The Revolution of 1798 and the Act of Union

The Revolution of 1798 and the Act of Union

The Revolution of 1798 is actually a slight misnomer. It's actually a 1796 insurrection that took a while to get underway.

The mid-1790s saw Northern Ireland organizing Orange Lodges as a tribute to William and his 1790 victory over the Catholics at the Boyne River. As a result, the poor who were expelled by the lodges ignited rumors the Protestants were trying to exterminate Catholics.

Naturally, fear ran through Catholic communities, and leaders decided something had to be done. Peasant armies assaulted wealthy landlords and fueled the revolutionary atmosphere.

Of course, insurrection in France didn't help things from England's perspective, either.

As a result, Irish Protestant Wolfe Tone sailed to France and appealed to the leaders' desire to humiliate England. Additionally, Tone claimed Irishmen were ready to join in the ideals of the French Revolution.

Unfortunately, when France finally agreed to dispatch troops in 1796, unfavorable winds prevented the ships from landing.

Tone, however, was not through. He pursued and eventually had 200,000 Irishmen drilling in France. At the same time, the Irish government did their part by attempting to disarm Ulster Protestants.

1797 again saw France sending troops, but instead of wind problems, this group sank in a harbor of the east coast of Ireland.

The next year actually saw a force land, but its implications were greater than its revolution. Conflict, which began in June and ended by August, was limited mostly to peasants burning houses and killing English, except in western Ireland.

Father John Murphy led a peasant army on a rampage that killed over a hundred government troops and cleaned out the armory. The impoverished squad marched around the countryside recruiting thousands and decided to actually attack the stronghold of Enniscorthy, the second largest city in Wexford.

Rebels drove frightened horses and cattle in front of their brigade (an ancient Celtic tactic) and stormed the garrison of 280 men. After three hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat, one hundred defenders perished. By 4 p.m., retreat sounded, and the remaining defenders ran off into Wexford.

Vinegar Hill as it stands today with the
windmill that served as a command post in 1798.
Buoyed by their success the rebels camped for the night on Vinegar Hill and made plans to take Wexford town the next day.

As word spread, Catholics flocked to the hill to join the outfit. Government troops, meanwhile, surged towards the hill to avenge the loss at Enniscorthy.

On June 21, 1798, Commander in Chief Gerard Lake arrived with 10,000 British troops and Orange Lodge yeoman to squash the insurgence. He ordered five columns to surround the hill, but General Francis Needham was late getting into position. Most of the insurgents escaped through the hole, but the leadership was captured and hanged.

Fighting ended for all intents and purposes ended not long after this rout, but it finished definitively when Tone was taken on November 3. Wearing the uniform of a French general, he went to jail. British agents, however, refused his request to be shot as a foreign officer, so Tone committed suicide on November 19, leaving the movement without a leader.

English politicians, naturally, were quite upset with Ireland's behavior and demanded action.

The Act of Union

Prime Minister William Pitt was convinced legislative union between Britain and Ireland was the answer. it would further Britain's imperial interests and pacify Ireland.

A series of bribes, promised offices, titles and pensions got the Catholic religious and societal leaders to support union. With all the guarantees of financial gain, the Irish Parliament voted on August 2, 1800 to dissolve itself. Also, 100 Irish members were added to the House of Commons and 32 joined the House of Lords.

Pitt did try to make this a positive act for Ireland. He guaranteed political emancipation for Catholics would be an early act in the new legislature. King George III, however, wouldn't let emancipation happen because he feared it would violate his coronation oath to uphold the Protestant succession.

Once again, the English duped the Irish and got their way.