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Introduction


The United Irishmen


THE SOCIETY OF UNITED IRISHMEN was founded as a political organisation, openly putting forward its policies of democratic reform and Catholic emancipation, reforms that the Irish Parliament—dominated as it was by the landlord Ascendancy—was incapable of granting and the British government just as unwilling to enforce.
   
     Public opinion, including Protestant public opinion, was coming to demand these reforms. The democratic ideas of the American and French Revolutions were gaining steadily in support, especially in Belfast, as shown by the popularity of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Theobald Wolfe Tone’s Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. According to Paine, 16,000 copies of his pamphlet were sold in England that year, but 40,000 in Ireland.
     So 1791 was an auspicious time to launch the Society of United Irishmen, with the purpose of establishing a “cordial union” of Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, an objective far in advance of anything the reformers of the day would propose—Grattan’s Parliament, the Catholic Committee, or the leadership of the Volunteers, all of whom feared the advent of democracy, for different reasons.
     The initial strategy of the United Irishmen therefore was to appeal to public opinion, especially through the press. The Northern Star was begun by Samuel Neilson immediately and started publication in January 1792, surviving all attempts to suppress it legally until its presses were smashed by the Militia in 1797. The success of the paper was extraordinary, and it soon built up a circulation of 4,000 (as much as the Times of London), not only in the Belfast area, where it was appealing to a highly literate and politically conscious audience, but reaching as far as Ballyshannon and even Waterford.
     In Dublin also there was a proliferation of political clubs and debating societies, a ready audience for the revolutionary propagandists of the Northern Star and the many political pamphlets produced by the United Irishmen and others. To quote its enemies (from the speech of a prosecuting barrister in 1797),
the Northern Star is the principal and most powerful of all instruments for agitating and deluding the minds of the people. The circulation too is great beyond example. The lowest of the people get it; it is read to them in clusters.
     According to the Lord Chancellor, Fitzgibbon,
the Press has been used with signal success as the engine of rebellion. Sedition and treason have been circulated with unceasing industry in newspapers and pamphlets, in handbills and speeches, in republican songs and political manifestoes.
     Organisationally, Neilson had proposed setting up a secret society, no doubt anticipating trouble; but the societies operated quite openly, the Dublin society meeting in the Tailors’ Hall. While the membership was not enormous, its influence spread rapidly; in particular, support for parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation grew, and the anniversary of the French Revolution was celebrated in 1792, as it had been in 1791. John Keogh reported in 1792 that “Belfast is decided on the Catholic question and its neighbourhood daily converting.”
     The United Irishmen lobbied the delegates to the Catholic Convention in 1792, urging them to accept nothing less than full Catholic emancipation—in contrast to the hierarchy’s policy of loyal supplication. The Presbyterian church adopted the policy of Catholic emancipation and elected a United Irishman, William Steele Dickson, as moderator in June 1793.
     The convention of the Volunteers in Dungannon in February also supported emancipation and reform, though it did not condemn the war with France and rejected republicanism. This has been presented as a defeat for the United Irishmen; but the government seems not to have thought so, since it disbanded the Volunteers shortly afterwards and furthermore brought in a “Convention Act,” forestalling the United Irishmen’s plan for a national convention.
     Britain declared war on France in February 1793. This was naturally denounced by the United Irishmen as a “war not to punish crimes but to persecute principles, entered into by tyrants and abettors of tyranny when France had committed no crime, unless the emancipation of 24 million people is a crime.”
     The war, of course, completely changed the position of the United Irishmen. It became increasingly difficult to operate openly, and the Dublin society was closed down by the authorities in 1794. By this time it had already gone underground.
     The United Irishmen transformed themselves in a relatively short time into a secret oath-bound organisation seeking alliance on the one hand with revolutionary France and on the other with “that very respectable class, the men of no property.” Tone, Neilson and Russell had been holding discussions with the Defenders, the Catholic secret society that had originated in Co. Armagh in self-defence against the sectarian Peep o’ Day Boys, who, on the pretext of searching for arms, had terrorised the Catholic population and driven many families from their homes. The Defenders had expanded far beyond their county of origin, even to Dublin, and had recruited from all classes. Many of the political clubs supported by artisans and labourers also joined.
     The United Irishmen expanded rapidly, swearing hundreds of thousands into their organisation and preparing for an armed rising, hopefully with French help, for which purpose Tone had been sent to France.
     The brief episode of Fitzwilliam’s Viceroyalty in 1795 raised hopes of reform once more. Fitzwilliam had been appointed Viceroy because a group of Whigs had joined the British government. He was out of sympathy with the Irish Ascendancy and set about preparing reforms and conciliating the Catholics; but, at the behest of the Irish parliamentary leadership, he was recalled after only a few months, to be replaced by Camden, who favoured a policy of repression and fomenting sectarian division. This did not prevent him from laying the foundation stone of Maynooth College in 1796, to the immense gratitude of the Irish bishops, who repaid him with their loyalty in ’98.
     The Orange Order, sponsored by the landed gentry of Co. Armagh, now had the support of the state, and established lodges in Dublin and elsewhere. The Yeomanry was set up as an armed force of the loyal Protestants, which Orangemen were encouraged to join. The Militia, on the other hand, was largely composed of Catholics, though officered by Protestants.
     Tone had been well received by the Directory in France, who sent an expeditionary force to Ireland, which failed to land at Bantry Bay in 1796, with catastrophic results. The government, alarmed at its narrow escape, intensified its repression. General Lake set about a campaign of terror in Ulster to disarm and cow the people and break the United Irish organisation.
     The leadership of the United Irishmen prevaricated about a rising throughout 1797. Still expecting help from France, they feared rising prematurely; yet all the time the campaign of terror and the work of government spies were wrecking the organisation. Jemmy Hope and others were impatient for a rising, which stood a good chance of success even without the French had it gone according to plan; however, the arrest of Edward Fitzgerald and the Dublin leadership foiled the rising in the capital, and in the event the only serious insurrections were in Counties Wexford, Antrim, and Down.
     The success, if temporary, of the Wexford rising shows not that the strategy was wrong but the lack of resolution that prevented it from being put into effect. The “foreign aid” men, so despised by Hope, feared to make any attempt at a rising without French aid—or perhaps feared the radicalism of the class they organised. Their organisation had been a formidable one, even under the pressure of government repression, the attrition of its leadership, and the failure of French help. According to Castlereagh, “Rely upon it, there never was in any country so formidable an effort on the part of the people.”
     But the great strategic flaw was the failure to establish an alliance with Irish-speaking Ireland. When General Humbert arrived belatedly at Killala, the Mayo peasants rose to join the French, showing that Irish Ireland was prepared to fight, if not for the same reasons. The Irish translation of Rights of Man was sorely missed.

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