The Society of United Irishmen (Irish: Cumann na nÉireannach Aontaithe) was founded as a Liberal political organisation in eighteenth century Ireland that sought Parliamentary reform. However, it evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation, inspired by the American Revolution and allied with Revolutionary France. It launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 with the objective of ending British rule over Ireland and founding an independent Irish republic.
During the 1780s, a few liberal members of the ruling Protestant Ascendancy known as the Irish Patriot Party had promoted expanding the franchise and increasing Catholic and Presbyterian rights in Ireland. This movement was led by the Irish Volunteers and Henry Grattan's parliament; though the movement made headway with several partial Catholic emancipation bills between 1778 and 1784, it stalled thereafter until 1793. This frustrated many Irishmen who believed that the Protestant Ascendancy was uniformly under the control of Britain and therefore not looking out for Irish interests. Some of these Irishmen became convinced that that Irish Parliament would never accept Parliamentary Reform while still under the control of a Protestant Ascendancy. However, it was an external event that got things underway.
Thomas Paine and his Rights of Man were extremely influential in promoting this ideal in Ireland. In September, 1791, Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone published "Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland" which maintained that religious division was a tool of the elite to…(balance) the one party by the other, plunder and laugh at the defeat of both" and put forward the case for unity between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Tone's pamphlet was hugely influential. Tone and friend Thomas Russell became passionate fighters for Catholic Rights. A group of nine Belfast Presbyterians interested in reforming Irish Parliament read Tone's pamphlet and liked his ideas. They invited Tone and Russell to Belfast where the group met on October 14, 1791. At this first meeting, the group, which became known as the United Irishmen, passed the following three resolutions:
That the weight of English influence in the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce
That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the people in Parliament
That no reform is just which does not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.
All attendees at the first meeting were Protestant. Two (Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell) were Anglicans and the rest Presbyterian; most were involved in the linen trade in Belfast. Along with Tone and Russell, the men involved were: William Sinclair, Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, Henry Haslett, Gilbert McIlveen, William Simms, Robert Simms, Thomas McCabe and Thomas Pearce.
The movement became supporters of the Catholic Committee, which had been working to get Catholic Emancipation bills through Parliament, repeal the remaining Penal Laws and abolish the Tithe laws. This was to remove legal disabilities and was not an endorsement of Catholicism itself, as the United Irishmens' revolutionary allies in France were dechristianizing their new state. Their ultimate goal was to separate religion from politics.
Up to 1792, the Society was in line with Henry Grattan's views but came to differ with him as to the best method of reform. Grattan followed Edmund Burke and felt that a gradual continuation of reform was the best course. This reform was opposed by the Protestant Ascendancy majority (elected by a few thousand men) and usually by the viceroy who was appointed by the government in London. The Society planned for a democratic system with 300 constituencies where all adult males were enfranchised and inevitably a break with London.
Dublin soon followed Belfast's example by founding its own branch of the United Irishmen on 9 November. The organisation also linked up with the Catholic agrarian secret society - The Defenders - in 1795, and many of its cells operated as de facto United Irish branches. The movement quickly developed a strategy of spreading its ideals by means of pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers, ballads, "catechisms" and travelling emissaries. The Northern Star of Belfast was especially successful, both commercially and politically and had a wide readership until its suppression in 1797. The spread of the society was watched with growing alarm by the authorities and it was banned in 1793 following the declaration of war by France.
Following the French declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, the movement went underground from the mid-1790s as they became more determined to force a revolt against British rule. The leadership was divided into those who wished to wait for French aid before rising and the more radical elements that wished to press ahead regardless. However, the suppression of a bloody preemptive rebellion, which broke out in Leitrim in 1793, led to the former faction prevailing and links were forged with the revolutionary French government with instructions to wait sent to all of the United Irish membership.
Worried by its presence, the Dublin administration conceded some reforms, allowing Catholics the vote, to become barristers and to enroll at Trinity College Dublin in 1793. The Hearth Tax, paid by all households, was abolished in 1795 and St Patrick's seminary at Maynooth was funded. However, Catholics were also expected to join the militia and to inform on any United Irish activities.
In 1794, William Drennan became the first leader to be arrested and tried for sedition as the authorities began to react to the growth of the United Irishmen. In 1795, the Orange Order was founded as an auxiliary military force to counteract the spread of the United Irishmen on the ground and the loyalty of the hierarchy of the Catholic church was confirmed with the founding of Maynooth College in the same year. At that stage, the Church and the French republic were enemies.
A French fleet carrying 15,000 troops set sail for Ireland in 1796, under General Hoche and spent days in sight of the Cork coast at Bantry Bay but weather conditions prevented its landing, and its remnants not wrecked or captured returned to France. The British government responded to the threat it represented by sweeping up much of the United Irish leadership. It imposed martial law from 2 March 1797 in an attempt to break the movement by the widespread use of terror during searches for weapons.
By early 1798, the United Irish membership on the ground (by now 280,000 sworn members) was under severe pressure, suffering from the terror of a roving campaign of disarmament while under instructions to do nothing until the arrival of French aid. In March 1798, the bulk of the leadership was arrested and preemptive risings had already broken out in Tipperary but indecision still divided the rump leadership. Finally, the unrelenting pressure led the militant faction of the United Irishmen to set the date for a general uprising on 23 May without French aid. However, information from informers led to the arrests of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Samuel Neilson shortly before the rising but more crucially foiled the planned rising in Dublin which was to be the central core of the planned rebellion.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands rose in the surrounding counties but the resulting rebellion was severely hampered by the lack of leadership and was crushed with vicious brutality. The campaign met with little success except in Wexford where a number of massacres of loyalist civilians who were largely Protestant raised the spectre of sectarianism which was seized upon by enemies of the United Irishmen to weaken their non-sectarian appeal. The eventual arrival of 1,000 French troops in Killala, County Mayo in August was too little and too late to turn the tide for the United Irishmen. In October, Wolfe Tone himself was captured when a supporting French fleet of 3,000 troops was intercepted and defeated by the Royal Navy near Lough Swilly.
Upon his capture, Wolfe Tone famously said, "From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish nation, and felt convinced, that while it lasted, this country would never be free or happy. In consequence, I determined to apply all the powers which my individual efforts could move, in order to separate the two countries." After being denied a soldier's death by firing squad, Wolfe Tone cheated the hangman by cutting his throat.
The suppression of the rising was followed by a period of renewed repression of the United Irishmen as the general amnesty offered by Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis specifically excluded rebel leaders many of whom were United Irishmen. However the United Irishmen still managed to survive as both a functioning clandestine organisation, especially in Dublin and as a military force with several rebel bands still active, though severely reduced and confined to a few counties.
The United Irishmen and sectarianism:
Most of the United Irish leadership and ideologues were born into Presbyterian families. They became deists after 1790. This small part of the population - about 15% - included Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Napper Tandy and Robert Emmet. While the United Irish had declared themselves to be non-sectarian from 1791, there were other liberal Protestants in the Irish Parliament who were also anti-sectarian and sought a more democratic franchise, such as Henry Grattan and John Curran. Although the United Irishmen was a staunchly non-sectarian body which sought to unite all Irishmen, regardless of religion or descent many among their ranks were former Defenders, a term applied to many loosely connected, exclusively Catholic, agrarian resistance groups. Many of these men, as well as their Presbyterian counterparts in Ulster, had been shaped by the sectarianism that was prevalent in eighteenth century Ireland and it was no mean feat to persuade Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter to put aside their differences and view each other simply as fellow Irishmen. Although the project met with remarkable success, it was quickly recognised by the establishment that sectarianism was a useful ally in the fight against the United Irishmen.
The formation of the Orange Order in 1795 was to prove particularly useful as it provided the Government with allies who had detailed local knowledge of the activities of their enemies. The brutal disarming of Ulster in 1797, where the United Irish had successfully radicalised both Protestants and Catholics, saw thousands of Catholics driven from counties Antrim, Down and Armagh, and the murder, torture and imprisonment of hundreds of Protestants suspected of United Irish sympathies.
Also in 1795 the Dublin administration funded the new St Patrick's College seminary for Roman Catholic priests, which ensured the support of the Irish Catholic hierarchy. The church was opposed to republicanism, though individual priests were supportive. The French government that supported the United Irish had engaged in a policy of "dechristianisation" for some years, and in February 1798 its army had expelled Pope Pius VI from Rome and formed the short-lived "Roman Republic". The Catholic hierarchy was therefore in a difficult position, being opposed to the United Irish while fully aware of the underlying social grievances of its members.
Religious division and hatred was, therefore, never completely buried and a minority of the Defenders did not reject completely their previous anti-Protestant outlook. During the course of the 1798 rebellion, United Irish rebels perpetrated several sectarian massacres, most notoriously in County Wexford at Scullabogue and Wexford Bridge. While sectarianism undoubtedly played a part in many murders during the rising, religion was often taken as a signifier of loyalty or disloyalty by both sides and the fact that Protestants were often among the perpetrators and Catholics among the victims of rebel massacres indicates that victims lost their lives for being perceived as loyalists as opposed to purely religious reasons. Such subtleties were ignored in the aftermath, as the memory of such massacres was simplified and exploited in following years by loyalist politicians to cement the sectarian divide and to ensure the loyalty of Protestants to the English Crown. The fact that the vast majority of the estimated 15,000-30,000 people of both religions who lost their lives during the rebellion were victims of British and Loyalist troops was blithely ignored.
The decision to abolish the Irish Parliament resulting in the Act of Union in 1800 that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland played on sectarian hopes and fears and was to gradually erode the United Irishmen by playing Catholic against Protestant. This was despite the original recognition that the "bigotry" (to quote Prime Minister William Pitt) of the Protestant Parliament in Dublin had only contributed to sedition in Ireland.
The failure of Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803 triggered the effective collapse of the Society of United Irishmen. The last armed rebel group led by James Corcoran was destroyed in 1804 and the first half of the 19th century saw sectarianism replace separatism as the touchstone for political unrest in Ireland. Not until the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s was an attempt made to resurrect the non-sectarian ideals of the United Irishmen. However, the alliance between Catholic and Protestant was never fully regained as Protestants were drawn closer to a "British" identity through fear of having a perceived position of privilege eroded by the slowly growing political power of the Catholic majority. As a consequence, subsequent organised republican resistance to British rule in Ireland was largely confined to the Catholic population and seen as a threat by the majority of the Protestant population.