Irish Rebellion of 1798 (2713 words)

Historical Context Essay

James Anthony Shanahan (Trinity College Dublin)
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The last civil disturbance in Britain or Ireland to feature full-scale battles, the 1798 rebellion was the bloodiest domestic event on either island of the last two hundred years, and led to the Act of Union that absorbed Ireland fully into the United Kingdom in 1801. Ireland had been on the threshold of insurrection since 1795, and the rising finally broke out in late May 1798, raging throughout the summer, particularly in the south-east, north-east and west of the country. The rebellion can be seen as having three distinct phases and theatres. The eastern province of Leinster saw armies as large as 20,000 in the field, and major battles were fought, particularly in county Wexford. In early June largely Presbyterian rebel armies were defeated at Antrim and Ballynahinch in the north-east, and in August a small French force landed in the west, where, supplemented by an army of local rebels, they fought their way inland until being finally defeated by massively superior government forces at Ballinamuck, co. Longford. Modern estimates of the numbers killed in the rebellion and the equally brutal mopping-up period that followed range up to 30,000, the vast majority of whom were either active on the rebel side or perceived to be so.

The roots of the 1798 rebellion lie deep in the complex political and social situation in eighteenth-century Ireland, and in the political developments in the American colonies and in France. The seventeenth century had seen a great transfer of land ownership from Catholic to Protestant hands, and this continued into the following century. Although sharing the same monarch with Britain, eighteenth-century Ireland was a separate kingdom with its own parliament, albeit one subject to veto by Westminster. Effectively a sectarian state, the country was controlled by an elite drawn from the members of the Anglican established church. Catholics, who made up seventy percent of the total population, and, to a lesser extent, Dissenters, were affected by a series of restrictions known as the penal laws, which for much of the century essentially precluded non-Anglicans from political life, and imposed severe limitations on their right to practise their religion, and to own or inherit property. These laws were gradually repealed until by 1793 almost all these restrictions were removed. The right to sit in parliament continued to be withheld from Catholics, something which was seen to confirm their status as second-class citizens within the state. However, even amongst the Anglican elite (the so-called “Protestant nation”, and later, the “Ascendancy”) a form of Irish patriotism developed during the century, and a series of high profile disputes with Britain sharpened their sense of separateness, something seen both in the writings of Jonathan Swift and in a new interest in the history of ancient Ireland and Gaelic culture. This patriotism facilitated the establishment of a volunteer force to protect the island in the 1770s which developed into a patriotic organisation with a political reform agenda. In 1782, the British parliament, bowing to pressure from the Volunteers and “patriots” in the Irish legislature, granted Ireland increased control over its own legislative and commercial interests – the so-called “Grattan's parliament”. The writings of Tom Paine and the principles and ideas promulgated in the American and French revolutions had a particular attraction for Irish Dissenters, who were mainly concentrated in the northern province of Ulster. The second half of the eighteenth century, however, was also a time of great sectarian tension in Ireland. Catholic resentment over the penal laws, and increased competition between Catholics and Protestants for land (particularly in the north of Ireland) saw agrarian tensions rise in the last decades of the century. A Catholic organisation called the Defenders was formed as a response to Protestant “Peep-O-Day” boys, and in 1795 a new organisation called the Orange Order was formed to protect and promote the “Protestant” interest. By 1795 it was clear that the ruling elite was not prepared to countenance any more political and religious reforms, and their orchestrated removal of a reforming lord lieutenant convinced many that only revolution could effect further change.

The catalyst for rebellion was the avowedly non-sectarian United Irishmen, initially founded in 1791 to campaign constitutionally for reform but which developed into a secret revolutionary organisation dedicated to establishing an independent Irish republic along French lines. To this end it had negotiated for French assistance and elements of a 12,000-strong invasion force had only narrowly failed to land in the south-west of Ireland in late 1796. Mainly composed of liberal middle-class Protestants and radical Dissenters, the United Irishmen also established an alliance with the Defenders, who had a rudimentary political programme of their own, but it was an uneasy and ultimately unreliable partnership. At its height the United Irishmen may have had over 300,000 members, although only a fraction were involved in the rebellion. The government, through its network of spies and informers, were aware of the United Irish plans and embarked on a policy of extensive and brutal “pacification” in the years before the rebellion that, while upsetting the United Irish structures, also provoked even more resentment amongst the people. In March 1798 the government arrested most of the known leaders of the United Irishmen in Leinster and the capture on 19 May 1798 of the proposed rebellion's titular leader, the radical peer Lord Edward Fitzgerald, forced the rump leadership into action.

The rebellion initially broke out in Dublin four days later. Although the rebels failed to take the capital, rebellion quickly spread to the neighbouring counties of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. Within a few days it had reached the south-eastern counties of Carlow and Wexford, where the bloodiest and most intensive fighting took place. On 28 May a rebel army captured the Wexford town of Enniscorthy, and walked virtually unopposed into Wexford town itself the following day. Early June saw the Wexford rebels attempting to break out of the county, but without success. The first serious setback for the rebel forces occurred at New Ross on 5 June, when an army of 10-15,000 rebels was repulsed with heavy casualties after initially taking the town. A further setback at Arklow put the rebels on the defensive. Gathering at Vinegar Hill, overlooking the town of Enniscorthy, the rebels made a last stand against a government force of some 10,000 men on 21 June. While the outcome was never in doubt, the rebels made more of a fight of it than their opponents expected, and many escaped. Despite sporadic and often successful activity in parts of Kildare and Wicklow, Vinegar Hill essentially signalled the end of the Leinster rebellion as a full-scale military operation, although some weeks later a 4,000-strong rebel army was still in the field, eventually surrendering in co. Kildare in mid July. Some rebels retreated to the Wicklow hills where under the command of resourceful leaders they continued to wage a guerrilla-style campaign for some years, playing a part in Robert Emmet's rebellion of 1803.

On 7 June the second theatre of action opened up in the north of Ireland, when rebels attacked and occupied most of the major towns in north and east co. Antrim, and an army of several thousand, mainly Presbyterian United Irishmen, attacked the strategically crucial town of Antrim itself. After initially taking the town, rebel reinforcements were panicked after running into retreating government forces and this panic spread to the defending rebels, who themselves retreated from the town. Informers had ensured that the government was aware of the United Irish plan and most of the proposed leadership had either been arrested or refused to take the field. Nonetheless, the activity in Antrim had spurred the rebels of neighbouring co. Down into action, and a 7,000-strong rebel army was defeated at Ballynahinch on 13 June. The rebel campaign in the north had suffered a leadership crisis from the very outset, and was also undermined by sectarian mistrust between the largely Presbyterian United Irishmen and their Catholic Defender allies. This mistrust was exacerbated by well-publicised government reports of atrocities committed by some Catholic rebels in Leinster against Protestants.

Just as it seemed the danger was over, a third phase of the rebellion began when the long-awaited French aid finally arrived on 23 August. A small force of about a thousand French soldiers landed in co. Mayo, on Ireland's west coast. Quickly gathering a native army of about 5,000, the army moved south and then east, hoping to link up with rebel forces in the north and the midlands. They won a number of morale-boosting victories along the way, including a rout so emphatic that it became known as “the Races of Castlebar”. Hopelessly outnumbered, the commanding officer, General Jean Joseph Humbert, eventually made a stand at Ballinamuck on 8 September when his 2,000-strong army faced perhaps 15,000 government troops. After a short battle the French commander surrendered with honour. While Humbert and his French troops were treated with all courtesy his Irish allies were left to fend for themselves, and most were massacred on the field or while they tried to escape. Humbert's army was merely part of a much larger French invasion force which had been blockaded in France. Later, on 16 September and on 12 October, other elements of the French invasion force did reach the Irish coast. On the second occasion Theobald Wolfe Tone, one of the chief United Irish leaders and their emissary to France, was captured. Awaiting execution for treason, he died from injuries inflicted by his own hand.

The most immediate consequence of the 1798 rebellion was the Act of Union that absorbed Ireland into the United Kingdom in 1801. Ireland had shown itself to be both ungovernable and a security risk to the British state. The rebellion itself also dealt a body-blow to the nascent alliance of “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”, and the nineteenth century largely saw a continuation of the sectarian politics that had marked previous centuries. Gradually Protestants saw their interests as best served within the Union, while the cause of Catholics and Irish nationalism began to fuse into one. Today, the 1798 rebellion remains a controversial and contested topic. Central to the historical debate is the question of politicization and the extent to which the rebellion was inspired by the ideals of the United Irishmen or was a spontaneous “jacquerie” response motivated by sectarian hatred and provocation by the activities of the government and its agents.

The Literary Legacy of 1798

The 1798 rebellion was one of the most important topics in Irish letters in the nineteenth century. A sophisticated propaganda war in print began almost immediately in pamphlets, magazines, ballads, histories and personal accounts of the rebellion. Ultra-Protestant polemicists tried to portray 1798 as another Catholic conspiracy against the Protestants of Ireland on the lines of the 1641 rebellion, while Catholic apologists sought to absolve their co-religionists from responsibility, pointing out that the most of the leadership of the United Irishmen were Protestants or Dissenters, as were most of the rebels involved in the northern rebellion. The 1798 rebellion played an important role in shaping the Irish novel and also in highlighting the limitations of the nineteenth-century novel form for reflecting the Irish historical experience. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the distinctive contribution of Irish nineteenth-century writers to the development of the novel form, the “national tale” – a form of novel designed to explain Ireland and the Irish to an implied English reader – as practised by writers like Maria Edgeworth, Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) and Charles Maturin – was as much inspired by a need to contextualise the perceived horrors of the 1798 rebellion as it was a response to a new interest in Ireland amongst Britons after the Union.

Major writers of the early nineteenth century tended to avoid dealing with 1798 directly, although the rebellion's shadowy presence can be seen in two of the most popular Irish novels of the early nineteenth century: Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800) and Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl (1806). Edgeworth later explicitly featured the rebellion in Ennui (1809). The “Melodies” of the poet Thomas Moore, who knew some of the most prominent figures of both the 1798 rebellion and Emmet's rebellion of 1803, also contained sympathetic references to the more romantic and tragic figures of the period. The rebellion was a persistent topic for novelists from the start: the earliest 1798 novel, the anonymously-penned The Rebel: or, a Tale of the Times, was published in 1799, and the rebellion became the single most popular Irish historical topic of the nineteenth century, inspiring over one hundred novels. Anti-Jacobin novelists in both Britain and Ireland used 1798 as an example of the dangers of the French Revolution closer to home, and its all-pervasive influence can be seen in the fact that when Lady Caroline Lamb wished to portray her one-time lover Lord Byron as the worst kind of villain, she recast him as an 1798 rebel leader in her bestselling novel Glenarvon (1816). The first known Irish-American novel, The Irish Emigrant (1818), is based on the adventures of a United Irishman in the New World. Among liberal authors the rebellion was also used to advance the argument for Catholic Emancipation, and the desirability of incorporating Catholics fully into the British state so as to avoid a reoccurrence of rebellion.

The advent of Sir Walter Scott's “Waverley” novels provided a template that allowed novelists of the 1820s to bring 1798 out of the gothic and into the realm of the historical, and for the first time the rebellion began to be portrayed realistically and with a level of historical detachment: James McHenry's O'Halloran; or, the Insurgent Chief (1824), an account of the rebellion in the north, was one of the most regularly reprinted Irish novels of the nineteenth century. The rebellion in the east, however, remained a contentious subject for longer, and it was not until the publication of Michael Banim's The Croppy (1828), that any attempt was made to portray the Wexford rebellion in any detail in a novel. The granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 retrospectively justified some of the aims of the United Irishmen, and a series of hagiographic accounts of the leaders in the 1830s and '40s further rehabilitated them, paving the way for a series of novels that concentrated on the idealism rather than the actuality of the rebellion. This was most notable in novels which replaced the actual rebellion with an idealised one, or which concentrated on why the rebellion that occurred was not the one planned by the leaders. These novels served a useful purpose in highlighting the more noble aspects of the United Irish project; something often obscured in the attempt to achieve a grand synthesis or make a political point. The notion of heroic and idealistic figures engaged in an endeavour that was doomed from the start also struck a chord with a Victorian public attracted to melodrama and sentimentality. Many broadly nationalist and broadly unionist novels about 1798 in the nineteenth century focus on the fact that the 1790s in Ireland was a missed opportunity to right the political wrongs and the injustices of the country and thereby avoid another century of religious and political strife. As such, although many of the novels can be seen as propaganda for a particular political viewpoint, the 1798 rebellion also proved to be a useful outlet for a residual form of Irish patriotism that was uneasy with the nationalist vision of the Irish nation that developed over the nineteenth century. Fenians, Young Irelanders and Catholic nationalists (often called “faith and fatherland” writers) all saw historical novels as a way of educating Irish people about the history of Ireland, and 1798 was the archetypal historical “moment” for Irish novelists in the nineteenth century. As the centenary of the rebellion approached, ballads and plays about the rising and its principal characters became more common. W.B. Yeats' own play about the 1798 rebellion, Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), is often credited with inspiring a new generation of militant Irish nationalists that were subsequently involved in the 1916 Rising; something acknowledged by the poet himself. In ‘Man and the Echo' from Last Poems (1939) Yeats asks: “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?”.

1798 as a topic for historical novels was not quite as prominent in the twentieth century, perhaps because the 1916 Rising took over as the totemic rebellion moment. However Thomas Flanagan's novel about the western rebellion, The Year of the French (1979), remains one of the best historical novels written about Ireland, principally because it reflects the complexity of Irish life in a way that recalls the national tales of the early nineteenth century.

Citation: Shanahan, James Anthony. "Irish Rebellion of 1798". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 January 2008 [, accessed 29 January 2022.]

962 Irish Rebellion of 1798 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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