Radicals and revolutionaries: essays on 1798

Published by the Connolly Association, 1998


FOREWORD - Enda Finlay, 1998

FOREWORD – Enda Finlay, 1998


The United Irishmen and the great rebellion of 1798 are not mere history – something that happenened in the dim and distant past. The dramatic events of those times, in which more than 30,000 people were slaughtered in one short summer, made an impact on Irish political affairs that has endured ever since.

The uprising was drowned in blood, but the defeat and dispersal of the United Irish movement left Ireland with unfinished business – with the need still to obtain its objectives. Two great concepts inspired both the leadership and the rank-and-file in their heroic endeavour, and these were integral elements in their programme. One was a democratic, political objective – attaining what modern political language would term national self-determination and sovereignty. The other was social. To obtain independence, it was necessary to unite all the people, cast off the mind-forged manacles of religious sectarianism, and “abolish the memory of past dissensions”.

That was unquestionably a noble ideal which no honest person dare mock. Because of the defeat of the rebellion, that ideal was never realised. Instead in north-east Ireland we still inherit that surviving anachronism of Orange bigotry – an anti-Catholic hatred which manifests itself with a blind, murderous savagery. Just as the United Irishmen recognised the need for a “cordial union” of the people, so the ascendancy tyrants recognised their need to inflame sectarian hatred.

Before, during and for years after the rebellion, the English rulers from Dublin fomented, encouraged and promoted sectarianism with diligent determination. So that today, probably the most malevolent result of the defeat of the rebellion still distorts the politics and poisons the atmosphere in the abnormal, artificially created entity of the six counties.

In this bi-centenary year, the issues raised by the 1798 rebellion are still very much alive – both for those who admire the United Irishmen and for those who would denigrate them. The right-wing English press, unionist politicians who thrive on sectarianism and some of their servitors in academic circles are making noises to counteract any unwanted encouragement of “republican sentiments”.

With the guilty-conscience reversal of reality that is characteristic of Unionism, the old canard is again being promoted that the 1798 rebellion was in itself “sectarian”, rather than the opposite!

Rather than accord the United Irish leaders with high or idealistic motivation, a psychological, or pathological, “hatred of the English” is attributed to them, contrary to all evidence to the contrary.

Hatred of English rule is being translated, tabloid style, into hatred of “the English” – an attitude of mind that was never prevalent in thr Irish nationalist or republican movements. In 1798 the Dublin Society of United Irishmen proudly announced: “We have addressed the friends of the people in England, and have received their concurence, their thanks and their congratulations.”

From those days onwards there has always been liaison between the revolutionary democrats of Ireland and their counterparts in Britain.


“Och, Pddies, my hearties, have done wid your parties,
Let min of all creeds and professions agree,
If Orange and Green, min, no longer were seen, min,
Och, naboclis, has aisy Ireland we’d free.”
Jamie Hope, 1798

As we have pointed out elsewhere (Erin’s Hope, the End and the Means) native Irish civilisation disappeared, for all practical purposes, with the defeat of the Insurrection of 1641 and the break-up of the Kilkenny Confederation. This great Insurrection marked the last appearance of the Irish clan system, founded upon common property and a democratic social organisation, as a rival to the politico-social order of capitalist feudalism founded upon the political despotism of the proprietors, and the political and the social slavery of the actual producers. In the course of this Insurrection the Anglo-Irish noblemen, who held Irish tribelands as their private property under the English feudal system, did indeed throw in their lot with the native Irish tribesmen, but the union was never a cordial one, and their presence in the councils of the insurgents was at all times a fruitful source of dissension, treachery and incapacity. Professing to fight for Catholicity, they, in reality, sought only to preserve their right to the lands they held as the result of previous confiscations, from the very men, or the immediate ancestors of the men, by whose side they were fighting. They feared confiscation from the new generation of Englishmen if the insurrection was defeated, and they feared confiscation at the hands of the insurgent clansmen if the insurrection was successful.

In the vacillation and treachery arising out of this state of mind can be found the only explanation for the defeat of this magnificent movement of the Irish clans, a movement which had attained to such proportions that it held sway over and made laws for the greater part of Ireland, issued its own coinage, had its own fleet, and issued letters of marque to foreign privateers, made treaties with foreign nations, and levied taxes for the support of its several armies fighting under its flag. The fact that it had enrolled under its banner the representatives of two different social systems contained the germs of its undoing. Had it been all feudal it would have succeeded in creating an independent Ireland, albeit with a serf population like that of England at the time; had it been all composed of the ancient septs it would have crushed the English power and erected a really free Ireland, but as it was but a hybrid, composed of both, it had all the faults of both and the strength of neither, and hence went down in disaster. With its destruction, and the following massacres, expropriations and dispersion of the native Irish, the Irish clans disappear finally from history.

Out of these circumstances certain conditions arose, well worthy of the study of every student who would understand modern Irish history.

One condition which thus arose was, that the disappearance of the clan as a rallying point for rebellions and possible base of freedom made it impossible thereafter to localise an insurrectionary effort, or to give it a smaller or more circumscribed aim than that of the Irish Nation. When, before the iron hand of Cromwell, the Irish clans went down into the tomb of a common subjection, the only possible reappearance of the Irish idea henceforth lay through the gateway of a National resurrection. And from that day forward, the idea of common property was destined to recede into the background as an avowed principle of action, whilst the energies of the nation were engaged in a slow and painful process of assimilating the social system of the conqueror; of absorbing the principles of that political society based upon ownership, which had replaced the the Irish clan society based upon a common kingship.

Another condition ensuing upon the total disappearance of the Irish Social Order was the growth and accentuation of class distinctions amongst the conquerors. The indubitable fact that from that day forward the ownership of what industries remained in Ireland was left in the hands of the Protestant element, is not to be explained as sophistical anti-Irish historians have striven to explain it, by asserting that it arose from the greater enterprise of Protestants as against Catholics; in reality it was due to the state of social and political outlawry in which the Catholics were henceforth placed by the law of the land. According to the English Constitution as interpreted for the benefit of Ireland, the Irish Catholics were not presumed to exist, and hence the practical impossibility of industrial enterprise being in their hands, or initiated by them. Thus, as the landed property of the Catholic passed into the ownership of the Protestant adventurers, so also the manufacturing business of the nation fell out of the stricken grasp of the hunted and proscribed “Papists” into the clutches of their successful and remorseless enemies. Amongst these latter there were two elements – the fanatical Protestant, and the mere adventurer trading on the religious enthusiasm of the former. The latter used the fanaticism of the former in order to disarm, subjugate and rob the common Catholic enemy, and having done so, established themselves as a ruling landed and commercial class, leaving the Protestant soldier to his fate as tenant or artisan. Already by the outbreak of the Williamite war in the generation succeeding Cromwell, the industries of the North of Ireland had so far developed that the ‘Prentice Boys’ of Derry were the dominating factor in determining the attitude of that city towards the contending English Kings, and, with the close of that war, industries developed so quickly in the country as to become a menace to the capitalists of England, who accordingly petitioned the King of England to restrict and fetter their growth, which he accordingly did. With the passing of this restrictive legislation against Irish industries, Irish capitalism became discontented and disloyal without, as a whole, the power or courage to be revolutionary. It was a re-staging of the ever-recurring drama of English invasion and Anglo-Irish disaffection, with the usual economic background. We have pointed out in a previous chapter how each generation of English adventurers, settling upon the soil as owners, resented the coming of the next generation, and that their so-called Irish patriotism was simply inspired by the fear that they should be dispossessed in their turn as they had dispossessed others. What applies to the land-owning ‘patriots’ applies also to the manufacturers. The Protestant capitalists, with the help of the English, Dutch, and other adventurers, dispossessed the native Catholics and became prosperous; as their commerce grew it became a serious rival to that of England, and accordingly the English capitalists compelled legislation against it, and immediately the erstwhile ‘English Garrison in Ireland’ became an Irish ‘patriot’ party.

From time to time many weird and fanciful theories have been evolved to account for the transformation of English settlers of one generation into Irish patriots in the next. We have been told it was the air, or the language, or the religion, or the hospitality, or the lovableness of Ireland; and all the time the naked economic fact, the material reason, was plain as the alleged reason was mythical or spurious. But there are none so blind as those who will not see, yet the fact remains that, since English confiscations of Irish land ceased, no Irish landlord body has become patriotic or rebellious, and since English repressive legislation against Irish manufacturers ceased, Irish capitalists have remained valuable assets in the scheme of English rule in Ireland. So it would appear that since the economic reason ceased to operate, the air, and the language, and the religion, and the hospitality, and the lovableness of Ireland have lost all their seductive capacity, all their power to make an Irish patriot out of an English settler of the propertied classes.

With the development of this ‘patriotic’ policy amongst the Irish manufacturing class, there had also developed a more intense and aggressive policy amongst the humbler class of Protestants in town and country. In fact, in Ireland at that time, there were not only two nations divided into Catholics and non-Catholics, but each of those two nations in turn was divided into other two rich and the poor. The development of industry had drawn large numbers of the Protestant poor from agricultural pursuits into industrial occupations, and the suppression of those latter in the interest of English manufacturers left them both landless and workless. This condition reduced the labourers in town and country to the position of serfs. Fierce competition for farms and for jobs enabled the master class to bend both Protestant and Catholic to its will, and the result was seen in the revolts we have noticed earlier in our history. The Protestant workman and tenant was learning that the Pope of Rome was a very unreal and shadowy danger compared with the social power of his employer or landlord, and the Catholic tenant was awakening to a perception of the fact that under the new the new social order the Catholic landlord represented the Mass less than the rent-roll. The times were propitious for a union of the two democracies of Ireland. They had travelled from widely different points through the valleys of disillusion and disappointment to meet at last by the unifying waters of a common suffering.

To accomplish this union, and make it a living force in the life of the nation, there was required the activity of a revolutionist with statesmanship enough to find a common point upon which the two elements could unite, and some great event, dramatic enough in its character, to arrest the attention of all and fire them with a common feeling. The first, the Man, revolutionist and statesman, was found in the person of Theobald Wolfe Tone, and the second, the Event, in the French Revolution. Wolfe Tone had, although a Protestant, been secretary for the Catholic Committee for some time, and in that capacity had written the pamphlet quoted in a previous chapter, but eventually had become convinced that the time had come for more comprehensive and drastic measures than the Committee could possibly initiate, even were it willing to do so. The French Revolution operated alike upon the minds of the Catholic and Protestant democracies to demonstrate this fact, and prepare them for the reception of it. The Protestant workers saw in it a revolution of a great Catholic nation, and hence wavered in the belief so insidiously instilled into them that Catholics were willing slaves of despotism; and the Catholics saw in it a great manifestation of popular power – a revolution of the people against the aristocracy, and, therefore, ceased to believe that aristocratic leadership was necessary for their salvation.

Seizing this propitious moment, Tone and his associates proposed the formation of a society of men of every creed for the purpose of securing an equal representation of all the people in Parliament.

This was, as Tone’s later words and works amply prove, intended solely as a means of unity. Knowing well the nature of the times and political oligarchy in power, he realised that such a demand would be resisted with all the power of government; but he wisely calculated that such resistance to a popular demand would tend to make closer and more enduring the union of the democracy, irrespective of religion. And that Tone had no illusions about the value of the aristocracy is proven in scores of passages in his autobiography. We quote one, proving alike this point, and also the determining effect of the French Revolution upon the popular mind in Ireland: –

“As the Revolution advanced, and as events expanded themselves, the public spirit of Ireland rose with a rapid acceleration. The fears and animosities of the aristocracy rose in the same or a still higher proportion. In a little time the French Revolution became the test of every man’s political creed, and the nation was fairly divided into great parties – the aristocrats and democrats borrowed from France, who have ever since been measuring each other’s strength and carrying on a kind of smothered war, which the course of events, it is highly probable, may soon call into energy and action.”

It will be thus seen that Tone built up his hopes upon a successful prosecution of a Class War, although those who pretend to imitate him to-day raise up their hands in holy horror at the mere mention of the phrase.

The political wisdom of using a demand for equal representation as a rallying cry for the democracy of Ireland is evidenced by a study of the state of the suffrage at the time. In an Address from the United Irishmen of Dublin to the English Society of the Friends of the People, dated Dublin, October 26, 1792, we find the following description of the state of representation: –

“The state of Protestant representation is as follows: – seventeen boroughs have no resident elector; sixteen have but one; ninety out of thirteen electors each; ninety persons return for 106 rural boroughs – that is 212 members out of 300 – the whole number; fifty-four members are returned by five noblemen and four bishops; and borough influence has given landlords such power in the counties as to make them boroughs also … yet the Majesty of the People is still quoted with affected veneration; and if the crown be ostensibly placed in a part of the Protestant portion it is placed there in mockery, for it is encircled with thorns.

“With regard to the Catholics, the following is the simple and sorrowful fact: – Three millions, every one of whom has an interest in the State, and collectively give it its value, are taxed without being represented, and bound by laws to which they have not given consent.”

The above Address, which is signed by Thomas Wright as secretary, contains one sentence which certain Socialists and others in Ireland and England might well study to advantage, and is also useful as illustrating the thought of the time. It is as follows: –

“As to any union between the two islands, believe us when we assert that our union rests upon our mutual independence. We shall love each other if we be left to ourselves. It is the union of mind which ought to bind these nations together.”

This, then, was the situation in which the Society of United Irishmen was born. That society was initiated and conducted by men who realised the importance of all those principles of action upon which latter-day Irish revolutionists have turned their backs. Consequently it was as effective in uniting the democracy of Ireland as the ‘patriots’ of our day have been in keeping it separated into warring religious factions. It understood that the aristocracy was necessarily hostile to the principle and practice of Freedom; it understood that the Irish fight for liberty was but a part of the world-wide upward march of the human race, and hence it allied itself with the revolutionists of Great Britain as well as with those of France, and it said little about ancient glories, and much about modern misery. The Report of the Secret Committee of the House of Lords reprinted in full the Secret Manifesto to the Friends of Freedom in Ireland, circulated throughout the country by Wolfe Tone and his associates, in the month of June, 1791. As this contains the draft of the designs of the revolutionary association known to history as the Society of United Irishmen, we quote a few passages in support of our contentions, and to show the democratic views of its founders. The manifesto is supposed to have been written by Wolfe Tone in collaboration with Samuel Neilson and others:

“It is by wandering from the few plain and simple principles of Political Faith that our politics, like our religion, has become preaching, not practice; words not works. A society such as this will disclaim those party appellations which seem to pale the human hearts into petty compartments, and parcel out into sects and sections common sense, common honesty, and common weal.

“It will not be an aristocracy, affecting the language of patriotism, the rival of despotism for its own sake, nor its irreconcilable enemy for the sake of us all. It will not, by views merely retrospective, stop the march of mankind or force them back into the lanes and alleys of their ancestors.

“This society is likely to be a means the most powerful for the promotion of a great end. What end? The Rights of Man in Ireland. The greatest happiness of the greatest number in this island, the inherent and indefeasible claim of every free nation to rest in this nation – the will and the power to be happy to pursue the common weal as an individual pursues his private welfare, and to stand in insulated independence, an imperatorial people.

“The greatest happiness of the Greatest Number. – On the rock of this principle let this society rest; by this let it judge and determine every political question, and whatever is necessary for this end let it not be accounted hazardous, but rather our interest, our duty, our glory and our common religion. The Rights of Man are the Rights of God, and to vindicate the one is to maintain the other. We must be free in order to serve Him whose service is perfect freedom.

“The external business of this society will be – first, publication, in order to propagate their second principles and effectuate their ends. Second, communications with the different towns to be assiduously kept up and every exertion used to accomplish a National Convention of the People of Ireland, who may profit by past errors and by many unexpected circumstances which have happened since this last meeting. Third, communications with similar societies abroad – as the Jacobin Club of Paris, the Revolutionary Society in England, the Committee for Reform in Scotland. Let the nations go abreast. Let the interchange of sentiments among mankind concerning the Rights of Man be as immediate as possible.

“When the aristocracy come forward, the people fall backward; when the people come forward, the aristocracy, fearful of being left behind, insinuate themselves into our ranks and rise into timid leaders or treacherous auxiliaries. They mean to make us their instruments; let us rather make them our instruments. One of the two must happen. The people must serve the party, or the party must emerge in the mightiness of the people, and Hercules will then lean upon his club. On the 14th of July, the day which shall ever commemorate the French Revolution, let this society pour out their first libation to European liberty, eventually the liberty of the world, and, their eyes raised to Heaven in His presence who breathed into them an ever-living soul, let them swear to maintain the rights and prerogatives of their nature as men, and the right and prerogative of Ireland as an independent people.

“Dieu et mon Droit (God and my right) is the motto of kings. Dieu et la liberté (God and liberty), exclaimed Voltaire when he beheld Franklin, his fellow citizen of the world. Dieu et nos Droits, (God and our rights), let every Irishman cry aloud to each other, the cry of mercy, of justice, and of victory.”

It would be hard to find in modern Socialist literature anything more broadly International in its scope and aims, more definitely of a class character in its methods, or more avowedly democratic in its nature than this manifesto, yet, although it reveals the inspiration and methods of a revolutionist acknowledged to be the most successful organiser of revolt in Ireland since the days of Rory O’More, all his present-day professed followers constantly trample upon and repudiate every one of these principles, and reject them as a possible guide to their political activity. The Irish Socialist alone is in line with the thought of this revolutionary apostle of the United Irishmen.

The above quoted manifesto was circulated in June, 1791, and in July of the same year the townspeople and volunteer societies of Belfast met to celebrate the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, a celebration recommended by the framer of the manifesto as a means of educating and uniting the real people of Ireland – the producers. From the Dublin Chronicle of the time we quote the following passages from the Declaration of the Volunteers and Inhabitants at Large of the town and neighbourhood of Belfast on the subject of the French Revolution. As Belfast was then the hot-bed of revolutionary ideas in Ireland, and became the seat of the first society of United Irishmen, and as all other branches of the society were founded upon this original, it will repay us to study the sentiments here expressed.

“Unanimously agreed to at an Assembly held by public notice on the 14th July, 1971. Colonel Sherman, President.

“Neither on marble, nor brass, can the rights and duties of men be so durably registered as on their memories and on their hearts. We therefore meet this day to commemorate the French Revolution, that the remembrance of this great event mat sink deeply into our hearts, warmed not merely with the fellow-feeling of townsmen, but with a sympathy which binds us to the human race in a brotherhood of interest, of duty and affection.

“Here then we take our stand, and if we be asked what the French Revolution is to us, we answer, much. Much as men. It is good for human nature that the grass grows where the Bastille stood. We do rejoice at an event that means the breaking up of civil and religious bondage, when we behold this misshapen pile of abuses, cemented merely by customs, and raised upon the ignorance of a prostrate people, tottering to its base to the very level of equal liberty and commonwealth. We do really rejoice in this resurrection of human nature, and we congratulate our brother-man coming forth from the vaults of ingenious torture and from the cave of death. We do congratulate the Christian World that there is in it one great nation which has renounced all ideas of conquest, and has published the first glorious manifesto of humanity, of union, and of peace. In return we pray to God that peace may rest in their land, and that it may never be in power of royalty, nobility, or a priesthood to disturb the harmony of a good people, consulting about those laws which must ensure their own happiness and that of unborn millions.

“Go on, then – great and gallant people; to practise the sublime philosophy of your legislation, to force applause from nations least disposed to do you justice, and by conquest but by the omnipotence of reason, to convert and liberate the world – a world whose eyes are fixed on you, whose heart is with you, who talks of you with all her tongues; you are in very truth the hope of this world, of all except a few men in a few cabinets who thought the human race belonged to them, not them to the human race; but now are taught by awful example, and tremble, and not dare confide in armies arrayed against you and your cause.”

Thus spoke Belfast. It will be seen that the ideas of the publishers of the secret manifesto were striking a responsive chord in the hearts of the people. A series of meetings of the Dublin Volunteer Corps were held in October of the same year, ostensibly to denounce a government proclamation offering a reward for the apprehension of Catholics under arms, but in reality to discuss the political situation. The nature of the conclusions arrived at may be judged by a final paragraph in the resolution, passed 23rd October, 1791, and signed amongst others by James Napper Tandy, on behalf of the Liberty Corps of Artillery. It reads:

“While we admire the philanthropy of that great and enlightened nation, who have set an example to mankind, both of political and religious wisdom, we cannot but lament that distinctions, injurious to both, have too long disgraced the name of Irishmen; and we most fervently wish that our animosities were entombed with the bones of our ancestors; and that we and our Roman Catholic brethren would unite like citizens, and claim the Rights of Man.”

This was in October. In the same month Wolfe Tone went to Belfast on the invitation of one of the advanced Volunteer Clubs, and formed the first club of United Irishmen. Returning to Dublin he organised another. From the minutes of the Inauguration Meeting of this First Dublin Society of United Irishmen, held at the Eagle Inn, Eustace Street, 9th November, 1791, we make the following extracts, which speak for the principles of the original members of those two parent clubs of a society destined in a short time to cover all Ireland, and to set in motion the fleets of two foreign auxiliaries.

“For the attainment then of this great and important object – the removal of absurd and ruinous distinctions – and for promoting a complete coalition of the people, a club has been formed composed of all religious persuasions who have adopted for their name The Society of United Irishmen of Dublin, and have taken as their declaration that of a similar society in Belfast, which is as follows: –

“In the present great era of reform, when unjust governments are falling in every quarter of Europe, when religious persecution is compelled to abjure her tyranny over conscience; when the Rights of Man are ascertained in Theory, and that Theory substantiated by Practice; when antiquity can no longer defend absurd and oppressive forms against the common sense and common interests of mankind; when all government is acknowledged to originate from the people, and to be so far only obligatory as it protects their rights and promotes their welfare; we think it our duty as Irishmen to come forward and state what we feel to be our heavy grievance, and what we know to be its effectual remedy.

“We have no National Government; we are ruled by Englishmen and the servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country; whose instrument is corruption; whose strength is the weakness of Ireland; and these men have the whole of the power and patronage of the country as means to seduce and subdue the honesty and the spirit of her representatives in the legislature. Such an extrinsic power, acting with uniform force in a direction too frequently opposite to the true line of our obvious interests, can be resisted with effect solely by unanimity, decision, and spirit in the people, qualities which may be exerted most legally, constitutionally, and efficaciously by that great measure essential to the prosperity and freedom of Ireland – an equal Representation of all the People in Parliament …

“We have gone to what we conceive to be the root of the evil; we have stated what we conceive to be the remedy – with a Parliament thus reformed everything is easy; without it nothing can be done.”

Here we have a plan of campaign indicated on the lines of those afterwards followed so successfully by the Socialists of Europe – a revolutionary party openly declaring their revolutionary sympathies, but limiting their first demand to a popular measure such as would enfranchise the masses, upon whose support their ultimate success must rest. No one can read the manifesto we have just quoted without realising that these men aimed at nothing less than a social and political revolution such as had been accomplished in France, or even greater, because the French Revolution did not enfranchise all the people, but made a distinction between active and passive citizens, taxpayers and non-taxpayers. Nor yet can an impartial student fail to realise that it was just this daring aim that was the secret of their success as organisers, as it is the secret of the political effectiveness of the Socialists of our day. Nothing less would have succeeded in causing Protestant and Catholic masses to shake hands over the bloody chasm of religious hatreds, nothing less will accomplish the same result in our day among the Irish workers. It must be related to the credit of the leaders of the United Irishmen that they remained true to their principles, even when moderation might have secured a mitigation of their lot. When examined before the Secret Committee of the House of Lords at the prison of Fort George, Scotland, Thomas Addis Emmet did not hesitate to tell his inquisitors that if successful they would have inaugurated a very different social system to that which then prevailed.

Few movements in history have been more consistently misrepresented, by open enemies and professed admirers, than that of the United Irishmen. The suggestio falsi, and the suppressio veri have been remorselessly used. The middle class ‘patriotic’ historians, orators, and journalists of Ireland have ever vied with one another in enthusiastic descriptions of their military exploits on land and sea, their hair-breadth escapes and heroic martyrdom, but have resolutely suppressed or distorted their writings, songs and manifestoes. We have striven to reverse the process, to give publicity to their literature, believing that this literature reveals the men better than any partisan biographer can do. Dr. Madden, a most painstaking and conscientious biographer, declares in his volume of The Literary Remains of the United Irishmen, that he has suppressed many of their productions because of their ‘trashy’ republican and irreligious tendencies.

This is to be regretted, as it places upon other biographers and historians the trouble (a thousand times more difficult now) of searching for anew, and re-collecting the literary material from which to build a proper appreciation of the work of those pioneers of democracy in Ireland. And as Irish men and women progress to a truer appreciation of correct social and political principles, perhaps it will be found possible to say, without being in the least degree blasphemous or irreverent, that the stones rejected by the builders of the past have become the corner-stones of the edifice.

James Connolly (1868-1916) was a militant labour organiser, socialist leader, military commander, newspaper editor, writer, political theorist and revolutionary. This essay (in edited form) appeared in the Irish Democrat, February/March 1998 and is taken from Connolly’s seminal Labour in Irish History, which was published in 1911.


So far relatively little has been published dealing specifically with women and 1798. Helena Concannon’s Women of Ninety-Eight was published in 1919, and in this bicentenary we have The Women of 1798 edited by Daire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong. Obviously further research will reveal much more. But drawing on these and other published work, it can be argued with some confidence that women as well as men were active in all aspects.

The foundation of the United Irishmen grew directly from the broad 18th Century debate around Enlightenment emphasis on the rational nature of all human beings and republican emphasis on virtuous government in which both the interests and the voice of the people as a whole were represented.

It appears that women were more actively involved in this political debate than has usually been recognised. Other participants included Martha McTier, sister of William Drennan, Mary Ann McCracken, sister of Henry Joy, and Margaret Bond, wife of Oliver Bond, also famed for smuggling documents into Kilmainham gaol in freshly baked pies.

The same factors that fostered United Irish republicanism also stimulated feminist assertion in many countries, and we know that at least one Irishwoman, Mary Ann McCracken, challenged the United Irishmen to include women as equals in their plans for a new Ireland. Again further research may reveal more regarding this link.

The support given to many United Irishmen by their wives, mothers and sisters is central to the theme of Helena Concannon’s book. While historians of women are understandably uneasy with looking at women only in the context of their relationships with men we need to re-examine and re-evaluate male-female relationships and sex-based divisions of labour rather than ignore them.

In this context Nancy Curtin notes the sheer physical and mental strength involved in Matilda Tone’s sacrifice of a normal domestic life in her unfailing support for her husband’s undertakings. Pamela Fitzgerald too gave on-going support to Lord Edward. After the battle of Antrim Mary Ann McCracken brought help and supplies to her brother, organised his escape to America, which failed when he was arrested, and was with him literally to the foot of the scaffold. Many other women acted in a similar fashion.

Such support is active and self-directed work without which a political movement could not function. Its importance needs recognition and acknowledgement by historians without allowing it to obscure the same women’s contribution to United Irish thinking and planning.

Women took part in the actual organisation of the United Irish movement as members of Societies of United Irishwomen, auxiliary groups who organised aid for imprisoned United men and their families, as couriers and intelligence carriers and as recruiters. Further research may throw more light on these societies. Recruiting could be done in various ways including persuading militiamen to change their allegiance or by exerting moral pressure on young men. Charles Teeling wrote that in “many of the higher circles, and in all rustic festivities, that youth met with a cold and forbidding reception from the partner of his choice who, whether apathy or timidity, had not yet subscribed to the test of union.”

Much of our information on the activities of women in the United Irish and Defender movements comes in passing references, from a report here of women going through towns and villages singing seditious song, and a report there of women wearing green ribbons, handkerchiefs and shoe laces to show their allegiance.

So far we have no records in their own words from these women, which is far more frustrating as research is showing that the Defenders were far more politically aware and motivated than previously realised. As always the well off and better educated have left more records of what they did and thought than have the poor and less well educated.

Regarding the rebellion itself there is striking contrast between United Irish ideology of women’s role and popular memory. The first portrayed women as symbols, as heroic mothers or as beautiful maidens endangered by the soldiery, but never as actual combatants. Popular songs and ballads on the other hand remember individual women who took part in physical combat as heroines, and often as Joans of Arc leading their men into battle. This contrast raises many questions.

Best known of all is Betsy Grey who with her brother and her lover fought and died at the battle of Ballynahinch in County Down. She is remembered as a “beautiful girl, dressed in green silk, mounted on her gallant mare, and brandishing her burnished sword above her head, while side by side with Munroe she led one victorious charge after another.”

Molly Weston who fought and died at the battle of Tara is also remembered as a leader, rallying the pikemen and leading repeated charges. Her four brothers were reported killed but Molly Weston was never seen again. At the battle of New Ross in County Wexford, when the rebel army was reduced to a tattered remnant the only piece of rebel artillery to survive did so through the efforts of Mary Doyle. Ruth Hackett was killed at the battle of Prosperous in County Kildare. Many other women whose names are lost also fought and died. At Vinegar Hill, for example, many women fought with the men, and a number were found dead among the fallen.

Obviously the participation of women in war goes back far beyond the actual wielding of pike or gun in battle. The work done by women in the rebel camps has yet to be recorded in a systematic way. Anna Kinsella writes that cutting the crossbelts from the bodies of fallen dragoons was “a common task for camp followers, many of them apparently women”. Women also appear to have made gun-powder in the camps.

Such activities as acquiring and supplying combatants with food, arms and other supplies, carrying messages and gathering information, the provision of hiding places and safe houses, the dangerous harbouring and hiding of rebels on the run, the collection and burial of dead bodies from the field of battle are all seen as part of soldiers’ work being done by men in all-male armies. Many cases of all these activities being carried out by women are remembered in various parts of the country. The work going on during this bicentenary year in compiling local knowledge and folk memory should provide the basis for a more systematic record.

Already it is clear that asking what women did in 1798 will increase our knowledge of the United Irish and Defender movements and of what actually happened in 1798. It broadens the focus from a relatively small number of male leaders to the scale of the contribution at every level, including political thinking, the organisation of the movement and the rebellion, by men and women of all classes who are not seen as leaders. Above all it challenges us to find out more about who those women were, and what they did and why they did it.

Mary Cullen is an Academic Associate at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and a Research Associate at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Trinity College Dublin. This article appeared in the Irish Democrat July/August 1998.





It is an indictment of 1798 historiography that, notwithstanding thee avalanche of recent publications, the orthodox model of the Insurrection remains almost exactly as it was during the disdained centenary celebrations of 1898. In the public mind the Rebellion consisted of a bloody upheaval in Leinster lasting from May to June 1798, and an opportunistic second-wave rising in Connaught occasioned by the belated arrival of the French. This simplistic scheme has perpetuated the misleading notion of ‘three rebellions’, one per province, and total failure in the fourth, Munster.

Thankfully, many old canards have been laid to rest this year: no-one can seriously contend that Fr. John Murphy was the principal rebel leader or that those who risked transportation or death to unite ‘protestant, catholic and dissenter’ were really a sectarian ‘jacquarrie’. Other old myths, it appears, will die hard and one of the most glaring is the theory that the fighting which broke out in Antrim and Down bore little or no relation to that of the eastern counties of Leinster. The provincial orientated ‘three rebellions’ view is, at best, a construct of hindsight designed to explain a complex and under researched subject to the uninitiated. In this respect the quest for narrative clarity and neat geographic packaging has done the Irish people a disservice. Some unionist commentators have seized on the concept of a fractured revolt to emphasise imaginary lines of demarcation between the north and the rest of the country.

It is all too evident that the Rebellion did not follow the plan laid down by the United Irish leadership in Dublin. The strategy projected to commence on 23 May 1798 was itself a reluctantly and hastily adopted contingency developed in response to martial law, the inability of the French to land and the arrest of kep personnel. Once the centrepiece of the plan collapsed, however, as it did on the first night of action with the aborted capital focused rising, everything that ensued was necessarily ad hoc.

Certainly the incidence of large-scale uprisings bore very little relation to the strength of United Irish cadres on the ground, or, for that matter, to the intensity of counter-insurgency. Rebellion manifested itself for an array of reasons such as the presence of charismatic leadership, communications with Dublin, local access to armaments, provocation by loyalist extremists and unfounded rumours, not least the one spread on the Kildare/Wicklow border on the morning of 24 May 1798 which claimed that the city had fallen. There were, furthermore, ‘risings’ all over the country of varying degrees of scale, most of which dispersed without incident when the miscarriage of the Dublin strategy became clear.

Accounts differ as to what was expected of the Ulster rebels on the night of 23 May 1798. The Ulster Directory were still smarting from the wounds inflicted on their networks in 1797 by Lieutenant-General Gerard Lake’s ‘dragooning’ and their deliberations were further compromised by the presence of a spy, Nicholas Mageean of Saintfield (Down). One key informant, Samuel Sproule, warned Dublin Castle that two days would elapse between the Ulster and Leinster segments of the plan in order to create tactical difficulties for government forces on two fronts. It seems, furthermore, that the town of Belfast was not an immediate objective of attack. Of more consequence were the 5,000 troops camped near Lurgan at Blaris camp who would be drawn into action by even limited United Irish mobilisation in the north. This would detain, if not divert them, from an attempt to retake the capital from the Dublin rebels. In this respect the role of the Ulstermen mirrored that of their comrades in Munster and south Leinster.

All preparations were rendered academic by the misfiring of the city revolt on the 23 May which had a paralysing effect on northern commanders once news of it reached Belfast. Prevarication and factionalism further sapped the potential of the Ulstermen even as the militant Henry Joy McCracken issued the orders to rise on 6 June 1798. Early military success promised a large scale, phased turn out of men, as was the case in parts of Kildare and Wicklow on 23-24 May and in Wexford from the 26th. This was not to be in the north where the rebels failed to win the necessary breathing space from near constant military pressure despite strong showings at Saintfield, Ballymena, Randalstown and Antrim. Tying down Major-General Nugent’s substantial forces in Ulster, however, was militarily a sound strategy even if the unanticipated influx of reinforcements from Scotland lessened its value. Also unexpected was the speed and strength of Nugent’s counterattack which Mageean had facilitated by informing him that Belfast did not feature in rebel plans and did not, therefore, require much protection.

From the government’s perspective the psychological and strategic consequences of the loss of either Belfast or Cork would have been considerable but that of Dubin city nothing short of catastrophic. Dublin was the key to rebel fortunes and even minor variations in the Castle’s Leinster order of battle were very serious. It is likely that the materialisation of an overt insurgent threat in Ulster during the first hours and days of the Rebellion, rather than two weeks later, would have prevented the march to the south of the Reay Highlanders and the Durham Fencibles. As matters transpired the availability of the Reays permitted their rapid deployment to Meath where they won a decisive victory over a numerous rebel force at Tara Hill on the 26th. The Durhams, if delayed in the north, may not have been in a position to defend the critical sector of the line entrusted to them on 9 June at the battle of Arklow in Wicklow.

It is clear that the rising of the Ulster rebels had a profound effect on the outcome of the struggle in the pivotal zone of Leinster. The army was obliged to await the arrival of 10,000 British forces in mid-June before launching its comprehensive counterattack on the Wexford Republic. The dynamism breathed into the northern fighters by McCracken and Henry Munro from 6 June quickly ended in disappointment but contained all the ingredients necessary for success. The fateful decision to concentrate insurgent forces at Ballinahinch, where they were heavily defeated on 13 June, as opposed to marching immediately on Newry, was not taken lightly. This alone prevented the arrival of Ulster rebels in Armagh and Louth and their subsequent juncture with their Leinster comrades.

As matters stood hundreds of northern rebels committed themselves to the struggle in the south-east: scores of United Irish infiltrators within the Antrim Militia defected to the Wicklow insurgents when the opportunity presented itself in the late summer of 1798. Other who lived in Wicklow’s substantial Ulster migrant communities of Stratford-on-Slaney and Arklow helped pioneer the spread of the United Irishmen in that county in the spring of 1797 and later turned out to fight in the mountains. This phenomena was replicated in Longford and many parts of the West of Ireland where thousands of northern refugees had settled in the 1790s fleeing sectarian persecution and General Lake’s brand of state terrorism.

In discussing ‘three rebellions’ one could lose sight of the fact that there was only one United Irish leadership with 280,000 followers sworn to the same republican ideology. It would be regrettable if the bicentennial year copper fastened a patent distortion of the historical record.

Ruan O’Donnell is Lecturer in History at the University of Limerick. He has recently written The Rebellion in Wicklow 1798 and is the ‘1798 Diary’ columnist for the Irish Times. This article appeared in the Irish Democrat, October 1998.