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Posted on May 9, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Rebellion of the United Irishmen

By Nicky Nielsen

The story of Irish nationalism is one of terrible anguish, murder, fear and sectarianism. Ever since the Reformation took place in England and James I introduced Protestantism to Catholic Ireland with the Ulster Plantations of the 17th century, the hatred and mutual distrust between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland has influenced the Irish struggle for Independence. The continued enmity between the two denominations still influence current policies in Northern Ireland, although, following the Good Friday Agreement and the recent elections in the six counties of Ulster seem to suggest that there is light at the end of a nearly 500 year old tunnel.

But even though Irish rebels and nationalist has traditionally been thought to be Catholics, the Rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798 stands as an example of cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. The leaders of the rebellion, the Society of the United Irishmen led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and Napper Tandy, were Presbyterians and came from an upper middle class environment, contrary to the soldiers they led, soldiers that were predominately from the lowest classes, and also Catholic.


The Rebellion was long under way, but the French Revolution of 1789 could be argued to be the catalyst of the rebellion. When the French people rose to claim Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood, the young and charismatic lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone began contemplating how to transfer this new-fangled liberalism combined with nationalism to his own Emerald Isle. Tone knew that the Irish Catholics were heavily suppressed by both the Protestants and British parliament in Westminster. The Penal Laws of the early 18th century had outlawed marriages between Protestants and Catholics and also forbidden Catholics to attend churches and schools. Even though Tone was not a Catholic, he sympathized with his fellow Irishmen and in 1791 he joined ranks with Henry Shears, Napper Tandy and Samuel Neilson and founded the Society of the United Irishmen; a semi-secret society devoted to freeing Ireland from British oppression.

 Theobald Wolfe Tone

Unfortunately the Irishmen could not have chosen a worse time to challenge British rule in Ireland. Britain had engaged in war with Revolutionary France and the Irish parliament – a puppet government put in place by Westminster – were feverishly searching for spies and enemy saboteurs. When it came to light that Tone had, had meetings with French envoys concerning a French landing in Ireland which was to be backed by the United Irishmen, Tone was forced into exile on the continent. He stayed in Paris until 1796 where he was finally granted an audience with the Revolutionary Government. Tone made a good impression and the French granted him a fleet of 43 ships and 15,000 men. Along with the young and talented general Hoche, Tone would sail to the Southwest coast of Ireland, made landfall and push North with the aid of Irish rebels, securing Ireland and then awaiting reinforcements from France. The reinforcements would then muster in Antrim, cross to Scotland and commence the conquest of Britain.

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