The United Irishmen

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


Portrait of Theobald Wolfe Tone

WHILE these events were transpiring in Ireland the French revolution had burst forth, shaking the whole fabric of European society, rending old systems with the terrible force of a newly-appeared explosive power. Everywhere its effects were felt. Everywhere men were struck with wonder. Everywhere the subtle intoxication of the revolutionary doctrines symbolized by the terrible drapeau rouge, fired the blood of political enthusiasts. Some hailed the birth of the French republic as the avatar of freedom;[1] others saw in it the incarnation of anarchy and infidelity; an organized war upon social order and upon the Christian religion. It instantly arrayed all Europe in two fiercely hostile camps. Each side spoke and acted with a passionate energy. Old parties and schools of political thought were broken up; old friendships and alliances were sundered forever, on the question whether the French revolution was an emanation from hell or an inspiration from heaven.

Ireland, so peculiarly circumstanced, could not fail to be powerfully moved by the great drama unfolded before the world in Paris. Side by side with the march of events there, from 1789 to 1795, was the revelation of England's treason against the "final adjustment" of Irish national rights, and the exasperating demeanor, language, and action of the government in its now avowed determination to conquer right by might. At the close of 1791, Theobald Wolfe Tone—a young Protestant barrister of great ability, who had devoted himself to the service of the Catholics in their efforts for emancipation—visiting Belfast (then the center and citadel of democratic and liberal, if not indeed of republican opinions),[2] met there some of the popular leaders. They had marked the treacherous conduct of the government, and they saw no hope for averting the ruin designed for Ireland save in a union of all Irishmen, irrespective of creed or class, in an open, legal, and constitutional organization for the accomplishment of parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. Such an organization they forthwith established.

Tone, on his return to Dublin, pushed its operations there, and it soon embraced every man of note on the people's side in politics. The association thus established was called the Society of United Irishmen. For some time it pursued its labors zealously, and, as its first principles exacted, openly, legally, and constitutionally toward the attainment of its most legitimate objects. But the government was winning against the United Irish leaders by strides—pandering to the grossest passions and vices of the oligarchical party, now sedulously inflamed against all popular opinions by the mad-dog cry of "French principles." One by one the popular leaders, tired in the hopeless struggle, were overpowered by despair of resisting the gross and naked tyranny of the government, which was absolutely and designedly pushing them out of constitutional action. Some of them retired from public life. Others yielded to the conviction that outside the constitution, if not within it, the struggle might be fought, and the United Irishmen became an oath-bound secret society.

From the first hour when an armed struggle came to be contemplated by the United Irish leaders, they very naturally fixed their hopes on France; and envoys passed and repassed between them and the French Directory. The government had early knowledge of the fact. It was to them news the most welcome. Indeed they so clearly saw their advantage—their certain success—in arraying on their side all who feared a Jacobin revolution, and in identifying in the minds of the property classes anti-Englishism with revolution and infidelity, that their greatest anxiety was to make sure that the United Irishmen would go far enough and deep enough into the scheme. And the government left nothing undone to secure that result.

Meanwhile the society in its new character extended itself with marvelous success. Its organization was ingenious, and of course its leaders believed it to be "spy-proof." Nearly half a million of earnest and determined men were enrolled, and a considerable portion of them were armed either with pikes or muskets. Indeed, for a moment it seemed not unlikely that the government conspirators might find they had overshot their own purpose, and had allowed the organization to develop too far. Up to 1796 they never took into calculation as a serious probability that France would really cast her powerful aid into the scale with Ireland. In the instant when England, startled beyond conception, was awakened to her error on this point by the appearance in Bantry Bay, in December, 1796, of a formidable expedition under Hoche [3]—a sense of danger and alarm possessed her, and it was decided to burst up the insurrectionary design—to force it into conflict at once—the peril now being that the armed and organized Irish might "bide their time."

To drive the Irish into the field—to goad them into action in the hour of England's choice, not their own—was the problem. Its accomplishment was arrived at by proceedings over which the historical writer or student shudders in horror. Early in 1796, an Insurrection Act was passed, making the administration of an oath identical with or similar to that of the United Irishmen punishable with death. An army of fifty thousand men, subsequently increased to eighty thousand, was let loose upon the country on the atrocious system of "free quarters." Irresponsible power was conferred on the military officers and local magistracy. The yeomanry, mainly composed of Orangemen, were quartered on the most Catholic districts, while the Irish militia regiments suspected of any sympathy with the population were shipped off to England in exchange for foreign troops. "The military tribunals did not wait for the idle formalities of the civil courts. Soldiers and civilians, yeomen and townsmen, against whom the informer pointed his finger, were taken out and summarily executed. Ghastly forms hung upon the thickset gibbets, not only in the market places of the country towns and before the public prisons, but on all the bridges of the metropolis. The horrid torture of picketing, and the bloodstained lash, were constantly resorted to to extort accusations or confessions."[4] Lord Holland gives us a like picture of "burning cottages, tortured backs, and frequent executions." "The fact is incontrovertible," he says, "that the people of Ireland were driven to resistance (which, possibly, they meditated before) by the free quarters and excesses of the soldiery, which were such as are not permitted in civilized warfare even in an enemy's country. Dr. Dickson, Lord Bishop of Down, assured me that he had seen families returning peaceably from mass, assailed without provocation by drunken troops, and yeomanry and their wives and daughters exposed to every species of indignity, brutality, and outrage, from which neither his (the bishop's) remonstrances nor those of other Protestant gentlemen could rescue them, "[5]

No wonder the gallant and humane Sir John Moore—appalled at the infamies of that lustful and brutal soldiery, and unable to repress his sympathy with the hapless Irish peasantry—should have exclaimed, "If I were an Irishman, I would be a rebel!"


[1] The sentiments evoked in the breasts of most Irish patriots by the first outburst and subsequent proceedings of the French revolution—enthusiasm, joy, and hope, followed by grief, horror, and despair—have been truthfully expressed by Moore in the following matchless verses:

"'Tis gone and forever—the light we saw breaking
Like heaven's first dawn o'er the sleep of the dead;
When man from the slumber of ages awaking,
Looked upward and blessed the pure ray ere it fled.
'Tis gone—and the gleams it has left of its burning
But deepen the long night of bondage and mourning
That dark o'er the kingdoms of earth is returning,
And darkest of all, hapless Erin, o'er thee.

"For high was thy hope when those glories were darting
Around thee through all the gross clouds of the world:
When Truth, from her fetters indignantly starting,
At once like a sunburst her banner unfurled!
Oh! never shall earth see a moment so splendid.
Then—then—had one Hymn of Deliverance blended
The tongues of all nations, how sweet had ascended
The first note of liberty, Erin, from thee!

"But shame on those tyrants who envied the blessing,
And shame on the light race unworthy its good,
Who at Death's reeking altar, like furies caressing
The young hope of Freedom, baptized it in blood!
Then vanished forever that fair sunny vision
Which, spite of the slavish, the cold heart's derision,
Shall long be remembered—pure, bright, and elysian,
As first it arose, my lost Erin, on thee!"

[2] In July of that year (1791), the French revolution was celebrated with military pomp in Belfast by the armed volunteers and townspeople.

[3] This expedition had been obtained from the French Directory by the energy and perseverance of Wolfe Tone, who had been obliged to fly from Ireland. It was dispersed by a storm—a hurricane—as it lay in Bantry Bay waiting the arrival of the commander's ship. This storm saved the English power in Ireland.

[4] M'Gee.

[5] Lord Holland, "Memoirs of the Whig Party."