Toward the end of the eighteenth century it was apparent that the world was changing in dramatic ways. First, in North America there was a revolution against the British. The war lasted from 1775 to 1783 and ended with American independence and British forces withdrawing. Some 4,000 Irish troops had joined the British and were thus on the losing side.
Second, in Europe there was a revolution against the French monarchy. The revolution had started in 1789 and culminated with the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.
In Ireland, these two events fed some rather dangerous ideas of freedom. The defeat of the British gave some hope to the Irish that it might be possible to escape from colonial rule. Both revolutions—the one in North America and the one in France—involved the rather radical ideas of democracy, personal freedom, and religious equality.
On the other hand, the British and those with an investment in the Irish status quo did not want these revolutionary ideas to spread. They didn’t want any more military defeats and they didn’t want to lose the Royal Family.
For Irish Protestants, the eighteenth century was a relatively happy time: they were in charge and tended to be affluent. Protestant society was seeing advances in education and in economic well-being. For Irish Catholics, the eighteenth century was not a good time: while they were a majority, they had no political power, very little recourse to the law, and tended to be at the bottom of the economic ladder.
The Society of the United Irishmen was founded by a Protestant political elite in 1791. Its leader was Theobold Wolfe Tone and its main political aim was to bring about democratic reform and more political independence in Ireland. The Society, however, was somewhat divided with regard to the Irish Catholics. There were those, such as Wolfe Tone, who wanted to see Catholic emancipation, while there were others who did not feel that this was such a good idea.
Wolfe Tone is shown above.
Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin and had been baptized Theobald Wolfe Tone in honor of his godfather, Theobald Wolfe. It was widely believed that he was actually the natural son of Wolfe. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin. In college, he was active in the debating club and the College Historical Society. At the age of 26 he qualified as a barrister.
The fundamental resolutions of the Society:
“1. That the weight of English influence in the government of this country is so great, as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce.The French revolution provided the United Irishmen was inspiration. They argued that any genuine reform in Ireland could only be achieved by breaking their ties to the British Empire. Unfortunately, Wolfe Tone sought the help of the French revolutionary government. The British viewed this as an act of treason: making friends with Britain’s enemies was going beyond simple protest.
2. That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed, is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament.
3. That no reform is just which does not include every Irishman of every religious persuasion.”
The French tended to feel that Wolfe Tone’s idea of a rebellion was a good one. In 1796, French General Hoche brought a force of 15,000 French troops to Ireland to provide Wolfe Tone with military support. However, the weather in Ireland in December did not cooperate and the French were unable to land.
The British did their best to incite dissention between the Protestants and Catholics. They bribed Protestants to persecute the Catholics and when the Catholics resisted, they were punished severely. The government passed an Insurrection Act in 1796 which allowed suspected persons to be banished without a trial. The government also passed Acts of Indemnity to shield magistrates and the military from prosecution for any unlawful cruelties which they might commit. Seeing no hope of constitutional redress, the United Irishmen formed themselves into a military organization.
By 1798, Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen had brought together a unique coalition: it was a union of Catholics and Presbyterians. It was an alliance against the British that spread across sectarian lines. Wolf Tone felt that the goal was the expulsion of Britain from Ireland, not the supremacy of Catholic people.
In 1798, the rebellion started in Dublin. It quickly spread to Wicklow, Meath, and Kildare. The British response was quick and brutal. They attacked the United Irishmen even when there was no sign of revolutionary activity.
The rebellion was strongest in Wexford, but the British sent in about 20,000 troops. At the battle of Vinegar Hill, the British forces won a decisive battle. Historians generally describe the suppression of the rebels as swift, brutal, and barbaric. Some of the nineteenth century historians’ accounts of the brutality suggest that the British used rape as a weapon of war.
The rebellion started in May and in August the French finally arrived. In County Mayo, 1,000 French troops came ashore and won one victory. Two weeks later, the British defeated them and sent the survivors home.
In October, French forces, accompanied by Wolfe Tone, tried to land in County Donegal. The British navy met them and they surrendered. Wolfe Tone was tried and sentenced to hang. In court, he had argued that he was a soldier and should be executed as a soldier, by firing squad. Before the British could hang him, however, he cut his own throat.
Wolfe Tone’s grave is shown above. This is the site of annual commemorations by Sinn Féin and others.
Statues of Wolfe Tone are shown above.
The revolution resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people. In order to ensure the future peace of Ireland, the British felt that the island should be run from England. The Irish elite who had run the island had shown themselves to be unable to cope with the threat of the United Irishmen. Ultimately, the Rebellion of 1798 led to the one thing that the United Irishmen did not want: strong British rule.