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

The Rebellion of the United Irishmen

By Nicky Nielsen

Unfortunately for Tone the entire venture was followed by bad luck. Storms prevened the fleet from leaving Brest and when they finally arrived in Bantry Bay in Southwest Ireland, the ships could not land because of the harsh winter storms. Tone was forced to watch his homeland sink into the distance as the fleet returned to France. Tone remarked in his diary that he now knew how Xerxes felt when the Persian King ordered the ocean to be whipped – Tone had half-a-mind to do the same.

But Tone was an eternal optimist and continued to work feverishly to rally support in Ireland. In 1798 the storm was about to break and the English government saw this; they sent General Gerard Lake to Northern Ireland where he managed to disarm Ulster and arrest a large number of rebels. Lake was determined to kindle the hatred between Orangemen and Catholics so that the two factions would not ally against the Crown. But his work was in vain.


In the spring of 1798 there were minor clashes and insurgencies all over the island. In Monaghan large bands of rebels were parading through the towns waving green banners and firing their weapons into the air. All over Ireland, rebels met in secrecy and prepared for the fight. They were all waiting for the order to attack. The United Irishmen in Dublin had received word from Tone and were now ready to start the war for Irish independence. On the morning of the 24th of May the mail coaches outbound from Dublin were stopped and held up. This was the agreed signal and riots broke out in the counties surrounding Dublin.

The town of Dublin itself was also supposed to erupt in riots but the English garrison was too strong and the brief riots were harshly put down. The English army then turned their attention to the surrounding counties and the rebels were massacred. It would have ended there, but the rebels in the North did not want to surrender so quickly. Led by Henry Joy McCracken, the launched an attack on Antrim Town. The town was captured but could not be held. Heavy bombardments forced the rebels to flee and many were rounded up and killed. Henry Joy was captured and taken to Belfast where he was tried for high treason and hanged.

The young radical liberal rebel Roddy McCorley led the riots in Duneane, Co. Antrim. The rebellion failed utterly and McCorley was forced into hiding. He remained hidden for a full year before he was betrayed and court-martialed at Ballymena. He was hanged from Toomesbridge and his body was dissected and buried under the Belfast-Derry road in 1799.

The rebellions in Northern Ireland failed. The British army used extreme force to punish the rebels, using tactics such as massacring wounded rebels, burning captured civilians and suspected rebels alive and engaging in mass-rape of women suspected of being married or related to known rebels. This government-authorized terrorism might have seemed like a sensible idea at the beginning of the riots, but as the British Army, and the unionist population would later learn, they would pay very dearly for the war crimes only a short time after the end of the Ulster riots.

As the last rebels were rounded up in Ulster a far greater force was being assembled in the South, in County Wexford. The charismatic priest Father John Murphy had reluctantly accepted the post as captain of around 20,000 rebels. This huge force was armed primarily with pikes, swords and hunting rifles. They faced a well-equipped (however smaller) British force armed with muskets and cannons, horses and sabres. The Irish won a number of minor victories using skirmish tactics before launching a large scale attack on Wexford Town and Enniscorthy, both of which they captured after hard fighting. The British government panicked at the prospect of losing Southern Ireland which would provide an ideal landing ground for a French invasion. As Arklow fell to the rebels and the garrison was eradicated, General Lake was sent south with 20,000 men at his command.

The cruelty exercised by the British forces in Ulster was now repaid. Protestant homes were razed and burnt to the ground. Civilians suspected of unionist tendencies were shot down and British soldiers were treated with equal harsh judgment. Thousands perished at the hands of the rebels in payment of those thousands that had perished in Ulster.

When the rebels had captured Wexford Town they retreated and camped on Vinegar Hill overlooking the River Slaney. Father Murphy did not realize how vulnerable his position was and on the 21st of June, General Lake successfully surrounded the Irish position. In the early morning light the British soldiers charged from five sides, shouting “Long Live King George” and “Down with the Rebels”. They routed the rebels using cavalry and grenades.

Father Murphy and a small band of rebels escaped the battle, but to no avail; Father Murphy was captured at Tullow, he was hanged, beheaded and his body burnt in a barrel of tar by a number of Yeomans.

As the last of the Wexford rebels were rounded up and killed, the rebellion in the South ended. Theobald Wolfe Tone, the initiator of the rebellion, however, was not ready to give up. In the fall of 1798 he landed in Ireland with 1,500 French troops. The French won a small victory at Castlebar but were quickly defeated. The French ship-of-war Tone was positioned on was captured by British sailors and Tone was recognized despite his French uniform.

He was taken to Dublin where he stood trial, provocatively dressed in his French uniform, and was quickly convicted to death by hanging. Tone appealed to the judges, asking them to let him die a soldier’s death, e.g. by firing squad. The judges contemplated Tone’s request but finally denied it on the eve of Tone’s execution. When Tone heard this he took out a penknife he had managed to smuggle into his cell. He attempted to slit his own throat, but only managed to damage his windpipe and he was still alive the next morning when the warden entered his cell. It took Tone eight days before he finally died as a result of severe blood loss. With the death of Tone, the Rebellion of the United Irishmen was ended.

The sad conclusion must be that the Irish rebels died in vain. The rebellion resulted in new and severe measures of control put in place by the British parliament in Westminster. Ireland would remain unfree until Michael Collins and the Irish Republican Army won the Irish War of Independence and declared 26 of the 32 counties a free state in 1921.

The lesson that the United Irishmen taught us is that sectarianism and internal squabbling can not help a country or cause. But today sectarianism is still widely spread in the 6 counties of Northern Ireland which remains under Crown control. Even with the Good Friday Agreement (1996), the Saint Andrew Agreement (2006) and the election in Northern Ireland (2007) peace is still some way off. There is an old Irish poem concerning the 1798 rebellion called “The Rising of the Moon”, the last verse goes such:

Oh they fought for poor old Ireland and full bitter was their fate
What glory, pride and sorrow fills the name of ninety-eight
Yet thank God e’en throbbing hearts in manhoods burning noon
That would follow in their footsteps at the rising of the moon!

And let us hope that the Catholics and the Protestants of Northern Ireland will indeed follow in their ancestors’ footsteps and cooperate, as they did, to insure that justice and equality will reign over all people on the Emerald Isle.  The recent elections in Northern Ireland and the shared-power agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin suggests that such cooperation is – at long last – under way.  Indeed, as of today, the Ninth of May 2007, the devolved government of Northern Ireland is once again open for business.

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