Statement of Three Imprisoned United Irish Leaders

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Statement of Three Imprisoned United Irish Leaders

4 August 1798

The three authors of this statement were prominent and well-to-do radicals—Emmet and O'Connor were Protestants, MacNeven was a Catholic—who joined the United Irishmen in 1796. Each had been arrested during the months preceding the 1798 rebellion. After the Wexford and northern phases of the rebellion had been suppressed, but before the French landing in Mayo, they agreed to an arrangement by which the government would cease executions in return for their disclosure of details concerning the United Irishmen and especially their dealings with France.

SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Neilson, Samuel; Tandy, James Napper; Tone, Theobald Wolfe; United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803


The disunion that had long existed between the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland, particularly those of the Presbyterian religion, was found by experience to be so great an obstacle to the obtaining a reform in parliament, on any thing of just and popular principles, that some persons, equally friendly to that measure and to religious toleration, conceived the idea of uniting both sects in pursuance of the same object — a repeal of the penal laws and a reform, including in itself an extension of the right of suffrage to the Catholic.

From this originated the societies of United Irishmen in the end of the year 1791; even then it was clearly perceived that the chief support of the borough interest in Ireland was the weight of English influence; but as yet that obvious remark had not led the minds of the reformers towards a separation from England. Some individuals, perhaps, had convinced themselves that benefit would result to this country from such a measure; but during the whole existence of the society of United Irishmen of Dublin, we may safely aver, to the best of our knowledge and recollections, that no such object was ever agitated by its members, either in public debate or private conversation; nor until the society had lasted a considerable time, were any traces of republicanism to be met with there; its views were purely, and in good faith, what the test of the society avows. . . .

The discussion, however, of political questions, both foreign and domestic, and the enacting of several unpopular laws, had advanced the minds of many people, even before they were aware of it, towards republicanism and revolution; they began to reason on the subject, and to think a republican form of government was preferable to our own; but they still considered it as impossible to be obtained, in consequence of the English power and connection. This, together with its being constantly perceived that the weight of English was thrown into the scale of borough interest, gradually rendered the connection itself an object of discussion, and its advantages somewhat problematical. While the minds of men were taking this turn, the society of United Irishmen of Dublin was in the year 1794 forcibly dissolved, but the principles by which it was actuated were as strong as ever; as hypocrisy was not of the vices of that society, it brought its destruction on itself by the openness of its discussion and publicity of its proceeding. Its fate was a warning to that of Belfast, and suggested the idea of forming societies with the same object, but whose secrecy should be their protection. The first of these societies was, as we best recollect, in the year 1795. In order to secure co-operation and uniformity of action, they organised a system of committees, baronial, county, and provincial, and even national; but it was long before the skeleton of this organisation was filled up. While the formation of these societies was in agitation, the friends of liberty were gradually, but with a timid step, advancing towards republicanism, they began to be convinced that it would be as easy to obtain a revolution as a reform, so obstinately was the latter resisted, and as the conviction impressed itself on their minds, they were inclined not to give up the struggle, but to extend their views; it was for this reason that in their test the words are "an equal representation of all the people of Ireland," without inserting the word "parliament." The test embraced both the republican and the reformer, and left to future circumstances to decide to which the common strength should be directed; but still the whole body, we are convinced, would stop short at reform. Another consideration, however, led the minds of the reflecting United Irishmen to look forward towards a republic and separation from England—this was the war with France; they clearly perceived that their strength was not likely to become speedily equal to wresting from the English and the borough interest in Ireland even a reform; foreign assistance would, therefore, perhaps become necessary; but foreign assistance could only be hoped for in proportion as the object to which it would be applied was important to the party giving it. A reform in the Irish parliament was no object to the French.—A separation of Ireland from England was a mighty one indeed! . . .

Whatever progress the United system had made among the Catholics throughout the kingdom, until after the recall of lord Fitzwilliam (notwithstanding many resolutions which had appeared from them, manifesting a growing spirit), they were considered as not only entertaining an habitual predilection for monarchy, but also as being less attached than the Presbyterians to political liberty. There were, however, certain men among them who rejoiced at the rejection of their claims, because it gave them an opportunity of pointing out that the adversaries of reform were their adversaries; and that these two objects could never be separated with any chance of success to either. They used the recall of that nobleman, and the rejection of his measures, to cement together in political union the Catholic and Presbyterian masses.

The modern societies, for their protection against informers and persecution, had introduced into their test a clause of secrecy. They did more—they changed the engagements of their predecessors into an oath; and mutual confidence increased when religion was called in aid of mutual security.

While they were almost entirely confined to the north, but increasing rapidly there, the Insurrection bill was passed in the beginning of the year 1796, augmenting the penalties upon administering unlawful oaths, or solemn obligations, even to death; but death had ceased to alarm men who began to think it was to be encountered in their country's cause. The statute remained an absolute dead letter, and the numbers of the body augmented beyond belief.

To the Armagh persecution is the Union of Irishmen most exceedingly indebted. The persons and properties of the wretched Catholics of that county were exposed to the merciless attacks of an Orange faction, which was certainly in many instances uncontrolled by the justices of peace, and claimed to be in all supported by government. When these men found that illegal acts of magistrates were indemnified by occasional statutes, and the courts of justice shut against them by parliamentary barriers, they began to think they had no refuge but in joining the Union. Their dispositions so to do were increased by finding the Presbyterians, of Belfast especially, step forward to espouse their cause and succour their distress. We will here remark, once for all, what we most solemnly aver, that wherever the Orange system was introduced, particularly in Catholic counties, it was uniformly observed that the numbers of United Irishmen increased most astonishingly. The alarm which an Orange lodge excited among the Catholics made them look for refuge by joining together in the United system; and as their numbers were always greater than that of bigoted Protestants, our harvest was ten-fold. At the same time that we mention this circumstance, we must confess, and most deeply regret, that it excited a mutual acrimony and vindictive spirit, which was peculiarly opposite to the interest, and abhorrent to the feelings of the United Irishmen, and has lately manifested itself, we hear, in outrages of so much horror.

Defenderism has been supposed to be the origin of the modern societies of United Irishmen; this is undoubtedly either a mistake or a misrepresentation; we solemnly declare that there was no connection between them and the United Irish, as far as we know, except what follows:

After the Defenders had spread into different counties, they manifested a rooted but unenlightened aversion, among other things, to the same grievances that were complained of by the Union. They were composed almost entirely of Catholics, and those of the lowest order, who, through a false confidence, were risking themselves, and the attainment of redress, by premature and unsystematic insurrection. In the north they were also engaged in an acrimonious and bloody struggle with an opposite faction, called Peep-of-day boys. The advantage of reconciling these two misguided parties, of joining them in the Union, and so turning them from any views they might have exclusively religious, and of restraining them from employing a mutually destructive exertion of force, most powerfully struck the minds of several United Irishmen. For that purpose, many of them in the northern counties went among both, but particularly the Defenders, joined with them, showed the superiority of the Union system, and gradually, while government was endeavouring to quell them by force, melted them down into the United Irish body. This rendered their conduct infinitely more orderly, and less suspicious to government.

It has been alleged against the United Irishmen that they established a system of assassination. Nothing that has ever been imputed to them, that we feel more pleasure in being able to disavow. . . .

We were none of us members of the United system until September or October in the year 1796; at that time, it must be confessed, the reasons already alleged, and the irritations of the preceding summer in the north, had disposed us to a separation and republic, principally because we were hopeless that a reform would ever be yielded to any peaceable exertions of the people. . . .

About the middle of 1796 a meeting of the executive took place, more important in its discussions and its consequences than any that had preceded it; as such we have thought ourselves bound to give an account of it with the most perfect frankness and more than ordinary precision. This meeting took place in consequence of a letter from one of the society, who had emigrated on account of political opinions: it mentioned that the state of the country had been represented to the government of France, in so favourable a point of view, as to induce them to resolve upon invading Ireland, for the purpose of enabling it to separate itself from Great Britain. On this solemn and important occasion, a serious review was taken of the state of the Irish nation at that period: it was observed that a desperate ferment existed in the public mind. A resolution in favour of a parliamentary reform had indeed been passed in 1795 by the House of Commons; but after it had been frustrated by several successive adjournments, all hope of its attainment vanished, and its friends were everywhere proscribed; the Volunteers were put down; all power of meeting by delegation for any political purpose, the mode in which it was most usual and expedient to cooperate on any object of importance, was taken away at the same time. The provocations of the year 1794, the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam, and the re-assumption of coercive measures that followed it, were strongly dwelt on: the county of Armagh had been long desolated by two contending factions, agreeing only in one thing—an opinion that most of the active magistrates in that county treated one party with the most fostering kindness, and the other with the most rigorous persecution. It was stated that so marked a partiality exasperated the sufferers, and those who sympathized in their misfortunes. It was urged with indignation, that notwithstanding the greatness of the military establishment in Ireland, and its having been able to suppress the Defenders in various counties, it was not able, or was not employed, to suppress those outrages in that county, which drove 7,000 persons from their native dwellings. The magistrates, who took no steps against the Orangemen, were said to have overleaped the boundaries of law to pursue and punish the Defenders. The government seemed to take upon themselves those injuries by the Indemnity act, and even honoured the violators; and by the Insurrection act, which enabled the same magistrates, if they choose, under colour of law, to act anew the same abominations. Nothing, it was contended, could more justly excite the spirit of resistance, and determine men to appeal to arms, than the Insurrection act; it punished with death the administering of oaths, which in their opinion were calculated for the most virtuous and honorable purposes. The power of proclaiming counties, and quieting them by breaking open the cabins of the peasants between sunset and sunrise, by seizing the inmates, and sending them on board tenders, without the ordinary interposition of a trial by jury, had, it was alleged, irritated beyond endurance the minds of the reflecting, and the feelings of the unthinking inhabitants of that province. It was contended that even according to the constitution and example of 1688, when the protection of the constituted authorities was withdrawn from the subject, allegiance, the reciprocal duty ceased, to bind; when the people were not redressed, they had a right to resist, and were free to seek for allies wherever they were to be found. The English revolutionists of 1688, called in the aid of a foreign republic to overthrow their oppressors. There had sprung up in our own time a much more mighty republic, which, by its offers of assistance to break the chains of slavery, had drawn on itself a war with the enemies of our freedom, and now particularly tendered us its aid. These arguments prevailed, and it was resolved to employ the proffered assistance for the purpose of separation. We are aware it is suspected negotiations between the United Irishmen and the French were carried on at an earlier period than that now alluded to, but we solemnly declare such suspicion is ill-founded. In consequence of this determination of the executive, an agent was dispatched to the French directory, who acquainted them with it, stated the dispositions of the people, and the measures which caused them. He received fresh assurances that the succours should be sent as soon as the armament could be got ready.

About October, 1796, a messenger from the republic arrived, who, after authenticating himself, said he came to be informed of the state of the country, and to tell the leaders of the United Irishmen of the intention of the French to invade it speedily with 15,000 men, and a great quantity of arms and ammunition; but neither mentioned the precise time not the place, doubting, we suppose, our caution or our secrecy. Shortly after his departure, a letter arrived from a quarter which there was reason to look on as confidential, stating that they would invade England in the spring, and positively Ireland. The reason of this contradiction has never been explained; but the consequence of it, and the messenger not having specified the place of landing, were, that when the armament arrived in December, 1796, at Bantry bay, they came at a time and in a port we had not foreknown.

. . . In fact, no attempt or advance was made to renew the negotiation till April, 1797, when a agent was sent. In May following, the well-known proclamation of general Lake appeared. This very much increased the ferment of the public mind, and the wish for the return of the French, to get rid of the severities of martial law. It did more—it goaded many people of the north to press the executive to an insurrection, independent of foreign aid. . . .

Sometime in the beginning of the year [1798] a letter was received from France, stating that the succours might be expected in April. Why the promise was not fulfilled we have never learned. We know nothing of further communications from any foreign State, nor of the future plan of operations of the French; but we are convinced they will not abandon the plan of separating this country from England, so long as the discontents of the people would induce them to support an invasion.

. . . The parts we have acted, have enabled us to gain the most intimate knowledge of the dispositions and hearts of our countrymen. From that knowledge we speak, when we declare our deepest conviction that the penal laws, which have followed in such doleful and rapid succession—the house burnings, arbitrary imprisonments, free quarters, and, above all, tortures to extort confessions—neither have had, nor can have, any other effect but exciting the most lively rancour in the hearts of almost all the people of Ireland against those of their countrymen who have had recourse to such measures for maintaining their power, and against the connection with Great Britain, whose men and whose aid have been poured in to assist them.

. . . Much as we wish to stop the effusion of blood, and the present scene of useless horrors, we have not affected a change of principles which would only bring on us the imputation of hypocrisy, when it is our most anxious wish to evince perfect sincerity and good faith. . . .

Arthur O'Connor, Thomas Addis Emmet, William James Mac Neven

Documents Relating to Ireland, 1795–1804, edited by John T. Gilbert (1893; reprint, 1970), pp. 147, 148–151, 152, 156–158, 159, 161, 162.

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Statement of Three Imprisoned United Irish Leaders

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