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New Communist Party of Britain

The Vision of 1798

To unite the whole people of Ireland

by Theo Russell

(This article was written to mark the 200th anniversary of the United Irish Rising in 1998)

Question: What have you got in your hand?

Answer: A green bough.

Question: Where did it grow?

Answer: In America.

Question: Where did it bud?

Answer: In France.

Question: Where are you going to plant it?

Answer: In the Crown of Great Britain.

From the oath of the United Irishmen

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Rising led by the Society of United Irishmen - an event which still remains a beacon of revolutionary ideals for Ireland and its British neighbours.

Depicted largely by British historians as yet another ill-fated conspiracy organised by a backward Irish rabble, the Rising of 1798 was in fact one of the major historical events in these islands in the past two centuries. Today, a steady stream of new research is revealing how close England came to losing control of Ireland.

A major legacy of 1978 was the development of a revolutionary ideology firmly based on the principles of the French Revolution, which marked the birth of the modern Irish Republican movement. The Rising also saw for the first time the idea of Ireland as a modern united nation.

As James Connolly points out, after the defeat of the Irish clan system in the Insurrection of 1641, "the only possible reappearance of the Irish idea henceforth lay through the gateway of a National resurrection".

The United Irishmen enjoyed the support not only of Revolutionary France, but of radicals and progressives elsewhere in Britain. The United Englishmen, the Friends of the People and the United Scotsmen shared the aims of the Irish revolutionaries and hoped to realise the mutual independence of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland after centuries of conflict.

Colonial oppression

Ireland in the 1790s was seething with discontent. The Catholics, 70% of the population, had been dispossessed of their land and were almost totally excluded from political and economic life. The Presbyterians (or 'Dissenters') of the north and east, 13% of the population, represented the rising Irish capitalists and industrialists, and faced discrimination and restrictions similar to those which led to the rebellion of the American colonies, such as having to send all exports via English ports.

The country was firmly in the grip of the Protestant Ascendancy, a tiny parasitic class adhering to the Anglican Church of Ireland, and backed by the full might of British colonial force. In the words of writer Liz Curtis, "the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, like the West Indian slave-owners, were a wealthy and influential section of the landowning class that ruled England". They numbered a mere 6,000, mostly absentee landlords living in London and Paris, who owned eight million acres of Irish land, most of which had been confiscated during Cromwell's reign of terror 140 years earlier.

The revolt of the American colonies in 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 provided a huge impetus to the forces in Ireland which sought to challenge the Ascendancy. During the American War England was forced to recruit a militia, the Volunteers, to maintain control in Ireland. This was dominated by radical Presbyterians. The Presbyterians in Belfast, a hotbed of revolutionary thought, enthusiastically welcomed the French Revolution. Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man went through several print runs, and became known as "the Koran of Belfast".

When the Louis XVI, 'Sun King', was executed in 1793, the people of Belfast celebrated with a "grand illumination", and annual celebrations of the French Revolution were held with great processions. The short hair worn by French Jacobins became the fashion, giving rise to the nickname "Croppies" - a derogatory term still used by Loyalists today in the north of Ireland. The first great festival of Irish harp music also took place in Belfast, reflecting a resurgence of Irish culture.

United Irishmen

In October 1791 the Society of United Irishmen has been established in Belfast, declaring itself at its first meeting to be "a revolutionary party openly declaring their revolutionary sympathies, but limiting their first demand to a popular measure such as would enfranchise the masses".

Many Irish progressives of the time saw the need to alleviate the lot of the mass of the Catholic peasantry, who were paying government taxes and extortionate rents to absent landlords, but could not vote and were excluded from Parliament and official posts. But few envisaged an alliance on equal terms, most seeking their support opportunistically to achieve their own limited goals.

It fell to Theobald Wolfe Tone, a brilliant propagandist and leader, to reach the conclusion that the full emancipation of all of Ireland's people was only possible through an equal alliance of Protestants, Catholic and Presbyterians, and an end the link with England. In doing so Tone laid the foundations for a revolutionary philosophy which was amazingly advanced for its time, and even today is yet to be realised.

In his most famous statement Tone said: "to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the name of Irishman in place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means."

Meanwhile England was already laying the basis for a Catholic middle class based on the professions and the clergy. They paid for the establishment of a college at Maynooth, near Dublin, to train Catholic clergy. (One and a half centuries later, the Bishops of Maynooth were to give their blessings to the fascist Blueshirts who sailed from Dublin to support Franco during the Spanish Civil War). Wolfe Tone for his part denounced the "Papal tyranny", which was opposed to the French Revolution, and the clergy's "priestcraft and superstition".

The prevailing orthodoxy of the time the regarded the new ideas of democracy as an impossible and dangerous illusion, equivalent to anarchy. The emergence of universal suffrage in France was a major historic break with an era in which all European states had been models of monarchy and aristocracy. Following the French Revolution, England - whose own revolution a century earlier ended with a ruling alliance of capitalists and landed gentry - became the primary defender of reaction and aristocratic rule everywhere in Europe.

Wolfe Tone and the other leaders of the United Irishmen - Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Emmet and Samuel Nielsen - were anti-monarchist, and supported the regicide practised in France. They sought the ultimate separation of Ireland and England, and aspired to the democratic forms of government emerging in America and France. In short, they were republicans and revolutionaries.

The prospect presented by the emergence of the United Irishmen was, for the London government and the Protestant Ascendancy, a living nightmare.

the revolt

By the 1790s Ireland was already on the brink of revolt. Armed Protestant vigilantes called the Peep O'Day Boys were terrorising Catholics, who in turn formed the Defenders, whose attacks on landowners spread to 15 counties, and who pledged allegiance to the French Revolution.

In 1793 the English disbanded the Volunteers, which had become a threat to their interests, and began a reign of terror against radicals. The Society of United Irishmen was banned and driven underground. In 1795 the Orange Order was formed in Portadown (home of the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree Church), beginning two centuries of Protestant supremacy and domination over Irish Catholics.

The Insurrection Act of 1796 introduced summary execution without trial, martial law, and the suspension of habeas corpus. Military 'Flying Camps' used torture (such as cutting pieces off ears and noses with large clippers), executions, intimidation and general disruption. Illustrations of the time show the many forms of indiscriminate brutality used by the English to keep the population in fear.

In May 1795 Wolfe Tone went into exile when the British learned of secret contacts with revolutionary France. He travelled first to America, and then in January 1796 to Paris, where he successfully enlisted the support of revolutionary France for a rising in Ireland. The original plan for the rebellion envisaged a co-ordinated national rising in support of professional French troops. The revolutionary French Army was a formidable force, which had inflicted major setbacks on England including the evacuation of British troops at the River Scheldt - a disaster far worse than Dunkirk. France had also occupied the Papal Territories, and knocked out Prussia.

Under this plan the Irish insurgents would be play the role of auxiliaries to the professional French troops, with their principal weapon the pike; it was never intended that they tackle the English on their own. Even without a successful French landing, and lacking proper weapons and training, they still rose and presented a major challenge to the British forces - a testament to their incredible bravery and commitment.

In December 1796 a large French fleet broke through the Royal Navy's cordon off Bantry Bay, but was dispersed by the worst gale in living memory. With no force waiting to meet it, the 12,000 troops "would easily have walked the length and breadth of Ireland", according to Irish historian Ruan O'Donnell. It was a major fright for the English and the Ascendancy, and incredibly bad luck for the Irish cause. The following year a Dutch fleet with 13,500 troops was kept in port for six weeks by unfavourable winds and eventually abandoned.

After the suppression of the United Irish stronghold in Ulster, the leadership shifted to Dublin. They decided to reduce their dependence on the French and mobilised forces around Dublin to strike at the centre of power. Had the Dublin rising succeeded and United Irishmen forces throughout Ireland risen, according Ruan O'Donnell, "the crown forces would have been overwhelmed".

In mid-1798 the situation came to a head and risings took place in the midlands and southeast of Ireland, followed later by the Presbyterians of Belfast, Antrim and Down. In Wexford and Connaught short-lived republics were proclaimed, and heavy fighting took place in Wicklow, Wexford, Kildare, and Dublin.

The rebels succeeded on several occasions on capturing sizeable towns, each success bringing large numbers in those areas into the rising. In the towns of Wexford and Enniscorthy, Public Committees were established along similar lines to the Committees for Public Safety in France. Time and again the professional and well-armed Crown Forces, fighting irregular, poorly equipped rebels, were saved by sheer luck. In one battle the insurgents withdrew, not knowing the English were about to run out of ammunition. When Arklow on the coast south of Dublin was captured, the rebels were unaware that no Crown forces lay between them and Dublin, where many insurgents with hidden weapons were ready to rise.

The English suffered a major defeat in County Down in Ulster, but were saved by reinforcements from Scotland, and in major battles at Vinegar Hill and Arklow the United Irish forces managed to withdraw intact. In one engagement 49 English cavalry were killed with no losses to the rebels. James Connolly concluded that "the British army can scarcely be said to have at any time justified its reputation, let alone covered itself with glory".

In August 1798 a small French force of 1,100 under General Humbert succeeded in landing at Killala, County Mayo on the West Coast. After scattering a superior English force in disarray at a battle at Castlebar, Humbert was defeated at Ballinamuck, County Leitrim, on 8 September, in the last major set-piece battle on Irish soil. His small force had travelled almost exactly half-way to Dublin.

Death of Wolfe Tone

The collapse of the Rising was not, of course, the end of resistance in Ireland. In County Wexford the insurgents had pioneered a new form of guerrilla warfare, and following the collapse of the rising some 5,000 committed and experienced United Irish fighters remained active in the mountains of Wicklow and Wexford until 1803.

Wolfe Tone was finally captured when a third French fleet was intercepted by the English, and taken in shackles to Dublin. On 12 November 1798 he cut his own throat, to avoid a military court martial and the indignity of a public hanging. He died a week later on November 19, 1798.

In the Rising over 30,000 people had died (3,000 on the 'loyalist' side), and 12 towns and countless villages were partly or completely destroyed. Its defeat was due largely to the lack of communications, which isolated uprisings in parts of the country from one another, and the weak military command structure of the rebel forces. In the event the English escaped several near disasters. The virtual supremacy of the Royal Navy was a crucial factor, but only incredibly bad luck prevented a major foreign force from landing in Ireland. In the event the Crown forces had experienced severe setbacks at the hands of a badly armed, but highly committed and well-led insurgent force.

The rebellion in Ireland was compounded for the English by threats elsewhere in Britain, at a time of revolutionary ferment throughout Europe. The large numbers of Irish rebels pressed into the Royal Navy had spread disaffection in the ranks, and United Irishmen played a key role in the naval mutinies at the Nore and Spithead. One fleet sailed to London and threatened to bombard the capital, before being persuaded to surrender.

Also, 1797 the United Scotsmen had organised a rebellion in which several military forts were captured before Scotland was flooded with English troops. And in 1803 another Irish rising, the Emmet Conspiracy, took place in and around Dublin. James Connolly described it as "even more distinctly democratic, international and popular" than the Rising of 1798.

The failure of the Rising had tragic consequences for Ireland, the results of which we are still living with today. The loss of military-aged men (either killed or sent into exile) had enormous economic effects. But 1798 was to be followed by periodic revolts in Ireland, up to and including the nationalist armed struggle which began in the late 1960s in the occupied six counties in the north. From 1798 onwards, England ensured that Ireland remained permanently militarised, which is still the case day in the north-east of Ireland.

The new resistance

After the Rising England moved swiftly to incorporate Ireland formally into the Union. In January 1799 the English failed to persuade the (largely corrupt) Irish parliament to vote itself out of existence. London resorted to massive bribery of Irish MPs, flooded the country with troops, and banned public meetings and protests against the Union.

Under such intense 'democratic' pressure, the Dublin Parliament approved the Union in February 1800, by 158 to 115 votes. From having its own parliament of 300 MPs in Dublin, Ireland, which accounted for a third of the population of the new 'United Kingdom', would be reduced to 100 MPs out of over 600 at Westminster. Following the union, the cross of St Patrick (a diagonal red cross on a white background hardly used in Ireland) was incorporated into the British Union Flag, where it remains to this day.

1798 was without doubt a watershed in Irish history, when Ireland asserted its nationhood in the modern sense for the first time. The continued inspiration of the "Year of the French" is not primarily for its military successes or failures - although the courage and sacrifices of the revolutionaries and patriots of that time are still widely commemorated in Ireland and elsewhere.

Its relevance today arises from the great ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen - the unity of Protestants and Catholics, breaking the connection with England, and an Ireland equal with its British neighbours. In the words of Sinn Féin TD Caomhghín Ó Caoláin, speaking at a bi-centenary commemoration of the Rising in London: "Today, as the United Irishmen and Women of 1998, we will move forward to realise the principles of Tone, Connolly and Sands".