Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Society of United Irishmen

The American colonies had rebelled against England and cast off her yoke in triumph, the people of France had risen against the nobility and robbed them of their power—it was a time when Irishmen thought they too must struggle for liberty. Grattan, a noble patriot, had gained the right of Free Trade for Ireland almost by force, lining the streets of Dublin with armed volunteers when the Irish House of Commons presented their demand to the Lord-Lieutenant. A still greater advantage for Ireland was gained by the repeal of Poyning's Law. The Irish Parliament might now pass laws without consulting the Parliament at Westminster.

Still there was discontent in Ireland. Catholics were not allowed to sit in Parliament and most of the country were of the Catholic religion. The Irish Parliament could not do much for the country it did not justly represent, until reforms were made in the election of members. Societies were formed to abolish the political distinction between Catholic and Protestant, and also to obtain a full representation in Parliament of the whole Irish nation. Many of the Ulster Protestants wanted a republic entirely separate from England—they were encouraged in this desire by the example of the French. Catholics in the south were resolved to use force to gain their rights, if force were necessary. It seemed to the advantage of these different parties to form one great society with two aims in common. The Society of United Irishmen was formed accordingly in 1791. At first it was not hostile to the government, but certain disturbances, after its foundation, led to an order that it should be suppressed. After 1794, each member was bound to secrecy and was a rebel, in some sort, against the law. The two leaders of the society were Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone.

Fitzgerald was a man of high rank, a Protestant and an officer of some ability. The Irish followed him, partly out of respect for his family and partly from personal affection, for he was a very kindly man and he was to have command of the military forces, which showed towards the end of 1796 that the United Irishmen were no longer in favour of peaceful measures.

Wolfe Tone was sent to France to ask for help in the struggle against English government. He spent some time in Paris, where he was struck by the gaiety and courage of the citizens, who had then got rid of king and nobles. He visited the theatre, he walked the streets, and everywhere saw soldiers as fond of amusement as of fighting. At a fete in a French church, he noticed young men, just of an age to serve in the army, led up to veterans to receive arms while they listened to the strains of a new national anthem—the Marseillaise. A statue of Liberty had been placed before the altar, ablaze with candles, and the national colours of red, white and blue hung on the walls. Tone remembered the Irish regiments he had seen whenever he came upon the French Grenadiers in their gay uniforms, or observed the bouquet of flowers that a sentinel would place on his hat or even on his gun. The visit to Paris was a success, for Hoche, a brilliant French general sailed with a fleet to Ireland. In this fleet was Tone, who served under the name of Adjutant-General Smith.

The expedition was unfortunate from the outset. It should have left the port of Brest on the 1st of September 1796, but was not able to sail till the 18th of December. One ship ran on a rock and sank, while others missed the way. Both Hoche and the admiral, Morard de Galles, were in the lost ships, and all the money for the war. A strong easterly gale not only threw the fleet into confusion, but hindered the French from landing when they sailed into Bantry Bay. The men would have landed, for they "were close enough to toss a biscuit on shore," but they were obliged to spend Christmas waiting for the storm to go down, and then had to return to Brest. The last ship to reach harbour was the one with the general and admiral on board. They had never reached the country they meant to invade.

If the French had landed, it is probable that their invasion would have been successful. The utmost terror had seized the Irish on the coast when they saw the fleet approach, and they could hardly have offered a valiant resistance to such experienced campaigners. England, indeed, might congratulate herself once more on the luck that so often protected her by gales and foul weather. The Republicans aimed at the destruction of the English navy when they came to the help of Tone. The death of Roche, in 1797, was, however, the end of real help from France to Ireland. Henceforth, the United Irishmen had to fight their own battles.

In March 1798, martial law was proclaimed in Ireland. English soldiers now had the right of claiming free quarters everywhere. Notice was given that the men of certain counties must give up all arms and ammunition within ten days. These orders were carried out so cruelly that the Irish sullenly prepared for rebellion. District after district was filled with soldiers, who lived on the best fare in any house that was suspected of disaffection. They searched everywhere for rebel weapons known as "pikes," burning down any building that contained them; they shot down all who resisted these searches, and carried off horses used for work on farmlands; they drove whole families from their homes without a single stick of furniture. Torture of every kind was used in the discovery of weapons. Blacksmiths were scourged almost to death for making pikes; men with hair cut short after the fashion of Republicans were called "Croppies" and ill-treated by the soldiers. A cap was invented made of linen or thick brown paper, and fitted to the head with burning pitch so that it could not be torn off without dragging out hair and wounding the skin horribly.

Even women did not escape the penalties of the suspected rebel. If they ventured to wear Republican green on their gowns, they were likely to have them cut from their backs when they met a company of soldiers.

In February of 1798 about half a million people had joined the Society of United Irishmen. They agreed to take up arms at a signal to be given on the 23rd of May, when the mail-coaches would be stopped by rebels in four different places at the same hour. Several arrests were made by government before this date, and a reward of 1000 was offered to anyone who gave such secret information as might lead to the capture of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the leading spirit of the conspiracy.

Fitzgerald lay in hiding about Dublin, visiting his wife and children whenever he could don a woman's clothes and elude the watch set over him. He was too daring in his movements, or one of the society was a traitor. The government soldiers discovered the house, where he lay in bed, and came to seize him. In the scuffle that took place Fitzgerald was wounded by a bullet, and fever set in while he lay a prisoner. He died miserably from the effects of the wound, and never took part in the rebellion.