Politics and Administration in Ireland, 1770-1815.

Contributors: JK.


1. Introduction

While the years 1715-70 were not without drama, such crises as occurred were confined within the political framework that sustained Protestant ascendancy in Ireland and did not threaten the political and constitutional order established in the 1690s. The late eighteenth century was more eventful. Irish Protestants contrived firstly to reconfigure the Anglo-Irish nexus, and when this did not go far enough to meet all needs, a range of reformist and, subsequently, revolutionary interests, embarked on a course of action that challenged not just the traditional bases of Protestant ascendancy, but the very Anglo-Irish connection.

The termination of the undertaker system of parliamentary management during the vice-royalty of Lord Townshend (1767-72), and the invigoration of Patriot politics, encouraged by the example of the discontented American colonists, introduced a new and less predictable note into Irish political life during the 1770s. Demands for change to the commercial and constitutional regulations that governed Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain accelerated, culminating in commercial and constitutional concessions in 1780 and 1782 that placed the Anglo-Irish nexus on a more equal footing. The constitutional changes implemented in 1782 had the potential, were they followed by equally significant internal reforms, to reshape the nature of domestic Irish politics. However, the determination of the Protestant elite to maintain its near exclusive command of the representative system, allied to their unwillingness to seek to reform the relationship of the executive and parliament acted as a severe brake on change post 1782. The decade was formative, none the less, as positions adopted during these years prefigured the more adversarial positions taken in the 1790s. Then, set against the backdrop of the great seismic event of the era—the French Revolution—Irish politics polarised as radicals eager to reconstruct the basis of domestic government embraced a programme of major reform while their conservative opponents rallied to defend the existing social order. The most influential organisation promoting radical change was the United Irishmen, but the stern opposition of the authorities to their reformist agenda caused them to embrace a physical force revolutionary strategy that culminated in rebellion in 1798. The object of the United Irishmen in 1798 was to create an independent Irish republic; their failure hastened the Act of Union, whereby from January 1801 Ireland sent one hundred MPs to Westminster. Set against the background of ongoing war with Napoleonic France, this worked well at the outset, but the failure to deliver on the promise to admit Catholics to parliament was a bad augury for its continuing acceptance.

2. The politics of the Irish Parliament

As Lord Townshend had demonstrated during his controversial vice-royalty (1767-72), the ability of Dublin Castle to acquit itself of the responsibility for maintaining a working majority in the House of Commons depended on a number of factors, one of which was the skill of the Lord Lieutenant as a man-manager. The adroitness with which Townshend allocated the patronage at his disposal to win over the disaffected and to secure the loyal was also crucial, since a majority of MPs were eager to secure place, pension or a peerage for themselves or members of their family. Patronage was the lubrication that turned the wheels of eighteenth-century politics, and while a minority of country gentlemen adhered to the stance advised by the most principled

Patriots, and refused all forms of blandishment, they were a minority. A number, such as Henry Flood, who accepted a vice-treasurership in 1775, took office in the expectation that they would be better positioned to influence government, but a majority were prompted by more selfish motives. This was sufficient in ordinary times, as Earl Harcourt, who succeeded Townshend as lord lieutenant (1772-6), demonstrated, to maintain the working majority required to ensure the enactment of the necessary financial and other legislation and to maintain political stability. His less capable successor, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, encountered severe problems partly because he and his inadequate chief secretary, Richard Heron, were less adept man-managers. However, the main cause of difficulty for Buckinghamshire was the emergence of a more assertive, better organised and more numerous Patriot interest.

3. The American War of Independence & the rise of patriotism

The active Patriot interest in the House of Commons in the 1760s experienced a series of setbacks in the early 1770s as many of its most prominent members—Henry Flood, Edmond Sexton Pery, William Osborne and Charles Lucas—were lost to its ranks through the combination of death and desertion. The situation was more encouraging outside parliament, as the inspirational examples of John Wilkes, the controversial advocate of parliamentary reform in England, and the American colonists, whose intensifying resistance to the attempt to tax them without representation, encouraged middle-class political activists like James Napper Tandy in Ireland. Their ability to propound their agenda was assisted by a more vigorous popular press. The foundation in 1771 of the Hibernian Journal was noteworthy in this respect, as its combined with the Freeman’s Journal, established eight years earlier, to provide an influential platform for both the articulation and dissemination of Patriot views, and both were to the fore in making clear the extent of popular Protestant unease with the war in America.

Opinion in parliament was more divided between the loyal supporters of British government in Ireland, who were of the opinion that it was the duty of Irish Protestants to rally to the Crown at moments of crisis, and those Patriots who apprehended that in Britain prevailed in North America that ministers would pursue an equivalently unacceptable policy in respect of Ireland. They made their discontent with the war clear by opposing the suggestion that 4000 troops on the Irish army establishment should be made available for duty in America, and by resisting an economically damaging embargo on Irish exports. However, it was not until 1776, when their numbers were reinforced by in the general election held that year, that the Patriot interest took the challenge to the administration in the House of Commons.

Among the notable additions to their ranks in the mid-1770s was Henry Grattan, who was returned to represent the constituency of Charlemont, Co. Armagh, at the behest of the leading Patriot peer, Lord Charlemont. As a newcomer, Grattan was but one of a now strong phalanx of Patriots, which included Denis Daly, George Ogle and Barry Yelverton, but they made such a powerful impression that nervous officials in London determined in 1778 to relieve Ireland of the more onerous of the restrictions that had long bound Ireland’s right to trade. Public opinion in Ireland was buoyed by the prospect, but their optimism turned to disappointment, and disappointment to anger when the concessions sanctioned were less generous than those initially suggested because of opposition from British mercantile interests. Unwilling to accede any longer in a situation that set them at a disadvantage compared to Britain, and impelled by domestic economic difficulties, large swaths of the public vowed to support a non-importation and non-consumption campaign aimed at British produce in order to bring pressure to bear on ministers to concede what became known as ‘free trade’.

Campaigns aimed at promoting home consumption such as that pursued in the late-1770s can be traced back to the 1730s. The current non-importation and non-consumption campaign directed at Britain, which was the kingdom’s main trading partner, was more overtly political from the outset, but what served to transform it into an irresistible political force was the support provided by the Volunteers.

4. The Volunteers

As a consequence of the depletion of the army establishment in order to make soldiers available for military service in America, Protestants throughout the kingdom came together in voluntary paramilitary units (Volunteers) to assist with the maintenance of law and order. To this end, Volunteer corps participated in the interdiction of agrarian discontent in the south-east in 1776-7. Internal disorder remained a concern, but following the intervention of France on the side of the American colonists in June 1778, Protestant apprehension of an invasion appreciated, and the formation of Volunteers corps proceeded apace. From an estimated 12,000 in the spring of 1779, their number grew dramatically to an estimated 41,000 in September. The authorities regarded this development with unease because the Volunteers were outside their control, but since they had neither the resources to fund an alternative nor the moral authority to assert control over the existing corps, they could but watch on helplessly. This might not have been a matter of concern were the Volunteers content, as their predecessors had been in 1745-6 and 1756, to perform the role of citizen-soldier. However, the growth in popular politicisation in the interval meant that the members of the many Volunteer Corps formed in the late 1770s were more politicised, and their political sensibility was intensified still further by their participation in Volunteering.

5. ‘Free Trade’, 1779-80

This was highlighted by the support forthcoming from Volunteers corps across the county for the non-importation and non-consumption campaign. Encouraged thereby to believe that they could extract concessions from the government, the interlocking and overlapping leadership of the Volunteers and Patriots in parliament vowed to press for concessions when parliament resumed in October 1779. To this end, the more politicised Dublin Corps took to the streets on a number of occasions in a conscious show of support for the demand for what was now termed ‘free trade’. This climaxed with a major demonstration before the houses of parliament on 4 November. As this was the date when the state honoured the memory of William of Orange, the Volunteers’ presence at College Green was not in itself remarkable, but their deployment of placards bearing slogans demanding ‘free trade’, which they attached to the pedestal of King William’s equestrian statue was an eloquent, and symbolically significant, testament to their resolve. Moreover, it complemented the success of the Patriots in the House of Commons in bringing pressure to bear on the government by agreeing only to fund the governing of the kingdom for six months rather than the usual two years. Realising that the alternative to concession was disorder, the British government capitulated and in the spring of 1780 made the required legislative provisions to enable Irish merchants to trade abroad and within the empire on the same terms as their British equivalents.

6. Legislative Independence, 1780-83

Lord North, the British prime minister, who authorised ‘free trade’, anticipated that what he perceived as an exceptionally generous concession would discourage the agitation of constitutional questions, which some within the patriot fold perceived as their next object. The unwillingness of a majority of MPs in April 1780 to approve a motion to advance this aspiration proposed by Henry Grattan, and differences with the ranks of the Dublin Volunteers that had resulted in Napper Tandy’s expulsion suggested North’s wish might be granted. The recall of the Earl of Buckinghamshire and Richard Heron and their replacement by the much adroit team of Lord Carlisle and William Eden was also helpful, as they managed successfully to restore some coherence to the previously faltering ranks of the administration in parliament in 1781 by detaching Barry Yelverton and Denis Daly from the Patriots ranks. As a result, the attempts that were made late in 1781 advance a programme of constitutional reforms that included the amendment of Poynings’ Law, repeal of the Declaratory Act and a Mutiny act failed to come to pass.

In response the Volunteers of Ulster, who were the most numerous and, outside of a selection of Dublin corps, the most politicised in the country, organised a delegate convention at Dungannon in February 1782. Encouraged by Henry Grattan, Lord Charlemont and Henry Flood, the object was to galvanise and channel support behind a refocused campaign that, as well as legislative independence, embraced the issue of Catholic relief. The public response was encouraging, but what proved crucial in ensuring that concessions followed was a change of government, as the failure of the British military in North America resulted in a Whig government, and the replacement of Lord North by the Marquis of Rockingham, and of Lord Carlisle by the Duke of Portland, who became lord lieutenant of Ireland.

Portland’s first inclination on his arrival in Ireland was to open up negotiations with Lord Charlemont and Henry Grattan as the moderate face of Irish patriotism. His object was a ‘reciprocal compact’ whereby Britain and Ireland would establish their respective rights and responsibilities in the event, as was now widely anticipated, that the Declaratory Act was repealed and Poynings’ Law amended. Grattan and Charlemont were eager to remain on good terms with the Whigs, but they were categorical that there could be no compromise on the matters at issue because they were, as Grattan put it succinctly, ‘our rights’. The House of Commons concurred when on 16 April it unanimously approved a motion to this effect proposed by Grattan, and the relevant legislative changes were agreed soon afterwards.

Grattan was now the hero of the hour, and the confident expectation in Ireland was that the kingdom was at the dawn of a new more inclusive era internally and externally. The prospect to being able to legislate free of the restrictions required to conform to Poynings’ Law, of not being legislated for by the British parliament, and of fixing the court of dernier appeal in Irish law cases in the Irish House of Lords was genuinely exciting, and the buoyant mood of the country reflected this fact. Some of this optimism was depleted by an unseemly row within the ranks of the Patriots and the Volunteers as to whether it was necessary, in order to secure legislative independence against future encroachment, that the British parliament should formally renounce its previous claim to legislate for Ireland. Advocated with most conviction by Henry Flood, he enjoyed something of a pyrrhic victory when ministers finally agreed formally to ‘recognise’ Ireland right to legislative independence in 1783.

Though it can legitimately be argued that this put the copingstone on legislative independence, the reality was that there were bigger and more crucial matters that needed to be addressed if the Irish parliament was to operate as an independent legislature. The most important of these was the relationship of the executive, headed by the lord lieutenant, and parliament. Henry Flood did raise the matter, but the easily aroused disinclination of Irish Protestants to do anything that might be seen to injure their relationship with Britain ensured it was not taken up, though the failure to deal with it meant the administration could not be called to account by parliament. To make matters worse, the administration was left entirely at liberty to use the considerable resources at its disposal to continue to construct a majority in the House of Commons, and thereby to ensure that it was enabled to control its legislative output.

7. Parliamentary Reform, 1783-85

This was situation some middle class activists, whose involvement with the Volunteers and the campaigns for free trade and legislative independence had radicalised politically, deemed should be remedied through the reform of the representative system. Guided initially by the Ulster Volunteers, a nationwide demand to reform parliament by expanding the franchise in boroughs climaxed in a Grand National Convention of Volunteer delegates in Dublin in November 1783. Confidence was high in some quarters that parliament could no more resist the will of the people on this issue than they could have done with respect of free trade and legislative independence. However, in this instance both MPs and peers had something personal to lose and, fearing for their ability in the future to control parliament, they decisively rejected the proposition.

It was not the first reversal the alliance of Volunteers and Patriots had experienced, but in contrast to previous instances in which they were enabled to recover lost ground, a moderate reform bill was lost in the spring of 1784. Defiant to the last, a loose coalition of experienced Protestant activists, headed by Napper Tandy, middle class Catholics who were out of favour with their more conservative leaders, and a small number of Presbyterians, endeavoured to press onward. They advocated a still more radical programme of reform that included Catholic enfranchisement, which their critics within the reform movement and ideological opponents without gratefully seized upon to consign the cause of reform to a crushing defeat in the winter of 1784-5.

8. Reaction in the 1780s

The defeat of the campaign to reform the legislature effectively destroyed the liberal Patriot-Volunteer coalition that had done so much to re-shape the Anglo-Irish nexus in the late 1770s and early 1780s. With it in decline, the British government deemed it a timely moment to attempt to redress the inadequacies of the constitutional settlement concluded in 1782. This had been a matter of concern for successive ministers and officials since 1782. Their concerns were eased to some extent by the recruitment in 1783-4 of a number of exceptional Irish politicians – notably, the attorney general John FitzGibbon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Foster, and the chief commissioner of the revenue, John Beresford – who were determined to sustain a strong Anglo-Irish connection. However, the prime minister, William Pitt, wished to go further. He was impressed by Adam Smith, and persuaded by his reading of Smith’s great work, Wealth of Nations, that Britain’s fears that Ireland might become more distant would be prevented if the two kingdoms were bound together in economic union, he effectively proposed their commercial integration.

The very novelty of Pitt’s plan excited unease. Most politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea adhered to traditional mercantilist doctrines, and were therefore more familiar with the rationale for protecting duties than they were with the logic of tariff free trade. This stirred considerable discontent, but when Pitt was obliged by purely factional opposition in Britain, aimed at removing him from power, to add a provision stipulating that future commercial regulations in Ireland would mirror those applied in Great Britain, Irish Patriots, led by Henry Grattan, raised a cry about the 1782 constitution. It was not enough formally to defeat the measure, but the crucial vote in August 1785 to admit the measure was approved by such a narrow margin that Pitt determined not to proceed.

This was a serious reversal, but otherwise matters went in the government’s favour as successive parliamentary meting of the Irish parliament in the second half of the 1780s were uneventful. The administration profited from the increasingly conservative mood of the decade, symbolised by the adoption of the term ‘Protestant ascendancy’, as Irish Protestants conceived that the Church of Ireland was under threat as a result of the attempt by the Rightboys agrarian movement to interdict the payment of tithe. The seriousness of the Rightboys challenge was much exaggerated, but the readiness of conservatives to stand forward to defend their ‘constitution in church and state’ in 1787-88, anticipated the greater ideological challenge they were to face in the 1790s. Those of a reform-minded disposition, by contrast, had little about which to enthuse in the mid and late-1780s, though the foundation of an Irish Whig Club in 1789, in response to a series of dismissals arising out of a short-lived crisis provoked by the temporary incapacity of George III, offered some hope for the future.

9. The impact of the French Revolution

In common with most other European jurisdictions, the response to the French Revolution in Ireland was sharply divided. For reformers and radicals eager to reconstitute their own society, the ability of the French to throw of decades of absolutist rule encouraged them to believe that they could restructure their own society in accordance with the principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité, whereby people were no longer subjects but citizens. The warmth of their response was symbolised by Tom Paine’s paean, The Rights of Man, which was published in an Irish edition and circulated in unprecedented number. Conservatives, by contrast, were horrified at such a prospect. They despised the ‘levelling doctrines’ of the early Revolution, which they equated with anarchy, and were encouraged by the potent combination of self-interest and the intervention of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the French Revolution was a rallying cry of counter-revolution, to resist it as atheistic, anti-aristocratic and inherently anti-natural.

To be sure, the outbreak of the French Revolution seemed in the first instance to enhance the prospects of moderate reform, as attention focussed firmly on parliament. Encouraged by the this, and by the organisational stimulus provided by the Whig Club, Henry Grattan, George Ponsonby, John Forbes and other leading opposition politicians sought to promote a political programme that included parliamentary reform, Catholic enfranchisement and the reduction in political patronage by capping the pension list. They registered modest success in respect of the latter only. Catholics were also admitted to vote in 1793, but this was attributable to the effectiveness of the Catholic Committee, which appealed to the British government above the heads of the Irish administration. Anxious not to discommode Catholics, and convinced that it was no longer in their interest to rely wholly on Protestants to maintain control of Ireland ministers acceded, in 1792, to the removal of most of the remaining restrictions on Catholics in employment and in education. This did not go far enough to meet Catholic demands, and they organized a Catholic Convention, which met in Dublin’s Tailors’ Hall towards the end of 1792, to press for admission to the political process. Ministers agreed, and Catholics were admitted to the franchise on the same terms as Protestants by a reluctant Irish parliament in 1793. Ministers were encouraged to take this dramatic step in the expectation that it would diminish the appeal of radicalism, as represented by the United Irishmen.

10. The United Irishmen

The United Irishmen attests most vividly to the radicalising impact of the French Revolution on Irish politics. It also drew on a domestic radical tradition, symbolised by the fact that its founder members included William Drennan, Napper Tandy and Theobald Wolfe Tone, who had been active in the campaign for parliamentary reform in the 1780s. Tandy and Tone were members for a time of the Whig Club, till they became impatient with its refusal to pursue a programme of reform that would open up the political process to more middle class participation. Having concluded that this required a new organisation, Drennan, a medical doctor from Belfast based in Dublin, advocated the establishment of a Brotherhood committed to the pursuit of ‘the rights of man’, the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and ‘the real independence of Ireland’.

Tone aspired to go further; he urged that any new society must endeavour to create ‘a cordial union among all the people of Ireland’, and he played a vital part in making this possible with the preparation of his seminal tract An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. In this, Tone cogently urged the justice of political rights for Catholics, and his Argument left such a deep impression that previous reservations were overcome and the first Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in October 1791. With the establishment in Dublin a few weeks later of a Dublin Society, headed by Napper Tandy, the way was clear for the United Irishmen to embark on the advancement of their agenda.

Conscious that they could only achieve their revolutionary ambitions to reform the Irish political system with public support, the United Irishmen prioritised the politicisation of the population. This required a concerted propaganda effort, and the United Irishmen deftly availed of all available media to ensure their revolutionary message was afforded maximum exposure. In the literary sphere, they used pamphlets, newspapers (the Northern Star, founded in 1792, was their primary organ), handbills, and ballads, to access different social interests with variable levels of literacy. They organised public meetings, marches, celebrations and other events in an attempt to rally the population physically; and they promoted symbolic gestures such as the planting of trees of liberty and the wearing of green ribbons and cropped haircuts.

The direction of the organisation during this phase in its existence was assumed by the Dublin Society. It was more open than its Belfast equivalent, and therefore more easily penetrated by spies and informers working on behalf of Dublin Castle, which regarded the organisation with acute unease. In keeping with its overwhelmingly middle-class membership (attorneys, doctors, book-sellers and printers featured prominently), the Dublin Society prioritised the restructuring of the political system. To this end, the Dublin Society allocated much effort to preparing a plan of reform, while activists aspired to regenerate the conditions that had enabled the public to secure constitutional reforms in 1782. Napper Tandy’s contribution to this effort centred on reviving the Volunteers and creating a French style National Guard. A delegate Convention was also convened at Dungannon in February 1793, but the authorities were unyielding. Firstly, they closed off this avenue of activity by banning the National Guard, by replacing the Volunteers with a militia that was under their control, and by proscribing the holding of conventions. Secondly, and more seriously, they responded to the outbreak of war with France in February 1793, which the United Irishmen opposed, by pursuing its leadership. Some were tried and imprisoned. Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone left the country. And thirdly, once they were in a position to establish a direct link between the United Irishmen and France, they ordered the organisation’s suppression in May 1794.

Obliged to change if it was to endure, the events of 1793-4 provided United Irishmen, like Thomas Russell and Samuel Neilson, who were sceptical of the reformist strategy pursued since 1791, with an opportunity to reconstitute the organisation along revolutionary lines. To this end, links had already been established with the Defenders, a radical agrarian movement, based in County Armagh. A crucial next step was taken in May 1795 when a meeting of delegates at Belfast determined to reconstitute the movement along lines that were, they conceived, resistant to infiltration, and agreed to embark on a programme of intense recruitment. The object was to create a mass-based revolutionary movement committed to the establishment of an independent Irish republic. The rate of recruitment was not even across the country. It was fastest in Ulster, where the combination of the juncture with the Defenders in South Ulster and the enthusiasm shown by Presbyterians in counties Antrim and Down witnessed the admission of tens of thousands of members. The situation was more uneven elsewhere, but claims that tens of thousands had joined in counties as diverse as Cork and Westmeath, and that they could bring as many as 40,000 into battle encouraged the leadership to conclude that a successful rebellion was possible.

The key to success, the leaders of the movement concluded, was French assistance. Since the French had supported revolutionary movements elsewhere on the continent, there was considerable optimism that they would do likewise in Ireland. The task of convincing them that it was in their interest to do so fell to Wolfe Tone, who proved a shrewd and resourceful diplomat. He convinced the French that they could launch a successful descent on Ireland that would serve the valuable strategic purpose from their perspective of trying down British forces while permitting the United Irishmen to achieve their political objectives. A French fleet, commanded by General Hoche, attempted an invasion of Ireland in December 1796, but a combination of bad weather and bad luck ensured that there was no landing of troops and that the hoped for rebellion did not take place. This did not inhibit the United Irishmen, with Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Arthur O’Connor to the fore, from continuing to plan for this eventuality. However, they were obliged to operate in an increasingly hostile security climate that diminished their prospects of doing so successfully.

11. Counter-revolution and the Orange Order

To conservatives, eager to uphold the status quo, their fortunate escape from a French invasion and rebellion in the winter of 1796-7 underlined the necessity of a vigorous counter revolutionary strategy. They had not been inactive locally since the suppression of the United Irishmen in 1794. However, at a national level the political instability associated with the brief, and controversial lord lieutenancy of the liberal Earl Fitzwilliam (August 1794-February 1795) had proved more advantageous to their opponents. In an attempt to counter this in mid-Ulster, where the activities of the Defenders had long given conservatives cause for concern, some landowners concluded that they should follow the example of the United Irishmen, who had entered into an alliance with the Defenders, and forge an alliance with the Peep O’ Day Boys.

The Peep o’ Day Boys had emerged in County Armagh in the 1780s as a consequence of lower class Protestant fears that the acquisition of arms by Catholics arising from their participation in the Volunteers posed a serious threat to the security of Protestants at large. Both the authorities and the local gentry were ill at ease initially with their obvious sectarianism, but attitudes softened palpably in the early 1790s as the Defenders, who had come into being to defend Catholics from the Peep O’ Day Boys, became more politicised and were adopted by the United Irishmen as a partner in revolution. Meanwhile, as antagonism between the Peep O’ Days Boys and Defenders intensified in the increasingly tense atmosphere of the 1790s, clashes became more frequent and more violent, climaxing in 1795 with the notorious Battle of the Diamond in which 40 Defenders were killed. Significantly, the Peep O Day Boys were the more aggressive, and it was consistent with the increasingly political colour of their interventions that they determined, in the wake of this event, to place their organisation on a more formal footing, arising out of which the Orange Society was formed.

This might not have happened but for the support forthcoming from a number of gentry families who perceived that the Orange Society could perform a crucial role in resisting the spread of radicalism. It was a perceptive judgment as the emergence of an ideologically coherent and organisationally strong popular conservative interest between the United Irish heartland of east Ulster and the Defender heartland of south Ulster acted as an important brake on the growth of radicalism in the province. No less significantly, it encouraged others to extend the principles of Orangeism to Dublin, north Connacht, and into Leinster with the same purpose in mind. It was not so effective here, but the rapid spread of the Society across the country served generally to affirm the resolve of Protestant landowners, magistrates and clergy during the difficult years of the late 1790s.

The usefulness of the Orange Order as a means of promoting counter-revolution was complemented by the augmentation of the powers available to the authorities. Perhaps the most important, because it constituted the means by which a large part of the Protestant population was enlisted in the cause was the establishment of the yeomanry in September 1796. Numbering an already impressive 20,000 in 1797, its membership reached 40,000 in June 1798. The ratification in 1796 of the Insurrection Act, which gave the military power to proclaim districts, to search for arms and to dispatch suspects to the fleet was also of enormous significance, since it provided the means by which the authorities were enabled to disarm Ulster. This took nearly a year to complete, but it served greatly to weaken radicalism in its heartland. A similar, though still more draconian, policy of free quarters applied in the spring of 1798 had an equivalent effect in north Leinster.

12. The 1798 Rebellion

The effectiveness of the authorities’ intervention to curb the revolutionary capacity of radicalism in Ulster and north Leinster inevitably diminished the capacity of the United Irishmen to launch a nationwide rebellion without French assistance. This was most manifest in Ulster, but the impressive recruitment drive and reorganisation engaged in by the Dublin United Irishmen in 1797 and early 1798 compensated in considerable part for the weakening of the movement elsewhere. As a result, the strategic direction of the United Irish movement passed from the Ulster to the Dublin-based Leinster Directory, which intensified planning for a rebellion to commence in May 1798. They conceived of a rebellion in three phases: phase one involved taking Dublin city and environs; during phase two the rebellion would extend beyond the metropolis into the surrounding counties; while phase three would take in the rest of the country. The United Irish leadership, headed by Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Samuel Nielson, were confident that with the benefit of surprise, this plan would succeed, but the betrayal of the Leinster Executive by Thomas Reynolds, just weeks before the signal was scheduled to be given, was a devastating setback. It also served to alert the authorities, which dealt the rebels a further serious blow when they captured and mortally wounded Fitzgerald.

As a result, when the signal was given for the rebellion to commence, the planned capture of Dublin failed. There were a number of essentially small-scale disturbances in the nearby counties of Meath and Kildare, but the rebel presence was insufficient to sustain control for any length of time. The attempt, by remnants of the United Irish organisation, led by Henry Joy McCracken, in Antrim and Down was more substantial, but despite some encouraging early successes in County Antrim, the rebel army was soundly defeated when in encountered regular military at Ballynahinch on 12 June.

This left the Wicklow-Wexford theatre as the main sphere of rebellion. This took many, including experienced United Irishmen by surprise, but the acute sectarian animosity that had developed over many decades between liberal Protestants and Catholics on the one side and stern proponents of Protestant ascendancy on the other had sharply polarised politics in the region. Allied to this, both the Orange Society and United Irishmen were quietly active, with the result that when the signal for rebellion reached County Wexford a substantial peasant army assembled. A number of early successes, reinforced by deeply held sectarian animosities, boosted the morale of those in arms. Wexford town and other urban centres in the county and nearby south County Wicklow were captured; initial steps were taken to develop a form of a republican government, and it appeared for a brief moment that Wexford might provide the spark that would set the county alight. However, superior military forces ensured the rebellion was contained within the south-east, and following the crushing defeat of the main rebel force at Vinegar Hill on 22 June, the remnants of the rebellion was put down with savage ferocity. Atrocities were perpetrated by both sides, as sectarian tensions were laid bare. The most widely publicised were those perpetrated by rebels at Wexford Bridge and Scullabogue Church in which Protestants were piked and burned in a horrifying manner, but they were dwarfed by the many Catholic peasants that fell victim to the harshness with which law and order was imposed by frequently vengeful magistrates and soldiers in the aftermath of the rebellion.

Modern estimates put the total number of casualties in County Wexford at 6,000. This is a long way short of the 30,000 frequently claimed, but the total is less important than the fact that this was the single most costly disruption to civil order to have taken place since the William War. It would, in all likelihood, have been substantially more if the French expedition, commanded by General Humbert, that briefly took control of north Connaught in the late summer, had been earlier and larger. However, it was defeated at Ballinamuck, County Longford on 8 September, thereby bringing the 1798 rebellion to a close.

13. The Act of Union

It has long been argued that the British government was prompted to opt for an Anglo-Irish union by the 1798 Rebellion. This is correct in so far as the outbreak of the Rebellion convinced ministers that something radical must be done to ensure that they, and not France, controlled Ireland. However, the idea of a legislative union was not new. It had been floated by the Irish parliament at the time of the Anglo-Scottish union (1707), and while it had slipped down the agenda thereafter, the combination of growing support for free trade economics and unease at the appreciating instability in Ireland from the mid-1770s heightened its appeal. As this suggests, the idea of an Anglo-Irish unions appealed more strongly in Britain by this time, and it was invoked on occasion as preferable to free trade and legislative independence. However, the hostility with which all such suggestions were received in Ireland ensured not only that the option was not pursued, but also when William Pitt proposed a truly radical ‘commercial union’ in 1785 that Irish Protestant opinion rejected the idea. This remained the case until the early 1790s when the combination of rising radicalism and, in particular, the admission in 1793 of Catholics to the franchise caused many Protestants to revise their opinion. Convinced now that their future security could only be guaranteed if they were part of the larger British Protestant nation, many came to welcome the idea of a union.

Thus when the idea was first considered by the Irish parliament in January 1799, it had a substantial number of supporters. However, a larger number remained unconvinced. They comprised Patriots and Whigs, who were strongly committed to the idea of an Irish parliament; conservatives, including the Orange Order, who wanted to maintain an exclusively Irish Protestant parliament; and borough owners and other interested parties, who were ill at ease because the Irish administration had done nothing to meet their legitimate concerns. Instructed by Pitt to secure a majority, the lord lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis, and his chief secretary, Lord Castlereagh, set about meeting their price to secure their support.

Thus borough owners were promised compensation of £15,000 for each constituency that lost the right to return two members of parliament. MPs, or family members, eager for a peerage or a pension, were given promises they would be looked after in the future, while others undertook to surrender their seat to individuals who were more amenable in return for the favourable consideration of their interests. Parallel with this, the authorities convinced the leaders of Catholic opinion not to oppose the scheme by letting it be known that they would agree to Catholic emancipation once a legislative union was ratified. They also pursued an impressive propaganda campaign to win over a sceptical public; to this end they subsidised the publication of pro-union pamphlets; they purchased the allegiance of national and local newspapers, and they ensured that the energetic pro-union campaign pursued by Lord Cornwallis was afforded maximum publicity.

It paid dividends. When the bill for an Anglo-Irish union was presented to the Irish parliament in 1800, it met with strong resistance once more. However, on this occasion the best efforts of Henry Grattan, George Ponsonby and others were unavailing. The Act of Union was approved by a comfortable margin, and the Irish parliament passed out of existence.

14. Conclusion: Politics after the Union

By the terms of the Act of Union, Ireland sent 100 MPs and 32 representative peers to the parliament of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Significantly, few encountered any difficulty adapting to the Westminster chamber, as those whose political allegiance in Ireland favoured the administration joined the ranks of the emerging conservative party, while Irish Whigs were welcomed into the emerging Whig party. It proved a rewarding experience for some; Lord Castlereagh, for example, became foreign secretary, while George Ponsonby occupied a number of offices of state before he assumed the leadership of the Whigs. Others, like Henry Grattan, for whom office held little appeal, likewise found a secure niche. As a result, support for a repeal of the union had few supporters in parliament in the decades after its ratification.

The situation was not so clear-cut with the Irish public. Resentment at the Act of Union was identifiable in Dublin from the moment of its passing among economic interests that experienced the fiscal consequences of the loss of aristocratic custom caused by the absence of a parliament, but this was masked so long as high wartime prices and demand endured. A more profound source of disquiet, that was ultimately an important factor in the emergence of a demand for the repeal of the Act of Union, was provided by the failure to deliver on the promise to allow Catholics sit in parliament. Consistent with the commitment he had entered into, William Pitt attempted in 1801 to bring in a measure for Catholic Emancipation, but the refusal of George III to countenance any such suggestion placed him in an impossible situation, and Pitt resigned. This was a highly dramatic entry onto the British political stage for what was to become known as the ‘Irish question’, and more was to follow. Six years later, in 1807, an attempt by the liberal ministry of ‘all the talents’ to improve the rights of Catholics in employment also fell foul of the King, and this government also collapsed.

George III was encouraged to take this stand on the question of Catholic rights by the strongly conservative disposition of British public and political opinion at the outset of the nineteenth century. This was a natural response to the demands of the ongoing war with France, but it was encouraged with respect of Catholics by the perception, encouraged by Protestant diehards, that the 1798 rebellion was a Catholic conspiracy against Protestantism. This was a distortion of the reality, but it served to ensure that, instead of a new dawn, the two decades following the ratification of the Act of Union was no less occupied than the 1790s with the issue of political reform, and that the divisive denominational environment of the eighteenth century continued into the nineteenth.


Dr James Kelly