United Irishmen or United Irish Society, Irish political organization. It was founded at Belfast in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone. Disgruntled by the use of English patronage to control Irish politics, the organization aimed at legislative reform
"founded on the principles of civil, political, and religious liberty."
Yet there was, from the outset, an undercurrent of revolutionary striving toward independence that was encouraged by the progress of the French Revolution. Tone, with James Napper Tandy, started a branch at Dublin; this became the center of the movement, which spread rapidly throughout Ireland. The society was suppressed in 1794 and became a secret revolutionary organization. Tone was exiled and went to France to request aid. A French force did attempt an invasion in 1796, but it was wrecked off the southwest coast of Ireland. The British government waged a campaign of brutal repression in Ulster in an attempt, largely successful, to break up the cohesive center of the movement. In Mar., 1798, several southern leaders were arrested, and when rebellion did break out in May, it was in isolated, sporadic bursts. The only appreciable success was in Co. Wexford, but the rebels there were defeated in the battle of Vinegar Hill, June 21. Two months later a small French force landed, but it received almost no support and surrendered. A larger invasion force, led by Tone, was intercepted by the British navy, and Tone was captured. The force of the movement was spent, and it was not revived.
See studies by R. R. Madden (1858–60), R. Jacob (1937), and T. Pakenham (1969).