Society of United Irishmen
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|Society of United Irishmen|
|Historic Leader||Theobald Wolfe Tone|
|International affiliation||French Revolutionary politics|
|Politics of Ireland
The Society of United Irishmen was founded as a liberal political organisation in eighteenth century Ireland that initially sought Parliamentary reform. However, it evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation, inspired by the American Revolution and allied with Revolutionary France. It launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 with the objective of ending British monarchical rule over Ireland and founding a sovereign, independent Irish republic.
During the 1780s, a few liberal members of the ruling Protestant Ascendancy, organised as the Irish Patriot Party led by Henry Grattan, campaigned for: reform of the Irish parliament; a lessening of British interference in Ireland's affairs; and expanding the rights and voting franchise for Catholics and Presbyterians. Backing them up was the Irish Volunteers movement, which had widespread Protestant support. Whilst they had limited success such as the establishment of Grattan's Parliament and the repeal of some of the discriminatory Penal Laws, they fell short of many of their aims. When the parliamentary reform movement collapsed in 1784, it left radicals without a political cause.
By the mid-1780s, radicalism in Ireland was taking a new, bolder form, typified by the letters penned by William Drennan which were published in the Belfast Newsletter and in pamphlets. In them he hit out at leaders of the Volunteers such as Grattan and Charlemont for their conservatism and restraint, and at the political establishment for preventing the reform of the Irish parliament. Most notably was his appeal for all Anglicans, Dissenters, and Roman Catholics to unite together as one indifferent association, however he accepted that this would only appeal to the minority within each denomination. Inspiring and increasing the radicalisation of Irish reformists was the French Revolution which had started in 1789, and had so far remained largely bloodless, with the French king forced to concede effective power to a National Assembly.
Also in 1789 the Whig party was founded in Ireland and soon it became an alliance of radicals, reform-minded parliamentarians, and dissident representatives of the governing class. By 1791 this alliance however was already fracturing, and several rival Whig clubs were set up by people such as Napper Tandy in Dublin and Belfast. Another grouping was a "shadowy" organisation of eleven people headed by Samuel Neilson, that sought to move the recently revived Volunteer movement in as far a radical direction as possible.
The enthusiasm for the French Revolution saw great Irish interest in Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man released in May 1791, which defended it and saw around 20,000 cheap copies printed for digest in Ireland. A couple of months later the Belfast Volunteer company gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. It was intended that a new radical society was to be announced during the celebrations with William Drennan, who was to give a declaration, asked to add in resolutions. Drennan refused due to the short notice of the request and suggested that a Theobald Wolfe Tone be asked.
Tone's reformist radicalism had advanced beyond that of the Whigs, and he proposed three resolutions for the new society, which he named the Society of United Irishmen. The first resolution was for the denouncing of the continuing interference of the British establishment in Irish affairs. The second was for the full reform of the Irish parliament and its representation. The last resolution called for a union of religious faiths in Ireland to "abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen" and sought to give Catholics political rights. This last proposal however was quietly dropped by the Belfast Volunteers to ensure unanimity for the proposals amongst the people.
This seemed to delay the launch of the new society and by August 1791, Tone in response to the rebuff of his third resolution, published the popular and robust An Argument of Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, which argued why they should be included in attempts at reform. That October, Tone was invited to a debate on the creation of a new society by a group of people including Neilson. Here he found that his resolutions were now found a few months later to be "too tame". A new set of resolutions were drafted and agreed to on 14 October, which the Belfast branch of the Society of United Irishmen adopted on 18 October, and the Dublin branch on 9 November. The main problem they identified for Ireland was the issue of national sovereignty:
|“||We have no national government; we are ruled by Englishmen, and thus servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption; whose strength is the weakness of Ireland.||”|
All attendees at the first meeting of the Belfast branch were Protestant. Two (Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell) were Anglicans and the rest Presbyterian; most of whom were involved in the linen trade in Belfast. Along with Tone and Russell, the men involved were: William Sinclair, Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, Henry Haslett, Gilbert McIlveen, William Simms, Robert Simms, Thomas McCabe and Thomas Pearce.
As 1791 drew to a close there were references to other lesser branches of the United Irishmen in a number of places such as: Armagh, Clonmel, Limerick, and Lisburn, yet Belfast and Dublin retained their primacy. The popularity of the society continued to grow throughout Ulster especially amongst the Presbyterians. In 1795 the United Irishmen linked up with the Defenders, a Catholic agrarian secret society.
The movement quickly developed a strategy of spreading its ideals by means of pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers, ballads, "catechisms" and travelling emissaries. Whilst the Belfast Newsletter was a liberal newspaper, the society sought for the publication of a more radical one in Belfast, resulting in the Northern Star. It was especially successful, both commercially and politically and had a wide readership until its suppression in 1797.
The spread of the society was watched with growing alarm by the authorities and it was banned in 1793 following the declaration of war by France.
Differences of opinion
Members of the United Irishmen had a varied range of differing and divisive views and opinions on different matters, some of which persisted even when the society had moved firmly in one direction. Whilst many of the divisions were between members, there were also some between the Belfast and Dublin branches.
A problem in forming policies troubled the early years of the society. Issues such as universal male suffrage, restricting the franchise, and secret balloting etc. divided members of both the Belfast and Dublin branches. It has been suggested that one of the issues behind these differences was how the bulk of the population—who where property-less and thus without a vote—would use empowerment other than in a destructive manner.
Another divisive issue was that of Ireland's relationship with Britain. The United Irishmen from the onset sought a fully independent and representative parliament for Ireland free from the interference of the British establishment, however retaining the Union of Crowns—ideals that followed those of the Patriot Party. Some such as Tone however thought that complete separation would be a blessing for Ireland, yet refrained from mentioning anything of the sort in the society's resolutions. The silence Tone showed at this time on the issue was no doubt shared by others, yet there were those who opposed such an idea. By the time the society had resolved to establishing an all out republic and instigated the Irish Rebellion of 1798 to achieve it, there were still members who sought the retention of a shared monarch as long as Ireland had a free parliament.
In regards to cultural identity the time of the Patriot Party and the Volunteers in the late 1770s and early 1780s saw cultural nationalism become a central theme of the reformist tradition. Yet cultural nationalism remained independent of political leanings, and even within the United Irishmen there were those such as Tone himself, who had no interest in it at all.
By 1794, the authorities had increased their suppression of the United Irishmen, and possibly as a result, they came up with the extremely radical proposal for annually elected parliaments, with 300 equally-sized electoral districts where all males over the age of 21 would have a vote. The Dublin society however would not commit to the abolition of the House of Lords, or even to the removal of the monarchy.
The makeup and conduct of the two main branches of the United Irishmen also revealed stark differences. The Belfast society was predominantly made up of a close-knit group of middle-class Presbyterians from the town, headed by an internal committee that met in secret. The Dublin branch however held its meetings in public, and of its membership of 400, 140 are identified as being Catholic, whereas only 130 could be identified as Protestants. This membership consisted of people from a wide range of occupations, including around 50 members from outside Dublin itself. When the Dublin society was recommended by Neilson from the Belfast society to form an inner committee to thwart informants, they outright refused.
Catholic rights and emancipation
The ideal of religious equality and Catholic Emancipation was a central commitment of the United Irishmen. The reform movement on the early 1780s was limited to the Protestant minority in Ireland, and this was seen as key to the failure of it to gain emancipation. Some such as Tone realised that this movement was "built on too narrow a foundation", and that for it to be successful it would need the support of Catholics themselves. Even though Tone sought equality with Catholics, he could not deny that "Irish Catholics were ignorant and bigoted", and that the pope had "more power in Ireland than was desirable", yet blamed this on their persecution by the establishment. Tone believed that a liberal Catholic would continue to practice their belief, but not fully abide by the out-dated diktats emanating from the Vatican. As support for his idea, he noted how the Catholic people of France had risen up against their monarch and burnt effigies of the pope.
In 1790 the Catholic Committee, which had lain dormant since 1784, was revived, seeking further reforms and relief bills for Irish Catholics. Some Catholic Committee members such a John Keogh had already joined the United Irishmen, with Tone appointed secretary of the Committee. The Committee would show a high level of political dexterity in campaigning for its aims.
In 1791, the government passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791, which gave some consession. In 1792, a town meeting in Belfast, saw a declaration in favour of full Catholic emancipation, opposing suggestions for a gradual process. In an attempt to prevent a union of the Catholic Committee and radicalised Protestants, the government during 1792 passed yet more bills repealing laws against Catholics. Despite this, whilst they could appeal for further civil rights, Catholics where to be firmly refused political enfranchisement. This refusal only help cause the union that the establishment had been seeking to prevent.
When the next Bastille Day celebrations were to be held that July, Volunteer companies from throughout Ulster gathered in Belfast, such support was not secure. Tone remarked that some of the Volunteer companies who had gathered where no better than the sectarian anti-Catholic Peep o' Day Boys movement. Despite having a resolution for full religious equality passed, it required nervous prior discussion, with the exact wording of it being changed so that: "Irishmen of all religious denominations" was changed to simply "Catholic". 
The methods employed by the Catholic Committee to advance their cause caused mixed feelings amongst the United Irishmen, with some fearing that if things advanced too far, then they would lose the moderate conservatives in the society. Drennan also observed that the Catholics sought to have "two strings to their bow" so that if one failed they could try the other, in reference to either working with the government or the Protestant radicals to achieve their aims.
By working together the Committee and United Irishmen had in 1793 earned more concessions for Catholics, resulting in the winding up of the committee and thus an end to their alliance. In a parting show of support the Committee declared its support for parliamentary reform. Emancipation however had still not been secured, and the United Irishmen continued to press for it.
Following the French declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, the movement was outlawed and went underground from 1794 as they became more determined to force a revolt against British rule. The leadership was divided into those who wished to wait for French aid before rising and the more radical elements that wished to press ahead regardless. However, the suppression of a bloody preemptive rebellion, which broke out in Leitrim in 1793, led to the former faction prevailing and links were forged with the revolutionary French government with instructions to wait sent to all of the United Irish membership.
Worried by its presence, the Dublin administration conceded some reforms, allowing Catholics the vote, to become barristers and to enroll at Trinity College Dublin in 1793. The Hearth Tax, paid by all households, was abolished in 1795, and St Patrick's seminary at Maynooth was founded. Catholics were also expected to join the militia and to inform on any United Irish activities.
In 1794, William Drennan became the first leader to be arrested and tried for sedition as the authorities began to react to the growth of the United Irishmen, followed by the Reverend William Jackson. In 1795 the loyalty of the hierarchy of the Catholic church was confirmed with the founding of Maynooth College. At that stage, the Church and the French republic were enemies because of the dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution.
A French fleet carrying 15,000 troops set sail for Ireland in 1796, under General Hoche and spent days in sight of the Cork coast at Bantry Bay but weather conditions prevented its landing, and its remnants not wrecked or captured returned to France. The British government responded to the threat it represented by sweeping up much of the United Irish leadership. It imposed martial law from 2 March 1797 in an attempt to break the movement by the widespread use of terror during searches for weapons.
By early 1798, the United Irish membership on the ground (by now 280,000 sworn members) was under severe pressure, suffering from the terror of a roving campaign of disarmament while under instructions to do nothing until the arrival of French aid. In March 1798, the bulk of the leadership was arrested and preemptive risings had already broken out in Tipperary but indecision still divided the rump leadership. Finally, the unrelenting pressure led the militant faction of the United Irishmen to set the date for a general uprising on 23 May without French aid. However, information from the informers Thomas Reynolds and Francis Magan led to the arrests of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Samuel Neilson shortly before the rising but more crucially foiled the planned rising in Dublin which was to be the central core of the planned rebellion.
General Napper Tandy, a leader of the uprising, authored a proclamation entitled 'Liberty or Death': "Can you think of entering into a treaty with a British Minister? A Minister too, who has left you at the mercy of an English soldiery, who has laid your cities waste, and massacred inhumanely your best Citizens ... Horrid crimes have been perpetrated in your country, your friends have fallen a sacrifice to their devotion to your cause, and their shadows are around you and call for vengeance ... wage a war of extermination against your oppressors, the war of Liberty against tyranny, and Liberty shall Triumph."
Nevertheless, tens of thousands rose in the surrounding counties but the resulting rebellion was severely hampered by the lack of leadership and was crushed with vicious brutality. The campaign met with little success except in Wexford where a number of massacres of loyalist civilians who were largely Protestant raised the spectre of sectarianism which was seized upon by enemies of the United Irishmen to weaken their non-sectarian appeal. The eventual arrival of 1,000 French troops in Killala, County Mayo in August was too little and too late to turn the tide for the United Irishmen. In October, Wolfe Tone himself was captured when a supporting French fleet of 3,000 troops was intercepted and defeated by the Royal Navy near Lough Swilly.
Upon his capture, Wolfe Tone famously said, "From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish nation, and felt convinced, that while it lasted, this country would never be free or happy. In consequence, I determined to apply all the powers which my individual efforts could move, in order to separate the two countries." After being denied a soldier's death by firing squad, Wolfe Tone cheated the hangman by cutting his own throat.
The suppression of the rising was followed by a period of renewed repression of the United Irishmen as the general amnesty offered by Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis specifically excluded rebel leaders many of whom were United Irishmen. However the United Irishmen still managed to survive as both a functioning clandestine organisation, especially in Dublin and as a military force with several rebel bands still active, though severely reduced and confined to a few counties.
Desertion of the United Irishmen cause
Prior to uprising in County Antrim, some Belfast merchants who had been ardent supporters of revolution, abandoned the radical cause for economic reasons. Events in France, such as the Reign of Terror and the invasion of Holland and Switzerland also helped cool support. Thomas Percy, a Church of Ireland clergyman, stated that "A wonderful change has take place amongst the republicans in the North, especially in and near Belfast. They now abhor the French as much as they were formerly partial to them, and are grown quite loyal".
During the rebellion itself sectarian massacres of Protestants by the Defenders in County Wexford "did much to dampen" the rebellion in Ulster. News of these massacres, most notably the one at Scullabogue, were spread by government agents to increase Protestant fears and enhance the growing division.
By mid-1798 a schism between the Presbyterians and Catholics had firmly developed, with radical Presbyterians wavering in their support for revolution. The government capitialised on this by starting to act against the Catholics in the radical movement instead of the northern Presbyterians. Prior to the rebellion, anyone who admitted to being a member of the United Irishmen was expelled from the Yeomanry, however former Presbyterian radicals were now able to enlist in it, and those radicals that wavered in support saw it as their chance to reintegrate themselves into society. Anglican clergyman Edward Hudson claimed that "the brotherhood of affection is over", as he enlisted former radicals into his Portglenone Yeomanry corps. On 1 July 1798 in Belfast, the birthplace of the United Irishmen movement, it is claimed that everyman had the red coat of the Yeomanry on.
Highlighting the increased division between Presbyterian and Catholic radicals, one of the insurgent leaders who was about to be executed in Belfast is claimed as saying: "the Presbyterians of the north perceived too late that if they had succeeded in their designs, they would ultimately have had to contend with the Roman Catholics".
The United Irishmen and sectarianism
Most of the United Irish leadership and ideologues were born into Presbyterian families. While the United Irish had declared themselves to be non-sectarian from 1791, there were other liberal Protestants in the Irish Parliament who were also anti-sectarian and sought a more democratic franchise, such as Henry Grattan and John Curran. Although the United Irishmen was a staunchly non-sectarian body which sought to unite all Irishmen, regardless of religion or descent many among their ranks were former Defenders, a term applied to many loosely connected, exclusively Catholic, agrarian resistance groups. Many of these men, as well as their Presbyterian counterparts in Ulster, had been shaped by the sectarianism that was prevalent in eighteenth century Ireland and it was no mean feat to persuade Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter to put aside their differences and view each other simply as fellow Irishmen. Although the project met with remarkable success, it was quickly recognised by the establishment that sectarianism was a useful ally in the fight against the United Irishmen.
The formation of the Orange Order in 1795 was to prove particularly useful as it provided the Government with allies who had detailed local knowledge of the activities of their enemies. The brutal disarming of Ulster in 1797, where the United Irish had successfully radicalised both Presbyterians and Catholics, saw thousands of Catholics driven from counties Antrim, Down and Armagh, and the murder, torture and imprisonment of hundreds of Protestants suspected of United Irish sympathies.
Also in 1795 the Dublin administration funded the new St Patrick's College seminary for Roman Catholic priests, which ensured the support of the Irish Catholic hierarchy. The church was opposed to republicanism, though individual priests were supportive. The French government that supported the United Irish had engaged in a policy of "dechristianisation" for some years, and in February 1798 its army had expelled Pope Pius VI from Rome and formed the short-lived "Roman Republic". The Catholic hierarchy was therefore in a difficult position, being opposed to the United Irish while fully aware of the underlying social grievances of its members.
Religious division and hatred was, therefore, never completely buried and a minority of the Defenders did not reject completely their previous anti-Protestant outlook. During the course of the 1798 rebellion, the Defenders who had risen with the United Irishmen perpetrated several sectarian massacres, most notoriously in County Wexford at Scullabogue and Wexford Bridge. While sectarianism undoubtedly played a part in many murders during the rising, religion was often taken as a signifier of loyalty or disloyalty by both sides and the fact that Protestants were often among the perpetrators and Catholics among the victims of rebel massacres indicates that victims lost their lives for being perceived as loyalists as opposed to purely religious reasons. Such subtleties were ignored in the aftermath, as the memory of such massacres was simplified and exploited in following years by politicians to cement the sectarian divide and to ensure the loyalty of Protestants to the British Crown.
The decision to abolish the Irish Parliament resulting in the Act of Union in 1800 that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland played on sectarian hopes and fears and was to gradually erode the United Irishmen by playing Catholic against Protestant. This was despite the original recognition that the "bigotry" (to quote Prime Minister William Pitt) of the Protestant Parliament in Dublin had only contributed to sedition in Ireland.
The failure of Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803 triggered the effective collapse of the Society of United Irishmen. The last armed rebel group led by James Corcoran was destroyed in 1804 and the first half of the 19th century saw sectarianism replace separatism as the touchstone for political unrest in Ireland. Not until the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s was an attempt made to resurrect the non-sectarian ideals of the United Irishmen. However, the alliance between Catholic and Protestant was never fully regained as Protestants were drawn closer to a "British" identity through fear of having a perceived position of privilege eroded by the slowly growing political power of the Catholic majority. As a consequence, subsequent organised republican resistance to British rule in Ireland was largely confined to the Catholic population and seen as a threat by the majority of the Protestant population.
- Selected Members
- Samuel Neilson
- Bagenal Harvey (United Irishmen commander)
- William Drennan
- Robert Emmet
- Thomas Addis Emmet
- Michael Dwyer
- Staker Wallace
- The Sheares Brothers
- James Hope
- Henry Joy McCracken
- James Orr
- William James MacNeven
- William Orr
- William Sampson
- James Napper Tandy
- Archibald Hamilton Rowan
- Theobald Wolfe Tone
- Thomas Muir (political reformer)
- Thomas Paine (Honorary member)
- Leonard McNally (informer)
- Irish Rebellion of 1798
- United Scotsmen in Scotland
- United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland
- Société des Fils de la Liberté in Quebec
- Fictional Members
- Latimer, Rev. W. T. (February 2007). "Samuel Neilson". Belfast Magazine (Glenravel Local History Project) (57): 33–37. ISSN 1470-0417.
- Sean J. Connolly (2008). Divided Kingdom; Ireland 1630-1800. Oxford University Press. pp. 434–449. ISBN 978-0-19-958387-4.
- Cronin, Sea. Irish Nationalism: A History of Its Roots and Ideology. Dublin: Academy, 1980.
- Liberty or Death, by James Napper Tandy, 1798
- Stewart, A.T.Q., 1798 in the North. History Ireland, Vol. 6, 1798 Rebellion Special Issue, 1998
- Bardon, James (2005). A History of Ulster: New Updated Edition (2 ed.). Blackstaff Press. ISBN 0-85640-764-X.
- Blackstock, Alan: A Forgotten Army: The Irish Yeomanry. History Ireland, Vol 4. 1996
- Maguire, William; Belfast A History, 2009. Carnegie Publishing. ISBN 978-1-85936-189-4
- David Pryce-Jones (10 October 2013). Treason of the Heart: From Thomas Paine to Kim Philby. Encounter Books. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-59403-549-4.
- Flanagan, Thomas. The Year of the French. New York: The New York Review of Books, 1979.
- Frank Jacob (Hg.): Geheimgesellschaften: Kulturhistorische Sozialstudien: Secret Societies: Comparative Studies in Culture, Society and History, Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2012, ISBN 978-3826049088