On This Day, May 23rd, 1798: The Irish Rebellion begins

Image: Half-hanging of suspected United Irishmen by government troops.

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 (Irish: Éirí Amach 1798), also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion (Irish: Éirí Amach na nÉireannach Aontaithe), was an uprising against British rule in Ireland lasting from May to September 1798. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, were the main organising force behind the rebellion.


Since 1691 and the end of the Williamite War, Ireland had chiefly been controlled by the minority Anglican Protestant Ascendancy constituting members of the established Church of Ireland loyal to the British Crown. It governed through a form of institutionalised sectarianism codified in the Penal Laws which discriminated against both the majority Irish Catholic population and non-Anglican Protestants (for example Presbyterians). In the late 18th century, liberal elements among the ruling class were inspired by the example of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and sought to form common cause with the Catholic populace to achieve reform and greater autonomy from Britain. As in England, the majority of Protestants, as well as all Catholics, were barred from voting because they did not pass a property threshold. Another grievance was that Ireland, although nominally a sovereign kingdom governed by the monarch and Parliament of the island, in reality had less independence than most of Britain’s North American colonies, due to a series of laws enacted by the English, such as Poynings’ law of 1494 and the Declaratory Act of 1719, the former of which gave the English veto power over Irish legislation, and the latter of which gave the British the right to legislate for the kingdom.

When France joined the Americans in support of their Revolutionary War, London called for volunteers to join militias to defend Ireland against the threat of invasion from France (since regular British forces had been dispatched to America). Many thousands joined the Irish Volunteers. In 1782 they used their newly powerful position to force the Crown to grant the landed Ascendancy self-rule and a more independent parliament (“Grattan’s Parliament”). The Irish Patriot Party, led by Henry Grattan, pushed for greater enfranchisement. In 1793 parliament passed laws allowing Catholics with some property to vote, but they could neither be elected nor appointed as state officials. Liberal elements of the Ascendancy seeking a greater franchise for the people, and an end to religious discrimination, were further inspired by the French Revolution, which had taken place in a Catholic country.

United Irishmen

The prospect of reform inspired a small group of Protestant liberals in Belfast to found the Society of United Irishmen in 1791. The organisation crossed the religious divide with a membership comprising Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, other Protestant “dissenters” groups, and some from the Protestant Ascendancy. The Society openly put forward policies of further democratic reforms and Catholic emancipation, reforms which the Irish Parliament had little intention of granting. The outbreak of war with France earlier in 1793, following the execution of Louis XVI, forced the Society underground and toward armed insurrection with French aid. The avowed intent of the United Irishmen was to “break the connection with England”; the organisation spread throughout Ireland and had at least 200,000 members by 1797.[6] It linked up with Catholic agrarian resistance groups, known as the Defenders, who had started raiding houses for arms in early 1793.

Despite their growing strength, the United Irish leadership decided to seek military help from the French revolutionary government and to postpone the rising until French troops landed in Ireland. Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, travelled in exile from the United States to France to press the case for intervention.

Effigies of Napoleon became more common after the successes of his first Italian campaign. The meeting between the sculptor Charles-Louis Corbet and the young general can be dated with certainty to sometime between 5 December, 1797 - the day Bonaparte returned to Paris - and 4 May, 1798 - the day he left for Egypt. This meeting was organised with a view to sculpting a full-size bust of Bonaparte, commissioned by the Directory. The plaster cast went on display at the Salon of Year VI (opened on 17 July, 1798) with the title Portrait of General Buonaparte, done from life, with the added note that it was to be eventually produced in marble form for the Directory. And so, at the Salon of 1800, Corbet presentedGeneral Bonaparte, marble bust, executed on the orders of the Directory during the Egyptian campaign.

Source for the text. 

This bust is one of my favourites in case you didn’t know (if you have been following for a while, you do know).


Julius Soubise, Macaroni of London

Julius Soubise (1754-1798) was the adopted son of the infamous Catherine Hyde, Duchess of Queensbury (1701-1777), who was a wealthy and scandalous eccentric. He was born at St. Kitts and arrived in London at the age of ten. His good looks generated a good deal of interest among women of rank, and Soubise came to live with the Duchess in 1764.

Raised in privilege, Soubise excelled at violin, acting, and oration; he also became the Duchess’s riding and fencing master as a young man. Although Soubise’s presence in the household was met with the Duke of Queensbury’s approval and encouragement, rumors that a sexual relationship existed between The Duchess and her fencing master pervaded London high society; the top engraving (William Austin, 1773) is a satirical allegory alluding to that relationship.

Gerzina (1995) relates the manner in which the popular young man was received by London society in adulthood:

Soubise ‘suddenly changed his manners, and became one of the most conspicuous fops of the town. He frequented the Opera, and the other theatres; sported a fine horse and groom in Hyde-Park; became a member of many fashionable clubs, and made a figure.’

Soubise became quite accustomed to spending money on clothing, fine dining, and women friends; the prominent Black British academic and abolitionist Ignatius Sancho wrote a letter addressed to him in 1771 entreating the wildly popular fop to tone down his behavior and appeal to respectability. He did not take this advice.

Another engraving of Soubise labels him “A Mungo Macaroni”. “Mungo” refers to a much-maligned Black character in a contemporaneously popular play; “Macaroni” being a 17th Century term for wealthy young men obsessed with (usually French) fashion, gambling, drinking, and generally engaging in dissolute behavior. 

Julius Soubise continued his lavish and decadent lifestyle in London with the blessing of his patron until her death in 1777. Accounts vary as to which event came first, but it is clear within a day or two of the Duchess’s demise, Soubise was accused of assaulting a young woman who worked as a maid, and subsequently fled to Calcutta in Bengal, India. He founded an equestrian school there and spent the rest of his days training young men and women to ride and fence. Julius Soubise died at 44 years of age on August 25, 1798, from injuries sustained by a fall from a horse.

Further Reading:


Il bacio in arte.
“Dopo quel bacio io son fatto divino . Le mie idee sono più alte e ridenti, il mio aspetto più gajo, il mio cuore più compassionevole. Mi pare che tutto s'abbellisca a’ miei sguardi; il lamentar degli augelli, e il bisbiglio de’ zefiri fra le frondi son oggi più soavi che mai; le piante si fecondano, e i fiori si colorano sotto a’ miei piedi; non fuggo più gli uomini, e tutta la Natura mi sembra mia.”
- Ugo Foscolo, da “Le ultime lettere a Jacopo Ortis” - Lettera del 15 maggio 1798.

I quadri raffigurati:
- Francesco Hayez, Il bacio, 
- Gustav Klimt, Il bacio, 1907-1908;
- René Magritte, Gli amanti, 1928;
- Edvard Munch, Il bacio con la finestra, 1892;
- Marc Chagall, Il compleanno, 1915;
- Giorgio de Chirico, Ettore e Andromaca - 1917.

It’s been said that English physician Edward Jenner (May 17,1749-Jan. 26,1823) saved more lives than any other human. Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine – the first successful vaccine – in 1798. In the late 18th century, smallpox cases were increasing and had a mortality rate of 40%. Through interviews and experiments with local farmers, Jenner observed that milkmaids who had been infected by cowpox – a milder form of the often deadly smallpox disease – during milking were immune to smallpox. The resemblance of the ulcer shape between the cowpox and smallpox viruses led to the discovery. Culled from our collections, here we have an original copy of Jenner’s “An Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae, known by the name of Cow Pox” (1798).

Mademoiselle Lange as Venus
Oil on canvas, 170 x 87,5 cm
Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig