Military Forces from 1690 to 1800

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Military Forces from 1690 to 1800

After the Battle of the Boyne, King William's army comprised about 30,000 men, composed of English, Dutch, and French Huguenots, plus locally raised Protestant regiments. The English parliament's Disbanding Act of 1699 limited the regular army in Ireland to 12,000 men in peacetime. Though in effect part of the English army, this force was paid for by the Irish parliament. It was seen as a strategic reserve that could be increased during wartime, when Irish regiments fought in Britain's overseas wars. The limit of 12,000 was maintained until 1769, when it was raised to 15,000 with the stipulation that the former total was retained for home defense. Legislation of 1701 required that no Catholics serve in this force, nor Protestant Irishmen in the ranks. The increasing demands of eighteenth-century warfare saw the removal of the bar on Protestants in 1745 and, from the 1760s, a slackening on Catholic exclusion. During the American Revolution Catholics were recruited for overseas service. During the French Revolution Ireland's military establishment expanded considerably, due to its vulnerability to French invasion and domestic insurrection. On the eve of the 1798 rebellion the total stood at over 42,000, and during the "bloody summer" of the insurrection reinforcements were rushed over from Britain, bringing the total to nearly 70,000 men. The force that defeated the United Irishmen was comprised of regular soldiers, fencible regiments enlisted for wartime service within the British Isles, Irish yeomanry, and British and Irish militia.


Militia were civilians who engaged to serve in an emergency. William's forces in 1690 were supplemented by a locally raised militia of 15,000 men. This hastily raised force had no statutory existence. The first militia legislation came during the Jacobite scare in 1715. In compliance with the prevailing Penal Laws, only Protestants could serve. Though there were several mobilizations during invasion scares in the 1740s and 1750s, the militia remained largely moribund, with its weapons stored away. The militia legislation lapsed after 1776 and was not renewed, because of the unavailability of finance, when the American Revolution began. With the regular troops depleted by war, the Irish Volunteers took over the militia's home-defense role. In 1793, at the outbreak of war with France, a new militia was raised. This radically different force included Catholics as privates and required full-time service. Initially, these men were levied by parish lottery, but this practice was deeply resented and rioting often resulted. The regulations were soon changed. The militia was organized in county regiments that were rotated to avoid soldiers' serving in their home districts and becoming embroiled in local unrest. The southern regiments were predominantly Catholic, and with sectarian and revolutionary tensions rising, fears were expressed about their reliability. Some did join the United Irishmen, but several well-publicized and harrowing executions discouraged defections. Despite earlier reservations, the militia fought well in 1798, when it totalled 30,000 men.

Volunteers and Yeomanry

The Irish Volunteers were raised in 1778 after France and Spain had joined the American colonists in their war against Britain. They were composed of Protestant civilians organized into small corps, raised by local initiative, and provided with their own arms and equipment. Volunteer officers held no commissions from the government and in many cases were elected from the ranks. They proudly saw this independence as signifying their patriotism and citizenship. The Volunteers willingly undertook law-and-order duties and were prepared to defend Ireland against invasion from France or Spain, but many sympathized with the plight of the American colonists. No invasion of Ireland came, and the Volunteer movement, which had grown from 12,000 in 1779 to over 60,000 in 1782, began functioning as an extra-parliamentary political-pressure group. A relationship was formed with the "Patriot" opposition in the Irish parliament to secure more equal treatment from the Westminster parliament, which could veto Irish legislation. Astutely realizing the British government's difficulty in fighting the unpopular war with the Americans, the Volunteers pressed for rectification of a range of their own grievances. Typically, they combined political protest with military reviews. On one occasion a cannon was paraded in front of the Irish parliament, draped with placards demanding concessions. In 1782 a Volunteer convention in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, published political resolutions that were adopted throughout Ireland. With this public support and a change of government in London the Patriot leader Henry Grattan obtained the legislative independence of the Irish parliament.

This has been seen as the high point in Volunteering; afterward, some of the more radical Volunteers began recruiting Catholics and wanted to press on for franchise reform and full political rights for Catholics. The majority, however, were satisfied with their achievements and stood down. The radical Volunteers languished until the French Revolution of 1789 encouraged them to resurrect their demands. In 1792 radical Volunteers in Dublin and in Ulster reorganized and rearmed as National Volunteers, emulating the French Gardes Nationale. With war against France beginning, the government suppressed them in 1793 when the new Irish militia was raised. Many National Volunteers were concurrently United Irishmen, and others of the original Volunteers later joined the government's new home-defense force—the Irish yeomanry. The revolutionary climate thus simplified the Volunteers' equivocal relationship with the government into polarities of loyalty and disloyalty.

In 1796, with a United Irish rebellion and a French invasion expected, the government raised a force modelled on the English yeomanry. In many respects the yeomanry was like the original Volunteers. It was part-time and was constituted in small, locally based corps of cavalry and infantry. The crucial difference was that the yeomanry was completely under government control. Its officers held commissions and its men were paid and equipped by the government. The initial levy was for 20,000 men, but the growing crisis saw that total rise to 50,000 by May 1798. Mostly Protestant in composition, the yeomanry became increasingly associated with Orangeism. Initially intended for law-and-order duties, yeomen were increasingly used in a military capacity and were heavily involved in the fighting in 1798, when, depending on one's perspective, they developed a reputation for brutality or bravery.

SEE ALSO 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; Government from 1690 to 1800; Grattan, Henry; Primary Documents: The Ulster Volunteer Resolutions (1782)


Bartlett, Thomas, and Keith Jeffrey, eds. A Military History of Ireland. 1996.

Blackstock, Allan. An Ascendancy Army: The Irish Yeomanry, 1796–1834. 1998.

Allan Blackstock

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Military Forces from 1690 to 1800

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