The 1797 Rising in Ireland
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Ireland had achieved legislative independence with the constitution of 1782, confirmed by the Renunciatory Act of the following year. She had refused to surrender any portion of that independence even as the price of the final removal of hampering commercial restrictions. She had asserted it again very emphatically at the time of the Regency Bill, when the Irish parliament, led by Grattan, refused to recognise the right of the parliament at Westminster to control the regency for Ireland, and sent a deputation to London to offer the regency to the Prince of Wales on its own account a proceeding of which the effectiveness was somewhat damaged by the fact that by the time the deputation reached London the king had been restored to health and there was no regency to offer.
The prosperity of the country advanced rapidly during the years of peace, since the concessions already made greatly extended Irish commerce; the paralysis of the Catholic population had at least been diminished by the relaxation of the Penal Code; the spirit of hopefulness stimulated enterprise, and agriculture assumed a new activity.
But an independent parliament could be regarded only as a first step towards the reform of flagrant abuses which powerful interests were still energetic in preserving. The executive was still responsible to the Crown, not to Parliament; Parliament itself was infinitely less representative of the actual electorate and more subject to the control of corrupt influences than even the parliament at Westminster; and on religious grounds the electorate itself was restricted to the Protestant community, who formed less than a fourth of the population, while the Protestant dissenters were in a worse position than their brethren in England.
The Irish Parliament
The Irish parliament then was in effect controlled by the group whose interest it was to preserve an unreformed representation, while those who desired reform were in disagreement on the Catholic question. This controlling majority was thoroughly loyal to the British connection; but the guarantee of their loyalty was their firm conviction that the Protestant ascendency, their own ascendency, rested upon British support. Had Grattan been the leader of a majority the loyalty of the parliament would hardly have been less, for Grattan had a splendid faith in mutual trust and honour as the curative for misunderstandings.
For such mutual trust he pleaded earnestly, and on the same principles he desired to place his Catholic fellow-countrymen on the same footing as the Protestants, and to trust in the loyalty which the Catholic gentry had already displayed so conspicuously. Had the Catholic gentry been freely admitted to public life, it is certain that they would have proved themselves worthy of the confidence reposed in them. In short, a reformed Irish parliament would in ah probability have been a loyal parliament.
But the one reform which was conceded, pressed upon the ascendency party by Pitt, and accepted by it not without reluctance, was not calculated to improve the position. In 1792 the franchise was extended so as to admit Catholics to the electorate, but they were still excluded from parliament and from office. In other words, the leaders were kept out of active public life and distrusted, while the rank and file were admitted to the franchise.
Wolf Tone and the Society of the United Irishmen
This measure came just before the declaration of war between France and Great Britain, when the Revolution in France was already unmistakably triumphant, and the French Revolution, following upon the American Revolution, had sown dangerous seed in Ireland. For there a fruitful soil was provided among the Protestant dissenters with their Puritan tradition, the Catholic proletariat with its ill-defined but acute consciousness of oppression, and an agrarian population which, whether Protestant or Catholic, had a lively sense of hostility to the landlords and still more to the middlemen - a chain of whom was generally interposed between the absentee landlords and tenantry. It was to this community of interests hostile to the existing order that the young lawyer Wolfe Tone appealed when he started the Society of the United Irishmen in 1791.
Wolfe Tone himself was imbued with many of the ideas of the French Revolution, and his own ultimate aim was to create an Irish republic. Bat these aims were not yet to be acknowledged. The first thing was to get rid of dissension and unite the Irish people in a demand for the redress of grievances. The time had not yet come for treating the British connection as the root cause of the grievances. The Protestant population were to combine with the Catholics in a demand for full political rights irrespective of religion, and the Society of the United Irishmen, with its starting-point among the Protestants of Ulster, virtually leagued itself with the "Catholic Committee," which had been in existence for more than thirty years.
That committee had already changed its character, having become democratised by the secession from it of many Catholics who had taken alarm at the anti-clerical aspects of the French Revolution. On the other hand, while the active propaganda of the new movement was accompanied by an increase of agrarian disturbance, it intensified also the repressive activities of the ascendency party which dominated both parliament and the executive.
In 1795 a new viceroy, Lord Fitzwilliam, realised the essential justice of the Catholic demands, and reform seemed to be at hand; but the ascendency group, led by the Chancellor Fitzgibbon, proved too strong for him. Fitzwilliam was recalled, Fitzgibbon was made Earl of Clare, and in his hands the new viceroy, Lord Camden, virtually placed himself. And now a fresh element of chaos was introduced by a revival of religious animosities. The Protestants associated with the United Irish Movement were in the main, though not exclusively, Presbyterians. But in the popular terminology of the day, Protestants meant the preponderant body who belonged to the Established Church and were free from political disabilities.
These Ulster Protestants formed the opposition societies called the "Peep o' Day Boys," a name which gave place to that of "Orangemen" in commemoration of William of Orange. For the past four years the Peep o' Day Boys had been in frequent collision with the supporters of the United Irishmen; and now the Orange society developed a sort of crusade against the Catholic peasantry, with the result that large numbers all over Ireland began to enroll themselves in the Society of United Irishmen, which welcomed them with open arms.
French intervention averted
Nevertheless, Catholic Ireland was not at this time ripe for rebellion, though Wolfe Tone imagined that it was. He betook himself to France, dropped the mask, and had no difficulty in persuading the French government to despatch a large expedition under the command of Hoche to land in Ireland. It was the moment when British naval ascendency was still in the balance, just before Jervis's victory at Cape St. Vincent. The expedition did not land; it was driven off by tempests. But it is remarkable that when its arrival was hourly expected there was no sign of a rising in Ireland itself.
Still, through 1797, while the religious strife raged chiefly in Ulster, the organisers of rebellion were arming and drilling constantly increasing numbers of the Catholic peasantry. On the other hand, the Government adopted vigorous repressive measures for the seizure of arms and the insurrectionary ringleaders; and this work was done chiefly by the Ulster yeomanry, who were in fact Orange volunteers imbued with the passions of the religious strife. All the progress towards harmony, of which there had seemed to be such high promise when Grattan's parliament was created, was done away with, and all the old animosities were again raised to their highest pitch.
The unrestrained brutalities of the government soldiery were answered by deeds of corresponding savagery. There was no one to control, to organise, or to restrain the insurrectionary movement, because the Government had seized its chiefs; and in May 1798 a desperate but abortive rebellion blazed out in the counties of Wicklow and Wexford, where the struggle was practically between Catholics and Protestants without qualification.
The suppression of the insurrection was secured by the decisive defeat of the insurgents at Vinegar Hill; and the fortunate appointment of Cornwallis,the former Governor-General of India, as Lord-Lieutenant, insured that so far as lay in his power the final suppression of the rebellion would be conducted as leniently as possible. But the whole episode was made hideous by barbarous conduct on both sides, though it was accompanied by redeeming deeds of heroic courage. Nor was it possible even for Cornwallis to prevent continued excesses on the part of the side which had won. And Grattan's parliament had failed so utterly to fulfil Grattan's own hopes, it had become so completely the instrument of the oligarchy, that Grattan himself had seceded from it in despair.
One more incident of the rebellion is to be noted. France did not repeat the attempt of 1796, and Bonaparte was absorbed in the Egyptian expedition Nevertheless a small French force was landed in the west; its leader General Humbert, scattered a large force of militia which was despatched against him, at what was called the "Race of Castlebar," and he was able to give a good deal of trouble before he was finally forced to surrender. But practically outside the counties of Wicklow and Wexford the insurrection never made head.