by Aidan Coughlan and Ronan O'Neill of Mr. David Barry's class
On one level, reading about the insurrection of 1798 is very simple. We have a well-equipped army being attacked by a rebel force with little training and few weapons.
But, on another level the story is very complicated. Why did the people feel that they had to rise up in the first place? What made them continue fighting, knowing that they were no match for the British army? Were the ordinary people being used by their leaders for some impossible dream of freedom or perhaps, were they seen as allies of the French? Or is it simply an excuse for bigots to dominate their neighbours? Let us look at some of the facts:
In the year of 1798, the rebels known as the United Irishmen has caused many problems for the Loyalist forces in Wicklow. The Loyalists blamed the feeble Whig Government in London who attempted to bride the Catholics into supporting themselves against the French. The Loyalists were wondering why the government had cancelled the Penal Laws. It was pretty clear that it was just to win over the Catholics so that they would take their side in the other war they were fighting with the French as their opponents. Major Joseph Holt from the opposition disgusted the Loyalists with his attacks on them. Some even claimed he was a traitor to his religion. But, he wasn’t for he was a very religious man.
Between the years 1767 and 1800, the population in Ireland doubled to five million. As most of the population were Catholics, there was going to be a shortage of land for them. The Loyalists claimed that the Catholics became violent towards the Landlords. What other option did they have, though?
The government began to get worried judging from what they had heard from their spies. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland had been handed the power to place any county in the country under Martial Law.
Such laws as the Habeas Corpus Act were suspended so that anyone who was suspected of any crime or membership with the United Irishmen was imprisoned without a trial.
The government passed the Militia Act, which enabled each county to organise an army of five hundred volunteers to contend with the United Irishmen. Some Loyalists complained that five hundred was not enough to defeat the United Irishmen.
Outside Ulster, the largest population of Protestants was in Wicklow. Quite a few were descendants of earlier settlers, but also many of them had come to work in the mines and flax industries. A large amount of the landlords sympathised with the Catholic tenants, and were given the name Liberal. Although a majority of landlords were liberal some were not.
In Wicklow, there were many Liberal Landlords and Magistrates who were soft on the United Irishmen. Captain Edwards of Oldcourt in Bray comes to mind. The Loyalists admitted to being relieved when the government in Dublin sent Major Hardy and his Antrim Militia to help them organise their defence. They were not impressed with some of the British leaders such as Lord Ambercromby, who said their troops were out of control and General Moore, who said they were ‘quite disgraceful’ and in particular Lord Cornwallis who said ‘the ferocity of their troops who delight in murder most powerfully counteracts all plans for conciliation’.
During the spring of 1798, Hardy organised a team of gentry magistrates named the Secret Peace Committee, to make sure that the rebels known as the United Irishmen were roughly treated when captured. Major Hardy received money from Cook, the official who gave orders to him and he travelled to Wicklow to find spies and informers.
In Wicklow in late April and early May, Major Hardy of Antrim Militia used information given to him by the spies. It was largely thanks to the money provided by Under Secretary Cook that Hardy was so successful with spies such as A.B. and Sproule. Six weeks before the rising Hardy was given the names of most of the rebel leaders and had captured 1,000 guns and 4,000 pikes.
The Loyalists knew who had information about the United Irishmen and were supporting the holders of the information so they claimed to feel justified in tracking down the rebels, as they were a threat to the rebels.
General Moore offered amnesty to the rebels, which was accepted by 5,200 Catholics by July the 13th. Those rebels who remained knew that they would be tracked down by large armies and the militia.
The Loyalists of Wicklow believed that Under Secretary Cook needed support as too many Landlords in Wicklow were supporting the Whig Government in London. The Loyalists claimed that their way of life was threatened. It was because of this that Thomas Hugo organised a meeting among his fellow Loyalists in Rathdrum in December 1796, when they passed the resolution
"Impressed with the liveliest sense of loyalty to our beloved sovereign and the strongest zeal for the preservation of our happy constitution… we declare our intention to preserve such measure as most effectively tend to evince our steady attachment to our King and the preservation of the peace and good order of our country".
The threat of the French gave the Loyalists an excuse to take control of the county from their Liberal Landlords.
So, you may ask if the United Irishmen won or lost? They were defeated as an army because the little bit of French help that they received was not enough and came too late.
So was it all a waste of time? The ordinary citizens might have been like specs of dust in comparison with the professional army, but they had some guts to even challenge them. Did the people lose their lives in vain? Don’t things look different today? Bigots don’t have any power and no longer does a person’s religion control their wealth. Also our Parliament is not ruled by the British Government. I’m sure you agree that the Insurrection of 1798 has something to do with all of this. Those who became involved deserve gratitude from our generation for the sacrifices they made.