Was the 1798 rebellion doomed to failure?

By Rowan O’Donnell

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

The phrase ‘doomed to failure’ is loaded with suppositions and suggest that there is no doubt that the rebellion failed. Victory and defeat for the oppressor cannot mean the same thing as victory and defeat for the oppressed.  To assert that an attack was doomed to failure would be to deny the role of human freedom, the principle for which millions have fought and died. The 1798 rebellion was not doomed to failure. On the contrary, defeat stemmed from a number of circumstances both outside of, and within, human control.

There are many contextual circumstances surrounding the rebellion which were directly or indirectly responsible for the defeat, including:

  • Thomas Reynolds’ treachery;
  • the episodic and dispersed nature of the local uprisings;
  • the undefined motives of many of the rebels;
  • the failed landing of the 15,000 French soldiers on Ireland’s west coast.

Had these events unfolded differently, they would have changed the course of Irish history. The outcomes prevented the immediate victory of the rebels. The suppression of the rebellion was just another episode in the history of an ongoing conflict. The enduring memory of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet implies that the idea, the true impetus, has not been defeated.

The United Irishmen, the main protagonists in the rebellion,  were a diverse group. Their membership incorporated the middle and lower classes; Protestants, Presbyterians and Catholics; rural farmers and industrial workers. J Smith noted (speaking of John Locke and the differing interpretations surrounding his ideas) that:

Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet … sought to extend the ‘boundaries’ … of who constituted ‘the people,’ and thereby to enlarge the categories of those entitled to vote to include such groups as Catholics and the industrious poor.

With this philosophy in mind they set forth their views in a letter to Simon Butler and Oliver Bond. They desired:

an equality consisting in the power of every father of a family to acquire by labour either of mind or body, something beyond a mere subsistence, some little capital to prove, in case of sickness, old age or misfortune a safeguard for his body and for his soul, a hallowed hoard that may lift him above the hard necessity which struggles between conscience and corruption… Yes, Irishmen, we do proclaim it our dearest wish to see a more equal distribution of the benefits and blessings of life through the lowest classes of the community, the stamina of the society…and make the higher ranks—the balustrades that adorn the arch—feel their dependence on the people, who are the piles that support it.

Such demands will always appeal to the lower classes and by 1798 the United Irishmen, with a largely indistinguishable amalgamation of Defenders, numbered 280,000 alone. James Quinn commented, in ‘The United Irishmen and Social Reform’, that poor men were promised a new organisation of society in which they would find themselves equal with, if not elevated above, the wealthy. Social equality induced the masses toward demanding the reform expounded by the United Irishmen. Support was widespread among Catholics and farmers but by no means limited to these groups—R F Foster noted that

the United Irishmen retained middle-class strengths. They represented members of the army, the law, medical science, the Church (Dissenting and Catholic) and the gentry, as well as booksellers, brewers and tradesmen. 

Catholics, barristers, cloth-merchants and farmers, however, are not soldiers and while some United Irishmen did attain positions within the navy, few rebels possessed the weapons to achieve their ends. Private firearms owned by individuals suspected of being members of seditious groups were promptly confiscated and habeas corpus, having  been partially suspended months earlier, left the disenfranchised Irish with little recourse to action. The means for defence were gone and the safeguard designed to deny governments the power to incarcerate on a whim had vanished. By allowing laws to apply to some and not others, the British government simultaneously deprived the Irish of the means to defend themselves and vindicated the Irish demands for reform by denying their civil rights. That the law was being applied differently to people based on creed is a justifiable reason to revolt and one that John Jones did not take into account when he remarked that

The surviving Loyalist will rejoice in the triumph of law and the restoration of order. The surviving Rebel will repent of his folly, and enjoy the comforts which Law and Order distribute.

Law and order rather than providing comforts induced fear and anxiety to the point where there was nothing to lose. One observer, Edward Cooke, the Under-Secretary at Dublin castle, commented: ‘Defenderism puzzles me more and more, there is an enthusiasm defying punishment’. To defy punishment is to remain resolute in the clutches of defeat. For surely punishment is only dealt out once defeated. If the Defenders remained indifferent to punishment then it follows that their defeat  was beside the point; they already were defeated in that they had no rights. This being so, subsequent punishment inflicted on the body was of little consequence compared to the tyranny under which they were already living. Resolve, however, was not solely an attribute of the rebels.

… when Captain G—n. ordered a retreat: the Cavalry and part of the Infantry instantly obeyed, but about twenty of the Waterford Militia absolutely refused, declaring “they would prefer death to dishonour.”

They were mostly Roman Catholics! As Emiliano Zapata, a Mexican  revolutionary and reformer would state eloquently and emotively a century later, ‘It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’. Defiance and death meant that they were not defeated. They refused to live under the subjection of a foreign tyrant and they made the choice between freedom and death. This result was not predestined. Events beyond the boundaries of human control stifled the efforts of individuals, desperate to claim autonomy for Ireland.

In December 1796 Wolfe Tone had gathered a fleet of 43 ships comprising over 15,000 French soldiers and set sail for Bantry Bay. Due to unfavourable weather conditions, the fleet was dispersed and a landing was ultimately impossible. The 15,000 French outnumbered the 11,000 English troops who were in the area and today the alternative turn of events recreates itself in day dreams as a ‘great might-have-been in Irish history’. Witnesses and officials shared the belief that had the landing transpired differently, Ireland would have been free. While this episode did not banish the English from Ireland it did raise real  concerns for the Irish government as well as providing a genuine proof that the French were willing to lend assistance, although the United Irishmen (and the French!) would not get another chance.

Many Irish leaders were arrested when a betrayal led to the organisation of the United Irishmen being rendered largely inoperable. On 12 March 1798, only months before an organised uprising was to commence, the Leinster directory of United Irishmen were arrested while attending a meeting in Ulster. Thomas Reynolds, a member of the United Irishmen and wealthy land owner, sold information to the government relating to the forthcoming meeting of the leaders for £500. More arrests followed this and by the end of March, the top and second tier ranks of the United Irishmen were imprisoned or exiled.

The consequences of the arrests that preceded the eventual uprisings are modern Irish history. The remaining members and those who assumed the responsibility of leadership roles did so with alacrity but were nonetheless inexperienced and militarily incompetent. Inexperienced leaders were left commanding farmers with pitchforks and pikes. The rebels would have to overwhelm the army with numbers in order to be able to use them effectively. Of course a necessary condition of overwhelming in numbers is numbers and as McDowell points out ‘what was intended to be a forcible and formidable expression of national will turned out to be a number of ill-coordinated localized émeutes’. Though losing the initial battle, the rebellion also served a number of other purposes, not least of which is the example for posterity. Fred Hampton, a Black Panther activist, said during the Civil Rights Movement ‘You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution!’ Following Wolfe Tone’s example, Robert Emmet was an early example of this belief: the oppressed must believe that wars for independence, or any David versus Goliath struggle, are not futile. It is because of men and women who will die for their freedom that the example will not be forgotten. Foster stated:

Wolfe Tone’s reputation…gained from the great forensic tradition of Irish nationalism epitomized in Curran’s speeches, which established the United Irish martyrology and invoked an historical continuum of resistance that had not necessarily occurred to the people he was defending.

Similarly, Robert Emmet’s stirring words were a lasting example of defiance. At a centenary celebration of the rebellion, Father Kavanagh, the leading authority on the 1798 rebellion at the time, laid the foundation stone and proclaimed

The men whose memory we honour today, died for a persecuted creed as well as an oppressed country…Their blood was not poured forth in vain. It made the earth which drank it ever sacred to freedom; with their expiring breath they kindled the embers of a fire which burnt still.

History is not a fact but an interpretation, susceptible to the evolving mentalities of its inheritors. Foster argued that ‘…1798 has been repackaged, and the intentions of the principal actors prioritised above the actual outcome of events’. He gives the ‘Mission Statement on 1798’, issued a year before the bicentenary celebrations by the Irish government, as an example. The authors of the mission statement wished to, among other things:

  • commemorate the ideals of the United Irishmen;
  • recognise the 1798 rebellion as a forward looking, popular movement aspiring to unity;
  • recognise the strong relationships forged with the United States, France and Australia as a result of the rebellion; and
  • To focus attention on the ideals of the leaders of 1798 which still live in Irish history.

Though the rebels were defeated in 1798, one cannot, for the sake of future resistance, believe their mission was doomed to failure. While their bodies were defeated, their ideals were not. The victories of France and America before them suffice as proof that ‘what is a possibility once is a necessity forever.’

Rowan O’Donnell is studying honours in literary studies at Monash University.