United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803

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United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803

The Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791 in Belfast and Dublin to promote radical parliamentary reform, Catholic Emancipation (or the abolition of all religious disqualifications in civic life), and a union of Catholic and Protestant to achieve them both. Within the first year of its formation the United Irishmen succeeded in extending its organization into three of the four provinces of Ireland (Ulster, Leinster, and Munster), but outside Ulster the number of associated clubs was insignificant. The purpose of the society was not initially to replicate itself throughout the countryside; rather, it was largely propagandist—to disseminate political information and to coordinate whenever possible the activities of other like-minded reform groups. These secular radicals were content to keep their own numbers relatively small as long as they could use the Volunteer corps, the Catholic Committee, Masonic lodges, Presbyterian congregations, and town, parish, and county meetings to pronounce critically on current political arrangements. The Dublin Society of United Irishmen, which had a peak membership of more than 400 professionals, merchants, and tradesmen, took the lead in publicizing the organization's aims through the distribution of a wide array of publications. The United Irishmen in Belfast supported this political-education project by publishing their highly successful newspaper, the Northern Star.

The aims and ideology of the United Irishmen drew on several vibrant political languages current in the late eighteenth century—civic humanism or classical republicanism, Lockean contractualism, British constitutionalism, Presbyterian radicalism, and the language of reason and the rights of man emanating from the American and French revolutions. Their aim was to make every man a citizen, and to throw the weight of an enlarged public opinion behind radical reform based on universal manhood suffrage and Irish legislative sovereignty to counter British influence in Ireland.

In April 1793 Britain and Ireland entered the war against revolutionary France, and the United Irishmen, with their pro-French sympathies, were easily identified by the state as the enemy within. Government harassment of the radical press, the arrest of the leaders, and the constriction of opportunities to express public opinion culminated in the suppression of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen in 1794. The recall of a popular, reforming viceroy, Earl Fitzwilliam, in April 1795 signaled unambiguously Britain's determination to stand by an unreformed Irish government. All hopes of peaceful reform having thus been dashed, the United Irishmen reorganized themselves as an underground paramilitary organization (to force a new government) grafted onto an expandable civil one (to form a new government), determined to separate Ireland from Britain and to create a secular, democratic republic with assistance from republican France. Their goal now was to make not only every man a citizen, but every citizen a soldier duly sworn into the United Irish organization. By 1798 the republicans would claim 300,000 such citizen-soldiers.

The reorganized republican movement was over-whelmingly Presbyterian at its birth, reflecting the confessional demographics of its stronghold in the northeast. The primary task of the United Irishmen, then, was to shore up and organize this base while preparing for a general insurrection to be coordinated with an expected French invasion of Ireland. Organizational zeal and assiduous propaganda accounted for the group's growth, but equally important was the appearance of the first fruits of the United Irish alliance with revolutionary France—the arrival of the French fleet in Bantry Bay in Cork in December 1796. Although the invasion attempt failed, it dramatically proclaimed French resolve to assist an Irish insurrection and lent the United Irish project an aura of inevitability, creating a bandwagon effect. From October 1796 to February 1797, United Irish membership in Ulster nearly doubled from 38,567 to 69,190, and then nearly doubled again from February to May 1797, when the northern republicans boasted 117,917 comrades. Furthermore, the revival of sectarian warfare after 1795 between the Catholic Defenders and the newly formed Loyal Orange Order led the Catholics into an alliance with, and in many cases absorption into, the republican organization. Merchants, ministers, and professionals tended to dominate the higher ranks of the movement, while the ranks were rapidly filling with farmers, artisans, and weavers.

A mass-based secret society, democratic and inclusive in impulse, the United Irish movement was extremely porous to infiltration and detection. Just as the movement was expanding significantly from Ulster into Leinster in the spring of 1797, the government launched a vigorous counter-insurrectionary campaign in the northeast designed to deprive the republicans of both their arms and their leaders through the imposition of martial law and extraordinary legal measures. This "dragooning of Ulster" did not break the northern organization, but it did subdue it as the United Irishmen chose to wait for the ever-promised French invasion. The leadership was now centered in Dublin, torn between French delays and ruthless government repression. The eventual decision to rise without French assistance led a series of partial, failed risings after May 1798.

Bands of republican resisters persisted after the failed risings of 1798, politicized further by the bloody suppression of the rebellion. Most of the national leaders had been either executed or exiled, and there was no central coordination of the local bands of rebels. This was in fact conscious policy, a reaction to what was perceived as the main flaw of the pre-1798 republican organization—its mass, open, democratic character that was so vulnerable to government penetration. The post-1798 organization assumed, with good cause, that there were sufficient United Irishmen in the country that could be rallied when needed, and focused its energies instead on an elusive directory engaged in a tight conspiracy to maintain the French alliance and trigger the rebellion at home. Robert Emmet's plan to seize Dublin in July 1803, thus sparking a national insurrection, was only accidentally discovered by the authorities, and thus a well-conceived strategy was transformed into a street brawl, with only minor ripples in the rest of the country. This conspiratorial model of a revolutionary republican organization set forth by the post-1798 United Irishmen constituted a significant legacy to subsequent militant separatist movements.

SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Emmet, Robert; Fitzgerald, Lord Edward; Keogh, John; Neilson, Samuel; Tandy, James Napper; Tone, Theobald Wolfe; Primary Documents: United Irish Parliamentary Reform Plan (March 1794); Speech Delivered at a United Irish Meeting in Ballyclare, Co. Antrim (1795); Grievances of the United Irishmen of Ballynahinch, Co. Down (1795); The United Irish Organization (1797); Statement of Three Imprisoned United Irish Leaders (4 August 1798); Speech from the Dock (19 September 1803)


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

Dickson, David, Kevin Whelan, and Daire Keogh, eds. The United Irishmen: Republicanism, Radicalism, and Rebellion. 1993.

Elliott, Marianne. Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France. 1982.

Gough, Hugh, and David Dickson, eds. Ireland and the French Revolution. 1990.

O'Donnell, Ruán. Aftermath: Post-Rebellion Insurgency in Wicklow, 1799–1803. 2000.

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

Thuente, Mary Helen. The Harp Re-Strung: The United Irishmen and the Rise of Irish Literary Nationalism. 1994.

Whelan, Kevin. The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism, and the Construction of Irish Identity, 1760–1830. 1996.

Nancy J. Curtin

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United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803

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United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803