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The Revolution of 1798

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Events Leading Up To The 1798 Revolution:

In Ulster, in 1784, the competition between Catholics and Protestants lead to the formation by Catholics of an organization known as the Defenders. This organization spread to the South, particularly to County Wexford, and eventually blended with the United Irishmen in the 1798 Revolution.

The principles of freedom and reform had been spreading in Ireland, largely due to the influence of the American and French Revolutions. Theobald Wolfe Tone, a lawyer from County Kildare, was greatly influenced by the French Revolution. He saw it as "the dawn of a new and perfect age". He saw in Ireland all the injustice that had been renounced by the French. He attacked the system of government of Ireland and the English rule that supported it, at first within the law, but, eventually, with armed insurrection.

In 1791, Tone published a pamphlet, "A Northern Whig", attacking the 1782 constitution. Hoping to speed reform of the Irish government in Dublin, he advocated cooperation between Catholics and Dissenters. In October 1791, with Rowan Hamilton, Napper Tandy, and other Protestants, he formed the Society of United Irishmen, with headquarters in Belfast. The aim was: (1) to abolish all religious distinctions, (2) to unite all Irishmen against the unjust influence of England, and (3) to secure true representation in a national parliament.

In January 1792, Presbyterians in the North founded a journal, "Northern Star", published in Belfast. The Scots-Irish had had more freedom than many others and were prepared to push for still more.

Pitt, the English prime minister, promised to support further efforts leading to Irish emancipation. The majority of the Irish Executive in Dublin, however, were concerned about their own position and power and so refused to honour Pitt's promises. The Catholic Relief Bill was passed, but with only minor concessions.

The English king gave support to the Irish reformers and influenced Parliament to pass a new Catholic Relief Act in 1793. This act enabled Catholics (1) to bear arms, (2) to become members of corporations, (3) to vote as forty-shilling freeholders in counties and open boroughs, (4) to act as grand jurors, (5) to take degrees in Dublin University, (6) to hold minor offices, and (7) to take commissions in the army below the rank of general. Catholics were barred, however, from holding seats in Parliament and offices in the government and state. A bill proposing to admit Catholics to Parliament was defeated 163-69.

The French Revolution had thrown into panic the ruling classes of England and Ireland, and they refused to support the needed reforms. The bishops, priests, and ruling classes of the Catholic Church also supported the status quo since they were afraid of the atheism and revolutionary ideas of the French. Thus, the lower classes began to embrace Jacobin ideas in opposition to England and to the English connection. The Church of Ireland ascendancy, although only one tenth of the population, owned five-sixths of the land and supported a harsh landlord system.

Further reforms came in 1793 with the Pension Bill and the Place Bill. The awarding of pensions had been used primarily for bribery, but the Pension Bill excluded all pensioners from Parliament and reduced allowable pensions from L120,000 to L80,000. The Place Bill ruled that members accepting government positions must resign their seats, although they were permitted to seek re-election.

Strong counter-measures soon came into effect. The Arms Bill decreed the formation of a militia and forbade the carrying of arms by all except government forces, thus ensuring strong opposition from the common people. The Convention Act forbade the assembling of any bodies calling themselves representatives of the nation.

In January 1795, Lord Fitzwilliam, an Irish landowner friendly to the Catholic cause, was appointed Lord Lieutenant. He planned to bring about full Catholic emancipation, but the establishment opposed him and influenced Pitt to withdraw his support. Pitt instructed Fitzwilliam not to introduce any proposal to admit Catholics to Parliament and to government offices, but to support such a measure if it were brought forward by others. King George was persuaded that the admission of Catholics to Parliament and offices of state would violate the Coronation Oath sworn to maintain the Protestant Constitution. Fitzwilliam was recalled.

Fitzwilliam was succeeded by Lord Camden, who was instructed to oppose Catholic emancipation and the reform of Parliament.

Now Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen began to consider revolution. The legal and public oath of the United Irishmen was changed to a secret and revolutionary one. The United Irishmen's Directory in Dublin began to organize Ireland on a military basis, and emissaries were sent to France to elicit the support of the French government.

On September 21, 1795, an armed encounter between Catholics and Protestants, the Battle of the Diamond, took place in County Armagh, resulting in the death of twenty or thirty Defenders. As a result, the Orange Order was formed to maintain the Protestant Constitution and to defend the Protestant king and his heirs. The continuing religious struggles drove many Irish Catholics into the poor farming province of Connacht and others into joining the United Irishmen.

The Insurrection Act, passed early in 1796, mandated that (1) the Lord Lieutenant could place any district under martial law, (2) all arms were to be produced, (3) the death penalty be imposed for administering an unlawful oath, (4) any taking such an oath be transported, and (5) magistrates be empowered to seize any subjects and send them to serve at sea.

In November 1796, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended for the whole of Ireland.

From March to October of 1797 the disarming of Ulster took place. The government formed another armed force, the Yeomanry, in which Protestant tenants and townspeople were under the command of the gentry. Because of the brutality of these troops and the intransigence of the government, many looked to France and some even considered union with France to be an acceptable alternative to union with England.

Wolfe Tone, who was now in France, was determined to break the hold of England on Ireland. He convinced the French to attempt the invasion of Ireland and, on December 15, 1796, sailed to Bantry Bay with forty-three French ships and fifteen thousand troops. Unfortunately, poor seamanship and rough weather combined to prevent their landing, and they were driven back to France.

On October 11, 1797, a second attempt by the French to invade Ireland was also defeated, and, following this, there was little further French support for the Irish rebels.

In an effort to suppress any seditious movement, the military in all Ireland were encouraged to use the same brutal methods as had been used in Ulster - floggings, burnings, tortures, shootings, and hangings.

Armed rebellion broke out in Meath, Leinster, Ulster, and, with particular strength, in County Wexford. The Revolution of 1798 had begun.


Bibliography:
Curtis, Edmund: A History of Ireland; Methuen and Co. Ltd.; 1936.
Beckett, J.C.: The Making of Modern Ireland: 1603-1923; Alfred A. Knopf; 1972.
Edwards, R. Dudley: A New History of Ireland; Gill and Macmillan Ltd.; 1972.
Orel, Harold, ed.: Irish History and Culture: Aspects of a People's Heritage; The University Press of Kansas; 1976.


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