The Treaty
of Limerick in 1691 saw thousands of Jacobite supporters
leave the country and the soldiers ( the ” Wild Geese “)
take up service with France and Spain. This was of itself
ominous but it left the vast majority (4/5ths) of the
population, Roman Catholic, excluded from the political
process.  It led to the creation of a virtual church
state and a Catholic `nation` was born.

Protestants of the Church of Ireland were the only ones to
be called `Protestant` and they had a monopoly on power.
Neither the Catholics or the Dissenters – mainly the
Presbyterians, were represented in the Irish Parliament
and were subject to penal laws. They paid tithes to the
Established church – the Church of Ireland, and the
Catholics also paid to their own church by tradition and

The only
option open to Catholics was trade and industry and they
made the provisioning trade virtually their own. This led
to a strong middle class and a potential ally for the
aggrieved Protestant middle class.

A turning
point for the movement was the decision to parade in
Dublin on 4 November 1779, William III`s birthday, and
declare their support for `Free Trade` ie to trade direct
with the British Colonies. Their protest succeeded and a
new voice in Ireland was born.

The first
Convention at Dungannon 15 February 1782 saw some 250
delegates from 143 Ulster Volunteer Companies joined in
debate and producing resolutions that Poynings Law ( the
supremacy of the Privy Council over Parliament) was
unconstitutional; sought relaxation of penal laws against
Catholics and repeal of the Declaratory Act which
prevented service under the Crown . On 16 April1782 Henry
Grattan moved a Declaration of Rights to Parliament and it
was unanimously agreed; this was ratified by the English
Parliament 27 May 1782. The Declaratory Act was repealed
and Bills were presented to repeal Poynings Law, the
Perpetual Mutiny Act and to secure the independence of the

There was
further debate that the repeal of the Declaratory Act was
just that and not acceptance of the right of the Irish to
legislate for Ireland. This led to a second Convention on
21 June 1782 and support for Henry Flood who had pursued
the point against the de facto leader Lord Charlemont. The
British Parliament finally passed a Renunciation Act
explicitly giving up the right to legislate for Ireland.
But the damage was done; first there was division in the
leadership and thus its policies. Second, there was a
growing awareness of the Volunteer Conventions which
seemed to be giving instruction to the Irish Parliament.

Bitten by
the power and results they had achieved, a third
Convention at Dunmurry met on 8 September 1783. Here the
main issues became parliamentary reform and political
rights for Catholics (the latter another cause for
division in the Volunteers ranks ). The main resolution
was that specific details of a plan to reform Parliament
be brought to a National Convention in Dublin on 10
November 1783.

On 29
November Henry Flood and other MPs took a draft Bill to
Parliament ; this they did dressed threateningly in their
Volunteer uniforms. This colossal error of judgment was
their downfall. For six years Parliament had acceded to
popular proposals and cooperated although they were always
wary of military threat. Now, however, the American War
was over and General Burgoyne was back in Ireland with
20,000 troops under his command. Parliament rejected the
demands by 157 votes to 77. William Drennan later wrote
that the fall of the British Empire began from that day.

American War, repeal of the Sacramental Test, independence
for the Irish Parliament, the renunciation dispute and the
subsequent parliamentary and Catholic emancipation were
all burning issues to the Presbyterians. It was against
this backcloth that the young Dr William Drennan graduated
from medical school in Edinburgh. On his return to Belfast
in August 1778 he joined the Blue Company of Belfast
Volunteers where he took a keen interest in politics. He
moved to Newry where he helped form the Newry Union
Volunteers that included Catholics, in 1784.

A sea
change in membership of the Volunteers began as more
members from the lower classes, including Catholics, were
recruited and the nature of the Volunteers changed. Such
that in letters to Dr Bruce in February 1784, May 1785 and
August 1785 Drennan was proposing that there ought to be
an inner circle of radical reformers. Things came to a
head as a result of proposals for a Grand Parade to
celebrate Bastille Day, 17 July 1791 and a civic
commemoration of the French Revolution.

By 1791
Drennan `s views and that of others, including Wolfe Tone,
had become more radical and they wished to reconstruct the
Volunteers. Both Tone and Drennan were approached and
asked for a set of resolutions suitable for the occasion.
In 1794 Drennan was charged with seditious libel that his
Address to the Volunteers incited armed rising.
Fortunately he had the services of John Philpot Curran as
his lawyer and he was acquitted.

Tone was
elected to honorary membership of the Belfast Volunteers
and invited to come to Belfast ” in order to assist in
framing the first club of United Irishmen”. The first
meeting was at Barclays Tavern on 1 April 1791. Three
weeks after this Napper Tandy and Drennan founded the
Dublin Society of United Irishmen. Whether it was Drennan
or Tone or someone else who coined the title of the United
Irishmen is still debated, but the society`s existence was
self evident.

At this
juncture there was the influence of the French Revolution
and the fear of the British government of French invasion;
changing views on courses of action, the creation and
involvement of the Catholic Committee; dissent amongst
themselves and a pervading influence in the Volunteer
movement of Freemasonry. Official perceptions were that
the Volunteers were potentially dangerous and they were
forbidden to parade in uniform and disbanded by
Proclamation of the Lord Lieutenant in 1794,  This
led the Society of United Irishmen to go underground and
Wolf Tone becoming resident in Paris where French
assistance to join in a Revolution was his goal.

letter to Dr William Bruce 7 February 1784:

” I should
like to see the institution of a society as secret as the
Free-masons, whose object might be by every practicable
means to put into execution plans for the complete
liberation of the country. The secrecy would surround the
proceedings of such a society with a certain awe and
majesty, and the oath of admission would inspire
enthusiasm into its members. Patriotism is too general and
on that account weak. We want to be condensed into the
fervent enthusiasm of sectaries, and a few active spirits
could, I should hope, in this manner greatly multiply
their power for promoting public good. The laws and
institutes of such a society would require ample
consideration: but it might accomplish much. “

By 1791 his
views had hardened 🙁 PRONI. D553/70 )

” It is my
fixed opinion [he wrote to Brucel ] that no reform in
parliament, and consequently no freedom, will ever be
attainable by this country but by a total separation from
Britain; I think that this belief is making its way
rapidly, but as yet silently, among both protestants and
catholics, and I think that the four quarters of the
kingdom are more unanimous in this opinion than they
themselves imagine. It is for the collection of this
opinion (the esoteric part, and nucleus of political
Doctrine) that such a society, or interior circle, ought
to be immediately established, around which another circle
might be formed, whose opinions are still halting between,
who are for temporizing expedients and patience, and
partial reform. “

Wolf Tone`s
credo ran thus: (Tone :Autobiography pp 50-51 )

subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break
the connection with England, the never-failing source of
all our political evils, and to assert the independence of
my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole
people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past
dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman
in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and
Dissenter – these were my means.

And over
200 years later the squabbling goes on …….