The 1798 Rising
The Society of
United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791. Its inspiration was a young Dublin lawyer, Theobald Wolfe Tone,
who was invited to Ulster after publishing a pamphlet entitled "An
argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland". Northern Presbyterians
also suffered from religious discrimination, though less severely, and had
absorbed republican ideas from the American and French revolutions. With the
formation of a Dublin society, pressure for reform grew, and relief acts were
passed in 1792 and 1793. However, Tone sought revolution rather than reform,
and hoped for French help in severing the link with Great Britain. After
Britain and France went to war in 1793, the United Irishmen came under
increasing pressure from the government. Tone chose exile in America in
preference to being prosecuted for treason, and the United Irishmen evolved
into a secret society bound by revolutionary oaths.
Returning to Europe in 1796, Tone persuaded the French to invade
Ireland, but bad weather prevented a landing. Despite this setback, the United
Irishmen continued to recruit members, particularly among disaffected Catholic
peasants. Meanwhile, the government had
passed an act providing for harsh measures against those who held illegal arms
or administered illegal oaths. An army under General Lake conducted an
oppressive campaign to disarm Ulster, seen as the most dangerous province. The
government had many informers among the United Irishmen, and in March 1798 most
of the Leinster leaders were arrested in Dublin. The only leader of the United
Irishmen with military experience, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was captured on 19
May, four days before the date fixed for the rising.
Apart from some short-lived but bloody skirmishes in
towns and villages west of Dublin, the rising was confined to the northern
counties of Antrim and Down, and to County Wexford. The Wexford rising, which
began on 26 May, was a spontaneous and frightened response to the cruel
measures of magistrates searching for arms and conspirators, but the rebels in
turn committed acts of great savagery. They found a remarkable leader in Father
John Murphy of Boolavogue, who quickly assembled an army of Catholic peasants
equipped with muskets and pikes. The few troops were outnumbered and poorly
led, and the rebels soon commanded most of the
county. The government was slow to react, but the rebels' attempts to spread
the rising to neighbouring counties were halted by defeats at Arklow and New
Ross. On 21 June, General Lake stormed the rebel headquarters at Vinegar Hill,
near Enniscorthy, and resistance soon ended.
Murphy was later captured and executed.
In Ulster, where the rebels were mainly Presbyterians, the rising
began later and was soon over. On 7 June, some 3,000 men attacked the garrison
in Antrim town. An informer had revealed their plans, however, and
reinforcements soon arrived to scatter the rebels, who fled to their homes.
Their leader, Henry Joy McCracken, was captured and hanged. In County Down the
rising came to an end on 13 June, when the United Irishmen were defeated at
Ballynahinch. Their leader, Henry Monroe, was also hanged.
Meanwhile, Wolfe Tone had persuaded the French government to send
another expedition to Ireland, but it sailed from La Rochelle long after the
rising had been defeated. On 23 August, 1,000 French troops under General
Humbert landed at Killala Bay in Connacht. Local peasants swarmed to his
banner; however, after an early victory at Castlebar, he surrendered on 8
September to the superior army of the Marquis Comwallis, who had been appointed
lord lieutenant and commander-in-chief in anticipation of a rising. Tone
himself was captured in October aboard a French ship in Lough Swilly.
Court-martialled in Dublin, he pleaded for a soldier's death before a firing
squad, but was sentenced to be hanged. He committed suicide in prison on 19