|Founded||1791, disbanded 1804/5|
|Newspaper||Northern Star (Belfast), The Press (Dublin).|
|Political position||Representative government for Ireland; an independent republic.|
|International affiliation||Allied to the French First Republic, United Scotsmen, United Englishmen/United Britons.|
The Society of United Irishmen, also simply known as the United Irishmen, were a sworn society in the Kingdom of Ireland formed in the wake of the French Revolution to secure "an equal representation of all the people" in a "national government." Despairing of constitutional reform, in 1798 the United Irismen instigated a republican insurrection in defiance of British Crown forces and of Irish sectarian division. Their suppression was a prelude to the abolition of the Protestant Ascendancy Parliament in Dublin and to Ireland's incorporation in a United Kingdom with Great Britain. An attempt to revive the movement and renew the insurrection following the Acts of Union was defeated in 1803.
The Society was formed at gathering in a Belfast tavern in October 1791. The participants, who resolved to reform the government of Ireland on "principles of civil, political and religious liberty", were Protestants in what was then a largely Protestant town. With the exception of Thomas Russell, a former India-service army-officer from Cork, and Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Dublin barrister, they were Presbyterians. As Dissenters from the established Anglican (Church of Ireland) communion they were conscious of having shared, in part, the civil and political disabilities of the Kingdom's dispossessed Roman Catholic majority.
The Irish Parliament in Dublin did not exclude Presbyterians. In 1790 the son of an exceptionally wealthy Presbyterian family, Robert Stewart (Viscount Castlereagh), had won a county seat south of Belfast with the promise of reform. But with the seat's comparatively large number of freehold voters, his election represented a rare contest. Two-thirds of the Irish House of Commons represented boroughs in the pockets of the Kingdom's largest landowners. Belfast's two MPs were elected by the thirteen members of the corporation, all nominees of the Chichesters, Marquesses of Donegall. Faced with the tithes, rack rents and sacramental tests of this Ascendancy, and with English restrictions on Irish manufacture, Presbyterians had been voting by leaving Ireland in ever greater numbers. From 1710 to 1775 over 200,000 sailed for the North American colonies. When the American Revolutionary War commenced in 1775, there were few Presbyterian households that did not have relatives in America, many of whom would take up arms against the Crown.
Most of the Society's founding members and leadership were members of Belfast's first three Presbyterian churches, all in Rosemary Street. The obstetrician William Drennan, who first proposed the society, was the son of the minister of the First Church; Samuel Neilson, owner of the largest woollen warehouse in Belfast, was in the Second Church; Henry Joy McCracken, born into the town's leading fortunes in shipping and linen-manufacture, was a Third Church member. Despite theological differences (the First and Second Churches did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith), the Rosemary Street churches were of a broadly "New Light" persuasion. Educated at the University of Glasgow, their elected ministers inclined in their teaching toward conscience and "the light of nature" rather than doctrine.
The University of Glasgow, which Drennan himself attended, was the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment. In their defence of what Drennan called "the restless power of reason", a new generation of Scottish thinkers had drawn on the republican ethos of Presbyterian resistance to royal and episcopal imposition. Their common reference was the Ulster-born theologian Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) whose ideas were also to return from Glasgow through their circulation in the American colonies. Thomas Jefferson's appeals to sentiment in the Declaration of Independence (broadcast in August 1776 by the Belfast News Letter) are thought to reflect his influence.
Hutcheson's benevolent theory of morals supported concepts of Natural Law and of rights consistent with the case for accountable, government. Drennan and his friends were satisfied that in England, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was an advance on broadly these principles (given further secular expression by the man Drennan identified as his "prime authority on politics", John Locke).. But having established the Dublin Parliament on a still narrower Ascendancy basis and confirmed its subordination to the Crown in England, in Ireland the Williamite Settlement allowed no such possibility. The kingdom continued to be ruled "by Englishmen, and the servants of Englishmen": Ireland had "no national government".
Observing the growing disaffection, on the eve of the American War the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Harcourt, reported that the Presbyterians of Ulster were Americans "in their hearts".
For the original members of the Society, the American War provided a further source of prior association: the new Irish Volunteer militia. While in many areas Volunteer companies were little more than local landlords and their retainers armed and drilled, in Dublin, in the larger towns and in Presbyterian Ulster they mobilised a wider section of Protestant society.
In April 1782, with Volunteer cavalry, infantry, and artillery posted on all approaches to the Parliament in Dublin, Henry Grattan, leader of the Patriot opposition, had a Declaration of Irish Rights carried by acclaim in the Commons. London conceded, surrendering its powers to legislate for Ireland. In 1783 Volunteers converged again upon Dublin, this time to support a bill presented by Grattan's patriot rival, Henry Flood, to abolish the proprietary boroughs and to extend the vote to a broader class of Protestant property holders. But the Volunteer moment had passed. Having accepted defeat in America, Britain could again spare troops for Ireland, and the limits of the Ascendancy's patriotism had been reached. Parliament refused to be intimidated.
With the news in 1789 of revolutionary events in France enthusiasm for constitutional reform revived. In Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen France, the greatest of the Catholic powers, was seen to be undergoing its own Glorious Revolution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke had sought to discredit any analogy with 1688. But on reaching the Belfast in October 1791, Tone found that Thomas Paine's response to Burke, the Rights of Man (which ran into several Irish editions), had won the argument.
Three months before, on 14 July, the second anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille was celebrated with a triumphal procession through Belfast and a solemn Declaration to the Great and Gallant people of France: "As Irishmen, We too have a country, and we hold it very dear—so dear... that we wish all Civil and Religious Intolerance annihilated in this land." Bastille Day the following year was greeted with similar scenes and an address to the French National Assembly hailing the soldiers of the new republic as "the advance guard of the world".
It was in the midst of this enthusiasm for events in France that William Drennan proposed to his friends "a benevolent conspiracy—a plot for the people", the "Rights of Man and [employing the phrase coined by Hutcheson] the Greatest Happiness of the Greater Number its end—its general end Real Independence to Ireland, and Republicanism its particular purpose." When Drennan's friends gathered, they resolved:
--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; [and] --that the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed, is by complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in parliament.
The "conspiracy", which at Tone's suggestion called itself the Society of the United Irishmen, had moved beyond Flood's Protestant patriotism. English influence, exercised through the Dublin Castle Executive, would be checked constitutionally by a parliament in which "all the people" would have "an equal representation." Unclear, however, was whether the emancipation of Catholics was to be unqualified and immediate. The previous evening, witnessing a debate over the Catholic Question between the town's leading reformers (members of the Northern Whig Club) Tone had found himself "teased" by people agreeing in principle to Catholic emancipation, but then proposing that it be delayed or granted only in stages.
Thomas Russell had invited Tone to the Belfast gathering in October 1791 as the author of An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. In honour of the reformers in Belfast, who arranged for the publication of 10,000 copies, this had been signed A Northern Whig. Being of French Huguenot descent, Tone may have had an instinctive empathy for the religiously persecuted, but he was "suspicious of the Catholics priests" and hostile to what he saw as "Papal tyranny". (In 1798 Tone applauded Napoleon's deposition and imprisonment of Pope Pius VI).
For Tone the argument on behalf of the Catholics was political. The "imaginary Revolution of 1782" had failed to secure a representative and national government for Ireland because Protestants had refused to make common cause with Catholics. In Belfast the objections to doing so were rehearsed for him again by the Reverend William Bruce. Bruce spoke of the danger of "throwing power into hands" of Catholics who were "incapable of enjoying and extending liberty," and whose first interest would be to reclaim their forfeited lands.
In his Argument Tone insisted that, as a matter of justice, men cannot be denied rights because an incapacity, whether ignorance or intemperance, for which the laws under which they are made to live are themselves responsible. He also appealed to historical experience. When they had the opportunity in the Parliament summoned by James II in 1689, and clearer title to what had been forfeit not ninety but forty years before (in the Cromwellian Settlement), Catholics did not insist upon a wholesale return of their lost estates. As to the existing Irish Parliament "where no Catholic can by law appear", it was the clearest proof that "Protestantism is no guard against corruption".
Tone cited the examples of the American Congress and French National Assembly where "Catholic and Protestant sit equally" and of the Polish Constitution of May 1791 (also celebrated in Belfast) with its promise of amity between Catholic, Protestant and Jew. If Irish Protestants remained "illiberal" and "blind" to these precedents, Ireland would continue to be governed in the exclusive interests of England and of the landed Ascendancy.
The Belfast Catholic Society sought to underscore Tone's argument. Meeting in April 1792 they declared their "highest ambition" was "to participate in the constitution" of the kingdom, and disclaimed even "the most distant thought of [...] unsettling the landed property thereof".
On Bastille Day 1792 in Belfast, the United Irishmen had occasion to make their position clear. In a public debate on An Address to the People of Ireland, William Bruce and others proposed hedging the commitment to an equality of "all sects and denominations of Irishmen". They had rather anticipate "the gradual emancipation of our Roman Catholic brethren" staggered in line with Protestant concerns for security and with improving Catholic education. Samuel Neilson "expressed his astonishment at hearing... any part of the address called a Catholic question." The only question was "whether Irishmen should be free." William Steel Dickson, with "keen irony", wondered whether Catholics were to ascend the "ladder" to liberty "by intermarrying with the wise and capable Protestants, and particularly with us Presbyterians, [so that] they may amend the breed, and produce a race of beings who will inherit the capacity from us?"
The amendment was defeated, but the debate reflected a growing division. The call for Catholic emancipation might find support in Belfast and surrounding Protestant-majority districts. West of the River Bann, and across the south and west of Ireland where Protestants were a distinct minority, veterans of the Volunteer movement were not as easily persuaded. The Armagh Volunteers, who had called a Volunteer Convention in 1779, boycotted a third in 1793. Under Ascendancy patronage they were already moving along with the Peep o' Day Boys, battling Catholic Defenders in rural districts for tenancies and employment, toward the formation in 1795 of the loyalist Orange Order.
In 1793 the Government itself breached the principle of an exclusively Protestant Constitution. Dublin Castle put its weight behind Grattan in the passage of a Catholic Relief Act. Catholics were admitted to the franchise (but not yet to Parliament itself) on the same terms as Protestants. This courted Catholic opinion, but it also put Protestant reformers on notice. Any further liberalising of the franchise, whether by expunging the pocket boroughs or by lowering of the property threshold, would advance the prospect of a Catholic majority.
Beyond the inclusion of Catholics and a re-distribution of seats it had not been clear what the United Irishmen intended by "an equal representation of all the people". While insisting that his "sentiments are not less liberal" than their own, in his News Letter Henry Joy warned the United Irishmen that entrusting liberty to a potentially, "ignorant, licentious, idle and profligate populace" was likely, as in ancient Rome, to "terminate in a dictatorship or empire." Beginning with news of the September Massacres, many of his readers were to see in France the vindication of such caution. Yet, as they Society grew and replicated across the country it remained open to men of every station, those of humbler means being actively courted.
In 1793 Thomas Addis Emmet reported an influx of "mechanics [artisans, journeymen and their apprentices], petty shopkeepers and farmers". Some of these were maintaining in Belfast, Derry, other towns in the North, and in Dublin, their own Jacobin Clubs. Writing to her brother, William Drennan, in 1795 Martha McTier describes the Jacobins as an established democratic party in Belfast, composed of "persons and rank long kept down" and chaired by a "radical mechanick" (sic). Yet the Club counted among its members the banker William Tennant, minister of Rosemary Street Third Presbyterian Sinclair Kelburn (much admired by Tone as a fervent democrat) and other well-to-do United Irishmen.
The overlap between the Clubs and the Society might suggest that the Jacobins "were an auxiliary group, perhaps encouraged to take a more radical stand" while the United Irishmen "awaited the outcome of the Catholic campaign for final repeal of the penal laws". When April 1795 Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Lieutenant for just fifty days, was recalled to London for publicly urging support for Emancipation, and the general prospects for reform appeared buried, the Jacobins with their radical ideas flooded United Irish societies. Unabashed republicans, with Kelburn they doubted that there "was any such thing" as Ireland's "much boasted constitution." In correspondence with clubs in England and Scotland, some proposed that delegates from all three kingdoms convene to draft a "true constitution".
This Painite radicalism had been preceded by an upsurge in trades union activity. In 1792 the Northern Star reported a "bold and daring spirit of combination" (long in evidence in Dublin) appearing in Belfast and surrounding districts. Breaking out first among cotton weavers, it then "communicated to the bricklayers, carpenters, etc." In the face of "demands made in a tumultuous and illegal manner", in the Northern Star, the movement paper to which he pledged his woollen business, Samuel Neilson came down upon the side of the authorities. Neilson did not doubt that the town's Sovereign (Lord Donegall's appointee) should have the support of the Volunteers in enforcing the laws against combination. James (Jemmy) Hope, a self educated weaver, who joined the Society in 1796, nonetheless was to account Neilson, along with Russell (who in the Star positively urged unions for labourers and cottiers), McCracken, and Emmet, the only United Irish leaders "perfectly" understood the real causes of social disorder and conflict: "the conditions of the labouring class".
In November 1793 the leadership did commit to radical parliamentary reform. They called for equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, paid representatives and universal manhood suffrage. This went beyond the dispensation the Belfast's reformers had celebrated in the French Constitution of 1791. Yet despite their broadening democratic base, the United Irishmen, as a body, do not appear to have considered the broader implications of a universal suffrage.
The Dublin Society, formed within a month of Belfast, declared that it was to be a "principal rule of conduct... to attend those things in which we all agree, [and] to exclude those in which we differ". This did not imply an indifference to the issues. But the result was that as a movement, the United Irishmen were not associated with what could later be recognised as an economic or social programme. Given the central role it was to play in the eventual development of Irish democracy, the most startling omission was the absence, beyond the disclaimer of wholesale Catholic restitution, of any scheme or principle land reform. Jemmy Hope might be clear that this should not be "a delusive fixity of tenure [that allows] the landlord to continue to draw the last potato out of the warm ashes of the poor man's fire". But for the great rural mass of the Irish people this was an existential question upon which neither he nor any central resolution spoke for the Society.
As were Presbyteries, Volunteer companies and Masonic lodges through which they recruited, the United Irishmen were a male fraternity. In serialising William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning political Justice (1793), the Northern Star had advised them of the moral and intellectual enlightenment found in an "equal and liberal intercourse" between men and women. The paper had also reviewed and commended Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). But the call was not made for women's civic and political emancipation. In publishing excerpts from Wollstonecraft's work, the Star focussed entirely upon issues of female education.
In the rival News Letter, William Bruce suggested that this was disingenuous: the "impartial representation of the Irish nation" the United Irishmen embraced in their test or oath implied, he argued, not only equality for Catholics but also that "every woman, in short every rational being shall have equal weight in electing representatives". Drennan did not seek to disabuse Bruce as to "the principle"—he had never seen "a good argument against the right of women to vote"—but in a plea that recalled objections to immediate Catholic emancipation he argued for a "common sense" reading of the test of which he was the author. It might be some generations, he proposed, before "habits of thought, and the artificial ideas of education" are so "worn out" that it would appear "natural" that women should exercise the same rights as men, and thus attain their "full and proper influence in the world".
In Belfast Drennan's sister Martha McTier and McCracken's sister Mary-Ann, and in Dublin Emmett's sister Mary Anne Holmes and Margaret King, shared in the reading of Wollstonecraft and of other progressive women writers. As had Tone on behalf of Catholics, Wollstonecraft argued that the incapacities alleged to deny women equality were those that law and usage themselves impose. Mary Ann McCracken, in particular, was articulate in taking to heart the conclusion that women had to reject "their present abject and dependent situation" and secure the liberty without which they could "neither possess virtue or happiness".
Women formed associations within the movement. In October 1796 the Northern Star published a letter from the secretary of the Society of United Irishwomen. This blamed the English, who made war on the new republics, for the violence of the American and French Revolutions. Denounced as a "violent republican", Martha McTier was the immediate suspect, but denied any knowledge of the society. The true author may have been her friend Jane Greg, described by informants as "very active" in Belfast "at the head of the Female Societies" (and by General Lake as being "the most violent creature possible").
Mary Ann McCracken took Drennan's oath but stood aloof from the "female societies." No women with "rational ideas of liberty and equality for themselves", she objected, could consent to a separate organisation. There could be "no other reason having them separate, but keeping the women in the dark" and making "tools of them".
In final months before the rising, the paper of the Dublin society, The Press, published two direct addresses to Irish women, both of which "appealed to women as members of a critically-debating public": the first (21 December 1797) signed "Philoguanikos" (probably the paper's founder, Arthur O'Connor), the second (1 February 1798) signed "Marcus" (Drennan). While both appealed to women to take sides, Philoguanikos was clear that women were being asked to act as political beings. He "scorns" those "brainless bedlams" who "scream in abhorrence of the idea of a female politician" and "the reasoning that says 'what has been, shall be'".
The letters of Martha McTier and Mary Ann McCracken testify to the role of women as confidantes, sources of advice and bearers of intelligence. R.R. Madden, one of the earliest historians of the United Irishmen, describes various of their activities in the person of an appropriately named Mrs. Risk. By 1797 the Castle informer Francis Higgins was reporting that "women are equally sworn with men" suggesting that some of the women assuming risks for the United Irish cause (possibly including McCracken) were taking places beside men in an increasingly clandestine organisation. Middle-class women (such as Mary Moore) were reportedly active in the Dublin United Irishmen. William James MacNeven was sworn into the society by a woman.
On the role in the movement of peasant and other working women there are fewer sources. But in the 1798 uprising they came forward in many capacities, some, as celebrated in later ballads (Betsy Gray and Brave Mary Doyle, the Heroine of New Ross), as combatants. Under the command of Henry Luttrell, Earl Carhampton (who, in a celebrated case in 1788, Archibald Hamilton Rowan had accused of child rape), troops treated women, young and old, with great brutality.
Jacques-Louis de Bougrenet de La Tocnaye, a French émigré who walked the length and breadth of Ireland in 1796–7, was appalled to encounter in a cabin upon the banks of the Upper Bann the same "nonsense on which the people of France fed themselves before the Revolution". A young labourer treated him to a disposition on "equality, fraternity, and oppression", "reform of Parliament", "abuses in elections", and "tolerance", and such "philosophical discourse" as he had heard from "foppish talkers" in Paris a decade before. In 1793, a magistrate in that same area, near Coleraine, County Londonderry, had been complaining of "daily incursions of disaffected people... disseminating the most seditious principles". Until his arrest in September 1796, Thomas Russell (later celebrated in a popular ballad as The man from God-knows-where) was one such outsider. Recruiting for the Society, he ranged from Belfast as far as Donegal and Sligo.
In calling town, parish and county meetings, and in seeking to form new local societies or chapters, agitators like Russell might look to enlist the support of Freemasons. Although it was the rule that "no politics must be brought within the doors of the Lodge", masons were involved in the Volunteer movement and their lodges remained "a battleground for political ideas". Drennan, himself a mason, from the outset had anticipated that his "conspiracy" would have "much of the secrecy and somewhat of the ceremonial of Free-Masonry".
As United Irishmen increasingly attracted the unwelcome attention of Dublin Castle and its network of informants, masonry did become both a host, a model and a cover. The number of Masonic lodges themselves began to grow, although how far this might have been to accommodate the rival organising efforts of loyalists particularly on the sectarian frontiers of Armagh and Tyrone is unclear.
From February 1793 the Crown was at war with the French Republic. This led immediately to heightened tensions in Belfast. On 9 March a body of dragoons rampaged through the town, purportedly provoked by taverns displaying the likenesses of Dumouriez, Mirabeau and Franklin. They withdrew to barracks when, as related by Martha McTier, about 1,000 armed countrymen came into the town and mustered at McCracken's Third Presbyterian. Further "military provocations" saw attacks on the homes of Neilson and others associated with the Northern Star (wrecked for the final time, and closed, in May 1797). Legislation impressed from Westminster banned extra-parliamentary conventions and suppressed the Volunteers, by then largely a northern movement. They were replaced by a paid militia, its ranks partially filled with conscripted Catholics, and by Yeomanry, an auxiliary force led by local gentry.
While still free to associate, and in advance of their proscription in May 1794, the northern clubs had begun to take direction from a secret committee in Belfast. These included the first societies among the tenant farmers and market-townsmen of north Down and Antrim, those among whom Jemmy Hope believed "the republican spirit, inherent in the principles of Presbyterian community, kept resistance to arbitrary power still alive."
This spirit of resistance was not at odds with an older religious faith. It is estimated that about half the ministers of the Reformed Presbyteries in Ulster—those whose bible reading caused them to secede from the established Presbyterianism of Scotland—were implicated in the eventual rebellion. Many were drawn to the United Irishmen by millenarian William Gibson who roamed County Antrim "to preach sedition and the word".
In June 1795, members of the Northern Executive, including Russell, McCracken. Neilson and Robert Simms met with Tone who was en route to exile in the United States. At McArt's fort atop Cave Hill overlooking Belfast they swore the celebrated oath "never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence'".
Drennan's original United Irish test, first taken in Dublin in December 1791, focused upon the "representation of the Irish nation in Parliament" no longer spoke to the real object. With no further expectation of the Patriot gentry, but in hope of French assistance, this was to build a broad popular union to cut the tie to England, overturn the Ascendancy, and ensure a representation of the people that was "full and equal". In March 1796 from Paris (to which he had travelled by way of Philadelphia) Tone recorded his understanding of the new resolve: "Our independence must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not support us, they must fall; we can support ourselves by the aid of that numerous and respectable class of the community, the men of no property".
The greatest body, existing, of men of no property, and with whom alliance was to be sought if there was to be a broad union of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, were the Defenders. A vigilante response to Peep O'Day raids upon Catholic homes in the mid 1780s, by the early 1790s the Defenders (drawing, like the United Irishmen, on the lodge structure of the Masons) were a secret oath-bound fraternity ranging across Ulster and the Irish midlands. Despite their professed loyalism (members had originally to swear allegiance to the King) Defenderism developed an increasingly a seditious character. Talk in the lodges was of a release from tithes, rents and taxes, and of a French invasion that might allow the repossession of Protestant estates. Arms-buying delegations were sent to London. The Government responded with increasing repression, seconded by the Peep O'Day Boys, local Volunteer companies and later by the Orange Order and the Yeomanry.
Defenders and United Irishmen began to seek one another out. Religion was not a bar to joining the Defenders. In Dublin, in particular, where the Defenderism appealed strongly to a significant body of radical artisans and petty shopkeepers, Protestants joined in the determination to make common cause. Oaths, catechisms and articles of association supplied to Dublin Castle nonetheless suggest the Defenders were developing a kind of Catholic "liberation theology"—their own version of Gibson's millenarianism. Apocalyptic biblical allusions and calls to "plant the true religion" sat uneasily with the rhetoric of inalienable rights and fealty to a "United States of France and Ireland". Oblivious to the anti-clericalism of the French Republic, Defender rank-and-file tended to view the French through a Jacobite, not Jacobin, lens, as Catholics at war with Protestants. Although Hope and McCracken did much to reach out to the Defenders, recognising the sectarian tensions (Simms reported to Tone that "it would take a great deal of exertion" to keep the Defenders from "producing feuds"), the Belfast Executive choose emissaries from its small number of Catholics.
With their brother-in-law John Magennis, in 1795 the United Irish brothers, Bartholomew and Charles Teeling, sons of a wealthy Catholic linen manufacturer in Lisburn, appear to have had command over the Down, Antrim and Armagh Defenders. United Irishmen were able to offer practical assistance: legal counsel, aid and refuge. Catholic victims of the Armagh disturbances and of the Battle of the Diamond (at which Charles Teeling had been present) were sheltered on Presbyterian farms in Down and Antrim, and the goodwill earned used to open the Defenders to trusted republicans. Emmet records these as being able to convince Defenders of something they had only "vaguely" considered, namely the need to separate Ireland from England and to secure its "real as well as nominal independence".
The Society Tone helped establish in Dublin on his return from Belfast in November 1791 held itself aloof from the Jacobin, Defender and other radical clubs in the capital. The Society also shied from the kind of underground organisation the Belfast leadership was seeking to develop in the north. While societies accepting direction from the Ulster executive restricted their membership to thirty six, in Dublin the United Irish maintained just one society boasting, at its height, 400 members.
The crucial difference at the outset between the Belfast and Dublin societies was that in the very much larger city the United Irish counted representatives of a growing Catholic mercantile and professional class. Among them were prominent members of the Catholic Committee (of which Tone was then organising secretary), including its chairman John Keogh.
Announcing that there were paid informers in their midst, in January 1794 Neilson had tried to press the Belfast system upon his Dublin comrades. They should coordinate and transact all their business through a twelve-member committee. His proposal was rejected on the grounds that "the United Irishmen, as a legal, constitutional reform movement, were loath to engage in any activity which could not bear the scrutiny of the public or the Castle".
Keogh's dismissal of Edmund Burke's son, Richard Burke, as Committee secretary in 1792, and his replacement by Tone, a known democrat still suggested a political shift. The British Prime Minister Pitt was already canvassing support for a union of Ireland and Great Britain in which Catholics could be freely—because securely—admitted to Parliament. London might yet be an ally in relieving Catholics of the last of the Penal Law restrictions, but it would be as a permanent minority in the enlarged Kingdom, not as a national majority in Ireland. Even that prospect was uncertain. Although tempered since the Gordon Riots, Anti-Popery remained an important strain in English politics. Meanwhile, Drennan recalls, "Catholics were being driven to despair" and were prepared to "go to extremities" rather than again be denied political equality.
In April, matters were brought to a head by the arrest of the Reverend William Jackson. An agent of the French Committee of Public Safety, Jackson had been having meetings with Tone in the prison cell of Archibald Hamilton Rowan. Rowan, who had been serving time for distributing Drennan's seditious appeal to Volunteers, managed to flee the country. Whether because of his association with the Catholic Committee or his family's connections, Tone was allowed to go into American exile. Thomas Troy, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Papal legate, threatened excommunication for any Catholic who took the United Irish oath and warned his flock to avoid the "fascinating illusions" of French principles. Catholic gentry and clergy withdrew from the Catholic Committee and the United Irish Society was proscribed.
Former and potential United Irish members regrouped with previously neglected lower-rank Jacobins and Defenders in a series of "ephemeral organisation" (The Philanthropic Society, the Huguenots, the Illuminati, the Druids' Lodges...) used as a cover for their activities in Dublin, but also to spread the movement into the provinces. The authorities came down heavily on the Belfast radicals, with Castlereagh personally supervising the arrests of Neilson, Russell and Charles Teeling in September 1796. But early in 1797 their organising vision prevailed. All the various republican clubs and cover lodges, and much of Defender network, were formally marshalled in a local and provincial delegate-structure under a national United Irish executive in Dublin Among others, the directorate included Thomas Addis Emmet; Richard McCormick, Tone's replacement as secretary to the Catholic Committee; and two disillusioned parliamentary patriots: the future Napoleonic general Arthur O'Connor and the popular Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
The war with France was also used to crush reformers in Great Britain, costing the United Irishmen the liberty of friends and allies. In 1793 in Edinburgh, Thomas Muir, whom Rowan and Drennan had feted in Dublin, with three other of his Friends of the People were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay (Australia). The judge seized on Muir's connection to the "ferocious" Mr. Rowan (Rowan had challenged Robert Dundas, the Lord Advocate of Scotland, to a duel) and on the United Irishmen papers found in his possession.
There followed in England the 1794 Treason Trials and, when these collapsed, the 1795 Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act. The measures were directed at the activities of the London Corresponding Society and other radical groups among whom, as ambassadors for the Irish cause, Roger O'Connor and Jane Greg had been cultivating understanding and support for the Irish cause.
In the face of the repression, sections of the democratic movement in both Scotland and in England began to regard universal suffrage and annual parliaments as a cause for physical force. Political tours by United Irishmen in the winter of 1796–7, and as conditions deteriorated in Ulster a growing tide of migrants, helped to promote such thinking and foster an interest in establishing societies on the new model Irish example.
When the authorities first became aware of the United Scotsmen early in 1797, in their view it was as little more than a Scottish branch of the United Irishmen. The Resolutions and Constitution of the United Scotsmen (1797) was "a verbatim copy of the constitutional document of the United Irishmen, apart from the substitution of the words 'North Britain' for 'Irishmen'". At their height, during a summer of anti-militia riots, the United Scotsmen counted upwards of 10,000 members, the backbone formed (as had increasingly been the case for Belfast and Dublin societies) by artisan journeymen and weavers.
With the encouragement of Irish and Scottish visitors, the manufacturing districts of northern England saw the first cells of the United Englishmen formed in late 1796. Their clandestine proceedings, oath taking, and advocacy of physical force "mirrored that of their Irish inspirators", and they followed the Irish Northern Executive-promoted branch system (membership set at a minimum of fifteen and splitting when reaching thirty or thirty-six).
Describing himself as an emissary of the United Irish executive, the Catholic priest James Coigly (a veteran of unionising activities during the Armagh Disturbances) worked from Manchester with James Dixon, a cotton spinner from Belfast, to spread the United system to Stockport, Bolton, Warrington and Birmingham. In London Coigly conferred with those Irishmen who had hastened the radicalisation of the London Corresponding Society: among them United Irishman Edward Despard, brothers Benjamin and John Binns, and LCS president Alexander Galloway. Meetings were held at which delegates from London, Scotland and the regions resolved "to overthrow the present Government, and to join the French as soon as they made a landing in England".
The resolution of the "United Britons" was discussed at a full meeting of the Irish executive in July 1797. Although addressed to the prospect of French assistance, in Ulster the suggestion that “England, Scotland and Ireland are all one people acting for one common cause", encouraged militants to believe that liberty could be won even if "the French should never come here".
At the end of February 1798, as he was about to embark on a return mission to Paris, Coigly was arrested carrying to the French Directory a further address from the United Britons. While its suggestion of a mass movement primed for insurrection was scarcely credible, it was deemed sufficient proof of the intention to induce a French invasion. The united movement was broken up by internment and Coigly was hanged.
In justifying the suspension of habeas corpus the authorities were more than ready to see the hand not only of English radicals but also, in the large Irish contingent among the sailors, of United Irishmen in the Spithead and Nore mutinies of April and May 1797. The United Irish were reportedly behind the resolution of the Nore mutineers to hand the fleet over to the French "as the only government that understands the Rights of Man". Much was made of Valentine Joyce, a leader at Spithead, described by Edmund Burke as a "seditious Belfast clubist", (and recorded by R. R. Madden as having been an Irish Volunteer in 1778).
That the Valentine Joyce in question was Irish and a republican has been disputed, and while that "rebellious paper, the Northern Star" may have circulated as reported among the mutineers, no evidence has emerged of a concerted United Irish plot to subvert the fleet. In Ireland there was talk of seizing British warships as part of a general insurrection, but it was only after the Spithead and Nore mutinies that United Irishmen awoke to the effectiveness of formulating sedition within the Royal Navy".
There were a number of mutinies instigated by Irish sailors in 1798. Aboard HMS Defiance a court martial took evidence of oaths of allegiance to the United Irishmen and sentenced eleven men to hang.
Main article: Irish Rebellion of 1798
In February 1798 a return prepared by Fitzgerald for the national executive reported the number of sworn United Irishmen at their command as 269,896. Figures may have been inflated, and it is certain that, in the event of their heeding the call, most would have been able to arm themselves only with simple pikes (of these the authorities, in the year 1797, had seized 70,630 compared to just 4,183 blunderbusses and 225 musket barrels). Released in December after more than a year in Kilmainham, McCracken was undaunted, but most of the leadership were with Tone in believing French assistance essential.
This Tone almost succeeded in securing. On 15 December 1796, he arrived off Bantry Bay with a fleet carrying about 14,450 men, and a large supply of war material, under the command of Louis Lazare Hoche. A gale prevented a landing. Hoche's unexpected death on his return to France was a blow to what had been Tone's adept handling of the politics of the French Directory. With the forces (and ambition) that might have allowed a second attempt upon Ireland, Hoche's rival, Napoleon, sailed in May 1798 for Egypt.
Bantry Bay, nonetheless, had made real the prospect of French intervention. From December to May 1797 membership in Ulster alone increased fourfold, reaching 117,917. The government responded with an Insurrection Act, allowing the Lord Lieutenant to govern by martial decree.
The United Irishmen had their first martyr in William Orr. Charged in April with administering a United Irish oath to a soldier, Orr was hanged in October. The Reverend William Porter, who had been enraging Viscount Castlereagh with a popular satire of the County Down landed-interest Billy Bluff, was in time to prove a second. In February he asked his congregation neighbouring Castlereagh's family demesne at Mount Stewart (then under armed guard, and with tenants withholding rent), why Ireland was at war: "it is in consequence of our connection with England". A French invasion threatened only the government, not the people. Porter was hung outside his Church in July 1798.
Orr's arrest signalled the onset of General Lake's "dragooning of Ulster", hastened in some districts demonstrations of solidarity with those taken prisoner. When Orr was arrested in Antrim, the Northern Star reported between five and six hundred of his neighbours assembled and brought in his entire harvest. Fifteen hundred people dug Samuel Nielson's potatoes in seven minutes. Such "hasty diggings" (traditionally accorded by families visited by misfortune) could be occasion for United Irish mustering, drilling and training.
By the end of 1797 Lake was turning his attention to disarming Leinster and Munster. His troops' reputation for half-hanging, pitch-capping and other interrogative refinements travelled before them.
In March 1798, the national executive and its papers were seized in Dublin. Faced with the breaking-up of their entire system, the few leaders at large in the capital, joined by Neilson who had been released in ill health from Kilmainham Prison, resolved, with or without the French, on a general uprising for 23 May. Betrayed by informants, Fitzgerald was mortally wounded on the 19th, and on the 23rd Neilson was re-arrested. Tens of thousands heeded the call, but in what proved to be a series of uncoordinated local uprisings.
Some historians conclude that what connects the United Irishmen to most widespread and sustained of the uprisings in 1798 are "accidents of time and place, rather than any real community of interest". Daniel O'Connell, who abhorred the rebellion, may have been artful in proposing that there had been no United Irishmen in Wexford. But his view that the uprising in Wexford had been "forced forward by the establishment of Orange lodges and the whipping and torturing and things of that kind" was to be widely accepted
The Wexford Rebellion broke not in the securely Catholic south of the county, where there had been greater political organisation, but in the sectarian-divided north and centre which had seen previous agrarian disturbances, although here the absence of a United organisation is disputed. The trigger, it is agreed, was the arrival on 26 May 1798 of the notorious North Cork Militia. The insurgents swept south through Wexford Town meeting their first reversal at New Ross on 30 May. There followed the massacre of loyalist hostages at Scullabogue and, after a Committee of Public Safety was swept aside, at Wexford Bridge. A "striking resemblance" has been proposed to the 1792 September massacre in Paris", and it is noted that there were a small number of Catholics among the loyalists killed, and of Protestants among the rebels present. But for loyalists the sectarian nature of the outrages was unquestioned and was used to great effect in the north to secure defections from the republican cause. Much was made of the report that in their initial victory over the North Cork Militia at Oulart Hill the rebels had been commanded by a Catholic priest, Father John Murphy.
After a bombardment and rout of upwards of 20,000 rebels upon Vinegar Hill on 21 June remnants of the "Republic of Wexford" marched north through the Midlands—the counties thought best organised by the Executive—but few joined them. Those in the region who had turned out on 23 May had already been dispersed. On 20 July, re-joining insurgents in Kildare, the few hundred remaining Wexford men surrendered. All but their leaders benefited from an amnesty intended by the new Lord Lieutenant, Charles Cornwallis to flush out remaining resistance. The law was pushed through the Irish Parliament by the Chancellor, Lord Clare. A staunch defender of the Ascendancy, Clare was determined to separate Catholics from the greater enemy, "Godless Jacobinism."
Contending with marauding bands of rebel survivors (the Babes in the Wood and the Corcoran gang), Wexford did not see martial law lifted until 1806. In continued expectation of the French, and kept informed by Jemmy Hope of Robert Emmet's plans for a renewed uprising, Michael Dwyer sustained a guerrilla resistance in the Wicklow mountains until the end of 1803.
The northern executive had not responded to the call on 23 May. The senior Dublin Castle secretary, Edward Cooke, could write: "The quiet of the North is to me unaccountable; but I feel that the Popish tinge of the rebellion, and the treatment of France to Switzerland [the Protestant Cantons were resisting occupation] and America [the Quasi naval war], has really done much, and, in addition to the army, the force of Orange yeomanry is really formidable." In response to the claim that "in Ulster there are 50,000 men with arms in their hands, ready to receive the French," the Westiminster Commons was assured that while "almost all Presbyterians... were attached to the popular, or, what has been called, the republican branch of the constitution, they are not to be confounded with Jacobins or banditti".
When Robert Simms, despairing of French aid, resigned his United Irish command in Antrim on 1 June, McCracken seized the initiative. He proclaimed the First Year of Liberty on 6 June. There were widespread local musters but before they could coordinate, most were burying their arms and returning to their farms and workplaces. The issue had been decided by the following evening. McCracken, commanding a body of four to six thousand, failed, with heavy losses, to seize Antrim Town.
In Down, Dickson, who had stood in for Russell, was arrested with all his "colonels". Under the command of a young Lisburn draper, Henry Monro, there was a rising on 9 June. Following a successful skirmish at Saintfield several thousand marched on Ballynahinch where they were completely routed.
Shortly before the Battle of Ballynahinch on the 12th, The Defenders of County Down had withdrawn. John Magennis, their county "Grand Master", had been dismayed by Munro's discounting of a night attack upon the carousing soldiery as "unfair". Defenders had been present at Antrim, but in the march upon the town tensions with the Presbyterian United Irish may have caused some desertions and a delay in McCracken's planned attack.
Confident of a being able exploit tensions between Presbyterians and Catholics, the government not only amnestied the rebel rank-and-file it recruited them for the Yeomanry. On 1 July 1798 in Belfast, the birthplace of the United Irishmen movement, it is said that every man was wearing the Yeomanry's red coat. As he enlisted former United Irishmen into his Portglenone Yeomanry Corps, Anglican clergyman Edward Hudson claimed that "the brotherhood of affection is over".
On the eve of following his leader to the gallows, one of McCracken's lieutenants, James Dickey, is reported by Henry Joy (a hostile witness) as saying: "the Presbyterians of the north perceived too late that if they had succeeded in their designs, they would ultimately have had to contend with the Roman Catholics".
On 22 August 1798, 1,100 French landed at Killala in County Mayo. After prevailing in a first engagement, the Races of Castlebar, but unable to make timely contact with a new rising in Longford and Meath, General Humbert surrendered his forces on 8 September. The last action of the rebellion was a slaughter of half-armed peasants outside Kilala on the 23rd.
On 12 October, the second French expedition was intercepted off the coast of Donegal, and Tone taken captive. Regretting nothing done "to raise three million of my countrymen to the ranks of citizen," and lamenting only those "atrocities committed on both sides" during his exile, Tone on the eve of execution took his own life.
After the collapse of the rebellion, the young militants William Putnam McCabe (the son of founding member Thomas McCabe) and Robert Emmet (the younger brother of Thomas Addis Emmet), together with veterans Malachy Delaney and Thomas Wright, sought to restore a United organisation. With the support and advice of state prisoners Thomas Russell and William Dowdall, they recruited on a strictly military basis. Members would be chosen by officers meeting as an executive directory. The immediate aim of the directorate was again to solicit a French invasion with the promise of simultaneous risings in Ireland and England. To this end McCabe set out for France in December 1798, stopping first in London.
In England, the united network in had been disrupted in the wake of Coigley's arrest in March. But the influx of refugees from Ireland (from Manchester there were reports of as many as 8,000 former rebels living in the city); the angry response of workers to the Combination Acts, and growing protest over food shortages encouraged renewed organisation among former conspirators. A military system and pike manufacture began to spread across the mill districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and regular meetings resumed between county and London delegates resumed. Initiates were given card-printed oaths committing them to both "The Independence of Great Britain and Ireland" and "The Equalisation of Civil, Political and Religious Rights". All plans, in England and Ireland, however were predicated on a French invasion.
Hopes were dashed by the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802. They revived again when war resumed in May 1803. But as in 1798, Napoleon had committed elsewhere the naval and military forces that might have made a descent upon Ireland possible. Instead to returning Ireland, General Humbert had been tasked in 1803 with the re-enslavement of Haiti.
In February 1803 Edward Despard was convicted of conspiring with the united network in London (disaffected soldiers and labourers, many of them Irish) to assassinate the King and seize the Tower of London and to spark insurrection in the mill towns of the north. The trial brought forth little evidence, and none that the intent was to proceed in the absence of the French. In Ireland, Emmet and Russell followed Despard to the gallows for an attempted rising in July. Emmet, having consulted widely with United Irishmen from Hamburg to Cadiz, had decided to accept Napoleon's assurances. However, the final the trigger had been accidental: an explosion of a rebels arms depot in Dublin that made the plot public. In the absence of a French landing, the best efforts of Russell and of Jemmy Hope had failed to rally any promise of support in the north.
The defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Cape Trafalgar in 1805 blasted remaining hopes of a French invasion. (It was left to Walter Cox, in 1811, to imagine what might have been: his Proposed Speech of Bonaparte to [the Irish] Parliament "). A French Irish Legion (reinforced by 200 former United Irishmen sold by the British government as indentured mine labourers to Prussia, and joined for a time by William Dowdall and Arthur O'Connor) was redeployed to counter-insurgency in Spain. The United network unwound. McCabe, and other exiles, started seeking terms with the British government for a political surrender and return.
In October 1799 Castlereagh received reports from Jamaica that many (of the 3,200) United Irish prisoners, "incautiously drafted" into regiments for service in the West Indies, had taken to the hills to fight alongside the Maroons and with the French: "as soon as they got arms into their hands they deserted". There is no suggestion that this was part of any trans-Atlantic design of the United directory in Dublin or Paris.
The same is true of the "United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland" in April 1800. Two-thirds of the colony's main settlement, St. John's, were Irish, as were most of the island's locally-recruited British garrison. There were reports that upwards of 400 men had taken a United Irish oath, and that eighty were resolved to kill their officers and seize their Protestant governors at Sunday service. As in Jamaica, the mutiny (for which 8 were hanged) may have been less a United Irish plot, that an act of desperation in the face of brutal living conditions and officer tyranny. Yet the Newfoundland Irish would have been aware of the agitation in the homeland for civil equality and political rights. There were reports of communication with United men in Ireland from before '98 rebellion; of Thomas Paine's pamphlets circulating in St John's; and, despite the war with France, of hundreds of young Waterford men still making a seasonal migration to the island fisheries, among them defeated rebels who are said to have "added fuel to the fire" of local grievance.
In March 1804, stirred by news of Emmet's rising, several hundred United Irish convicts in New South Wales tried to seize control of the penal colony and to capture ships for a return to Ireland. Poorly armed, and with their leader Philip Cunningham seized under a flag of truce, the main body of insurgents were routed in an encounter loyalists celebrated as the Second Battle of Vinegar Hill.
It was not the fulfilment of their hopes, but some United Irishmen sought vindication in the Acts of Union that in 1801 abolished the parliament in Dublin and brought Ireland directly under the Crown in Westminster. Archibald Hamilton Rowan, in Hamburg, hailed "the downfall of one of the most corrupt assembles that ever existed", and predicted that the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland would see "the wreck" of the old Ascendancy.
Drennan was at first defiant, urging Irishmen to enter into a "Solemn League and Covenant [to] maintain their country". But later, in the hope that Westminster might in time realise the original aim of his conspiracy--"a full, free and frequent representation of the people"—he seemed reconciled. "What", he reasoned, "is a country justly considered, but a free constitution"?
In his last years, in the 1840s, Jemmy Hope chaired meetings of the Repeal Association. Hope had his doubts about the nature of the movement Daniel O'Connell launched in the wake of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 to reverse the Acts of Union and to restore the Kingdom of Ireland under the Constitution of 1782. The Presbyterian districts in the north in which he believed "the republican spirit" had run strongest were never again to support an Irish parliament.
In 1799, in Philadelphia, Thomas Ledlie Birch published his Letter from An Irish Emigrant (1799) which maintained that the United Irish had been "goaded" into insurrection by "rapines, burnings, rapes, murders, and other sheddings of blood". But, in Ireland the first public rehabilitation came in 1831 with The Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1831), described by the author, Ireland's national bard, Thomas Moore as a "justification of the men of '98--the ultimi Romanorum of our country". In 1832 Moore declined a voter petition to stand as a Repeal candidate. He could not pretend with O'Connell that the consequence of Repeal would be less than a real separation from Great Britain, something possible only if Catholics were again "joined by dissenters".
In breaking with O'Connell, Young Irelanders proposed to forge this renewed unity in the struggle for tenant rights and land ownership. Gavan Duffy recalled from his youth a Quaker neighbour who had been a United Irishman and had laughed at the idea that the issue was kings and governments. What mattered was the land from which the people got their bread. Instead of indulging "Gallic passions" and singing the Marseillaise, what the men of '98 should have borrowed from the French was "their sagacious idea of bundling the landlords out of doors and putting tenants in their shoes".
For O'Connell, who believed Dublin Castle had deliberately fomented the rebellion as a pretext for abolishing the Irish parliament, unionist sentiment in the north was simply the product of continued Protestant privilege. Were this abolished with the repeal of the Union, "the Protestant community would with little delay melt into the overwhelming majority of the Irish nation". For nationalists, it remained the "sad irony" of 1798 that by a system of often marginal advantages "the descendants of the republican rebels" were "persuaded" to regard "the 'connection with England' as the guarantee of [their] dignity and rights."
Focused on breaking "the connection with England", Unionists argued that Repealers, Home-Rulers and Republicans misrepresented the true object of the United Irishmen. There was, they insisted, no irony and no paradox in descendants of the United Irish entering a Solemn League of Covenant to maintain their country as the United Kingdom. Had their forefathers been offered a Union under the constitution as it later developed there would have been "no rebellion": "Catholic Emancipation, a Reformed Parliament, a responsible Executive and equal laws for the whole Irish people—these", they maintain, were "the real objects of the United Irishmen".
Noting that "the United Irishmen were, after all, anything but united", a major history of the movement observes that "the legacy of the United Irishmen, however interpreted, has proved as divisive for later generations as the practice of this so-called union did in the 1790s". Writing on the 200th anniversary of the uprising, the historian John A. Murphy, suggests that what can be commemorated—other differences aside—is "the first time entrance of the plain people on the stage of Irish history." The United Irishmen had "promoted egalitarianism and the smashing of deference." After their defeat in the Battle of the Big Cross in June 1798 (the only United uprising in Munster where local Defenderism, the "Rightboys", had been broken a decade before), the Clonakilty Catholics were harangued in their chapel by Rev. Horace Townsend, chief magistrate and Protestant vicar.
Reflect with remorse and repentance on the wicked and sanguinary designs for which you forged so many abominable pikes... Surely you are not foolish enough to think that society could exist without landlords, without magistrates, without rulers... Be persuaded that it is quite out of the sphere of country farmers and labourers to set up as politicians, reformers, and law makers...
What Townsend and the Ascendancy feared most of all were "the manifestations of an incipient Irish democracy". "In the long run," concludes Murphy, "the emergence of such a democracy, rudimentary and inchoate, was the most significant legacy" of the United Irishmen.