Irish Rebellion of 1798

Irish Rebellion of 1798

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = Irish Rebellion of 1798
campaign =
colour_scheme = background:#bbcccc

caption = Depiction of the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
casus =
date = late May to late September, 1798
place = Ireland
result = British government victory; rebellion quashed
territory =
combatant1 = flagicon|Leinster United Irishmen
flagicon|France French First Republic
combatant2 = flagicon|UK|1606 Great Britain flagicon|Ireland|1783 Kingdom of Ireland
commander1 = flagicon|Leinster Wolfe Tone
flagicon|Leinster Henry Joy McCracken
flagicon|France General Humbert
flagicon|Leinster Napper Tandy
commander2 = flagicon|Ireland|1783 Viscount Castlereagh
flagicon|UK|1606 Lord Cornwallis
flagicon|UK|1606 General Lake
strength1 = Various to max c. 50,000 mid-June
1,100 French regulars during August-September
strength2 = c. 25,000 Yeomen
40,000 militia
30,000 British regulars
c.1,000 Hessian mercenaries
casualties1 = c. 15,000-30,000 United Irish and civilian deaths
casualties2 = max. 2,000 soldiers and 1,000 loyalist civilians

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 ( _ga. Éirí Amach 1798; _sc. Turn Oot 1798), or 1798 rebellion as it is known locally, was an uprising in 1798, lasting several months, against the British-dominated Kingdom of Ireland. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French Revolutions, were the main organising force behind the rebellion.


Since 1691 and the end of the Williamite war, Ireland had largely been controlled by an Protestant Ascendancy constituting members of the established Church loyal to the British Crown, which governed the majority Irish Catholic population by a form of institutionalised sectarianism codified in the Penal Laws. As the 18th century progressed, liberal elements among the ruling class were inspired by the example of the American Revolution and sought to form common cause with the Catholic populace to achieve reform and greater autonomy from Britain.

When France joined the American colonists in support of their War of Independence, London called for volunteers to join militias to defend Ireland against the threat of invasion from France. Many thousands joined the Irish Volunteers who in 1782 used their new powerful position to force the Crown to grant the landed Ascendancy self-rule and a more independent parliament ("Grattan's Parliament"). A faction within it the Irish Patriot Party, led by Henry Grattan, pushed for greater enfranchisement. In 1793 Catholics with some property were allowed to vote, but could neither be elected nor be appointed as state officials. Liberal elements of the Ascendancy seeking a greater franchise for the people, and an end to religious distinctions in law, were further inspired by the French Revolution. As in Great Britain, the vast majority of Protestants were barred from voting because they did not pass the property threshold.

Society of United Irishmen


"Equality -
It is new strung and shall be heard"
United Irish Symbol
Cláirseach (harp) without crown and cap of liberty]

The promise of reform inspired a small group of Protestant liberals in Belfast to found the Society of United Irishmen in 1791. The organisation crossed the religious divide with a membership comprising Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, other Protestant "dissenters" groups and even some from the Protestant Ascendancy. The Society openly put forward its policies of further democratic reforms and Catholic emancipation, reforms that the Irish Parliament had little intention of granting and the British government were just as unwilling to enforce, until pressured to do so in 1793. The outbreak of war with France earlier in 1793 following the execution of Louis XVI forced the Society underground and toward armed insurrection with French aid. The avowed intent of the United Irishmen was now to "break the connection with England"; the organisation spread throughout Ireland and had at least 100,000 members by 1797. It linked up with Catholic agrarian resistance groups, known as the Defenders, who had started raiding houses for arms in early 1793.

Despite their growing strength, the United Irish leadership decided to seek military help from the French revolutionary government, and to postpone the rising until French troops landed in Ireland. Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, travelled in exile from America to France to press the case for intervention.

Aborted invasion (1796)

ndash orndash the Destruction of the French Armada" (1797), James Gillray caricatured the failure of Hoche's expedition.]

These plans seemed to come to fruition when he accompanied a force of 15,000 French veteran troops under General Hoche which arrived off the coast of Ireland at Bantry Bay in December 1796 after eluding the Royal Navy. However unremitting storms, indecisiveness and poor seamanship all combined to prevent invasion, prompting the despairing Wolfe Tone to remark, "England has had its luckiest escape since the Armada." The French fleet was forced to return home. The veteran army that had been intended to spearhead the invasion of Ireland, was split up and sent to fight in other theatres of the French Revolutionary Wars.

Government crackdown (1797-98)

thumbnail|200px|left|Lord Edward Fitzgerald" (George Cruikshank).]

The shaken Establishment responded to widespread disorders by launching a counter-campaign of martial law from 2 March 1797 using tactics that could in modern terms be described as "state terrorism". This included house burnings, torture, pitchcapping and murder, particularly in Ulster as it was the one area of Ireland where large numbers of Catholics and Protestants (mainly Presbyterians) had effected common cause.

However, sectarianism was also recognised as a usefully divisive tool for the British establishment to employ against the many Protestant United Irishmen in Ulster, by the divide and conquer method of colonial dominion, and was officially encouraged by the Government. The aim was to counter the United Irishmen by encouraging the formation of the Orange Order from 1795 by playing on Protestants' fears of the secretive Catholic "Defenders". For example, Brigadier-General C.E. Knox wrote to General Lake (who was responsible for Ulster):"I hope to increase the animosity between Orangemen and United Irishmen. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North."

The Lord Chancellor of Ireland, John FitzGibbon wrote in a letter to the Privy Council in June 1798; "In the North nothing will keep the rebels quiet but the conviction that where treason has broken out the rebellion is merely popish". By this he meant that the Presbyterian republicans might not rise if they thought that any rebellion would develop into a Catholic-Protestant conflict.

Loyalists all over Ireland had already organised themselves in support of the Government, and many supplied recruits and vital local intelligence through the foundation of the Orange Order in 1795. The opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland to the United Irish had been secured by the establishment of Maynooth College in the same year and the church was, with a few individual exceptions, firmly on the side of the Crown throughout the entire period of the rebellion.

Intelligence from informants amongst the United Irish also swept up much of the United Irish leadership in raids in Dublin in March 1798. A preemptive rising in March 1798 in Cahir, County Tipperary broke out in response, but was quickly crushed. Martial law was consequently imposed over much of the country, the unrelenting brutality of which put the United Irish organisation under severe pressure to act before it was too late. By May 1798 Lord Edward FitzGerald and most other leaders of the Dublin rebellion were arrested and the rump United Irish leadership finally decided to launch the rising without French aid, fixing the date of the rising for 23 May.


The initial plan was to take Dublin, with the counties bordering Dublin to then rise to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, whereupon the remainder of the country would rise and tie down other garrisons. The agreed signal for the rest of the country to rise was to be the interception of the outward bound mail coaches from Dublin.

Last minute intelligence from informants however provided details of rebel assembly points at Smithfield and Haymarket, and those places were occupied by a huge force of military barely one hour before rebels were to assemble. Deterred by the preparedness of the military, dismayed groups of rebels slunk away from their intended rallying point, dumping weapons in the surrounding lanes. The plan to intercept the mail coaches miscarried with only the Munster bound coach halted near Naas on the first night.

Outbreak of the rebellion

The nucleus of the rebellion had imploded but the counties surrounding Dublin rose as planned and the long threatened rising finally began. Surrounding districts of Dublin were first to rise and rebels quickly began to assemble in County Wicklow, County Meath and County Kildare. The first clashes of the rebellion took place just after dawn on 24 May and the fighting quickly spread throughout Leinster with the county of Kildare bearing the brunt of the initial clashes.

Despite the Government successfully beating off almost every rebel attack, all military forces in Kildare were ordered to withdraw to Naas for fear of their isolation and destruction as at Prosperous which temporarily handed control of much of Kildare to the rebels. However, rebel defeats at Naas, Carlow and the hill of Tara, County Meath, effectively ended the rebellion in those counties. News of the rising spread panic and fear among loyalists in Wicklow who responded by massacring rebel suspects held in custody at Dunlavin Green and in Carnew.

The rebellion spreads

In Wicklow, large numbers rose but largely operated away from settled areas and engaged in a bloody rural guerrilla war with the military and loyalist forces. General Joseph Holt led up to 1,000 men in the Wicklow Hills forcing the British to commit substantial forces to the area until his capitulation in October.

In the north-east, mostly Presbyterian rebels led by Henry Joy McCracken [cite web |title=Henry Joy McCracken United Irishman 1767-1798 |author= |url= |publisher=Ulster History Circle |date= |accessdate=2008-05-30] rose in County Antrim on 6 June and briefly held most of the county but the rising there collapsed following defeat at Antrim town. In County Down, after initial success at Saintfield, rebels led by Henry Munro were defeated in the longest battle of the rebellion at Ballynahinch.

The rebels had most success in the south-eastern county of Wexford in what has become known as the Wexford rebellion, where they seized control of the county, but a series of bloody defeats at the Battle of New Ross, Battle of Arklow, and the Battle of Bunclody prevented the effective spread of the rebellion beyond the county borders. 20,000 troops eventually poured into Wexford inflicting defeat at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on 21 June. The dispersed rebels spread in two columns through the midlands, Kilkenny and finally towards Ulster. The last remnants of these forces fought on until their final defeat on 14 July at the battles of Knightstown Bog, Co. Meath and Ballyboughal, County Dublin.


thumbnail|200px|left|United Irishmen by Government troops".]

The intimate nature of the conflict meant that the rebellion at times took on the worst characteristics of a civil war, especially in Leinster. Sectarian resentment was fuelled by the remaining Penal Laws still in force and by the ruthless campaign of repression prior to the rising. Rumours of planned massacres by both sides were common in the days before the rising and led to a widespread climate of fear.


The immediate aftermath of almost every British victory in the rising was marked by the massacre of captured and wounded rebels with some on a large scale such as at Carlow, New Ross, Ballinamuck and Killala. The British were responsible for particularly gruesome massacres at Gibbet Rath, New Ross and Enniscorthy, burning rebels alive in the latter two [p. 146 "Fr. John Murphy of Boolavogue 1753-98" (Dublin, 1991) Nicholas Furlong ISBN 0 906602 18 1 ] . For those rebels who were taken alive in the aftermath of battle, being regarded as traitors to the Crown, they were not treated as prisoners of war but were executed, usually by hanging.

In addition, countless civilians were murdered by the rampaging military, who also practised gang rape, particularly in County Wexford [p. 28, "The Mighty Wave: The 1798 Rebellion in Wexford" (Four Courts Press 1996) Daire Keogh (Editor), Nicholas Furlong (Editor) ISBN 1-85182-254-2 ] . Many individual instances of murder were also unofficially carried out by aggressive local Yeomanry Units before, during and after the rebellion as their local knowledge led them to target suspected rebels and "pardoned" rebels were a particular target [p. 113 "Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union" (Cambridge University Press, 2000) Ed. Jim Smyth ISBN 0 521 66109 9 ] .


The rebels in turn were guilty of a couple of small-scale atrocities near Saintfield, Co. Down and at Rathangan, County Kildare, but the vast majority of rebel atrocities took place in County Wexford at the Vinegar Hill camp, Scullabogue, Wexford bridge and in the vicinity of Gorey. Despite the United Irishmen being an avowedly non-sectarian organisation, the rebel atrocities at times took on a sectarian nature especially where rebel discipline broke down, with Protestantism often being equated with loyalism.

French landing

On 22 August, nearly two months after the main uprisings had been defeated, about 1,000 French soldiers under General Humbert landed in the north-west of the country, at Kilcummin in County Mayo. Joined by up to 5,000 local rebels, they inflicted a humiliating defeat (known as the "Castlebar races" to commemorate the speed of the British retreat) on the British at the Battle of Castlebar and set up a short-lived "Republic of Connaught", before final defeat at the Battle of Ballinamuck, in County Longford, on 8 September 1798. While the French troops who surrendered were repatriated to the French First Republic in exchange for British prisoners of war, the captured Irish rebels were killed at the site of the battle. This episode of the 1798 Rebellion became a major event in the heritage and collective memory of the West of Ireland and was commonly known in Irish as _ga. "Bliain na bhFrancach" and in English as "The Year of the French". [Guy Beiner, "Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007)]

On 12 October 1798, a larger French force consisting of 3,000 men, and including Wolfe Tone himself, attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly. They were intercepted by a larger Royal Navy squadron, and finally surrendered after a three hour battle without ever landing in Ireland. After he was captured at Laird's Hotel in the Main Street of Letterkenny, Wolfe Tone was tried by court-martial in Dublin and found guilty. He asked for death by firing squad, but when this was refused, Tone cheated the hangman by slitting his own throat in prison on 12 November, and died a week later.


Small fragments of the rebel armies of the summer of 1798 survived for a number of years and waged a form of guerilla or "fugitive" warfare. In County Wicklow, Michael Dwyer led resistance following the surrender of "General" Joseph Holt in autumn 1798 until the failure of Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803 final demise of the United Irishmen finally forced the last organised rebel forces under Dwyer to a negotiated surrender. Small pockets of rebel resistance had also survived in Wexford and the last rebel group under James Corocoran was not vanquished until February 1804.

The Act of Union, having been passed in August 1800, came into effect on 1 January 1801 and took away the measure of autonomy granted to Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy. It was passed largely in response to the rebellion and was underpinned by the perception that the rebellion was provoked by the brutish misrule of the Ascendancy as much as the efforts of the United Irishmen.

Religious, if not economic, discrimination against the Catholic majority was gradually abolished after the Act of Union but not before widespread radical mobilisation of the Catholic population under Daniel O'Connell. Discontent at grievances and resentment persisted but resistance to British rule now largely manifested itself along sectarian lines as in the Tithe War of 1831-36. Presbyterian radicalism was effectively tamed or reconciled to British rule by inclusion in a new Protestant Ascendancy, as opposed to a merely Anglican one. The resulting effect was that Irish politics in the 19th century was steered away from the unifying vision of the United Irishmen, encouraged by Unionists, Dublin Castle, and exploited by politicians such as Daniel O’Connell, towards a sectarian model which has largely endured to the present day.


The 1798 rebellion was probably the most concentrated outbreak of violence in Irish history and resulted in an estimated 15,000-30,000 deaths over the course of three months. Research into casualty figures suggests that a maximum of 2,000 troops and 1,000 civilians died at the hands of the rebels and that the remainder were killed by Government troops and loyalist militias.Fact|date=May 2008 Atrocities were committed on both sides, the great majority being committed by the government forces but rebel killings of Protestants in Wexford were given much greater emphasis by the victors in the following years, as the loyalist version of events reduced the rebellion to a sectarian Catholic plot to massacre Protestants; a repeat of the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The aftermath of the rebellion caused a reluctance to speak of it; both to forget horrific experiences of the fighting and fear of the ensuing repression. As a result almost all initial histories of the rebellion were published by loyalists and their versions distorted the role of the Catholic Church in the rebellion.Fact|date=May 2008 Ironically this distortion was later adopted by the Catholic Church in Ireland as it proved useful in claiming a leadership position in resurgent Irish nationalism from the mid 19th century. Thus the role of few Catholic priests, such as Fr. John Murphy, who took part in the rising, was overemphasised and the secular Enlightenment ideology of the mostly Protestant United Irish leadership deliberately obscured as was the fact that the Catholic Church at the time had actively sided with the British. By centenary of the Rebellion in 1898, conservative Irish nationalists and the Catholic Church would claim that the United Irishmen had been fighting for "Faith and Fatherland", and this version of events is still, to some extent, the lasting popular memory of the rebellion.

At the bi-centenary in 1998, the non-sectarian and democratic nature of the Rebellion was emphasised in official commemorations, reflecting the desire for reconciliation at the time of the Good Friday Agreement which was hoped would end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.



*Thomas Bartlett, Kevin Dawson, Daire Keogh, "Rebellion", Dublin 1998
*W. Tone, The Life of T. W. Tone (Gales & Seaton, Washington 1826).
*James Smyth, "The Men of No Property - Radical Politics in Ireland in the 1790s", 1992.
*Miles Byrne (1780-1862)- "Memoirs".
*T. Packenham, The Year of Liberty (London 1969) reprinted in 1998.
*Kevin Whelan, "The Tree of Liberty" (Field Day series, Cork UP 1996).
*J.B Gordon "History of the Rebellion in Ireland in the year 1798" (1801)
*Edward Hay "History of the Insurrection of County Wexford" (1803)
*H.F.B Wheeler & A.M Broadley "The war in Wexford: an account of the rebellion in the south of Ireland in 1798, told from original documents" (1910)
*Richard Musgrave "Memoirs of the different rebellions in Ireland" (1801)
*C. Dickson "The Wexford Rising in 1798: its causes and course" (1955)
*G.A Hayes-Mc Coy "Irish Battles" (1969)
*CD by Martello Multimedia (National Library of Ireland, Dublin 1998).
*R. Madden, The United Irishmen (4 vols. to 1862).

See also

*Ireland 1691-1801
*Battles during the 1798 rebellion
*Atlantic Revolutions
*United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland
*Castle Hill convict rebellion in Sydney, Australia

External links

* [ National 1798 Centre] - Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford
* [ The 1798 Irish Rebellion] - BBC History
* [ The 1798 Rebellion in County Clare] - Clare library
* [ The 1798 Rebellion] - Irish anarchist analysis
* [ General Joseph Holt of the 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow]
* [ Fugitive Warfare - 1798 in North Kildare]

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