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.
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. 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.