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La sécularisation en Irlande

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Paul Brennan

Début et fin de la tolérance

“The brotherhood of affection”

The united irishmen

Thomas Bartlett

Texte intégral

1Abstract : This study concerns the reasons that led to the failure of the United Irishmen project of a non-sectarian union. Allied to the Protestants in the fight for the 1782 constitution, the Catholics felt they had been betrayed when they were excluded from parliamentary reform. They were therefore suspicious when, ten years later, they were invited to join a new national union movement. The United Irishmen understood only too late that they had neglected the importance of the past and the fragmented nature of society. Henceforth, from being Protestant, nationalism was to become essentially Catholic.

2Résumé : Cette étude porte sur les raisons qui expliquent l’échec du projet anti-sectaire des Irlandais-Unis. Alliés aux protestants lors de la bataille en faveur de la réforme parlementaire en 1782, les catholiques se sont sentis trahis lorsqu’on les en a exclus. Ils étaient donc réticents quand on les a sollicités pour parfaire une nouvelle union. Les Irlandais-Unis ont compris trop tard qu’ils avaient négligé l’importance du passé et du caractère fragmenté de la société irlandaise. Dorénavant le nationalisme sera catholique.

I

3The immediate origins of the United Irishmen can be traced to the 1780s, first to the success in winning the “Constitution of 1782”, and then to the subsequent failure to achieve parliamentary reform. In 1782, Protestant Ireland had succeeded in exerting sufficient pressure on the British government for it to concede the so-called “Constitution of 1782”, a bundle of measures which went some way towards meeting the demand of Irish Protestants for constitutional equality between the Irish Parliament and the British Parliament. For years Irish “patriots” had fumed at English claims to legislative superiority and at the occasional exercise of those claims through the agency of Poynings’Law (1494) and the Declaratory Act of 1720 : but it had been the calamitous course of Britain’s war with her American colonies (1776-1783) that had provided them with their opportunity to make their protest effective. The entry of France and Spain into the war on the side of the Americans had constituted a military threat to Ireland and in a traditional response to this renewed danger from the leading Catholic powers of Europe, a Volunteer force had been set up by Irish Protestants. This force was independent of Dublin Castle, had quickly turned its attention to the matter of Ireland’s grievances, and in 1779 had played an important part in forcing the repeal of English restrictions on Irish trade. Weightier matters then beckoned, and the Volunteers, by now numbering some 60 000 began to seek redress of Ireland’s constitutional grievances. Irish members of parliament with Volunteer connections delivered impassioned speeches, the Volunteers made threatening noises and paraded menacingly, and in February 1782 a convention of Volunteers was summoned to meet at Dungannon, county Tyrone. The disastrous course of the war in America and the ferocious criticism of Lord North’s government from within the British parliament added to the ministry’s difficulties with Ireland. The fall of the North ministry in March 1782, however, opened the way for concessions, for the new government led by Lord Rockingham was widely believed – on no very clear evidence – to favour meeting the demands of the Irish “patriots”. Clamour in Ireland mounted, and in the spring of 1782 the Declaratory Act was repealed, Poynings’law severely amended and a few other acts passed, a package known generally as “The Constitution of 1782”, and one which purported to adjust the constitutional relationship between Ireland and England to Ireland’s advantage. And now, having altered the Anglo-Irish relationship to their satisfaction the Volunteers moved into more treacherous waters and sought to adjust the relationship between the Irish parliament and the Irish people by urging the implementation of a substantial measure of parliamentary reform ; this demand for reform was to dominate their politics for the 1780s.

4Before going on to consider why the Volunteer campaign for parliamentary reform failed, it may be appropriate to reflect on the victory of 1782 and the lessons that were, or were not, drawn from it. So far as the Volunteers were concerned the triumph of 1782 was theirs alone. The war in America, the collapse of North’s ministry, even the support of friends in the Irish parliament played little part in their analysis of the winning of the “Constitution of 1782”. The people in arms, a citizen militia, had met in Convention and had spoken out clearly : the Irish parliament was brought to demand concessions ; and the British government had no option but to yield. British ministers for their part had a rather more sophisticated understanding of why concession had been necessary. It was accepted that military defeat in America (and political collapse in the British House of Commons) had rendered some sort of capitulation on Ireland inevitable : but equally it was well understood that what gave the Irish demands their irresistible force was the fact that they appeared to be made by a united nation. As the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Portland, explained :

The merchant, the tradesman, the manufacturer, the farmer, the labourer, the Catholick, the Dissenter, the Protestant : all sects, all descriptions of men... unanimously and most audibly call upon Great Britain for a full and unequivocal satisfaction.

  • 1 Portland to Shelburne, 24 Apr. 1782, P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice], H[ome] O[ffice] 100/1/133 ; Shelb (...)

5Resistance to Irish claims backed by, as Shelburne put it, “the Irish nation” was simply not possible, and the result was the “Constitution of 1782”1

  • 2 Thomas Bartlett, The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation : the Catholic Question, 1690-1830, Dublin, (...)
  • 3 Hist. Mss. Comm., Charlemont, i, p. 46.

6The united front that had so perplexed British ministers and rendered concession necessary was a product of many factors, but basic to it was the belief on the part of Protestant Ireland that the age-old threat from Irish Catholics had diminished substantially. Admittedly, some Protestants – John Fitzgibbon, later Earl of Clare, was a noted example – advised eternal vigilance ; but for many, if not most, the threat posed by Irish Catholics appeared to be insignificant. Nearly a hundred years had elapsed since the Williamite wars and since then it could be argued that Irish Catholics had conducted themselves appropriately – there had been, for example, no militant Irish response to the 1745 rebellion in Scotland. Moreover, in recent years, in their search for relief from the Penal laws, Irish Catholics, and the Catholic Committee which purported to speak on their behalf, had adopted a moderate, not to say sycophantic, posture, in their dealings with government ; and this approach was reassuring. Finally, throughout Europe the Catholic-church appeared to be in retreat, the dissolution of the Jesuit religious order in 1773 being only the most recent indication of this. But while Irish Catholics may have seemed quiescent and the threat posed by their numbers (and their memories) to be negligible, they were none the less an important element in the politics of late eighteenth-century Ireland. Already, in 1778, the British government had sought to interest itself on their behalf, and had sponsored an important Catholic relief act – one which sought to reward Irish Catholics’loyalty and facilitate their recruitment into the armed forces of the crown2. For Irish “patriots” seeking to adjust the commercial and constitutional relationship between Ireland and England, this understanding between Irish Catholics and the British government held certain dangers : most obviously there was always the possibility that, as the “patriot” Lord Charlemont put it, the British government would be “induced to court the Papists by their fear of the Protestants”. He concluded reluctantly that until Irish Catholics were detached from their reliance on the British government, there would be little progress on the constitutional front3. Some moves in this general direction, though hardly in pursuit of this policy, were soon made by various Volunteer corps.

  • 4 Patrick Rogers, The Irish Volunteers and Catholic Emancipation, London, 1934. p. 66-67 ; Buckingha (...)
  • 5 John Lawless (ed.), The Belfast Politics Enlarged, Belfast, 1816, p. 131.
  • 6 For some discussion of this point, see Th. Bartlett, The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, p. 99- (...)
  • 7 Carlisle to Hillsborough, 29 Dec. 1781, SP 63/480/14.

7The entrance by the Volunteers themselves into the political arena was evidence that, in their estimation, the traditional threat posed by the Catholics in time of war had almost wholly passed and that therefore their traditional role of keeping an eye on them was largely redundant. Catholics began to be admitted to some Volunteer corps in Dundalk, Kilkenny and Armagh : and Catholics reciprocated by drawing up addresses of compliments to the Volunteers4. Moreover, in a pamphlet published in 1779, Arthur O’Leary, a Dominican friar, expressed the hope that Catholics and Protestants could unite in defence of Ireland. On the Presbyterian side, Joseph Pollock, writing in the Belfast News-Letter under the historically redolent pen-name “Owen Roe O’Neill”, advised his Protestant audience that "unless we entertain for each other a mutual and general confidence, unless we lay aside all rancor or prejudice on account of distinctions either political or religious" there would be no progress "towards shaking off the shackles of an usurping English people"5. Finally, at their Convention in Dungannon in February 1782 the Volunteers clearly and publicly endorsed the Catholic claim for substantial relief from the Penal laws. The timing of this Volunteer announcement was significant, for it came at the precise moment when the British government was contemplating concessions for Catholics, possibly in order to isolate the Protestant demand for constitutional reform6. This Catholic Relief Act was duly passed in 1782 and it was no coincidence that the package of measures known as the “Constitution of 1782” went through also at about the same time, for the two were intimately linked. Once the Catholic demands had been approved by the Volunteers, and by others, once the constitutional demands had become, as Carlisle, the Lord Lieutenant, glumly claimed, “the creed of the nation” they could not be resisted by the British government7. In 1782, in short, it seemed that Catholics and Protestants had won important victories by acting together in order to exert pressure on both the Irish parliament and the British government : who could predict whither such an alliance might lead ?

8In the event, that tentative unity between the various religious interests in Ireland that had made irresistible the demand for an end to legislative subordination did not prove lasting. The “patriots” soon fell out among themselves over the need to copperfasten their victory by obtaining a further British denial of constitutional supremacy : the ending of the American War in 1783 caused volunteering to lose its justification ; but more importantly the campaign to achieve parliamentary reform which was quickly embarked on in 1783 proved in the circumstances to be both premature and divisive. So long as the issue had been the freeing of the Irish parliament from English control then general agreement could be maintained ; but once it became a question of making that parliament more representative by enlarging the size of the electorate, then deep divisions appeared and the coalition which had won the “Constitution of 1782” fell apart.

  • 8 The following three paragraphs are derived from Thomas Bartlett, “The Origins and Progress of the (...)

9The parliamentary reform movement in Ireland began in 1783 but its prospects of success, never very high, had vanished by 17858. The fact was that the Irish landed classes saw parliamentary reform as a threat to their power and they were by no means confident that they could control a reformed legislature. Similarly the British and Irish governments viewed with alarm the prospect of a reformed Irish parliament for they were convinced that such an institution would be impossible to control and that ultimately it could form a threat to the connection between Ireland and England. Both governments therefore resolved to resist the demand for reform. Moreover the collapse of the parliamentary reform movement in Britain crippled the Irish campaign for it was unthinkable that Ireland should take the lead in such matters. These were all grave obstacles that reformers had to face : but arguably they might have been overcome if a vigorous popular movement combining Protestant and Catholic had been formed (or continued). It was the failure to maintain that alliance of Catholic and Protestant that had won the “Constitution of 1782” that led inevitably to the defeat of the reformers.

10From an early date it had been made clear that Catholics were not to be included in the proposed plans of parliamentary reform. Even those most active in the reform movement, such as William Drennan, were adamant that

the Catholics at this day are absolutely incapable of making a good use of political liberty or... political power ;

  • 9 “Letters of Orellana”, n° 5 [by Wm. Drennan] published in the Belfast Newsletter and collected in (...)
  • 10 Drennan to Mrs McTier, late 1784, in D. A. Chart (ed.), The Drennan Letters, Belfast, 1931, p. 24.

11while the well-known Dublin radical Napper Tandy sought to obtain a declaration from the Catholics in which they agree “to give up the idea of suffrage”9. The main supporter of the Catholics had been the famous (or notorious) Earl Bishop of Derry, and he was easily outmanoeuvred at the reform convention. Having been embraced by the Volunteers in the struggle to win legislative independence. Irish Catholics now found themselves discarded when the question of reform was put onto the agenda : it was brought home to them that the “Irish nation” was in fact confined entirely to Irish Protestants. Inevitably, the reform movement, now shorn of Catholic support, quickly foundered and the demands from the Convention were dismissed with ease and contumely. “The Roman Catholic question was our ruin” declared William Drennan justly : and despite his earlier advocacy of Catholic exclusion, he drew the lesson that for reform to succeed in Ireland it was necessary to obtain the full participation of the Catholic body10. In this conclusion lay the origins of the United Irishmen.

12There were a number of reasons for the exclusion of Irish Catholics from the plans for parliamentary reform. Sir Edward Newenham wrote :

Their principles and ours can never be in unison. We are for freedom, they are for despotism. They have an old claim on our estates. We give them full exercise of their religion. If they had the power we should not have a similar liberty.

13The Earl of Charlemont was equally adamant : in a country circumstanced like Ireland, he wrote, two points can never be given up, “namely, the free and uncontrolled use of arms and a share of the legislature”. This bleak appraisal of the Irish Catholic’s capaces libertatis irretrievably doomed the reform movement to futility : without Catholic support, the demand for parliamentary reform would ever lack impact. Drennan and other advanced reformers, pondering the lessons of their defeat in the mid-1780s, concluded that in the interests of a successful campaign for reform, they would have to pocket their misgivings about Irish Catholics. Their opportunity to act came with the outbreak of revolution in France.

II

  • 11 For the origins of the United Irishmen, I draw, unless otherwise stated, on my The Fall and Rise o (...)

14Within a matter of weeks of the opening of the States-General in Paris in May 1789, the term “the French Revolution” had begun to make an appearance in Irish newspapers : and throughout the country but especially in Belfast and Dublin, those groups who had previously been in favour of political reform drew inspiration and encouragement from the unfolding of the stirring events in France11. In July 1790, the Volunteers, hitherto moribund, marched to celebrate not the Battle of the Boyne but the fall of the Bastille, and in Belfast there was much talk of new clubs and new alliances. By October 1790, the Lord Lieutenant, Westmorland, had come into possession of a document entitled “The Belfast Constitutional Compact” which consisted of a series of resolutions calling on Presbyterians and Catholics to make common cause against “extorting tithe-mongers and ecclesiastical plunders” and pledging support for the Catholics’“just claim to the enjoyment of the rights and privileges of freeborn citizens”. This preliminary intelligence of a potential alliance between Catholics and Dissenters appeared to be confirmed during the summer of 1791. In July Westmorland wrote :

In the North, particularly in Belfast and Newry, the republican spirit is strong and stirring... The language and bent of these Dissenters is to unite with the Catholics and their union would be very formidable.

15In the same month he drew attention to a pamphlet circulating in Belfast and Dublin concerning “the establishment of a Brotherhood”, and he pronounced it be “a very dangerous paper”. This discussion document was the work of William Drennan and it prepared the way for a club to be set up in Belfast in October 1791 (and in Dublin some weeks later) entitled The Society of United Irishmen.

16Drennan had drawn the lesson from the debacle of the mid-1780s that parliamentary reform would prove elusive until the Catholics were brought to lend their weight and numbers to the campaign. At the time of the reform agitation he had been one of those convinced that Catholics were unfit for political liberty, but in his proposal for The Brotherhood he was clearly having doubts on this point. He mused :

  • 12 On William Drennan, see A. T. Q. Stewart, “A Stable Unseen Power ; Dr William Drennan and the Orig (...)

Are the Roman Catholics generally or partially Capaces Libertatis ? And if not, what are the speediest means of making them so12 ?

  • 13 W. T. W. Tone, The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 2 vols, Washington DC, 1826, i, p. 342-366, quotat (...)
  • 14 Westmorland to Grenville, 6 Oct. 1791, PRO, HO 100/31/318-9.
  • 15 Halliday to Charlemont, 15 Dec. 1791, Hist. Mss. Comm., Charlemont, ii, p. 160.

17As it happened, Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Dublin barrister, was addressing himself to precisely that question, and in a remarkable pamphlet, An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in August 1791, he maintained that not only were Catholics capable of liberty but that there could be no liberty for anyone in Ireland until “Irishmen of all denominations” banded together “against the boobies and blockheads” that governed them and demanded parliamentary reform13. Tone had been on the fringes of radical politics for some time, but when some of his resolutions sent up to Belfast for the 14 July celebrations encountered opposition there, he resolved to write a strong defence of the principle of admitting Catholics to political equality. The result was the Argument which had an enormous impact. It quickly ran through a number of editions and was disseminated widely – even Westmorland read it and commended it to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, as “a pretty specimen of the sentiments of Irish reformers”14. Its influence may be seen on the Volunteers of Belfast who in early October 1791 looked forward to co-operating with Catholics on every occasion “where our joint efforts may tend to restore to Irishmen their long lost rights”. More important, its publication led to Tone being invited to Belfast to attend at the inaugural meeting of the new society that Drennan had called for. Here, Tone took charge, suggesting the name of the new society – the United Irishmen – and composing its key resolutions calling for the destruction of English influence in Irish government by means of a union of all the people, maintaining that this could only be accomplished through a thoroughgoing parliamentary reform, and claiming that no such reform could be “practicable, efficacious or just” which did not include Catholics. Tone made a strong impression on the reformers of Belfast : even Dr Halliday who was hostile to his central thesis, conceded that Tone’s “good sense and modest, unassuming carriage were truly engaging”, and he declared that the Argument carried all before it15.

  • 16 W T. W. Tone (ed.), The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, i, p. 356-358. See David Miller, “Presbyteria (...)

18It would be a mistake to conclude from this that Tone’s pamphlet had a great impact merely because it was relentlessly realistic both in its reasons for the failure of the previous reform movement and in its signposting the way forward. Undoubtedly it and other similar productions contained many home truths : for example, that the much vaunted “Constitution of 1782” had merely resulted in increased "corruption" in the Irish parliament, but Tone’s pamphlet went further by directly addressing the question of the Catholics’capacity for liberty and by concluding on the basis of events in France that Catholics could in fact be trusted. “Look at France, he urged his readers, where is the intolerance of popish bigotry now ?” Has not the pope been burned in effigy in Paris ? Who will now attend to the “rusty and extinguished thunderbolts of the Vatican ?” Moreover in pointing to the 200,000 French Catholics who elected the Protestant, St Etienne to the National Assembly, Tone was consciously appealling to a strong prophetic or millenarian strain in Irish Presbyterianism by encouraging the belief that the extraordinary events in France – the downfall of the most Catholic monarchy of the most Catholic country in the world through the agency of Catholics themselves – heralded nothing less than the downfall of the pope and even of Catholicism itself. The question about the Catholics’capacity for liberty had been clearly answered ; and Irish Presbyterians were being invited through their participation in an alliance with Irish Catholics to be part of God’s plan as revealed in the collapse of the Catholic monarchy of France. Therein lay his appeal and his impact16.

  • 17 See Peter Brooke, Ulster Presbyterianism : The Historical Perspective 1610-1970, Dublin, 1987, pas (...)
  • 18 Th. Bartlett, Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, chapter 6.

19But if this was the essence of Tone’s appeal for the Dissenters, for Catholics it was all rather different and there can be no doubt that an alliance along the lines proposed by Tone could hardly be other than extremely problematic. In the first instance, Presbyterians had ever been the most implacable enemies of Catholics and Catholicism, historically, far more obdurate than the members of the established church : indeed part of the scorn which Dissenters had for Churchmen stemmed from their belief that the Church of Ireland espoused a sort of low-tension Catholicism17. Much history would have to be repressed before a genuine alliance could take place. More than this, however, Catholics were well aware of how shabbily they had been treated in the recent past by the Presbyterian reformers of the early 1780s. These latter, it will be recalled, had made overtures to Irish Catholics in 1782 at their Dungannon meeting ; but in the event, at the later reform conventions delegates had decided that only Protestants would be included in the plans : neither the proposed reform on the franchise nor on seats in parliament were to be extended to Catholics. In short, the reformers -Presbyterians foremost among them – had let the Catholics down in the 1780s, why should Catholics trust them now ? And then, of course there was the British government which for a generation had been the object of Irish Catholics’prayers and petitions. Indeed the credit for previous Catholic relief measures had been claimed by the British government for it had urged a reluctant Dublin Castle to undertake them, and had pushed them through a lethargic, if not hostile Irish parliament18. Why should Irish Catholics run the risk of sacrificing the goodwill of the British government by entering into an alliance with those whose capacity to deliver on their promises was questionable, indeed those whose very bona fides were suspect ? At the same time, it was obvious that certain tactical advantages could be won by the Catholics if they or their leaders could impress upon the British government that only through the granting of significant concessions could the threat posed to English government in Ireland by the proposed Catholic-Dissenter alliance be averted.

20There can be no doubt that this was the argument used most forcefully and frequently by the secretary of the Catholic Committee, Richard Burke (Edmund’s son) during the years 1791-1792 and undoubtedly it had an effect on the British government and, through it, on Dublin Castle. Time after time, members of the British government sought to impress upon the Dublin Castle administration the danger posed by such an alliance : Grenville, the Foreign Secretary wrote to Westmorland:

I may be a false prophet, but there is no evil that I should not prophesy if that union takes place at the present moment and on the principles on which it is endeavoured to bring it about.

  • 19 Grenville to Westmorland, 20 Oct. 1791 ; Grenville to Dundas, 29 Oct. 1791 (Hist. Mss. Comm., Drop (...)

21and he told his cabinet colleague, Henry Dundas, that following meetings with “young Mr. Burke” and John Keogh, a leading Catholic activist, he was confirmed in “the apprehensions which I entertain of danger from the attempts the Dissenters are making to form an union with the Catholics”19. In short, there was nothing for it but for substantial and immediate concessions to be made to Irish Catholics. Westmorland tried to resist Grenville’s logic but in so doing he contradicted his own earlier alarmist statements by playing down now the threat of a Dissenter-Catholic alliance. His pleas to Dundas not “to alter the system of government [in Ireland] by bringing forward the Catholics” were brushed aside. The outbreak of war on the continent in 1792 and the near certainty that Britain would be drawn in (duly confirmed in January 1793) lent an urgency to concession and an impatience with the “panics and apprehensions” of Dublin Castle, and Irish politicians. In 1792 a minor Catholic Relief Act was put through the Irish parliament and in 1793 a much more substantial one was enacted which gave Irish Catholics the vote on the same terms as Irish Protestants ; and ultimately made possible Daniel O’Connell’s victory a generation later which in its turn forced the British government to concede Catholic emancipation.

22The United Irishmen had followed these developments with great interest, a growing unease and, eventually, an ill-concealed cynicism.

  • 20 For the literary campaign, see J. S. Donnelly, “Propagating the Cause of the United Irishmen”, Stu (...)

23The formation of the Society in Belfast, and later in Dublin, had been the signal for a flurry of resolutions, declarations and pamphlets, all of which were circulated widely20. The Society called for

the promotion of constitutional knowledge, the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics and the equal distribution of the Rights of Man throughout all sects and denominations of Irishmen.

24It sought

to forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interests, a communion of rights and an union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions.

25It proclaimed to the world :

  • 21 Extracts taken from the numerous appendices in the Report from the Secret Committee of the House o (...)

In this Society and its affiliated societies the Catholics and the Presbyterian are at this instant holding out their hands and opening their hearts to each other ; agreeing in principles, concurring in practice. We unite for immediate, ample, and substantial justice to the Catholics and when that is attained, a combined exertion for a reform of parliament is the condition of our compact and the seal of our communion21.

26So far so good, and the presence of a large number of Catholic activists among the Dublin members of the United Irishmen – John Keogh and Richard McCormick were prominent – seemed to substantiate these noble claims. However, from the beginning there was also a discordant note, occasionally in the public declarations of the Society, but also in the private correspondence of members. Admittedly the United Irishmen had made clear their policy on what had come to be known as Catholic emancipation : “We... wish for Catholic emancipation without any modification.” But equally they had been at pains to point out that

  • 22 Ibid., p. 101-102.

this necessary enfranchisement... [was]... merely the portal to the temple of freedom... The Catholic cause is subordinate to our cause and included in it... In the sincerity of our souls do we desire emancipation but were it obtained tomorrow, tomorrow would we go on as we do today in the pursuit of that reform which would would still be wanting to ratify their liberties as well as our own22.

27Less obliquely, as early as August 1791, when the formation of some such reform society was being discussed, an anonymous letter "to an R.C. gentleman from a Dissenter" revealed that it was suspected

  • 23 16 Aug. 1791, PRO, HO 100/34/3.

among my friends that those of your persuasion – the Irish Catholics – are only coquetting with the Presbyterians of the North and wish by that means to heighten their own value with the government by manifesting what offers have been made to them from the North23.

  • 24 Th. Bartlett, Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, p. 167 ; M. Elliott, Theobald Wolfe Tone : Prophe (...)

28William Drennan, a founder of the new society, could not shake off his doubts concerning Irish Catholics and was soon complaining that the Catholic Committee had “two strings to their bow”, one to deal with government, the other to treat with the Society : and its strategy was to go with the one that would promise and deliver the most. Certainly the appointment in September 1791 of Richard Burke as secretary to the Catholic Committee, and his replacement in July 1792 by Theobald Wolfe Tone seemed designed alternatively to reassure and alarm the British government. Burke was known to be hostile to any alliance with the Dissenters (as well as hostile to the French revolution) while Tone was none other than the architect of the proposed united front (and he was very much in favour of the revolution). Finally, those who suspected that Catholics might seize on the honeyed words of universal brotherhood and take the opportunity offered by the international situation to extract significant political advantage for themselves had their doubts confirmed by the Catholic Commiittee’s reaction to the Relief Act of 1793. The Committee speedily dissolved itself, after voting thanks to the chief secretary, Hobart, and after awarding grants of money to friends of the Catholics (Wolfe Tone got £ 1,500 and money was voted for a statue of George III). As a final gesture, the Committee issued a declaration calling for parliamentary reform. This certainly infuriated the government, but it was scarcely an adequate recompense for those radicals who had hasarded much to advance the Catholic cause, and it brought on a distinct frostiness in relations between the Dissenters and Catholic activists24.

29There had always been a considerable amount of political calculation in that tentative alliance between the Dissenters and Catholics which had constituted the basis of the Society of United Irishmen. Both sides – the reformers and the Catholics – had sought to use the other in order to put pressure on the British government to concede reform or repeal the Penal laws. Only with Catholic support could the campaign for reform have an impact – that was the lesson learnt from the abortive agitation of the 1780s ; but equally Catholics could see an advantage in putting themselves up for auction, in inviting the British government to outrun the Dissenters in the “race for the Catholic”. Both sides harboured suspicions of the other based on past conduct. Though the United Irishmen might urge adherents to think

little of our ancestors – much of our posterity,

30and pose the question

  • 25 Report from the Secret Committee of the House of Commons, p. 94 : for the United Irishmen and “his (...)

Are we for ever to walk like beasts of prey over fields which these ancestors stained with blood ?25,

  • 26 W. T. W. Tone, The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, i, p. 149-150.

31the reality was that the history of past differences – seventeenth-century confiscations and rebellions – could not be ignored, for their memory was still vibrant. When Tone was lobbying Protestant Dissenters in Belfast to support his plan for a union of Catholic and Dissenter to achieve parliamentary reform he was told in no uncertain terms by Dr William Bruce, a Presbyterian minister and a noted moderate in his politics, that he could not agree to the immediate emancipation of Catholics. If Catholics had political power, Bruce claimed, they would set up a Spanish-style inquisition, they would curtail liberty for all, and they would attempt to undo the seventeenth-century land settlement26. Again, while the United Irishmen might claim

our principal rule of conduct has been to attend to those things in which we agree, to exclude from our thoughts those in which we differ,

  • 27 Report from the Secret Committee of the House of Commons, p. 94.

32such a prescription inevitably meant that the discussion of “those things in which... we differ” was handed over to opponents determined to play the sectarian card in order to scotch any prospect of unified action27. Certainly, if the “liberal” Bruce could harbour and voice the “unenlightened” notions noticed above in supposedly radical Belfast, it would appear that the ground was well prepared for the reception of the sectarian message in less “elevated” circles, in less “advanced” areas.

III

  • 28 For all of this, see M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution : The United Irishmen and France, New Have (...)

33In the event, Dublin Castle saw no need – at least in the early 1790s – to employ the sectarian weapon in its campaign against the United Irishmen. The major concessions to the Catholics of 1792-1793 had, it was believed, successfully detached that body from any active support or involvement with the radicals. Moreover, the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in early 1793 gave Dublin Castle its opportunity to move against a radical group which was both pro-French and anti-war and which appeared to be isolated. Measures were soon taken to harass its members. A Convention Act was passed which, by outlawing assemblies purporting to have a representative character, closed off to the United Irishmen the tried and tested method of putting pressure on the government. Similarly the disbandment of the Volunteers and the setting up of a militia under the firm control of the government removed the danger that the United Irishmen might engage the older body in the reform campaign. That potent configuration of popular, parliamentary and paramilitary forces that had won the “Constitution of 1782” would not be permitted to recur. Moreover, in a further show of the Castle’s determination, leading United Irishmen were arrested on charges of seditious libel for criticising government policy ; a Secret Committee of the Irish House of Lords was set up in order to substantiate allegations that the United Irishmen were involved in treasonable activities with the French ; and in Belfast a military riot served to overawe the city. Finally, following revelations at the trial in mid-1794 of a French emissary, the Rev. William Jackson, the Society of United Irishmen was suppressed by government decree. It re-emerged a short time later ; but now it was a secret, oathbound conspiracy dedicated to seeking military support from revolutionary France in order to achieve an Irish republic28.

  • 29 For recent reassessments of the United Irishmen, see the essays in D. Dickson et al. (eds), op. ci (...)

34The later history of the United Irishmen lies beyond the scope of this paper29 : but already by 1795 the shape of the threat posed by them to the government, and the nature of the response – both official and unofficial – that would be made to that threat was clear. The very real danger of an insurrection in Ireland in association with a French invasion force would be met by new, draconian, laws, and new forces would be established or imported. Moreover, extensive use would be made of spies and informers and large sums made available to buy information. Ultimately, the armed forces of the crown would be permitted, if not encouraged, to act beyond the law. By 1798 the spiral of violence and counter-terror provoked by popular insurgency and official counter-insurgency had reached a point where Dublin Castle appeared to welcome an insurrection, reasoning that an open rebellion could be more easily crushed than a secret conspiracy. A noted feature of the disturbances, culminating in insurrection, that engulfed Ireland in the late 1790s, was their sectarian content : and it was this which finally set at nought the ideals of the United Irishmen.

  • 30 J. S. Donnelly and S. Clark (eds), Irish Peasants : Violence and Political Unrest, 1760-1914, Manc (...)
  • 31 J. S. Donnelly, “The Rightboy Movement”, Studia Hibernica, 17-18, 1977-1978, p. 120-202 ; M. Brie, (...)
  • 32 For a sensationalist view, see Th. Bartlett (ed.), “An Account of the Whiteboys from the 1790s [by (...)

35Agrarian disturbances had been endemic in Ireland from the 1760s to the 1780s with such groups as the Whiteboys, Hearts of Oak, Steel-boys, and the Righfboys causing concern and sometimes alarm to Dublin Castle30. These secret societies were motivated by economic grievances, had limited objectives, were confined geographically and were far from being sectarian in outlook. The Hearts of Oak and Steelboys were almost entirely Presbyterian ; the Whiteboys were Catholic, but Catholic and Protestant enclosers were equally objects of their displeasure ; and it was a similar story with the Rightboys. They too were Catholic but they appeared to enjoy some Protestant gentry support, and certainly their enemies were “promiscuously” Catholic and Protestant priests, parsons and landlords31. Admittedly, there were some commentators who viewed all agrarian disturbances in the southern part of the country as aspects of a general Catholic conspiracy stretching from Ireland to the Stuart court at St Germain, and thence across Europe to the Vatican : but in general, until the mid-1780s cooler counsel prevailed, and the disturbances were not regarded as subversive. From the mid-1780s on this perception changed32.

  • 33 D. Miller (ed.), Peep of Day Boys and Defenders, Belfast, 1990.
  • 34 J. Kelly, “The Genesis of Protestant Ascendancy : the Rightboy Disturbances of the 1780s”, in G. O (...)

36Explanations for this shift in Protestant attitude can be found in several areas. The Volunteers had proved a strong destabilising force in rural, particularly rural Ulster, society : and the dilution of their ranks with Catholics had by no means been welcomed. Many lower-class Protestants in Armagh found the spectacle of Catholics bearing arms both an alarming development in its own right, and an infringement of a highly prized Protestant prerogative. Skirmishes in the area, hitherto as much territorial as religious, soon became sectarianised as the Catholic Defenders confronted the Protestant Peep of Day Boys. The unique settlement pattern in Armagh, and the dominance of the local economy by linen manufacture played a vital role in this process of sectarianisation33. Elsewhere too in the mid-1780s the Rightboys’agitation in Munster against tithes was construed as a Catholic assault on the Church of Ireland, and therefore on the state itself : in a series of highly polemical writings, which developed the notion of a Protestant Ascendancy under siege, these points were made again and again34. It was, however, the rapid emergence of the Catholic question at the national level, and the increased assertiveness – or “insolence” – of Catholics at the local level which proved most disorienting and frightening to Protestants throughout the country.

  • 35 Th. Bartlett, Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, chapters 10 and 11 : on the Yeomanry, see now Ala (...)

37The apparent preference of the British government for Catholics, as shown by its pressure on their behalf in 1792-1793, and the actions of the Catholics themselves with their petitions, elections and assemblies, were literally shocking developments. Moreover, as sectarian feuding between Defenders and Peep of Day boys gained in intensity and spread beyond the borders of Armagh into adjacent areas in south Ulster and into north Leinster, the Protestant gentry in those areas were confronted with hard decisions. In the early 1780s some of them had aroused the contempt of their Protestant tenants by their attempts to protect the Catholics on their estates and enforce the law impartially ; but as sectarian feeling had mounted in the early 1790s and as the notion of a beleagured Ascendancy took hold, such evenhandedness was abandoned. By the mid-1790s, those Protestant gentry who wished to retain their influence over their turbulent tenantry in the south Ulster borderlands had no choice but to cast themselves as tribunes of their people for that was the only leadership role available to them. This involved not just turning a blind eye to Protestant depredations against Catholics, but assuming leadership roles in the recently established Orange Order (1795) and, especially, in the new – and largely Protestant – Yeomanry force (1796)35.

38Dublin Castle’s attitude to these developments was one of guarded approval. It realised – and some army commanders concurred – that the threat posed by the United Irishmen and their allies required the mobilisation of the loyalty of the country and, therefore, it was prepared to tolerate “excesses” in order to encompass that wider objective. General Thomas Knox put this point succinctly to Edward Cooke, undersecretary in Dublin Castle :

As to the Orangemen, we have rather a difficult card to play. They must not be entirely discountenanced ; on the contrary we must in a certain degree uphold them for with all their licentiousness, on them must we rely for the preservation of our lives and properties should critical times occur.

  • 36 General Thomas Knox to Edw. Cooke, 13 Aug. 1796, State Paper Office, Rebellion Papers 620/24/106 ; (...)

39Later, General Knox would claim that it made good military sense to deploy the Yeomanry in strategic and “sensitive” areas in order to increase sectarian animosity so as to frustrate the message of the United Irishmen36.

  • 37 J. S. Donnelly, “Propagating the Cause of the United Irishmen”, Studies, 69, Spring 1980, p. 5-23 (...)
  • 38 On this topic, see the seminal article by M. Elliott, “The Origins and Transformation of Early Iri (...)

40Ironically, just as Dublin Castle and certain military commanders were prepared to avail themselves, however reluctantly, of the sectarian weapon in their defence of the existing order, so too were the United Irishmen prepared to accept the necessity of heightening sectarian tension and awareness in order to produce that alienation and disaffection that they saw as vital to their cause. From an early date their songs and ballads seemed designed to arouse Catholic indignation by focussing on the time-honoured themes of “revenge, deliverance, the Sassenachs laid low” ; and they were not above distributing bogus but blood-curdling Orange oaths well calculated to instill fear and terror in Catholics37. Moreover, by 1796, the United Irish leadership had entered into an informal arrangement with the Catholic Defenders. The Defenders were not merely anti-Protestant but they also harboured millenarian aspirations, both of which ought to have deterred the non-denominational and “rational” United Irishmen. However, such objections were brushed aside for the United Irishmen were well aware that they lacked credibility with the French as long as they lacked a military force, and that therefore an alliance with the Defenders could supply them in theory with a ready-made army of rural insurgents. Furthermore, Defender infiltration of the Irish militia could prove vital in the event of a French invasion. And in any case, with the customary arrogance of middle-class intellectuals, the United Irishmen were confident that they could divest the volatile, sectarian and millenarian Defenders of their anti-Protestant attitudes and “melt them down” into their organisation. This proved to be a grievous miscalculation : so far from being absorbed into the United Irishmen, it may be that the Defenders were in fact the body which absorbed. If Irish republicanism emerged from the 1790s with a Catholic hue, a proportion of the explanation must rest with the decision to effect an accommodation between the United Irishmen and the Defenders38.

The brotherhood of affection is over : rancour and animosity to an incredible degree have succeeded.

  • 39 See note l, p. 35.

41So wrote Edward Hudson to his friend Lord Charlemont in July 179839. The decade that had opened with the prospect of an alliance between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter – a prospect made brighter by news of Protestants and Catholics co-operating in that other divided country, France – closed tumultously in sectarian civil war, armed rebellion and legislative union. But if the plans of the United Irishmen lay in ruins by the end of the century, the secular vision that had inspired them lived on into the nineteenth century and beyond.

Notes

1 Portland to Shelburne, 24 Apr. 1782, P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice], H[ome] O[ffice] 100/1/133 ; Shelburne to Portland, 18 May 1782, PRO, HO 100/1/202-6.

2 Thomas Bartlett, The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation : the Catholic Question, 1690-1830, Dublin, 1992, p. 82-102 ; for the connection between recruitment and relief, see Thomas Bartlett, “‘a Weapon of War yet untried’ : Irish Catholics and the armed forces of the crown, 1760-1820”, in T. Frazer and K. Jeffery (eds), Men, Women and War : Historical Studies, xviii, Dublin, 1993, p. 66-85.

3 Hist. Mss. Comm., Charlemont, i, p. 46.

4 Patrick Rogers, The Irish Volunteers and Catholic Emancipation, London, 1934. p. 66-67 ; Buckinghamshire to Weymouth, 29 May 1779 S[tate] P[apers] 63/468/15-16) ; Henry Grattan Jr., The Memoirs of... Henry Grattan (5 vols), London, 1839-1846, i, p. 343.

5 John Lawless (ed.), The Belfast Politics Enlarged, Belfast, 1816, p. 131.

6 For some discussion of this point, see Th. Bartlett, The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, p. 99-101.

7 Carlisle to Hillsborough, 29 Dec. 1781, SP 63/480/14.

8 The following three paragraphs are derived from Thomas Bartlett, “The Origins and Progress of the Catholic Question, 1690-1800”, in T. Power and K. Whelan (eds), Endurance and Emergence : Catholics in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, Dublin, 1990, p. 11-12. For the politics of the 1780s, see especially James Kelly, Prelude to Union, Anglo-Irish Politics in the 1780s, Cork, 1992.

9 “Letters of Orellana”, n° 5 [by Wm. Drennan] published in the Belfast Newsletter and collected in J. Lawless (ed.), Belfast Politics Enlarged, p. 187-188.

10 Drennan to Mrs McTier, late 1784, in D. A. Chart (ed.), The Drennan Letters, Belfast, 1931, p. 24.

11 For the origins of the United Irishmen, I draw, unless otherwise stated, on my The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, 1690-1830, Dublin, 1992, p. 124-127. See also the fresh insights in David Dickson, Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds), The United Irishmen : Republicanism, Radicalism and Rebellion, Dublin, 1993. A. TQ. Stewart has recently stressed the roots of the United Irishmen in freemasonry : A Deeper Silence : The Hidden Origins of the United Irishmen, London, 1993. Nancy Curtin, The United Irishmen : Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791-1798, Oxford, 1994, is especially strong on the early years and activities of the movement. James Smyth has stressed the radical origins of the United Irish movement of the 1790s in his The Men of No Property : Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the late Eighteenth Century, London, 1992.

12 On William Drennan, see A. T. Q. Stewart, “A Stable Unseen Power ; Dr William Drennan and the Origins of the United Irishmen”, in J. Bossy et al. (eds), Essays Presented to Michael Roberts, Belfast, 1976, p. 80-92 ; and see also Ian McBride, “The Son of an Honest Man : William Drennan and the Dissenting Tradition”, in D. Dickson et al. (eds), The United Irishmen : Republicanism, Radicalism and Rebellion, Dublin, 1992, p. 49-61.

13 W. T. W. Tone, The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 2 vols, Washington DC, 1826, i, p. 342-366, quotations at p. 351.

14 Westmorland to Grenville, 6 Oct. 1791, PRO, HO 100/31/318-9.

15 Halliday to Charlemont, 15 Dec. 1791, Hist. Mss. Comm., Charlemont, ii, p. 160.

16 W T. W. Tone (ed.), The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, i, p. 356-358. See David Miller, “Presbyterianism and Modernisation in Ulster”, in C. H. Philpin (ed.), Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland, Cambridge, 1987, p. 86-109 ; see also Pieter Tesch. “Presbyterian Radicalism”, in D. Dickson et al. (eds), op. cit., p. 33-48.

17 See Peter Brooke, Ulster Presbyterianism : The Historical Perspective 1610-1970, Dublin, 1987, passim.

18 Th. Bartlett, Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, chapter 6.

19 Grenville to Westmorland, 20 Oct. 1791 ; Grenville to Dundas, 29 Oct. 1791 (Hist. Mss. Comm., Dropmore, ii, p. 213-214, 221-222).

20 For the literary campaign, see J. S. Donnelly, “Propagating the Cause of the United Irishmen”, Studies, 69, Spring 1980, p. 5-23 ; see also Mary Helen Thuente, The Harp Re-Strung : The United Irishmen and the Rise of Irish Literary Nationalism, Syracuse, New York, 1994.

21 Extracts taken from the numerous appendices in the Report from the Secret Committee of the House of Commons, Dublin, 1798, p. 77, 93, 97-99.

22 Ibid., p. 101-102.

23 16 Aug. 1791, PRO, HO 100/34/3.

24 Th. Bartlett, Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, p. 167 ; M. Elliott, Theobald Wolfe Tone : Prophet of Irish Independence, New Haven, 1989, p. 205-207.

25 Report from the Secret Committee of the House of Commons, p. 94 : for the United Irishmen and “history”, see Kevin Whelan, “The United Irishmen, the Enlightenment and Popular Culture”, in D. Dickson et al. (eds), op. cit., p. 269-296.

26 W. T. W. Tone, The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, i, p. 149-150.

27 Report from the Secret Committee of the House of Commons, p. 94.

28 For all of this, see M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution : The United Irishmen and France, New Haven, 1982 ; N. Curtin, op. cit. ; J. Smyth, op. cit.

29 For recent reassessments of the United Irishmen, see the essays in D. Dickson et al. (eds), op. cit., Dublin, 1993 ; see also Kevin Whelan, The Tree of Liberty : Rebellion Catholicism and Irish Identity, Cork, 1996.

30 J. S. Donnelly and S. Clark (eds), Irish Peasants : Violence and Political Unrest, 1760-1914, Manchester, 1983.

31 J. S. Donnelly, “The Rightboy Movement”, Studia Hibernica, 17-18, 1977-1978, p. 120-202 ; M. Brie, “The Rightboy Protest in Cork”, Past and Present, 100, Aug. 1983, p. 100-123.

32 For a sensationalist view, see Th. Bartlett (ed.), “An Account of the Whiteboys from the 1790s [by Rev. John Hewetson]”, Tipperary Historical Journal, 1991, p. 141-148.

33 D. Miller (ed.), Peep of Day Boys and Defenders, Belfast, 1990.

34 J. Kelly, “The Genesis of Protestant Ascendancy : the Rightboy Disturbances of the 1780s”, in G. O’Brien (ed.), Parliament, Politics and People : Essays in Eighteenth-Century Irish History, Dublin, 1989, p. 93-127.

35 Th. Bartlett, Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation, chapters 10 and 11 : on the Yeomanry, see now Alan Blackstock, “The Social and Political Implications of the Raising of the Yeomanry in Ulster, 1796-1798”, in D. Dickson et al. (eds), op. cit., p. 234-243.

36 General Thomas Knox to Edw. Cooke, 13 Aug. 1796, State Paper Office, Rebellion Papers 620/24/106 ; General Thomas Knox to Abercorn, 21 Mar. 1797 PRO, N1T2541/1B3/610.

37 J. S. Donnelly, “Propagating the Cause of the United Irishmen”, Studies, 69, Spring 1980, p. 5-23 ; “Notice found on Popish Chapel at Nenagh”, 1 Nov. 1797, PRO, HO 100/66/65-6.

38 On this topic, see the seminal article by M. Elliott, “The Origins and Transformation of Early Irish Republicanism”, International Review of Social History, xxiii, 1978, p. 405-428 ; see also J. Smyth, op. cit. ; N. Curtin, op. cit. Professor Elliott has recently revisited the topic of Defenderism, in D. Dickson et al. (eds), op. cit., p. 222-232.

39 See note l, p. 35.

Auteur

University College Dublin

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