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BRITAIN, IRELAND, the U.S. and the WAR of 1812 (2 of 3)

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The Irish Rebellion of 1798

map of Irish Rebellion

Click to enlarge map of Irish Rebellion, enlarged

By the time of the American and French revolutions, Ireland was still under the rule of Britain's monarch, and Ireland was obliged to send men into Britain's armed forces. The Irish were also forced to pay tithes to the Church of England, despite most of the Irish being Roman Catholic. In the city of Dublin, Ireland had its own parliament for making laws that applied to Ireland, but, like parliament in London, it was elected by only a small percent of the population, and Catholics were not permitted as deputies or to hold any other public office. Nor could Catholics study at any university. The parliament in Dublin was dominated by a few wealthy Protestant landowners, and only those laws were passed that were in their interest and the interest of British rule.

The American and French Revolutions encouraged a group of radical Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. They were influenced by ideas that accompanied these revolutions, and they looked forward to arms and troops from France to help them create an independent republic. In 1791 a group of Protestant liberals in Belfast founded the Society of United Irishmen and they became the main organizing force behind a coming rebellion. Membership included Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestant "dissenters" groups, and the Society proclaimed policies of democratic reforms and Catholic emancipation.

The outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793 forced the Society underground and pushed it toward armed insurrection with help from the French. The United Irish spread its organization throughout Ireland, and it linked with Catholic agrarian resistance groups known as the Defenders, who had started raiding houses for arms. Leadership of the United Irish decided to postpone their rising against the British until French troops arrived. Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leader of the United Irishmen, travelled from the United States to France to urge France's intervention.

In December 1796, following Tone's efforts, a force of 14,000 French troops under General Hoche eluded Britain's Royal Navy and arrived at Ireland's Bantry Bay. Bad weather, indecisive leadership and poor seamanship combined to prevent a landing, and the fleet made its way back to France.

In early 1797 the British launched a campaign to crush Ireland's rebel organization. They burned houses, tortured and killed. In Northern Ireland, the British used their divide and conquer tactics to engender hostility between Protestants and Catholics, trying to instill among the Protestants the idea that the rebellion was a papist plot – while the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to rebellion in Ireland.

Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone, regarded as the father of Irish Republicanism.

Tone's gravesite

Inscription at Tone's gravesite.

In Dublin in March 1798, intelligence from informants allowed British troops in raids to capture most of the United Irish leadership. The British imposed martial law over much of Ireland, and continuing brutality by British forces led the rebels to decide to rise up sooner than previously planned. A rising in Cahir in southern Ireland was quickly crushed by the British. What was left of the United Irish leadership fixed the date of their uprising as May 23, to take place without French aid.

The plan was to take the city of Dublin, with the counties bordering Dublin to rise in support and prevent the arrival of British reinforcements, and risings in the rest of the country were expected to tie down government forces. The colonial government was informed in time to occupy rebel assembly points in Dublin one hour before rebels were to assemble. Although the uprising in central Dublin failed, the surrounding districts of Dublin rose as planned, as there were risings in most of the counties surrounding Dublin.

The rebels gained control of much of Kildare County. In Wicklow County, south of Dublin, news of the rising panicked loyalists, and they responded by massacring rebel suspects held in custody at Dunlavin Green and in Carnew. The rebellion was most successful in Wexford County, where the rebels succeeded in liberating the towns of Ferns, Enniscorthy, Wexford town and Gorey. In June, Wexford was declared a republic, while its citizens waited anxiously for the arrival of the French to help secure their independence.

In Meath County the rebels were not doing so well. On 2 May 1798, 4,000 United Irish rebels met 400 British soldiers on Tara Hill, the Irish losing something like 400 killed, the British 30, the defeat effectively ending the United Irishmen's rising in Meath County.

In the North the British were conducting a campaign that included torture. The British succeeded in terrifying and disorganizing the United Irishmen. Falsehoods were spread among Protestants that in Wexford the Catholics were massacring Protestants. A few Protestant men had been killed in the town of Enniscorthy, and by June 4 the story was circulating in the North that at Enniscorthy every Protestant man, woman and child, even infants, had been murdered. The Northern rebels had been winning minor skirmishes against the British but they failed in major battles against Britain's experience and better equipped regulars. In Antrim County in the North the mostly Presbyterian rebels, led by Henry Joy McCracken, rose up on June 6, but the rising collapsed in defeat on June 7. Rebellion in Down Country in the North also failed. Rebels there led by Henry Munro were defeated in the longest battle of the rebellion, at the Battle of Ballinamuck on June 13, 1798.

Battle of Vinegar Hill

Battle of Vinegar Hill. The Redcoats of course are the British.

Around 18,000 British troops poured into the so-called Wexford Republic and defeated the rebels at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on 21 June. Rebels fled in two columns, and the last remnants of these forces were defeated on 14 July in neighboring Meath and Dublin counties. Fragments of the rebel armies waged minor guerrilla warfare there and elsewhere.

On 22 August, about 1,000 French soldiers landed at Kilcummin, and they were joined by 5,000 local rebels. They defeated the British at Castlebar, and there they set up a short-lived "Republic of Connaught." This encouraged uprisings in Longford and Westmeath in the middle of Ireland, which the British quickly defeated. On 8 September the French were defeated at the Battle of Ballinamuck in Longford County. The French troops who surrendered there were to be repatriated to France in exchange for British prisoners of war. Hundreds of the captured Irish rebels were executed.

On 12 October 1798, a French force consisting of 3,000 men with the rebel leader Wolfe Tone attempted to land in Donegal County, near Lough Swilly, in the north-west, but in a three-hour battle Britain's navy prevented their landing and forced their surrender. In prison on 12 November, Wolfe Tone cheated the hangman by slitting his own throat.

Captured rebels were regarded as traitors to the Crown and executed, usually by hanging. Almost every British victory included the massacre of captured and wounded rebels with large scale massacres at Carlow, New Ross, Ballinamuck and Killala. The British have been described as responsible for particularly gruesome massacres at Gibbet Rath and Enniscorthy.

Meanwhile, bribery was used to get parliament in Dublin to vote itself out of existence. With the Act of Union of 1801, parliament in London became the government also for Ireland. This was done under the impression that the rule in Ireland of King George III was being reformed. When the Irish discovered that all that was happening was a greater domination by the British, here and there uncoordinated uprisings occurred, and by 1803 those rebellions were crushed by military force. In 1803 and 1804 the last of the rebels were vanquished, but unrest among the Irish would remain through the rest of the century.

In Wexford, the British continued to apply the death penalty to anyone who had been an officer in the United Irish army. Former leaders defended themselves by claiming they had been forced into their role by rebel mobs. In remembering the rebellion of 1798, the pro-British Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Orange Order (founded in 1796), minimized Presbyterian participation in the rising. They described the rebellion as a Catholic affair. The Catholic Church joined in remembering the rebellion as Catholic, associating Irish nationalism with loyalty to the Church. By the centenary of the Rebellion in 1898, both conservative Irish nationalists and the Catholic Church would claim that the United Irishmen had been fighting for "Faith and Fatherland."


"Theobald Wolfe Tone: An Eighteenth-Century Republican and Separatist," by Thomas Bartlett, historian

Copyright © 2002 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.