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Issue 34, January 1999

1798 - myth versus reality

    French revolution
    From reform to revolution
    The debate about 1798

The 200th anniversary of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion has inspired an astonishing amount of published material and commemorative events. From republicans, claiming 1798 as the birth of their tradition; to the Orange Order, re-enacting the Battle of the Diamond which resulted in their establishment in 1795. TOM CREAN looks at the real legacy of 1798 for the workers' movement today.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to understand 1798 without considering the nature of Irish society after the upheavals of the 1600s including the Ulster Plantation, the Cromwellian invasion in 1649 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1691. The defeats of Gaelic Ireland in that century resulted in the confiscation of almost all land owned by Catholics.

However, the infamous Penal Laws which were passed by the Irish Parliament after the defeat of James II by William of Orange in 1691 were not only aimed at Catholics but also at Protestants outside the Established Church. Ireland in the 18th century was therefore a society dominated by a Church of Ireland elite (the so-called Protestant Ascendancy) who owned the bulk of the land and monopolised politics. Dissenters, including Presbyterians who constituted the majority of Ulster Protestants, were second-class citizens and Catholics were third-class.

The 1700s was also a period of economic growth which was reflected in the development of Georgian Dublin, the beginnings of a mechanised textile industry in the Northeast and the emergence of a Dissenter and Catholic urban middle class. This middle class increasingly chafed at the restrictions on Irish trade imposed by the British parliament which were seen as hampering the further development of the Irish economy. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Catholics lived an impoverished existence on the land with many Protestant small farmers not much better off. In short, there were huge social contradictions which were bound to come to the fore at some stage.

At several key points in the run-up to the 1798 rebellion, international developments acted as catalysts. The first of these was the American Revolution of 1776. This had a profound impact on the consciousness of Dissenters because of the key role they played in George Washington's revolutionary army by Dissenters.

  Another effect was the redeployment of British troops from Ireland to America. The Protestant Ascendancy was alarmed at the prospect of not having any defence in the midst of a largely hostile population. This led to the establishment in 1778 of the Irish Volunteers, who pledged to defend Ireland from invasion while the British army was otherwise engaged.

The Volunteers came under the influence of the 'patriot' opposition in the Irish parliament which began to use this force to push political reform, including the right to introduce its own legislation. The Irish parliament was based on a thoroughly undemocratic franchise with many urban constituencies effectively controlled by individual aristocrats. Political reform inevitably raised the question of removing the Penal Laws against Catholics.

The British parliament conceded 'legislative independence' for Ireland in 1782 but the Protestant Ascendancy was in no way willing to countenance a wider franchise or Catholic emancipation.

  top     French revolution

IN 1789 ANOTHER event radically altered the political situation in Ireland. The overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in France and the storming of the Bastille by the citizens of Paris struck fear in the hearts of the Irish ruling class but gave enormous hope to ordinary people that tyranny could be defeated. These events, in one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, shook the widespread belief among Dissenters that Catholics were inherently superstitious and reactionary.

Two years later, a young Protestant lawyer, Wolfe Tone, authored An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics in Ireland, in which he argued that Catholics could be the allies of radical Dissenters in a movement for democratic reform. Tone had become the secretary of the Catholic Committee, an organisation which had been dominated by conservative Catholic gentry but which was coming increasingly under more radical middle-class influence.

In October 1791, the United Irishmen were established. They demanded Irish independence and Catholic rights. Their commitment to this was demonstrated by their role in providing a Belfast Volunteer defence guard for the Catholic Convention which met at the end of 1792. This body was made up of 244 delegates elected nationally. It terrified the Ascendancy, especially given the comparison to the newly-established Convention in France - the name adopted by the National Assembly of the French Republic declared earlier that year.

Besides the support of much of the Catholic and Dissenter middle class, the United Irishmen began to develop a base amongst urban workers, especially linen and cotton weavers in the Belfast area. These workers were inspired by Tom Paine's The Rights of Man, which Tone described as the 'Koran of Belfast'. This book was the most important English-language statement of the ideas of the leftwing of the French revolutionaries, who wanted not only a republic based on universal franchise but also a social programme to address the needs of ordinary people. Such a programme went beyond the aims of most leaders of the United Irishmen who wanted to replace feudalism with the free market and who opposed trade unions.

  Paine's views did, however, receive an echo amongst a layer of prominent United Irishmen including Thomas Russell, Jemmy Hope, Napper Tandy and Henry Joy McCracken. Russell once declared,".Property must be altered by some measure - he who knew the recesses of the heart loved not the rich". 1

An anonymous eleven-page pamphlet, The Union Doctrine; or Poor Man's Catechism, voiced the aspirations of many ordinary workers and peasants in the 1790s:".I believe in a revolution founded on the rights of man, in the natural and imprescriptable rights of all citizens to all the land… As the land and its produce was intended for the use of man 'tis unfair for 50 or 100 men to possess what is for the subsistence of near five millions… the almighty intended all mankind to lord the soil". 2

  top     From reform to revolution

THE NEXT INTERNATIONAL event which impacted on the Irish situation was the declaration of war by Britain against the French Republic in February 1793. Since the United Irishmen were so strongly aligned with the French, repression by the British government inevitably followed and, in May 1794, the organisation was proclaimed illegal.

On top of this was the dashing of radical hopes for significant reform. Such hopes were especially high when the liberal Earl Fitzwilliam was appointed Lord Lieutenant (the king's representative running the Dublin Castle administration) by the Whig government in January 1795. When Ascendancy opposition forced his recall a little over a month later, there was bitter disappointment.

It was only at this stage that the United Irishmen decided that an insurrection was necessary to establish an Irish Republic. It was also decided to enlist French military aid and Tone made his way to Paris with this aim. In December 1796, a French fleet arrived in Bantry Bay. Due to the terrible weather, they were unable to land. If they had, the history of this island could have been quite different.

Meanwhile, the United Irishmen reorganised themselves. They set up a cell structure to facilitate preparations for an insurrection. They sent emissaries across the length and breadth of Ireland, to Scotland and into the British navy, to spread republican ideas and administer the United Irish oath. Besides the Northern Star newspaper, edited in Belfast by Samuel Neilson, the organisation produced an enormous amount of leaflets and other printed material. Crucially, they absorbed the Defenders, the main Catholic agrarian organisation. The Defenders initially emerged in rural sectarian feuds in Ulster against Protestant groups like the Peep O'Day Boys but developed into a national force which agitated against rackrenting and the hated tithes paid to the Anglican Church.

  It has been asked, particularly in regards to the merger with the Defenders, whether the United Irishmen really succeeded in overcoming long-standing sectarian divisions or simply papered them over. This is a difficult question, but what must be noted is the level of politicisation among the Defenders, especially the influence of 'French ideas', even before the link with the United Irishmen was formally established. However, the potential for sectarian conflict to re-emerge on a large scale was always there. Any revolutionary situation - which by definition means the sharpening of social conflict to fever pitch - always carries the potential for counter-revolution. The radicalisation of the French Revolution itself led to pro-royalist peasant uprisings in the Vendée and other areas.

Establishing an accurate figure for the size of the United Irishmen may be impossible but, according to one estimate, nearly 280,000 men in Ulster, Munster and Leinster took the oath before the rebellion, making it the largest mass movement ever to exist on this island.

As 1797 progressed, the repression against the United Irishmen became more ferocious, especially in Ulster where Orange Lodges were being incorporated into the yeomanry and were used to conduct house-to-house searches for arms in Catholic areas and deliberately inflame sectarian tensions. By March the province was under martial law. Jim Smyth describes what happened as repression spread across the country:".Reports of half-hangings, floggings and house-burning multiplied.

According to The Press in the six months to late November three hundred houses were burned in Westmeath alone. This was the period too when 'pitch-capping' was invented. This consisted of tarring the heads of 'croppies' (men who wore their hair short, or 'cropp'd', in the French style) and then setting them alight. The commander-in-chief, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, observed that the 'irregularities' and 'abuses' of his own troops could scarcely be believed". 3

  top     Insurrection

WITHIN THE LEADERSHIP of the organisation, a debate raged about whether to wait for another French landing before beginning an insurrection. The more radical faction, advocating an immediate rising, won, and the date was set for 23 May 1798. By then, martial law had been declared across Ireland. In the end, the rising was isolated to certain areas, most spectacularly Wexford.

In Ulster, the working class were the backbone of the rising, which mobilised 27,000. As the more middle-class elements in the United Irishmen leadership in Antrim repeatedly delayed setting a date,".it was popular opinion in the weaver heartland that prevailed: on their way home (the leaders) were accosted by a crowd who, on learning that once again action was to be deferred, 'burst forth into an open uproar', with shouts of 'aristocrats', 'despots', 'cowards', 'villains', and even 'traitors'. The meeting of the colonels was hastily reconvened and the decision to rise was taken". 4

On 7 June, the United Irishmen rose in Antrim and Down. In Antrim, led by Henry Joy McCracken, they briefly occupied Antrim town. Ballymena, Kells and other towns were also captured before government troops forced a retreat. Seven thousand rebels under Henry Monro fought staunchly before being defeated on 14 June at Ballynahinch. The key leaders in the North, including McCracken and Munro, were captured and hanged.

While it is obvious that the rising was a failure, the causes were complex. Contributing factors included the penetration of the organisation by government spies; the many delays in setting the date for insurrection which sapped morale; and the ferocity of repression, especially in Ulster where the United Irishmen were strongest.

  The tragedy of this defeat is captured in a conversation between Thomas Russell and a Belfast mill worker: "(He) says, 'I think liberty worth risquing life for. In a cause of that sort I think I should have courage enough from reflection to brave death'. One of his children was climbing on his knee. 'As for my part', says he, 'it does not much signify now as to myself but it grieves me to breed up these children to be slaves. I would gladly risque all to prevent that". 5

The French Revolution and the United Irishmen rebellion were enormously progressive but the working class, though playing a decisive role, was not yet strong enough to take power in its own right. Feudal misery was therefore replaced by capitalist exploitation in France, while in Ireland a divided bourgeoisie failed entirely to fulfill the aspirations of 1798.

  top     The debate about 1798

1798 HAS BEEN the most systematically distorted set of events in Irish history. For example, in the late 19th century, the Catholic Church, in an attempt to fight the influence of the Fenians, claimed that the Wexford rising was really a clerical, Catholic-led insurrection against Orange oppression. This was supremely ironic in that the Catholic hierarchy were completely opposed to the United Irishmen and the rising. In more recent times others have argued that the 1798 was spontaneous, chaotic and characterised by Catholic sectarianism.

But some of the most recent historical work seeks to set the record straight by trying to understand the 1790s on its own terms: emphasising the enormous influence of the French Revolution on the consciousness of ordinary people in Ireland and the degree of organisation that the United Irishmen achieved.

Of course, the main use or abuse of 1798 has been by the republican movement which sought legitimacy for the 'armed struggle' by wrapping itself in the mantle of Wolfe Tone. But for them to claim to stand in the tradition of uniting 'Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter' is completely hollow. In practice, Sinn Féin bases itself increasingly on sectarianism and has sought to ally itself with the biggest imperialist power in the world today, the United States.

In fact, it is not possible to make a simple analogy between the situation in late 18th century Ireland and today. The United Irishmen movement was based on an alliance between the Dissenter and Catholic bourgeoisie (including Northern manufacturers, merchants and professionals); Belfast and Dublin artisans; and Catholic peasants (the Defenders), against an entrenched Protestant Ascendancy which had many features of the French pre-revolutionary 'ancien regime'. It is therefore not surprising that the French Revolution had a greater impact on Ireland than on any other European country.

But having been defeated, it was not possible to put this alliance together again. In the 19th century, the Northeast became increasingly industrialised while the rest of the country actually experienced deindustrialisation. Nationalism was increasingly associated with the Southern Catholic bourgeoisie and middle classes who wanted to reestablish an independent Irish parliament with a protectionist economic policy to defend native industry from British competition. This had no appeal to the Northern Protestant bourgeoisie in the linen, shipbuilding and engineering industries who saw their wealth as being dependent on access to imperial markets.

  Bourgeois nationalists in Ireland were unable to complete the historic tasks associated with the 1789 and 1798 revolutions, including national unification and creating a secular republic. Only on the land question was an alliance formed with revolutionary potential, between Parnell and a wing of the Fenians, culminating in the Land League struggle against landlordism.

By the end of the 19th century, it was becoming clear that the only truly progressive social force in Ireland was the working class. It was the defeat of the radicalised labour movement between 1917-23 which set the stage for partition and the creation of two sectarian states, an outcome which suited both the Northern and Southern bourgeoisie.

Today it is even more clear that bourgeois politics can only mean sectarian politics. The recent Northern Ireland Agreement is being touted by some commentators as an 'historic reconciliation', even as the basis of restoring the unity achieved in the 1790s. But this is quite false. At best the Agreement could provide a breathing space in the conflict while the alternative - if it had been defeated in the May referenda - was even more bleak.

But the situation on the ground since 1994 is the exact opposite of reconciliation. Division between Protestants and Catholics is deeper than ever, with fewer mixed communities and an increasing majority living in areas which are either overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant. The conflict over parades which has erupted each summer shows in a concentrated way the reality behind the hype.

Capitalism has no answer to the social deprivation which fuels the conflict and, in any case, the sectarian politicians who signed the Agreement have a clear stake in maintaining the division. The idealism of the young bourgeoisie reflected in the United Irishmen movement is long gone. Despite the surge of confidence which Southern capitalism has received on the basis of the 'Celtic tiger' boom, this is, in reality, a system in decline.

Understanding what really happened in the past and dispelling Orange and Green myths is vital. But it is only by combining historical understanding with a working-class socialist programme which, among other things, recognises that this island's bitter history has now created two minorities - Catholics in the North and Protestants on an all-Ireland basis - that a progressive solution to the national question can be found.


  1. Jim Smyth, The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late 18th Century (p165).
  2. Ibid (p168).
  3. Ibid (p172).
  4. John Gray, The Sans Culottes of Belfast: The United Irishmen and the Men of No Property - Belfast, 1998 - (pp34-5).
  5. Ibid (p31).

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