(The following is a late paean to the defeated Irish Rebellion of 1798)
Our freedom must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.
– Theobald Wolfe Tone
It is poignant that, as we on the left campaign against existing imperialism and tyranny, we remember historical struggles that, although perhaps dated in their goals today, were at the forefront of the revolution in their time—indeed it is only by knowing the history of these struggles and the forces they struggled against, that we can understand our current predicament, and the evolution of the forces of oppression to their current maximum.
May 24th represents the day, 215 years ago, that a group of democratic and populist revolutionaries known as the United Irishmen began a campaign that, while eventually defeated, would overwhelmingly win the hearts and minds of revolutionaries since.
To understand the 1798 uprising, one must understand the state under-which the Irish lived—as England’s first imperially exploited colony. Following the Nine-Years War, or Tyrone’s Rebellion, the English sought to pacify the most resistant and Gaelic of Irish provinces—Ulster. This process, beginning at the very birth of the 17th century, was known as the Plantation of Ulster and consisted of a resettlement by England of Scottish and English protestant farmers and administrators to dilute the culture, language, religion and even land ownership of the native Irish. This was doubly useful in ensuring Scotland, James VI’s previous subject, was rewarded with land and favor for their loyal support. Veterans of the pacification campaign were also awarded land.
By the late 17th century the Presbyterians had outlived their usefulness and were suppressed with sectarian laws that targeted all Catholics and colonists who were insufficiently Protestant. This tactic would be repeated more thoroughly by England and the rest of the Great Powers in every major colony on earth, as it had been developed and experimented with during the early rape of the Americas, from the Congo to the Raj, Algeria to Vietnam, North America to South. As Nicholas Canny notes in his 2008 book, Making Ireland British 1580-1650, by 1622, 19,000 settlers had been facilitated in the 20 years of the Plantation, almost none of which spoke Gaelic, besides a minority of the Scots population, who themselves were a minority of the entire British colonizing force.
Land was taken away from Irish farmers and lords and put into the hands of transplanted foreigners, while Church lands were incorporated into the newly invigorated Protestant church of Ireland. And so this state of dispossession continued, growing worse as British landowners usurped still smaller farmers and communities, until a large number of Irish were forced into the new settlement cities—distinct from previous cities by their large main street and diamond square, which can still be seen in the layout of Northern Irish cities today. And so these antagonisms boiled beneath the surface of early English imperialism, until the French Revolution, and to a lesser extent the previous American one, had shown aspiring young Irish patriots that the imperial strangle-hold on their destiny was not only mortal, but increasingly weakened by this string of revolutions that threatened to metastasize within its own borders.
The Irish, far from being a backward and ignorant provincial population, followed the events of the French revolution quite closely, and even threw a fair in Belfast on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, where 6,000 Irishmen listened to a congratulatory address to the French Nation.
This new revolutionary spirit was embodied by a young trainee lawyer named Theobald Wolfe Tone who, although protestant, was National Secretary of the Catholic Committee, and sought the emancipation of the Catholics of imperial protestant rule.
In his autobiography, Tone writes of the plight of the Catholics, who are,
[T]he Irish, properly so called, and who form almost the entire body of the peasantry of the country. The various confiscations, produced by the wars of five centuries, and the silent operation of the laws for 150 years, have stripped the Catholics of almost all property in land; the great bulk of them are in the lowest degree of misery and want; hewers of wood and drawers of water: bread they seldom taste, meat never, save once in the year; they live in wretched hovels, they labour incessantly, and their landlords, the Protestant aristocracy, have so calculated, that the utmost they can gain by this continual toil, will barely suffice to pay the rent, by which these petty despots assess their wretched habitations; their food, the whole year round is potatoes, their drink, sometimes milk, more frequently water; those of them who attempt to cultivate a spot of ground as farmers, are forced, in addition to a heavy rent, to pay tithe to the Priests of the Protestant religion, which they neither profess, nor believe; their own Priests fleece them.
This revolutionary anger crystallized among members of the United Irishmen as a plan to, not only rise against British rule in Ireland locally, but to enlist the help of the now-less-radical French Republic under the directory—the body established after the Thermidorian Reaction and the execution of Robespierre and the Committee of Public safety—to invade Britain, set up an Irish republic and take the fight against tyranny to the tyrant’s doorstep.
Informed of Irish plots to collude with the French as early as 1796, Lord Pelham, setting the order of the day, decreed that “Nothing but terror will keep them in order.” And so it was.
What followed was largely a disaster. After the first fleet sent in 1796 was deterred from tis landing by a sudden hurricane in Bantry Bay, British forces mopped up the routed fleet, crushing valuable French naval resources.
But all was not well in Britain—sailors who supported the French revolution and the Irish agitations struck, blocking the Thames, grinding trade to a halt and demanding wage increase which they had not received for 150 years. The sailors chanted;
Is this your proof of British rights?
Is this rewarding bravery?
Oh! Shame to boast your tar’s exploits
And doom these tars to slavery.
Prime Minister Pitt was found to have mused in the notes to one of his speeches that
…had the French been able to land in Ireland in the summer of 1797, they would have found its occupation an easy task, and the end of the British Empire would be at hand.
A second attempt at landing troops succeeded, and on August 22 General Jean Joseph Humbert set foot in Ireland’s north-west, beginning a campaign that would frighten the British so spectacularly that English troops had to resort to the piking and hanging of women and children in an attempt to frighten the rebels into pacification, lest their wives and children suffer likewise.
The campaign of terror did not work, but sheer force of arms did succeed against the United Irishmen and their French allies in 1798. Wolfe Tone himself was taken prisoner and died of his wounds from an attempted suicide, thereby avoiding the gallows. In just 4 months, from May 24th to September 24th, French troops had invaded, a bloody reign of terror unleashed on the people of Ireland in which upwards of 50,000 Irish volunteers and civilians were killed, the vast majority slaughtered in the repressions which followed the defeat of the United Irishmen which became so extensive that one hardened Dublin militia officer complained about the “smoke and flame of burning houses and the dead bodies of boys and men slain by Britons though no opposition whatever had been given.”
Indeed the carnage became to regular that matter-of-fact pronouncements of the worst tortures became common-place. According to James Connolly, the following announcement was published in the United Irishmen organ of Dublin, Press:
Near Castle Ward, a northern hamlet, a father and son had their heads roasted on their own fire to extort a confession of concealed arms. The cause was that the lock of a gun was found in an old box belonging to the wife of the elder man. It is a fact that the above old couple had two sons serving on board the British fleet, one under Lord Bridgport, the other under Lord St. Vincent
We today read these atrocities and, although perhaps disgusted, are all too cognizant of similar stories of imperialist massacre—Bodo, Vietnam, Timor, too many to count. We are reminded of, and possibly discouraged by, the defeat of righteous movements which sought to break imperialist strangleholds on entire nations, but are equally driven forward by those revolutions which succeeded— 4th July, 14th July, Paris 1871, 26 July, Red October—and carry their example forward as we strive for the liberation of all exploited people