by James O’Hanlon
A wet winter, a dry spring
A bloody summer, and no King
Irish prophecy for 1798
The United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 was a defining moment in the political history of Ireland. Far from liberating Ireland or uniting Irishmen, it precipitated the end of the Irish Parliament and led to the Act of Union of 1801. Its degeneration into a peasant revolt, a mix of local score settling and undefined aims, reinforced the mistrust and divisions between Planter and Gael. Never again would Protestants and Catholics seek common political cause; divisions, still maintained to this day, were set in stone.
The Rebellion claimed 25,000 lives, of which 2,000 were on the government side. It was less a cohesive rising, more a fragmented series of skirmishes and uncoordinated attacks. It was less a struggle between a subjugated Hibernia and a perfidious Albion, more a civil war between Irishmen. The composition of the government forces that dealt so ruthlessly with the rebels was three quarters Irish.
In Ulster, from the outset, the uneasy alliance between Catholic and Dissenter was under stress. The endemic land war in the north created an unbridgeable chasm between the suspicious allies. The hope that a revolution would be forged from a combination of ‘Presbyterian rationalism and Catholic nationalism’ was to prove illusory.
Reports of the sectarian nature of the risings in the south, especially at Wexford and Kildare, had alarmed many Presbyterians, hitherto committed to the cause. Many pulled back from the brink of insurrection, seeking either a wary neutrality, or an armed security in the burgeoning ranks of the Orange movement. Catholics, distrustful of their Protestant neighbours, and fearful of the strength of Orangeism, proved unwilling to participate beyond a limited level. Traditional sectarian enmities undermined the naïve hopes for a universal brotherhood.
Belfast, where the first United Society in Ireland had been formed in 1791, had been superseded as the political centre of the movement by Dublin. The city that had celebrated the execution of Louis XVI with a display of fireworks, had, in May 1798, celebrated in similar fashion the official birthday of King George the Third. The radicalism of the populace was now tempered by the curfews, courts martial and coercion maintained since the start of the rebellion.
Ireland in 1798 was a country administered by a beleaguered nation of Protestants “who felt little more identity with the Catholic masses than George Washington’s America with the Red Indians.” This “small, selfish, corrupt oligarchy” of haves faced simmering resentment from the have-nots, Presbyterian businessmen and artisans, and the Catholics. Catholics were divided by class and culture; the middle classes anxious to erode the last vestiges of the Penal Laws that excluded them from the legal profession and political office; the great mass of Irish peasantry an ignored underclass, hapless victims of high taxes and a harsh land system, separated by religion or language from the rest.
The United Irish movement had started out as a non-violent attempt to throw open the Irish parliament to all, irrespective of rank or religion. It was an assault on the Legislative Independence of 1778, granted to the Protestant oligarchy as a means of averting a revolution similar to the one that was then tearing the American colonies from the grip of the British Crown. It was driven by the perceived enlightenment values of the French Revolution, then sweeping Europe. The radical Presbyterians of the North, champing at the bit of Episcopalian supremacy and Ascendancy misgovernment, were galvanised by the prospect of a new liberating breeze from the Continent. The Catholic masses, mired in poverty and excluded from politics, were ripe for revolution.
The outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, offered the prospect of a military overthrow of the status quo, and turned the reformers into revolutionaries. The organisation went underground, fatally opening it to a drip feed of informants and infighting that sapped its strength.
The arrest of the leading members of the Directory in Dublin had left the main organisation rudderless, and when the signal for the rising came, discipline and direction were absent as the country fell into a ferment of anarchy. The defining blow was the belated and inadequate intervention of the French, whose hoped for assistance, so long sought by the Paris based Wolfe Tone, had been the clinching argument in deciding to rise in the first place.
In Ulster, the military authorities were kept informed of developments by informers such as Nicholas Magin, a Catholic farmer from Saintfield, colonel in the revolutionary army of Down, and government spy. The old guard of the northern movement, dismayed at the illiberal turn of events in revolutionary Europe, prevaricated about throwing their collective hats into the revolutionary ring, and were replaced by a younger, more militant minded cabal.
Henry Joy McCracken, a prosperous cotton manufacturer and a freethinking Presbyterian, found himself at the head of a northern organisation riven with disputes and weakened by coercion. Eight years before, he had stood with Wolfe Tone on the summit of Cave Hill taking an oath to liberate his country. Now he stood atop Donegore Hill, dressed in regimental scarlet, contemplating an assault on Antrim town with his troop of 12,000 men. Henry Munro, a Lisburn draper, Freemason, and Scottish Protestant, had the unenviable task of marshalling the ragbag of forces at his disposal in Down. His dwindling bands of supporters were fatally weakened by defections from the Catholics, fearful of his Protestant credentials, and the Presbyterians, unnerved by the news of sectarian slaughter filtering in from the south.
Antrim was quickly pacified through a combination of military might and the offer of a conditional amnesty – end the resistance immediately and avoid arrest, or face unremitting repression. Many chose the former option and melted into the countryside, those that fought were repulsed with great slaughter. The rebels in Down faced a similar stark choice.
The end of the rebellion in Ulster came at the Battles of Saintfield and Ballynahinch in June 1798. The Belfast News Letter, which had a jaundiced view of the insurrection, gives a partial, yet illuminating account of these battles, and makes clear how hopeless the rebel position always was:
“Intelligence is just arrived from Major General Nugent, stating that on the 11th instant, he had marched against a large body of Rebels, who were posted at Saintfield. They retired, on his approach, to a firing position on the Saintfield side of Ballynahinch, and there made a show of resistance, and endeavoured to turn his left flank; but Lieutenant Col. Stewart arriving from Down, with a pretty considerable force of infantry, cavalry and yeomanry, they soon desisted, and retired to a very strong position behind Ballynahinch.
General Nugent attacked them next morning at three o’clock, having occupied two hills on the left and the right of the town, to prevent the Rebels from having any other choice than the mountains in their rear for their retreat; he sent Lieut.Col. Stewart to post himself with part of the Argyle Fencibles, and some yeomanry, as well as a detachment of the 22nd Light Dragoons in a situation from whence he could enfilade the Rebel line; while Col Leslie, with part of the Monaghan militia, some cavalry and yeoman infantry, could make an attack upon their front. Having two howitzers and six six pounders, with the two detachments, the Major General was enabled to annoy them very much, from different parts of his position.
The Rebels attacked, impetuously, Colonel Leslie’s detachment, and even jumped into the Earl of Moira’s demesne, to endeavour to take one of his guns, but they were repulsed with slaughter. Lieut.Colonel Stewart’s detachment was attacked by them with the same activity, but he repulsed them, and the fire from his howitzer and six pounder soon obliged them to fly in all directions. Their force was, on the evening of the 12th, near 5000; but as many persons are pressed into their service, and almost entirely unarmed, the General does not suppose that on the morning of the engagement their numbers were so many.
About four hundred Rebels were killed in the attack and retreat, and the remainder were dispersed all over the country. Parts of the town of Saintfield and Ballynahinch were burnt. Major-General Nugent states, that both officers and men deserve praise, for their zeal and alacrity on this as well as on all occasions.