Irish Radicals (1790’s).

Irish Radicalism On The Rise

Irish Radicalism On The Rise.


In order to understand 18th-century Ireland it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the American revolution of 1776. This revolution in which 13 colonies in North America to break free from the British Empire, to become the United States of America. They reject the authority of the British Parliament to govern them from overseas without representation, and then expelled all royal officials. By 1774, each colony had established a provincial Congress or an equivalent governmental institution to govern itself, but still within the Empire British responded by sending troops to re-impose direct rule. The situation in Ireland at this time was not much different.

In a century of little or no aggression on Irish soil by 1772 moods were changing and hostility and rebellion were in the air. The so-called “Catholic relief acts” of the 1770s were so repressive that rebellion was perhaps inevitable. In 1772 the Relief Act whereby Catholics were only permitted to lease bog land was perhaps the beginning, within that decade, of the rebellion. In 1774 with the introduction of the enabling act Catholics were forced to swear allegiance to the King. Four years later in 1778 the Papist Act tried but failed to provide a measure of Catholic relief. In 1782 forced restrictions against Catholic clergy was removed; the Constitution of 1782, the collective legal changes which restore legislative independence to the Parliament of Ireland, giving rise to Grattan’s Parliament. The Parliament of Great Britain under Prime Minister Lord Buckingham passed the repeal of Secure Independence of Ireland Act, repealing the dependency of Ireland on Great Britain Act of 1719. Furthermore, it was in this period when Poynings Law (an act of 1495) of the Parliament of Ireland that was initiated by Sir Edward Poynings in the Irish Parliament at Drogheda, was also repealed. The relief fax of 1778 and 1782 were largely conservative campaigns stressing loyalty of Catholics. The 1783 and 1784 acts were possibly the fruit of an alliance of the Catholic lobby and parliamentary reformers.

Ireland in the 18th-century had been deeply impacted by the French Revolution of 1789. France was a Catholic country and was rejecting Absolutism in favour of liberty. The revolution initiated a race for the Catholic against government and Protestant radicals. Meanwhile in Ireland there was unprecedented Politicisation of Irish Catholics.

A number of Catholic committees were being set up all over Ireland as a result of the penal laws imposed under English and later British ruled that sought to discrimination against Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters such as Presbyterians in favour of members of the established Church of Ireland. From 1758, before the death of James III, these groups of Catholic nobility and merchants persuaded the more liberal Protestants that they presented no political threat, and that reforms must follow. Events abroad and emerging ‘Age of Enlightenment’ seemed to confirm that attitudes were changing. Theobald Wolfe Tone published in 1791 his document ‘An Argument On Behalf Of the Catholics of Ireland’ which was very widely read and inspired new thinking on the future of the country.

The 1792 Relief Act radicalized Catholic relief campaigns during 1791 and 1792. Catholics were finally admitted to Trinity College in Dublin and were also allowed to practice law. However, there was massive opposition to further relief in the Irish Parliament where Catholics were being described as shopkeepers and shoplifters. The Catholics responded with a statement of principles “the Catholic Convention” [Back Lane Parliament], in December 1792 when they petitioned for full equality. Meanwhile, the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain in 1793 was to have far-reaching consequences in Ireland.

The 1793 Relief Act Gave Catholics of the Right to Bear Arms And to Participate in Local Government, Grand Juries and Corporations. It also offered the right to vote on the same terms as Protestants but Catholics were not allowed the right to sit in Parliament.

The revolution of 1793 shattered the self-confidence of the Protestant ascendancy. Further Catholic campaigns would be linked to campaigns for Parliamentary reform; but the Catholic committees disbanded in the short-term. The continuing politicisation of Irish Catholics led to further struggle for power in Ireland. The enactment of the repressive legislation; The Militia, Gunpowder and Convention Acts of 1793, was passed, in consequence of the war with France; were an attempt to suppress the volunteers and the United Irishmen.

Beyond the reality of Catholic discontent there was widespread knowledge of events in France and the Revolutionary movement. Events were widely reported in Irish newspapers; radical literature was in circulation and there were public celebrations of Bastille Day. In the words of Wolfe Tone; “in a little time French Revolution became the text of every man’s political creed.” The French Revolution had become an inspiration and a model for the forthcoming rebellion in Ireland. Furthermore, the French Revolution made cooperation between Protestant reformers and Catholics more likely. Catholics were clearly capable of liberty. The Belfast Constitutional Compact of October 1790 Í for Catholic and Protestant cooperation; which was exactly as Wolfe Tone had proposed in his 1791 treatise ‘An Argument On Behalf Of the Catholics of Ireland’.

The Society of United Irishmen was founded as a liberal political organization in 18th-century Ireland that sought parliamentary reform. However, it evolved into a revolutionary Republican organization, 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 an independent Irish Republic.

The Society of United Irishmen in October 1791 declared that “the weight of English influence in the government of this country is so great, as to require union among all the people of Ireland.” It further stated that; “the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed, is by a completion of  radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament.” Wolfe Tone also states that no reform is practicable, efficacious are just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.

The United Irishmen endeavoured to achieve legal and constitutional change in Ireland and all over the country held meetings, petitions and proposed reform plans. They cooperated with other groups including the Catholic Committee to help them to achieve their aims. The publication Of the Newspaper the Northern Star [1792-1797] gave the United Irishmen a mouth piece on which they could campaign for their objectives.

With the outbreak of war in 1793 the pro-French United Irishmen were put under serious pressure. They were in constant contact with the French Revolutionaries and sought much help and advice in the planning stages of the Irish Revolution. However, due to suppression of the United Irishmen they were forced underground but re-emerged as a mass-based, secret, oath bound, militant society advocating republicanism and separatism.

There were other defenders using revolutionary ideology as their template for a new Ireland. Organizations such as; The Armagh Troubles (1780s and 1790s), The Defenders, and the Peep O’Day Boys. In the early 1790s there was a rapid spread of such defenders and most of these were secret, militant and oath bound. It must be said that ‘Oath’ was sacred and to break it was a crime punishable by death or the death of a member of one’s family. Such Oaths were not taken lightly. These movements represented an important strand of Lower Order politicisation and radicalisation. The potential base for a Mass-based revolutionary organization will slowly but surely in formation.

Amidst all this came William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam who was a British Whig Statesman of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was one of the richest people in Britain and he played a leading part in Whig politics into the 1820s. The Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland was, in his view, the process of alienation of Catholics from British rule which might drive them into supporting Jacobinism and the French invasion of Ireland. The loss of Ireland in such an event would weaken British Sea power and make possible an invasion of England. Fitzwilliam aimed to reconcile Catholics to British rule by delivering Catholic Emancipation and ending the Protestant Ascendancy. He wrote; “the chief object of my attempts will be, to purify, as far as circumstances and prudence will permit, the principles of government, in the hopes of thereby restoring to it that tone and spirit which so happily prevailed formerly, and so much to the dignity as well as the benefit of the country”. He arrived in Ballbriggan in 1795 and reported that he found the texture of government in Ireland very weak. He further claimed that the violence committed by peasants was not political but; “merely the outrages of bandits”. It must be stated that the Portland Whigs, who are in government, supported form and relief in Ireland. When the Earl of Fitzwilliam was appointed new Lord Lieutenant he dismissed leading conservatives and supported Catholic emancipation. He was recalled in February 1795 and dashed hopes of any major change in Ireland thus increasing polarization. However there was one consolation of significance and that was the foundation of the Royal College of St. Patrick in Maynooth.

The re-emergence of the United Irishmen in 1795-1796 implied continuity between the ‘constitutional’ and ‘militant’ members of the organisation. The creation of a secret revolutionary army that was both cellular and hierarchical in Belfast and Ulster (1795); Leinster (1796) with numbers in excess of 120,000 in Ulster by mid-1797 and over 80,000 in Leinster by mid-1798 meant that revolution was becoming inevitable. The United Irishmen were also actively seeking French support for an Irish revolution to establish a separate Irish republic and the idea was not unacceptable in France.

Theobald Wolfe Tone wrote; “To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing cause of all our political evil, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objectives”. He further stated; “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 Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters – these were my means”.

In 1796, in the town of Bantry, at the head of the bay, is associated with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 as being the place where an earlier attempt to land launch a rebellion was made by a French fleet, including Wolfe Tone in December 1796. The French fleet consisting of 43 ships carrying 15,000 troops had divided mid-Atlantic into smaller groups to avoid interception by the Royal Navy with orders to reform at Bantry Bay. The bulk of the fleet arrived successfully, but several ships, including the flagship Fraternité carrying General Hoche were delayed. While awaiting their arrival, bad weather intervened and the lack of leadership, together with uneasiness at the prospect of being trapped, forced the decision to return to France. Tone wrote of the expedition in his diary, saying that; “We were close enough to toss a biscuit ashore” and because of the forced departure without attack; “England has had the greatest escape since the Spanish Armada”.

The Government were not happy to the radicalism now rampant on Ireland’s soil and that certain measures were now absolutely necessary to stop it. The introduction of the regular Army and Militia (1793) and the Yeomanry (1796) were the first steps to remove the rebels permanently from Ireland’s shores. The ‘French’ episode had scared the English who now felt that any foreign nation colonising Ireland were an enormous threat to the Crown and thus began a campaign of hatred against Irish republicanism. A series of suppressive anti-Catholic Acts were enforced; Indemnity Act (1795), Insurrection Act (1796), The Orange Order (1795), The ‘Dragooning of Ulster’ (1797) forced the United Irish momentum which passes from Ulster and Leinster to Countrywide.

In the prelude to the rebellion the Leinster leadership was arrested in March 1798 and the remaining leadership draw up their plans for ‘native’ rebellion. The arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and others in May 1798 was the final act that caused the outbreak of rebellion on May 24th and thus the uprising began. The causes of the rebellion are still a source of major contention for historians who have some different views on the matter. Some suggest that Repression pushed people into Rebellion while others argue that Sectarianism and Agrarianism were the primary causes. Some further argue that the possibility of parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation were blocked and this lead to polarisation amongst revolutionaries. For other historians it was a period of unprecedented politicisation combined with the impact of the French revolution on the United Irishmen in the advancing industrial revolution creating greater means of communication including newspapers, political tracts, meetings, songs, catechisms, petitions, militancy that all contributed to the outbreak of the rebellion.

In the context of the 18th century; Historian Ian McBride wrote; “The 1798 rebellion was a complex event which saw the fusion of all the tensions – Catholic disaffection, Presbyterian radicalism, anti-English patriotism, agrarian discontent, loyalist anxiety, plebeian sectarianism – which lay beneath the surface of eighteenth century Ireland.

Lecture Notes.

With Thanks To:

Dr. Liam Chambers.


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on March 29, 2012, in Ireland History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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