The Irish Rising of 1798

History Today, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Irish Rising of 1798


June 1998 sees the 200th anniversary of an important challenge to British rule in Ireland. Here we trace the chain of events, and in the following two articles investigate, some key aspects of the story.

Early in 1798 the United Irishmen, seeking to end British rule in the island, planned a rising across the country with French assistance, The authorities arrested most of the leaders before their plans came to fruition, but they re-imposed control on Ireland with such ferocity that a mass rebellion occurred that, for about four weeks, routed the government forces from several key points in the county of Wexford. The rebels' Senate for administering the area under their control has been sometimes claimed as an embryonic republic, built on lines suggested by the revolutions of America and France. Government fears of a general rising that could threaten Dublin ended after the one-sided battle on Vinegar Hill, though military operations continued for some time. The upshot was the Act of Union of 1800, which abolished the Irish Parliament and laid the foundations for Anglo-Irish relations for the next century The origins and meaning of the rising of 1798 have been a matter of controversy and reinterpretation over the last two hundred years. It has been seen as a great nationalist rising; a democratic-republican revolution; an outbreak of sectarian violence; and a chaotic jacquerie, in which the settling of local scores played as important a role as grand political visions. What is clear is that it was a complex event, and an extremely bloody one: there were between 20,000 and 30,000 deaths in County Wexford, from a total population of 120,000.

1791

October 18th: The Society of United Irishmen is founded in Belfast and Dublin, demanding parliamentary reform and religious emancipation. This becomes an influential political movement, and a manifestation of the enthusiasm for republican revolution found among some of the younger Protestants, especially the Presbyterians, and also some Catholics.

Wolfe Tone's An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland is published by the United Irishmen in Belfast.

1792

January: The newspaper the Northern Star is established in Belfast by a committee of United Irishmen. It follows events in France closely, recognising the opportunity to use the French to gain independence from Britain.

1793

February: War is declared between Britain and France. Revolutionaries in France seek to exploit Ireland as the weak link in England's defence. The Act for the Relief of His Majesty's Popish or Roman Catholic Subjects of Ireland awards Catholics the franchise and some concessions, as a result of fears of revolution sweeping Europe. These reforms are not as extensive as the Catholic committee would have liked: Catholics are not allowed to sit in Parliament.

1794

January 29th: Archibald Hamilton Rowan is tried on a charge of distributing a seditious proclamation and is found guilty.

February 15th: The United Irishmen publish their proposals for parliamentary reform.

April 28th: The Reverend William Jackson, a republican colleague of Wolfe Tone, is arrested on a charge of high treason, being revealed as an agent for the French.

May 23rd. Police raid the Dublin Society of United Irishmen.

June 25th: William Drennan is tried for seditious libel, but acquitted.

1795

April 23rd. William Jackson is found guilty of high treason. He commits suicide in court a week later.

June 16th: Wolfe Tone sails for Philadelphia. Charges against him, in conjunction with the charges against Jackson, are dropped.

September 21st: Violent affrays over competition for land tenancies occur in Armagh between the Catholic secret society, the Defenders, and the Protestant Peep o'Day society. The ensuing sectarian conflict inspires the establishment of the first Orange Lodge. …

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