Approacing the 1798 Revolution
The Revolution of 1798
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
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
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
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
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.
Curtis, Edmund: A History of Ireland; Methuen and Co. Ltd.; 1936.
Beckett, J.C.: The Making of Modern Ireland: 1603-1923; Alfred A.
Edwards, R. Dudley: A New History of Ireland; Gill and Macmillan Ltd.;
Orel, Harold, ed.: Irish History and Culture: Aspects of a People's
Heritage; The University Press of Kansas; 1976.
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