Ireland: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

The Rebellion of 1798 and the Act of Union

The revolt of the American Colonies had been the unforeseen means by which the Irish Parliament had obtained its freedom. A few years later the French Revolution led to the Rebellion of 1798, for it may safely be argued that had no help been anticipated from France, the Irish, however urgent their wrongs, would never have risen. At first, the crushing of royal and aristocratic tyranny in France was greeted with enthusiasm by nearly everyone in Ireland, till the later excesses of the Republican government alienated the sympathies of the upper classes and the clergy. Republican ideas began to spread among the manufacturing and agricultural classes, being eagerly welcomed by the Presbyterians in the north, who suffered from the dominance of the Anglican party in power, having to pay tithes to a Church of which they did not approve. The lower classes of the Catholics also felt the influence of the new ideas, and were buoyed up with the hope of getting full religious freedom.

Seizing the opportunity to combine the various religious elements in Ireland, a young lawyer named Theobald Wolfe Tone founded a society called "The United Irishmen," whose object was to obtain Parliamentary reform and emancipation for the Catholics. Though conceived and led by Protestants, the society was soon joined by many Catholics, becoming a vast organization and a real menace to the English Government. Wolfe Tone was undoubtedly filled with Republican ideals from the outset, but the original United Irishmen were loyal, and desirous of obtaining their wished-for reforms by constitutional means.

Theobald Wolfe Tone


One part of the wishes of the United Irishmen was obtained in 1793 when the Catholic Relief Act was passed, removing most of the disabilities under which the Catholics had suffered during the past century, and admitting them to the franchise, but not to a seat in Parliament. This gave a vote to the ignorant peasant, who was then free to assist his Protestant landlord to become a member of the House of Commons, from which the Catholic gentry were debarred. The Act was supported by the Government, Pitt thinking it wise to pacify the Catholics while he was carrying on war with France. Grattan and his party also assisted the Bill, being in favour of such limited enfranchisement which still retained the Protestant ascendancy. The great opponent of reform of every kind, in or outside Parliament, was Lord Fitzgibbon, who had risen through his legal talents to a high position, becoming Chancellor in 1790. Though honourable himself, he encouraged the retention of every form of Parliamentary corruption.

On January 4, 1795, Lord Fitzwilliam arrived in Dublin to take up his duties as Lord Lieutenant, his Viceroyalty, though extremely brief in duration, proving a very memorable one. Great differences of opinion exist concerning the correctness and wisdom of Lord Fitzwilliam's government. The new Viceroy seems to have come with the idea that he had liberty to carry out what was right in his own judgment, and not to accept without criticism the dictates of the English Privy Council. Pitt declared that he had expressly informed Fitzwilliam that he was not to alter the Irish system of government, nor to dismiss any servants of the Government, and that with regard to Catholic Emancipation he was to seek every means to stop the movement, but if it were too strong, not to oppose it. Two days after his arrival Lord Fitzwilliam dismissed John Beresford from his office, a man of no great ability, but one who had immense parliamentary influence and was a great friend of the Government. Meanwhile, all over Ireland the Catholics were clamouring for complete equality with the Protestants, impressing the Viceroy with the impossibility of keeping them any longer in subjection. He wrote urgent letters to England, getting no answers for a long time, and was finally recalled at the end of February, Pitt being indignant at the utter disregard of his instructions. Lecky maintains that Fitzwilliam did not deserve censure, and that he had not overstepped his unwritten instructions. Fitzwilliam had roused the hopes of the Catholics to a great height, so that the day of his departure was observed as one of mourning. The Protestant House of Commons, too, had presented an address, saying he had "merited the thanks of this House and the confidence of the people." That Fitzwilliam had been tactless and hasty and had not fulfilled Pitt's terms seems proved by the fact that his friends in the Cabinet, those who had urged his appointment, acquiesced in his recall, that "fatal turning-point in Irish history." Mr. Lecky insists that "from the day when Pitt recalled Lord Fitzwilliam the course of her history was changed. Intense and growing hatred of England, revived religious and class animosities, a savage rebellion savagely repressed, a legislative union prematurely and corruptly carried, mark the closing years of the eighteenth century."

Henry Grattan


Left to the inefficient care of Lord Camden, the new Viceroy, the country moved rapidly towards rebellion, all hope of removing wrongs by constitutional means being given up. In the autumn of 1795 the Orange Society was started, a body of Protestants in direct opposition to the Catholics and United Irishmen. It began in the north, where a feud had always existed between Protestants and Catholics, an ill-feeling which constantly burst into open conflict, neither party being innocent of blame. The Orangemen bound themselves together for defensive purposes, at the same time declaring their loyalty and determination to observe the laws. But, unfortunately, a lawless element gained the upper hand and carried on a fierce persecution of the Catholics of Ulster, driving innocent and harmless people to "hell or Connaught," as the saying was. The homeless peasants, when they reached Connaught, preached rebellion "by merely recounting their wrongs."

Wolfe Tone, who had been obliged to leave Ireland, his treasonable practices having been discovered, had been in France urging the Republican government to assist his country. He impressed them so much that a fleet was fitted out to carry a large force of men to Ireland, under the command of General Hoche, an officer held in high estimation. Bad luck attended the expedition, as with all French attempts upon Ireland. Sailing from Brest in December, 1796, the fleet encountered severe storms, and became separated. Hoche never reached Ireland, and though Grouchy, the second in command, managed to get into Bantry Bay, he hesitated to land, till another gale forced him out to sea again. It is scarcely to be wondered that Wolfe Tone, who had accompanied the expedition, felt his hopes crushed, when the vessels containing the 15,000 men headed again for France without having struck a blow for Ireland's freedom. He writes in his diary: "So, all is over! It is hard after having my way thus far to be obliged to turn back." England had been saved again, not by her superior foresight or strength, but by the stormy winds, which have so often protected her shores.

The men in power at the Castle, headed Fitzgibbon, the Chancellor, were fully alive to the danger, and determined to draw out the sting of the rebellion before it had actually begun work. The rebel leaders, well known to the Government through the treachery of spies, were seized, and atrocious methods resorted to in order to obtain hidden arms. Though the United Irishmen numbered hundreds of thousands upon paper, they were lacking in all forms of discipline, and once their leaders were gone their doom was inevitable. The Government used the yeomanry, all Orangemen burning with religious animosity, to search for arms and put down all resistance, and thus connived at barbarous cruelties which would never have been permitted by English soldiers. One English General resigned when he found what disorderly ruffians he was to command, but General Lake, who took his place, had no such compunction. The leader of the United Irishmen, who was to command the rebellion, was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a younger son of the Duke of Leinster, who had previously held a commission in the English army, but who had now thrown himself enthusiastically into the United Irishmen. His hiding-place in Dublin being betrayed, Fitzgerald fought desperately with his captors, knowing that no mercy would be shown to a rebel leader, but was finally secured after he had wounded some of his assailants. He died from his wounds shortly after in prison.

In May, 1798, the smouldering rebellion at last burst into flame, fanned, it is said by some historians, by Lord Fitzgibbon (now become the Earl of Clare), who wished to obtain a full opportunity of suppressing with the utmost force every suspected rebel. From the outset it had no chance. It was leaderless and without unity. The Protestants in the North did not support the Catholics in the South, Wolfe Tone's ideal of United Irishmen vanishing like a dream. But, hopeless as it was, it was savage beyond description, both sides indulging in horrible atrocities. The Catholic peasantry of Wicklow and Wexford, led by Father Murphy, for a few brief weeks had some success, but their rising was quelled regardless of mercy or the decent humanities of warfare. Another French expedition landed in Mayo, but was forced to surrender after a preliminary success at Castlebar. Wolfe Tone once more reached Ireland in yet another French attempt and was captured, being recognized by a one-time friend. He escaped death on the gallows by committing suicide in prison, and with him died Ireland's most capable and whole-hearted, though mistaken friend. Had Hoche's expedition been successful, and the Irish risen and driven out the English, Tone would only have found his much-loved country handed over to serve the ambitions of Napoleon, to fall again, doubtless, to England when the Bourbons returned to the throne of France.

When Lord Cornwallis became Viceroy, he did his utmost to restrain the yeomanry and to see justice done to the unhappy rebels, who continued for some little time to maintain a kind of guerilla warfare among the hills. The great rebellion which had simmered for so long in the minds of the enthusiastic but not very practical leaders of the United Irishmen, had come and gone, leaving the cause of Ireland's freedom and happiness more hopeless than before. Instead of being the combined resistance of a united nation, it had resolved itself into little petty risings, unconnected with one another. Protestant and Catholic, who had been on the verge of toleration, grew to hate one another again; the Rebellion had left, as one recent writer tells us, "a legacy of blighted hopes and most evil memories." Those who study Irish history will feel inclined to agree with the defence which Lord Macaulay has pleaded for the evil of rebellion, though his words were not written for Ireland. He writes: "We deplore the outrages which accompany revolutions . . . . The violence of those outrages will always be proportioned to the ferocity and ignorance of the people; and the ferocity and ignorance of the people will be proportioned to the oppression and degradation under which they have been accustomed to live."

The events of 1798 determined Pitt upon a course of action which had long been developing in his mind. In his judgment it was too dangerous to allow the freedom of the Irish Parliament, attained through Grattan in 1782, to remain. Both the Regency question and the war with France had shown how unworkable was the Constitution so lauded by Grattan. Pitt was anxious to give complete emancipation to the Catholics, but this could no longer be done safely in Ireland, where religious animosity was revived, and where the Catholics, once sitting in Parliament, would outvote the Protestants. But if Irish members sat at Westminster, this danger would be averted.

Cromwell, in his supreme, autocratic method, had carried out Pitt's scheme with great simplicity, just closing the Dublin Parliament and ordering a certain number of representatives to Westminster. But this had not lasted long and the blessings of Parliament had been restored to Dublin with Charles II. In 1698, however, we find William Molyneux writing concerning the union of the English and Irish Parliaments, adding, "but this is a happiness we can hardly hope for." And when the Parliaments of Scotland and England were united in 1707, the Irish House of Commons petitioned for a similar union, which unfortunately was not granted.

Lord Castlereagh the chief secretary of Cornwallis, brought forward the legislative union early in 1799, but owing to the strong opposition it received, the measure was dropped. The English Parliament, however, had passed resolutions in favour of the union, and Pitt ordered Cornwallis to see that it was carried in Ireland. Dublin was against the Union because of loss of trade and prestige when Parliament was removed; the lawyers also disliked the supremacy of the English Bar; but the Catholic hierarchy was in favour, hoping for religious equality which was vaguely promised by Cornwallis; and the borough owners and many members were willing to be bought. Castlereagh made no trouble about the obtaining of the necessary majority. The House of Commons had always been corrupt, the passing of Government measures regularly paid for, so he merely curtly decided to "buy out and secure to the Crown for ever the fee simple of Irish corruption." And this he proceeded to do. Borough-owners were to be compensated by the market value of their boroughs, peerages and places were lavishly bestowed, till enough votes were obtained. Castlereagh has been execrated for a century with a uniformity of unalloyed obloquy," as Mr. Litton Falkiner tells us, yet he only did what others had done before him; and Grattan himself declared when he was dying, "Don't be hard on Castlereagh; he loves his country." The question all rests upon whether a union was necessary and desirable, for, if necessary, it is difficult to know how else it could have been obtained. Neither Pitt nor Castlereagh were actuated by vindictive feelings towards Ireland, but seem to have sincerely thought that the union would be advantageous for both England and Ireland. Lord Cornwallis assisted in securing the union, though he wrote: "I despise and hate myself every hour for engaging in such dirty work."

The Act of Union came into effect in January, 1801, in spite of the strenuous opposition of those who were sincerely opposed to it, and those to whose interest it was to retain a separate Parliament. Grattan, enfeebled with illness, came to the House dressed in the old Volunteer uniform, and in an eloquent speech pleaded with Parliament to retain its liberty; but the members had been securely bought, and eloquence was in vain. Besides, the Irish Parliament had neglected to fulfill its obvious duties. It ought to have recognized and settled the Catholic question long before the rebellion, and to have done away with the obnoxious tithes. As Mr. Dunlop writes: "The boasted independence of the Irish Parliament had proved a sham. Its corruption was past dispute. It had refused to reform itself when the opportunity offered, and it was itself mainly responsible for its own fate."

Though Pitt had not actually promised emancipation to the Catholics, he had held out considerable hopes, and so secured their help towards the passing of the Act of Union, and now that the Union was obtained, he tried to pass an Emancipation Bill. But King George III. would not hear of it, being afraid, owing to a suggestion that had come to him from Fitzgibbon, that he would violate his coronation oath in freeing the Catholics, and so endanger his throne. Pitt resigned office, but was again at the head of affairs three years later, having relinquished the Catholic claims. For this he has been much blamed, many insisting that he could have forced the obstinate old King to give way.

In Ireland at first there was no great disturbance over the Union, more or less of indifference being displayed, with a growing sense in the towns that a time of prosperity might be at hand. But in 1803 there was another rising, doomed from the outset to failure and ignominy. Its leader was Robert Emmet, a young man of some ability, inspired with a romantic love of his country. He tried to obtain French help, but did not wait for it, gathering men secretly in Dublin with the wild idea of capturing the Castle, and once in possession to let the rebellion spread over the country. His own fortune was expended upon the purchase of arms and ammunition, but when the fatal day of July 23 came, the whole scheme proved a miserable failure. Emmet tried to lead the rebels towards the Castle, but his men had no discipline, and ran about in disorder, attacking what they liked. Lord Kilwarden, an Irish judge distinguished for his impartial justice, was murdered by the mob, whom Emmet could not restrain, but when the soldiers came upon the scene, the insurgents disappeared without making any attempt at fighting. Emmet himself escaped to the Wicklow Mountains, from whence he might safely have reached France, had not his passionate love for Sarah Curran dragged him back to Dublin for one last farewell. Captured on this visit, the unfortunate young man was hastily tried and hanged. Before his death Emmet ordered that no epitaph should be written concerning him till his country had taken her place among the nations of the earth.

More than a hundred years have passed away since the rebellion of 1798, but it has not been forgotten, and its influence has affected the government of the country. "Time has scarcely served to soften a single animosity," writes Mr. Litton Falkiner, "or to obliterate the marks of racial and religious hate which the disorders of the rebellion traced afresh in Ireland. In the popular imagination the long procession of a hundred years has only served to tinge with the romance of history the figures of the chief actors in a struggle which, hopeless as were its objects, bloody as was its progress, and mournful its conclusion, is still regarded with a certain enthusiasm of patriotic reverence as a central and inspiring episode in the drama of Irish history."