The Irish Rebellions

Theobald Wolfe Tone - cc
Theobald Wolfe Tone - cc

The Irish Rebellions of 1798 were a succession of clashes orchestrated by Irish nationalists, wishing to emancipate themselves from British rule. Led by the United Irishmen Society, the movement gave rise to new hopes, and the Irish continued to believe in an end similar to that of the French Revolution of 1789. Here is how his confrontations unfolded…

History of the Irish Rebellion
Creation of the United Irishmen Society led by Theobald Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone – Public Domain

It all began in 1791 when a few radical Presbyterians from Belfast decided to form a political group called the United Irismen Society. The members of this organisation’s main vocation was to fight against anti-Catholic oppression and to obtain Ireland’s independence through parliamentary reforms. It is headed by Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Irish lawyer who campaigns for an independent Irish Republic. This man would soon become one of the founding fathers of modern nationalism.

When the war between France and England began in 1793, the United Irishmen’s Society was declared illegal for fear that it might seek French assistance. It was then transformed into a secret and military society and decided to organize a real revolution.

Theobald Wolfe Tone then contacted the French government to organize an expedition to Ireland. A French fleet of 15,000 soldiers left Brest harbour on 15 December 1796 but was unable to dock at Bantry Bay because of heavy storms. The invasion was abandoned and the fleet returned to France.

Faced with English repression, the Irish organised a massive rebellion on 24 May 1798.

Repression then descends on Ireland. On March 30, 1798, martial law was proclaimed throughout the country. In order to bring the United Irishmen Society movement to its knees, the British government launched a gigantic operation to hunt down the rebels. In the course of this search the British government did not fail to burn the homes of the villagers, torturing, raping, coldly murdering the Irish, and mercilessly slaughtering all the peasants’ livestock.

Faced with the murderous actions of the English, the United Irishmen decided to plan a gigantic uprising on May 24, 1798. During the organization of this uprising, many peasants joined the movement: from then on, there were several thousand participants.

The rebellion started in Dublin when the United Irishmen tried to seize strategic buildings in the Irish capital. Unfortunately, they were quickly crushed, and suffered a resounding failure. Despite the failure in Dublin, the United Irishmen of Ulster Province rose up in their turn, led by Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken.

On 7 June, 3,000 Irish soldiers attacked the town of Antrim and on 9 June the rebellion, led by Protestant Henry Munroe, spread to County Down. The Ulster Rebellion, however, lasted less than a week before being crushed by the English army. Henry McCracken and Henry Munroe were captured and executed by hanging. Meanwhile, the county of Wexford saw its capital won by the United Irishmen, who then redoubled their efforts to successfully capture Enniscorthy. However, they suffered some stinging setbacks in their defeats at New Ross (June 5) and Arklow (June 9). The defeat at New Ross was a disaster for the rebels. Of the 10,000 men engaged at the beginning of the battle, only 3,000 survived because of their poor military equipment (many defended themselves with spikes and pitchforks, while a few Irish hardly used a few weapons collected here and there).

On 21 June, the rebels all retreated to Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, to fight General Lake’s 10,000 men. Very quickly, the rebels had to flee in the face of the excess of their opponents. The leaders of the rebellion in the various counties were all sentenced to death and executed.

One month later, on August 22, 1798, a flotilla of three French ships landed at Killala, with more than 1,000 soldiers on board, led by General Humbert and General Hardy. It was on August 22nd that General Humbert and his men succeeded in repelling the small English garrison present on the spot and taking the town of Killala. When this victory was announced, thousands of Irish came to join the French troops. On August 27th, the French army launched a new assault and took the town of Castlebar, a strategic point allowing General Humbert to control the whole county of Mayo.

The republic was proclaimed on August 31 and John Moore was elected president. But the English generals reinforced their garrisons in the county and prepared to attack Castlebar. Without any opposition forces, the city was easily taken over by the English. Indeed, feeling threatened, General Humbert and 1000 United Irishmen had left Castlebar in a hurry on September 4, and were quickly heading for Sligo County in order to reach Ulster. On their way, they had to fight General Lake who was on their heels. But, with no news of the long-awaited French reinforcements, the chances of success of the French expedition diminished more and more. General Humbert led his troops to Ballintra and crossed the Shannon River.

The French and the United Irishmen opposed the English army on a small hill at Ballinamuck, (Co. Longford). They were quickly defeated there on September 8, 1798. In total more than 500 United Irishmen were killed, cut down by cavalry or machine-gunned in the bogs.

The British soon retook Killala, putting an end to the Republic of Connacht and executing its president John Moore after a summary trial.

On 16 September, an army of 3,000 more men led by General Hardy, and Wolfe Tone, landed in Rutland Bay (Co. Donegal). The flotilla fell on the English squadron and had to surrender. Theobald Wolfe Tone was recognized, arrested and taken to Dublin. Court-martialed on November 10, 1798, he claimed responsibility for his actions and demanded, for the sake of his uniform as Brigade Chief of the French Army, to be shot as a soldier and not hanged as a criminal. His judges nevertheless sentenced him to be hanged. But, refusing the infamous rope, he slit his throat in his cell and agonized for a week before dying on November 19, 1798. His death marked the definitive end of the 1798 uprising.

One of the most murderous rebellions in Irish history.

It is estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 Irish died during the Irish Rebellions. The immediate political consequence of this conflict was the abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1801, although it had enjoyed legislative independence since 1782. From then on, the fate of the Irish depended on the full powers of the Parliament in London. The island was attached to Great Britain by the Act of Union, which gave birth to the United Kingdom.