1798: Ireland’s year of liberty

Submitted by AWL on 1 July, 2008 - 9:56 Author: Pat Murphy

Who fears to speak of Ninety-Eight?
Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate
Who hangs his head for shame?


(full poem)
From May to September of 1798 the power of Britain in Ireland was threatened by fierce rebellion. The rising had the character of a forest fire. It was rarely clear where the main centre was. When any significant source of unrest was identified and attacked it appeared that the real danger lay somewhere else.

The Catholic peasants of Wexford, driven to desperation by savage landlordism, created a movement powerful enough to capture and hold Wexford town and many of its outlying areas. At one stage it seemed that the Wexford rebels would link up with their comrades from Carlow and Kilkenny and march on Dublin. In June mainly Protestant Ulster caught the revolutionary fever. Finally in August a fleet of ships carrying over a thousand officers and men from revolutionary France landed with the intention of bolstering the insurrection.

English rule in Ireland did indeed totter in 1798 — but it survived. More than that, the limited independence Ireland had experienced up until then was abolished after the rebellion and replaced by the Act of Union. More than 30,000 Irish, overwhelmingly peasants, were slaughtered in the months of revolt. The immediate political legacy was one of repression, terror and communal division. In the longer term the legacy of 1798 was much more positive and honourable: the emergence of modern democratic politics in Ireland.

The roots of such a powerful upheaval were deep but the catalyst was without doubt the success of the recent revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789). The Irish leaders were drawn, in the main, from the professional educated middle classes and were inspired by the ideas of Tom Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau. Their aim was not only to end English rule but to establish a society based on “the rights of man,” the sovereignty of the people, and in the language of this new radicalism, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

Given the basic facts of Irish society at the end of the eighteenth century these leaders were of course Protestant. For that reason the age old movement to allow the Irish people the right to self-rule was transformed and redefined. No longer was it only a movement to avenge the wrongs historically done to the “native” Catholic Irish by “perfidious Albion”, that is, an essentially backward-looking movement attempting to undo the conquest of Ireland by England. That aspect of Irish nationalism exists still but since 1798 it has had to compete with a much more dynamic and progressive tradition. 1798 saw the birth of Irish Republicanism and although, like communism and socialism, all sorts of abominations have been committed in its name the central idea it introduced into Irish politics was consistent democracy. The famous definition of republican aims provided by Theobald Wolfe Tone has lost none of the radical democratic edge it had then and compares well with the demagogy and practice of much recent republicanism: to replace the names Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman.

Ireland in 1798

As the eighteenth century drew to a close Ireland appeared to have one foot in the new world of emerging capitalism and the other in a particularly repressive and constraining feudalism. Belfast and Dublin were substantial bourgeois centres with a sizeable class of artisans and wage labourers. For all that the bulk of the people were very poor peasants — in parts of the country barely subsisting — and the economy depended on agriculture. Poor harvests, disease and famine were recurring threats.

Political power was in the hands of the English government at Westminster and their representative in Dublin, the Viceroy, but Ireland had its own parliament too. However, the Irish, like the British, had an electoral system restricted to the privileged and riddled with rotten boroughs. This was 30 years before even the middle class gained the franchise in the 1832 Reform Act. A United Irish movement pamphlet painted a graphic picture of the Irish political system:

“17 boroughs have no resident elector; 16 have but one; 90 have 13 electors each; 90 persons return (MPs) for 106 rural boroughs — that is 212 members out of 300; 54 members are returned by five noblemen and four bishops.”

In Ireland there was an additional injustice. The franchise for Protestants may have been ludicrously restrictive but there were votes and “elected” members from the richest section of that community. But the continuing existence of the so-called penal laws excluded Catholics from any effective political rights, from the right to stand for parliament to the right to vote. Ireland’s three million Catholics were subject to parliament’s laws and had to pay heavy taxes despite their penury — but they had no right to political representation.

The vast majority of Catholics had much more immediate concerns and little or no access to political ideas of any sort. Their main grievances, crippling tithes and taxes and religious persecution, could only be answered through the conquest of political power, however, and they were sympathetic to forces which offered a way out. Throughout the century peasants had protected their interests or wreaked revenge on their landlords through a series of secret societies like the Ribbonmen and Defenders.

This was a political system which excluded the middle class too and which was designed to protect the interests and maintain the power of the old aristocratic class. The growing anachronism of this system was perhaps most keenly felt in Ulster, where industry and trade were more developed and the land system less oppressive. Ulster had a rural as well as an urban bourgeoisie and was able to nurture the classes of merchants, artisans, farm labourers and industrial workers required by an early industrial society. Economic power was increasingly in the hands of this emerging bourgeoisie while political power remained the preserve of the big landowners. Ulster was experiencing more sharply than the other provinces the contradictions which in France, and later in other European countries, produced social and political revolution. There would be unique problems for revolutionaries in Ireland, though, as winning the support of the people, and above all the peasantry, meant bridging a deep-rooted and poisonous religious divide. The Irish revolutionary movement had to convince the Catholic peasantry that they and the radical Protestants had more than a common enemy in Britain. It needed to convince them that they had a common future in Ireland.

Despite the final outcome the attempt was inspirational, a great democratic moment in the history of a divided people still rich with lessons for those who believe that the unity of Ireland’s workers is the precondition for that country’s democratic unity.

The Year of Liberty

Not quite two years before the United Irish revolt French ships carrying 12,000 troops and the United Irish leader Wolfe Tone arrived unseen and unchallenged just outside Bantry Bay, a large naval base in Cork. This amazing success was outweighed by the fact that they could not land due to the unfavourable winds. After six days of waiting dangerous storms blew up and the attempt to land was abandoned. The fleet returned to France and Ireland had to wait a while longer for her revolution. Historians have speculated fruitlessly ever since about how different the next 200 years might have been had Tone landed. Loyalists have been happy to hum the Lillibulero and thank “the Protestant wind”.

From 1797 societies of United Irishmen were established all over Ireland. The movement was secret and complex in structure. Led by a Directory there were committees in every province and substantial organisations in practically every town. This was without doubt a mass movement. Secret minutes passed over to the authorities by an informer revealed that the organisation had nearly 300,000 men under arms, which was five times the numbers of government forces. It was also a movement with important connections to the English Jacobin movement of the time, no small matter in 1797 when two major naval mutinies and a number of smaller disturbances threatened to pave the way for a revolution at the heart of the empire, backed by European invasion.

When the United Irish movement was ready to launch a full-scale revolt, however, the British government was much better prepared and the revolutionaries were in some disarray. Wolfe Tone was in exile in France where he remained throughout the key months, attempting to revive the idea of a supportive French invasion. The leadership in Ireland lay in the hands of people like Thomas Addis Emmet, whose brother Robert would lead the first revolt against the Union in 1803, Arthur O’Connor and the radical brother of Lord Leinster, Ireland’s largest landowner, “Lord” Edward Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a committed advocate of the ideas of Paine and Rousseau who had railed against hereditary power and wealth and resigned his seat in the Irish parliament after an earlier campaign against the government. Dublin Castle was shocked at how well placed and “respectable” many of the revolutionary leaders were. They were nevertheless divided on tactics and riddled with informers. These two fatal factors had the effect first of delaying the rising, second of breaking down its co-ordination and third of keeping the government reasonably well-informed of developments.

In March 1798, on the basis of information from a prominent informer, police broke up a meeting of the Leinster Directory of the United Irishmen, arresting the main leaders. There were some escapes and some absences but others were rounded up soon afterward and the documents captured were probably just as important. As the movement’s leaders delayed their planned rising in the hope of a French invasion the government’s actions were forcing the issue. Martial law was declared in a number of counties around Dublin and the people were instructed to hand over all weapons before all hell was let loose. A blank cheque was given to the most bloodthirsty army officers to make examples of and torture suspects in public in the hope that this would both unearth weapons and rebels and discourage the peasantry from giving rebellion any support. The brutality unleashed in Kildare, Meath and Wicklow certainly reduced the resources and morale of the underground movement but it also put an end to prevarication. This carefully-built and ambitious political force could either fight or surrender. Bit by bit it chose to fight.

In May the counties surrounding Dublin rose up in a revolt that shook the confidence of the authorities. Just as they thought they had pacified the worst areas towns began to fall, garrisons were captured and odd survivors arrived in Dublin, scaring the powerful and cheering the people with stories of disorder and defeat. In truth the revolt had already failed to go to plan. What should have been a co-ordinated rising at the western borders of the three main counties of Wicklow, Kildare and Meath, stopping the mail coaches so that the counties further west would know the time had come to rise up, was patchy and chaotic. Enough was achieved to ignite the powder keg, however, and it would be five months before Dublin Castle regained control of the area beyond the pale.

By the end of the month the flames had spread south to Wexford. Fired by news of the successes to their north and angered by evidence of massacres and brutality by the army and police a peasant army led by Father John Murphy took to the roads and attacked the houses of landlords and government supporters. Troops were swept aside and reinforcements from the harbour town of Wexford were, unbelievably, defeated by the mass of untrained peasants armed mainly with pikes. By the beginning of June the two major towns of Enniscorthy and Wexford were in the hands of the rebels.

“That the long dreaded day, when the French revolution would spread to Ireland, had now arrived was all too clear to the gentlefolk of Wexford. They found their own tradespeople, their hatters and tailors, their coachmen and boatmen and shopkeepers, the solid and dependable foundations of the old social order, were their masters in the new.” (Thomas Pakenham: The Year of Liberty)

Then, also in June, the revolution spread to Ulster. The first rising there broke out in Antrim followed within days by a similar outbreak in Down. As in the south it was in the hinterland of the major city that the revolutionary movement struck its first blows. The leader in Ulster was Henry Joy McCracken, a Presbyterian cotton manufacturer and longstanding member of the United Irishmen. Ulster had at one time been the movement’s strongest area, shaped and held together by McCracken and Tone. McCracken was socially more radical than most of the other leaders. The revolt he led would certainly be hard. Not only was Ulster more tightly controlled by government forces but the mainly Protestant-led rebellion would need support from the more downtrodden Catholics, who barely trusted their comrades-in-arms and felt they would be treated a good deal more harshly in the event of defeat.

The government began to turn back the tide in the summer. Once they had prevented the attempt to surround and attack the capital they consolidated their grip on the surrounding counties with a mixture of offers of amnesty and threats of destruction. That done they began to concentrate on the relief of Wexford, a possible point of invasion, where the rebels held a sizeable number of loyalist prisoners. By the end of June the army had retaken Wexford, ending three weeks of rebel control. The peasant army, much reduced but not crushed, marched to link up with areas to the north still controlled by their comrades. While they succeeded in this these remnants were mopped up by the army in the following weeks. By the end of July the revolt to the south and west of Dublin was a shadow of what it had been. The rising in the north had been defeated in battle and McCracken arrested.

In August 1798 the Irish revolution experienced one final injection of hope. At last the revolution in France came to the aid of the people of Ireland. On August 23 a French force of 1,100 men landed at Killala on the coast of Sligo at the far west of Ireland. Led by a General Humbert they found very little resistance. After a period settling in the town, establishing local contacts and recruiting support they began to extend their territory. They captured the towns of Ballina and Castlebar and from then until the end of the rebellion in September they and their Irish allies were the government in what became known as the Republic of Connaught. Humber’s wider plan, however, was to march toward Dublin to meet up with and encourage the revolutionaries in other counties and link up with a much bigger invasion force due to arrive soon after his. This force would bring with it the leader of the new Ireland, Wolfe Tone.

In different circumstances this plan could have revived the movement. In the conditions which existed it was a false dawn. Humbert travelled far but found only a brave few scattered rebels and a demoralised, leaderless people. He was finally surrounded and captured near a small village called Ballinamuck on the border of County Longford.

The fleet of ships carrying Wolfe Tone was intercepted in early October. Tone was captured and brought to Dublin in early November. His final act of rebellion was to deny the British the opportunity to give him a public execution. He committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor in his cell. He took a week to die.

The Legacy

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion the British government decided to adopt a new and more drastic solution to the Irish question. They concluded that the self-government that had existed until this point had not only been ineffective but had contributed to the revolutionary mood. It would be replaced with an Act of Union which would ensure that Ireland would be governed from the Westminster parliament on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Opponents of the United Irish movement cite this as proof of the folly and failure of the revolt. Even in the short term, however, the Act of Union was seen as a defeat mainly for the tiny aristocratic oligarchy which had run the Irish parliament. It was the beginning of the end for the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, as the following century would show. Most importantly the real legacy of the United movement is not, as James Connolly put it, “their military exploits on land and sea, their hairbreadth escapes and heroic martyrdom,” but instead their work as, “pioneers of democracy in Ireland.”

In the 200 years since the “Year of Liberty” the United Irishmen have suffered a further fate, one familiar to heroic failed revolutionaries. All sorts of movements and people have claimed to stand in their tradition. In nationalist Ireland they were universally celebrated and commemorated earlier this year. For socialists, however, what is important about this movement and this moment is what was new and radical at the time, because it hasn’t lost its revolutionary edge. The United Irishmen insisted that Ireland’s problem was not simply who ruled the country but how it was ruled, and they understood that it was only possible to fight for democracy with a movement built on democracy. Thus the question of the religious divide in their country was an immediate practical one which could not be dodged. They did not overcome that divide, but in the attempt they created the most serious and united challenge so far to the subjugation of the Irish people.

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