defeats attended by heavy casualties. The situation was actually more fluid, with a degree of rebel ascendancy achieved in parts of Kildare, Wicklow, and Meath on 23–24 May, but the military gradually contained the situation once reinforcements from north Munster and east Ulster arrived. The inactivity of United Irishmen in the provinces therefore facilitated critical government victories in Leinster by 31 May. A massacre of surrendering rebels in Kildare, however, steeled their comrades into greater militancy and tied down troops urgently needed to stabilize the situation in north Wexford and south Wicklow. Successes at Oulart Hill and Enniscorthy on 27–28 May yielded the Wexfordians the ability to win battles of more strategic consequence. They were slow to press their advantage prior to 1 June, by which time the government had massed on their borders. While the Castle counterattack met with failure at Tubberneering on 4 June, heavy rebel reverses at Newtownbarry, New Ross, and Arklow between 1 and 9 June cost thousands of lives and the tactical initiative.

The rebellion spread belatedly after 6 June to Ulster, where a split in the provincial leadership hindered the turnout in Antrim and Down. Success at Antrim town, Saintfield, and elsewhere promised greater achievement, but the struggle for Ballynahinch on 12–13 June ended in failure for Henry Joy McCracken and Henry Munro and presaged the collapse of the Ulster effort. The landing of over 10,000 reinforcements from Scotland, England, and Wales decisively tipped the balance against the United Irishmen. On 21 June the rebels were driven from their central camp at Vinegar Hill (Enniscorthy) and divided into two major bodies. Father John Murphy's column pressed into Kilkenny and Queen's County in search of support that was not available and was largely dispersed on the long march home. The second body, under Edward Fitzgerald of Newpark and Garret Byrne of Ballymanus, had greater success in mountainous districts of Wicklow and north Wexford until early July, when it too began to disintegrate. A desperate foray from Wicklow into Kildare, Meath, and north County Dublin proved a costly failure and emphasized the futility of further resistance. All but the hard core spurned the generous amnesty offered by the new administration of Lord Cornwallis and waged a destructive guerrilla war in the Wicklow mountains under Joseph Holt into November.

The appearance of 1,100 French veterans near Killala, Co. Mayo, on 22 August 1798 had raised United Irish spirits and spurred offensives in Sligo, Longford, Westmeath, and Leitrim. Franco-Irish forces under General Jean-Joseph Humbert won a signal victory at Castlebar on 27 August but were diverted from their path into Ulster on 5 September at Collooney. When confronted by an overwhelmingly superior army at Ballinamuck, Co. Longford, on 8 September, the invasion quickly faltered. Efforts to disembark Tone and French soldiers on the northwest coast of Ulster on 12 October, moreover, were prevented by the Royal Navy. It seemed that in the absence of effective French intervention the military was equal to the challenge posed by ill-coordinated insurgent campaigns.

Passage of the Act of Union

Ireland remained highly disturbed into 1799, and the United Irishmen continued to petition the French. Robert Emmet and Malachy Delaney went to the Continent to negotiate with Napoleon and Tallyrand in mid-1800 and argued that the imposition of the Act of Union had not lessened popular determination to found an independent Irish Republic. The bill had a difficult passage through the Irish Commons during 1799 and 1800, and, after its initial rejection, officials relied in the final analysis on considerable bribery to secure its implementation on 1 January 1801. An important part of the union agenda was to provide for effective security of the islands of Britain and Ireland, which the United Irishmen had shown to be weak during time of war. The operation of the union made virtually no difference to the vast majority of Irish people owing to the nondemocratic nature of both pre- and post-union parliaments and the failure of London to grant the mooted concession of Catholic emancipation. Emmet's machinations, however, created a major security crisis in Dublin and London in July 1803, which obliged Westminster to garrison Ireland as it would a vulnerable colony.

SEE ALSO Act of Union; Burke, Edmund; Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800; Defenderism; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Fitzgerald, Lord Edward; Flood, Henry; Government from 1690 to 1800; Grattan, Henry; Keogh, John; Military Forces from 1690 to 1800; Neilson, Samuel; Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800; Penal Laws; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Tandy, James Napper; Tone, Theobald Wolfe; Trade and Trade Policy from 1691 to 1800; United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803; Primary Documents: United Irish Parliamentary Reform Plan (March 1794); Grievances of the United Irishmen of Ballynahinch, Co. Down (1795); Speech Delivered at a United Irish Meeting in Ballyclare, Co. Antrim (1795); The Insurrection Act (1796); The United Irish Organization (1797); Statement of Three Imprisoned United Irish Leaders (4 August 1798); Account of the Wexford Rising (1832)


Curtin, Nancy J. The United Irishmen: Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791–1798. 1994.

O'Donnell, Ruan. The 1798 Diary. 1998.

Smyth, Jim. The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century. 1992.

Whelan, Kevin. The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism, and the Construction of Irish Identity. 1996.

Ruan O'Donnell

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Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union

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