A Background sketch to
the 1798 Rebellion
NOTE: This is only a
sketch. There were many complex issues for both Catholic and Protestants
which would take a forest or two to write about. Protestants at first were
those adhering to the established Church of Ireland; the non
conformist Presbyterians were themselves subject of discrimination during
the early eighteenth century. In later years the Presbyterians found their
political freedom and became involved in the United Irishmen movement and
the foundation of the Orange Order. Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796- 1862)
was a noted statesman and colonist who was involved in the colonisation of
South Australia; secretary to the Earl of Durham in Canada (1838)
and founded the New Zealand Land Company to aid in the colonisation there.
He gave a view of the 1798 Rebellion which is
Very simply put, therefore,
King William III had agreed with the Protestant Planters following the
Battle of the Boyne (1690 ), that they could keep their political monopoly
and control most of the land. In return they should act as a garrison and
preserve peace and stability of the country. To achieve this the Catholics
were kept politically weak and penal laws were passed that barred them
from all jobs in the civil service and the main professions. The result
was an apparent peace and prosperity for the Protestants but
oppression for Catholics, while in fact discontent rumbled just beneath a
thin veneer of civility. Many Presbyterians remained Dissenters and
outcasts outside the official Anglican Church of Ireland.
There were three basic
groups of the populace, each mistrusting the others:
Irish Protestants, Upper
and Middle Class Catholics and Gaelic Peasants
1.The Irish Protestants
were a small selfish oligarchy.
2. The Upper and Middle
class Catholics wanted equal rights with the professions, and political
3. The Irish peasants who
suffered from high taxes and low prices. They saw the Irish Protestants as
alien and heretic, and new laws as persecution. There were higher
tithes, taxes and Acts against sedition and Insurrection.
The petty tyranny of the
Irish gentry was the root cause for the trouble that broke out in the 18th
century; they were ignorant, oppressive landlords, frequently absentees
from their estates, whose main interest was the pursuit of leisure or
political intrigue. They were greedy landlords and varied terms of leases
as well as racking up rents. In the 1770s there were substantial increases
in rents in Co Antrim, the heartlands of the Presbyterians. The matter was
not helped by a recession among the farmer-weavers who hitherto had been
more independent than the plain tenant farmers and usually enjoyed longer
leases. Protesting groups known as the Hearts of Oak, in Co Antrim as the
Hearts of Steel or Steelboys, violently opposed rent increases and the
county cess and taxes and took to maiming cattle, burning hay stacks and
attacking people and property. Several of the Steelboys were captured and
hanged for their crimes at Carrickfergus on 9 May 1762 – being – George
Mckeown, John Campbell, John Clark and James McNeilly. Others were hanged
and many fled to the American colonies where the agitation for
independence was coming to a head.
throughout Europe – Holland, Switzerland, Northern Italy and France plus
the American War of Independence encouraged the belief that an Irish War
of Independence was feasible. Regiments were withdrawn from Ulster to go
to the America thus the government were acquiescent when
The Volunteers were raised by the mainly middle class in the
1770s. This was partly a response to dissatisfaction with King Williams
agreement, but also the growing fears of a French invasion. The people
were treated both in trade and politics as a colony – they were unable to
trade with Britain and the Irish Parliament was subservient to
Westminster. The people therefore saw the developments in the American
colonies, such as the Boston Tea Party, as one example of what they could
do to obtain the benefits of Free Trade.
Prime Minister William
Pitt’s Government was uncertain what to do about Ireland and did not have
a fixed and certain policy, tending to leave most things to the Viceroy.
Because of this lax approach and a range of concessions through 1782 – 93
eg trade restrictions lifted, penal laws relaxed (but not land laws which
affected most people) encouraged the belief by the populace that
independence was practical.
The Irish Government was
drawn from the corrupt and selfish oligarchy. Lord Camden, the Viceroy,
was high minded and humane but demoralised by the lack of direction and
support from England. His Cabinet or ‘Junto’ was largely controlled by an
old guard of John Beresford; John Foster and Lord Clare who supported
cries for help from Irish Gentry and magistrates. A number of magistrates
were murdered in Queens and Kings Counties, Cork and Kildare that fueled
the fears of the Irish Gentry.
Meanwhile in Ireland itself
there was the growth of threatening agrarian secret societies in the South
who sought local agreements with the authorities which only divided the
populace further. The two main societies were
The Catholic tenants – “The
The Protestant – “Peep o
Day Boys ” – later to become the Orangemen.
But in the 1791 there arose
the “United Irishmen” with a much clearer
focus on the problems and the will to organise representations, and
ultimately resistance, on a national scale.
Poor Army discipline
The Army was ill
disciplined and widespread because of support to isolated Gentry. Its
Commander, General Abercromby was highly critical of what was going on and
sought to instil discipline but his instructions were taken out of context
as criticism of Parliament. In particular Abercromby evolved the policy of
‘ free quarters’ (settling troops on local populace) as a device to get
the populace to yield up arms – it was oppressive but largely non violent.
This worked well in the Southern counties of Queens, and Kings Counties
while Abercromby was in command. But he left Ireland on 12 April 1798 with
command passing to General Lake.
Lake was an incompetent
with little intellect and less military skills; a believer in the reckless
use of military power. He rescinded the free quarters approach and gave
local commanders virtually free rein to use whatever force they thought
necessary. This included arrest and torture of eg blacksmiths because they
made the pikes.
By 1797 Pitt had learned
that a secret Jacobin style army was being raised in Ireland by friends of
Wolf Tone – the leader of the United Irishmen. This was also stirring
trouble in England , including revolts of the Navy at Spithead and the
Nore and demands for better pay and conditions that were met. It was the
potential for invasion of Ireland by France that was feared most.
On 30 March 1798 the Privy
Council announced martial law in Ireland and the ill fated Rebellion began
to come to the boil. Thomas Pakenham in his “The Year of Liberty ” sums it
In the space of a few
weeks some 30,000 people – peasants armed with pikes and pitchforks,
defenceless women and children – were cut down or shot or blown like chaff
as they charged up to the mouth of the cannon. The result of the rebellion
was no less disastrous as Britain imposed a Union on terms that proved
unacceptable to the majority of the Irish people and there was a legacy of
violence and hatred that has persisted to the present day.
The direct result of the
rebellion was the Union with Britain, officially on January 1st, 1801 six
months after the Irish Parliament had agreed to vote itself out of
The Year of Liberty
The Irish Rebellion ,W H
To Right Some Things
That We Thought Wrong. David Hume.
History of Ireland in
the Eighteenth Century, W E H Lecky.
Facsimile The United Irishmen #61-80, and “The `98 Rebellion,