Friday, 14 March 2014

The Castle Hill Rising: the Irish context

From the early 1790s through to the last group of convicts transported to Western Australia in 1868, Australia was frequently the destination for Ireland’s political prisoners. The Defenders and United Irishmen were transported to NSW in the 1790s and early 1800s[1], the rural rebels and defeated members of Young Ireland to VDL between the 1820s and early 1850s and Fenians to Western Australia. These convicts brought the conflicts from Ireland with them and especially their struggle against ‘Imperial’ Britain.[2] As a result, they were among the most fractious and, from the perspective of the colonial authorities, the most dangerous and disruptive group in the emerging colonies. Between 1800 and 1807, there were at least three planned rebellions that were thwarted before they could break out and the Castle Hill Rising of 1804 when a convict rebellion was put down with considerable ferocity.
Since the sixteenth century, the fundamental division in Ireland has been and remains religious.[3] To be a full member of Irish civil society, individuals had to be members of the Anglican Church of Ireland. Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters were barred from certain professions such as law, the judiciary and the army and had restrictions on inheriting land. Catholics could not bear arms or exercise their religion publicly. With papal recognition of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1766, the threat to the Protestant Ascendancy eased and many Penal Laws were relaxed or lightly enforced. In addition, some Catholic gentry families got around the Penal Laws by making nominal conversions to Protestantism or by getting one family member to ‘convert’ in order to hold land for the rest of his family or to take a large mortgage on it. From 1766, Catholics favoured reform and their views were represented by the ‘Catholic Committees’, a moderate organisation of Catholic gentry and clergy in each county that called for the repeal of the Penal Laws and emphasised their loyalty. Reforms on land ownership occurred in 1771 and in 1778-1779. Calls for change were also evident among the Irish Protestant elite that had come to see Ireland as their native country. Politically active Irishmen were far from disinterested when arguing their political stance on issues such as Irish independence or parliamentary reform. [4]
This was clear by 1776, when a trade-off between sympathy for the American cause and loyalty to the English neighbour had to be sought.[5] Due to continuing concerns about the way Ireland was treated commercially as well as politically, the debate intensified. A Parliamentary faction led by Henry Grattan agitated for a more favourable trading relationship with England, in particular abolition of the Navigation Acts that enforced tariffs on Irish goods in English markets, but allowed no tariffs for English goods in Ireland.[6] From the 1720s, Irish parliamentarians also campaigned for legislative independence for the Dublin parliament, especially the repeal of Poynings Law that allowed the Westminster Parliament to legislate for Ireland. Many of their demands were met in 1782, when Free Trade was granted between Ireland and England and Poynings Law was amended devolving legislative powers to Dublin. Partly as a result of the trade laws being liberalised, Ireland went through an economic boom in the 1780s. Canals extended from Dublin westwards and the Four Courts and Post Office were established. Dublin’s granite-lined quays were built and it boasted that it was the ‘second city of the empire’. Corn Laws were introduced in 1784 to give a bounty on flour shipped to Dublin promoting the spread of mills and tillage.
Instrumental in achieving reform was the Irish Volunteers movement, founded in Belfast in 1778.[7] This militia, up to 100,000 strong, was formed to defend Ireland from foreign invasion during the American Revolutionary War, but was outside of government control and staged armed demonstrations in favour of Grattan’s reforming agenda. Under the influence of the Volunteers, whose membership included many with different political agendas, many ideological subtleties and difficulties of practical politics were brought to the attention of Irish Patriots, especially the predicament of an elitist and elite-led political movement attracting people from very diverse backgrounds due to a commitment to egalitarian policies, as well as the issue of Catholic emancipation. For the first time, the Protestant-ascendant prejudice that Catholics were unfit for political participation, was criticised, and became especially dangerous to articulate because of increasing Catholic membership in some Volunteer clubs. These differences were aggravated when the Tithe Dispute of 1785-1788, conflict surrounding the tax that everyone including Catholics, many of whom expressed their opposition to it, had to pay to the Church of Ireland raised the Catholic cause again. This sparked a row between those who would accept the treatment of Catholics as a somewhat inferior class of citizens denying that they had the same reasons to demand civil liberties and non-interference by the state as Protestants and those who refused to subscribe to this notion.
The French Revolution had a dual impact on Irish Patriotism.[8] First, it helped less radical Patriots to overcome their assumptions respecting the political maturity of Catholics that many Republicans and radical Patriots had already abandoned by that time. Since in France contemporary Catholics had proven their ability to overthrow a system synonymous with injustice for most Patriots, Catholics were no longer regarded as politically incapable. After 1789, some Volunteer units showed their sympathy with the French Revolution by holding parades on 14 July to commemorate the fall of the Bastille. In 1792, Grattan succeeded in carrying an Act conferring the franchise on the Roman Catholics; in 1794, he introduced a reform bill that was even less democratic than Flood’s bill of 1783. He was as anxious as Flood had been to retain the legislative power in the hands of men of property, for he had a strong conviction that while Ireland could best be governed by Irish hands, democracy in Ireland would inevitably turn to plunder and anarchy. The defeat of Grattan’s mild proposals helped to promote more extreme opinions. However, as soon as the Jacobin regime assumed power in France, radical Patriots became more reluctant to refer to France as a prime example of Catholic political action for the causes of liberty and justice. Nevertheless, one of the main inconsistencies on the Patriot political agenda by calling for increasing powers of the Irish parliament while maintaining the selective as opposed to universal suffrage seemed to have been dissolved.
However, the French Revolution also had a second, contrasting, effect. Conservative loyalists such as John Foster, John Fitzgibbon and John Beresford, however, remained opposed to further concessions to Catholics and, led by the ‘Junta’, argued that the ‘Protestant Interest’ could only be secured by maintaining the connection with Britain. In reactionary circles, it was used to emphasise the point that an open political debate without censorship as well as parliamentary reform could entail a severe blow to their special interests, and could be tantamount to inviting Radicals to overturn the political structure of the country, rather than just appeasing them. In particular, the French Revolution prompted relentless action against the radical wing of the Patriot movement, the United Irishmen that included many former Whigs. It also prevented more moderate Patriots from supporting some radical Patriot activities without reservation, depriving the Patriot movement of solidarity and unity.
The United Irishmen movement, formed in 1791, was based on an alliance between the Dissenter and Catholic bourgeoisie including Northern manufacturers, merchants and professionals; Belfast and Dublin artisans; and Catholic peasants (the Defenders), against an entrenched Protestant Ascendancy that had many features of the French pre-revolutionary ‘ancien regime’. An anonymous eleven-page pamphlet, The Union Doctrine; or Poor Man’s Catechism, voiced the aspirations of many ordinary workers and peasants in the 1790s
I believe in a revolution founded on the rights of man, in the natural and imprescriptable rights of all citizens to all the land...As the land and its produce was intended for the use of man ‘tis unfair for 50 or 100 men to possess what is for the subsistence of near five millions...the almighty intended all mankind to lord the soil.[9]
Initially the United Irishmen campaigned for the end to religious discrimination and the widening of the right to vote. However, the group soon radicalised its aims and sought to overthrow British rule and found a non-sectarian republic.[10] The United Irishmen spread quickly throughout the country. Republicanism was particularly attractive to the largely literate Ulster Presbyterian community, being literate, who were also discriminated against for their religion, and who had strong links with Scots-Irish American emigrants who had fought against Britain in the American Revolution. Many Catholics, particularly the emergent Catholic middle-class, were also attracted to the movement and it claimed over 200,000 members by 1798. Both the United Irishmen and the Volunteers were suppressed after Revolutionary France in 1793 declared war on Britain and they developed from a political movement into a military organisation preparing for armed rebellion. However, these measures did nothing to calm the situation in Ireland and these reforms were bitterly opposed by the ‘ultra-loyalist’ Protestants such as John Foster. Violence and disorder became widespread and in 1795, hardening loyalist attitudes led to the foundation of the Orange Order, a hard-line Protestant grouping.
The United Irishmen now dedicated to armed revolution, forged links with the Defenders, a militant Catholic society.[11] Wolfe Tone, the United Irish leader, went to France to seek French military support and a French expeditionary force of 15,000 troops arrived off Bantry Bay in December 1796, but failed to land due to a combination of indecisiveness, poor seamanship, and storms off the Bantry coast.[12] The government began a campaign of repression targeted against the United Irishmen, including executions, routine use of torture, transportation to penal colonies and house burnings. As the repression began to bite, the United Irishmen decided to go ahead with an insurrection without French help. Their activity culminated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.[13] The uprising in Dublin failed but the rebellion then spread in an apparently random fashion firstly around Dublin, then briefly in Kildare[14], Meath, Carlow and Wicklow.[15] County Wexford[16] in the southeast saw the most sustained fighting, to be briefly joined by rebels who took to the field in Antrim and Down in the north.[17] A small French force landed in Killala Bay in Mayo leading to a last outbreak of rebellion in counties Mayo, Leitrim and Longford. The rebellion lasted just three months before it was suppressed, but claimed an estimated 30,000 lives. The Republican ideal of a non-sectarian society was greatly damaged by sectarian atrocities committed by both sides with government troops and militia targeting Catholics in general and the rebels on several occasions killing Protestant loyalist civilians.[18]
The post-rebellion repression meant few spoke or wrote of the events from rebel perspectives, and as a result almost all initial accounts of the rebellion were written from the loyalist perspective describing it as little more then the actions of sectarian mobs intent on massacring all Protestants. Even reformers sought to hide from the programme of 1798 to unite Irishmen regardless of Creed. After 1798 they turned to the confessional politics of mobilising Catholics alone. Daniel O’Connell, the main architect of this policy went so far in 1841 as to denounce the United Irishmen as ‘wicked and villainously designing wretches who fomented the rebellion’.[19] The first response to the loyalist history in Ireland was an alternative but parallel history produced to suit a Catholic and nationalist agenda. In many loyalist histories, the role of Catholicism in the rebellion was greatly exaggerated[20] but ironically this distortion later suited the aims of the Catholic Church in Ireland, allowing it to claim a leadership role in Irish nationalism during the nineteenth century. The nationalist and largely Catholic history of the rising was determined by the needs of the Catholic Church when faced with the nationalist revival and the socialist influenced Fenian movement one hundred years later. This is a history that had several aims; to hide the role of the church hierarchy in condemning the rising and instead claim that the church led the rising; to blame the failure of the rising on underground revolutionary organisation as an attack on the Fenians; and to minimise the involvement of Northern Presbyterians and democratic ideas. The reality that it actively sided with the British during the rising was ignored and the role of the few Catholic priests who took part in the rising, such as Fr. John Murphy, was overemphasised. The secular Enlightenment ideology of the mostly Protestant United Irish leadership was deliberately obscured.[21] By the centenary of the Rebellion in 1898, conservative Irish nationalists and the Catholic Church would both 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.[22]

[1] Whitaker, Anne-Maree, ‘Swords to ploughshares? The 1798 Irish rebels in New South Wales’, Labour History, Vol. 75, (1998), pp. 9-32.
[2] See especially the discussion above, pp. 227-253.
[3] Elliott, Marianne, When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Irish History, (Oxford University Press), 2009.
[4] Small, Stephen, Political Thought in Ireland 1776-1798: Republicanism, Patriotism and Radicalism, (Oxford University Press), 2002, provides a detailed analysis of the development of Irish Patriotism into radical republicanism.
[5] See, Morley, Vincent, Irish opinion and the American Revolution, 1760-1783, (Cambridge University Press), 2002.
[6] On Grattan see, Madden, D.O., (ed.), The speeches of the Right Hon. Henry Grattan: to which is added his letter on the union, with a commentary on his career and character, 2 Vols. (J. Duffy), 1822, Grattan, Henry, Memoirs of the life and times of the Rt. Hon. Henry Grattan by his son, 2 Vols. (H. Colburn), 1839, 1846. See also, Mansergh D., Grattan’s failure Parliamentary Opposition and the People in Ireland, (Irish Academic Press), 2005.
[7] Rogers, Patrick, The Irish Volunteers and Catholic emancipation (1778-1793); a neglected phase of Ireland’s history, (Burns, Oates & Washbourne), 1934, a slightly romanticised account. Higgins, Padhraig, A Nation of Politicians: Gender, Patriotism, and Political Culture in Late Eighteenth-century Ireland, (Four Courts Press), 2010 should now be regarded as the definitive work.
[8] Smyth, Jim, (ed.), Revolution, counter-revolution, and union: Ireland in the 1790s, (Cambridge University Press), 2000, especially pp. 1-38.
[9] Cit, ibid, Smyth, Jim, The Men of No Property: Irish radicals and popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century, p. 168.
[10] Ibid, Elliott, Marianne, Partners in Revolution: the United Irishmen and France, ibid, Dickson, David Keogh, Dáire and Whelan, Kevin, (eds.), The United Irishmen: republicanism, radicalism, and rebellion and Curtin, Nancy, The United Irishmen: popular politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791-1798, (Oxford University Press), 1998
[11] From its origins in Armagh in 1784 as the Catholic faction in a local sectarian feud, the Defender movement had gradually spread along lines of religious cleavage or cultural frontiers into County Down, Louth and south Ulster. Stimulated by the news and controversy about the French revolution and encouraged by the Catholic agitation, the Defenders were transformed into a politicised secret society. This process was then reinforced and the Defender organisation expanded from Meath across the north midlands into Connaught, by the continuing economic, political, and law-and-order crisis. By 1795, Defenderism had a presence in at least 16 counties and in Dublin. They had successfully infiltrated the militia and knit far-flung lodges into a co-ordinated, if not well-disciplined, organisation. Defenderism had evolved a chameleon ideology infinitely adaptable to varying local conditions: on some occasions sectarian, then agrarian, always francophile and anti-ascendancy. With the emergence of a recognisable regional command structure in Ulster and a Catholic leadership aligned to the radical northern wing of the United Irishmen, the stage had been set for the making of a revolutionary coalition.
[12] Elliott, Marianne, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence, (Yale University Press), 1991.
[13] Ibid, Pakenham, T., The Year of Liberty: the great Irish rebellion of 1798 remains an excellent narrative. See also, Bartlett, Thomas, (ed.), 1798: a bicentenary perspective, (Four Courts), 2003.
[14] Chambers, Liam, Rebellion in Kildare 1790-1803, (Four Courts), 1998.
[15] O’Donnell, Ruán, The rebellion in Wicklow, 1798, (Irish Academic Press), 2003.
[16] Hay, Edward, History of the Insurrection of County Wexford, (J. Stockdale), 1803, Wheeler, H.F.B. & Broadley, A.M., The war in Wexford: an account of the rebellion in the south of Ireland in 1798, told from original documents, (J. Lane), 1910, Dickson, Charles, The Wexford Rising in 1798: its causes and course, (The Kerryman), 1955 and Keogh, Dáire and Furlong, Nicholas, (eds.), The Mighty Wave: the 1798 rebellion in Wexford, (Four Courts), 1996.
[17] Stewart, A.T.Q., The Summer Soldiers: the 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down, (Blackstaff Press), 1995.
[18] The leadership of the rebellion both United Irishmen and the Catholic priests tried to defuse the sectarian tension and prevent massacres. None of this is to deny that there were sectarian tensions and indeed sectarian elements to the massacres, perhaps most openly after the rebel army had abandoned Wexford.
[19] Freeman’s Journal, 22 May 1841.
[20] See, for example, Musgrave, Richard, Memoirs of the different rebellions in Ireland, 2 Vols. Vol. 2, (R. Marchbank), 1801 who spent over half of this volume on the Wexford rising but paid far less attention to the rising in Ulster.
[21] Kavanagh, Fr. Patrick F., A Popular History of the Insurrection of 1798: derived from every available written record and reliable tradition, (M.H. Gill & Son), 1880.
[22] See Geary, Lawrence M., Rebellion and remembrance in modern Ireland, (Four Courts), 2001.

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