A Background sketch to the 1798 Rebellion

NOTE: This is only a sketch. There were many complex issues for both Catholic and Protestants which would take a forest or two to write about. Protestants at first were those adhering to the established Church of Ireland;  the non conformist Presbyterians were themselves subject of discrimination during the early eighteenth century. In later years the Presbyterians found their political freedom and became involved in the United Irishmen movement and the foundation of the Orange Order. Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796- 1862) was a noted statesman and colonist who was involved in the colonisation of South Australia; secretary to the Earl of Durham in Canada (1838)  and founded the New Zealand Land Company to aid in the colonisation there. He gave a view of the 1798 Rebellion which is here.

Very simply put, therefore, King William III had agreed with the Protestant Planters following the Battle of the Boyne (1690 ), that they could keep their political monopoly and control most of the land. In return they should act as a garrison and preserve peace and stability of the country. To achieve this the Catholics were kept politically weak and penal laws were passed that barred them from all jobs in the civil service and the main professions. The result was an apparent peace and prosperity for the Protestants  but oppression for Catholics, while in fact discontent rumbled just beneath a thin veneer of civility. The Presbyterians remained Dissenters and outcasts outside the official Anglican Church of Ireland.

There were three basic groups of the populace, each mistrusting the others:

Irish Protestants, Upper and Middle Class Catholics and Gaelic Peasants

1.The Irish Protestants were a small selfish oligarchy.

2. The Upper and Middle class Catholics wanted equal rights with the professions, and political rights.

3. The Irish peasants who suffered from high taxes and low prices. They saw the Irish Protestants as alien and heretic, and new laws  as persecution. There were higher tithes, taxes and Acts against sedition and Insurrection.

The petty tyranny of the Irish gentry was the root cause for the trouble that broke out in the 18th century; they were ignorant, oppressive landlords, frequently absentees from their estates, whose main interest was the pursuit of leisure or political intrigue. They were greedy landlords and varied terms of leases as well as racking up rents. In the 1770s there were substantial increases in rents in Co Antrim, the heartlands of the Presbyterians. The matter was not helped by a recession among the farmer-weavers who hitherto had been more independent than the plain tenant farmers and usually enjoyed longer leases. Protesting groups known as the Hearts of Oak, in Co Antrim as the Hearts of Steel or Steelboys, violently opposed rent increases and the county cess and taxes and took to maiming cattle, burning hay stacks and attacking people and property. Several of the Steelboys were captured and hanged for their crimes at Carrickfergus on 9 May 1762 - being - George Mckeown, John Campbell, John Clark and James McNeilly. Others were hanged and many fled to the American colonies where the agitation for independence was coming to a head.

Moreover, revolutions throughout Europe - Holland, Switzerland, Northern Italy and France plus the American War of Independence encouraged the belief that an Irish War of Independence was feasible. Regiments were withdrawn from Ulster to go to the America thus the government were acquiescent when The Volunteers were raised by the mainly  middle class in the 1770s. This was partly a response to dissatisfaction with King Williams agreement, but also the growing fears of a French invasion. The people were treated both in trade and politics as a colony - they were unable to trade with Britain and the Irish Parliament was subservient to Westminster. The people therefore saw the developments in the American colonies, such as the Boston Tea Party, as one example of what they could do to obtain the benefits of Free Trade.

Weak government

Prime Minister William Pitt's Government was uncertain what to do about Ireland and did not have a fixed and certain policy, tending to leave most things to the Viceroy. Because of this lax approach and a range of concessions through 1782 - 93 eg trade restrictions lifted, penal laws relaxed (but not land laws which affected most people) encouraged the belief by the populace that independence was practical.

The Irish Government was drawn from the corrupt and selfish oligarchy. Lord Camden, the Viceroy, was high minded and humane but demoralised by the lack of direction and support from England. His Cabinet or 'Junto' was largely controlled by an old guard of John Beresford; John Foster and Lord Clare who supported cries for help from Irish Gentry and magistrates. A number of magistrates were murdered in Queens and Kings Counties, Cork and Kildare that fueled the fears of the Irish Gentry.

Secret Societies

Meanwhile in Ireland itself there was the growth of threatening agrarian secret societies in the South who sought local agreements with the authorities which only divided the populace further. The two main societies were

The Catholic tenants - "The Defenders", and

The Protestant - "Peep o Day Boys " - later to become the Orangemen.

But in the 1791 there arose the "United Irishmen" with a much clearer focus on the problems and the will to organise  representations, and ultimately resistance, on a national scale.

Poor Army discipline

The Army was ill disciplined and widespread because of support to isolated Gentry. Its Commander, General Abercromby was highly critical of what was going on and sought to instil discipline but his instructions were taken out of context as criticism of Parliament. In particular Abercromby evolved the policy of ' free quarters' (settling troops on local populace) as a device to get the populace to yield up arms - it was oppressive but largely non violent. This worked well in the Southern counties of Queens, and Kings Counties while Abercromby was in command. But he left Ireland on 12 April 1798 with command passing to General Lake.

Lake was an incompetent with little intellect and less military skills; a believer in the reckless use of military power. He rescinded the free quarters approach and gave local commanders virtually free rein to use whatever force they thought necessary. This included arrest and torture of eg blacksmiths because they made the pikes.

By 1797 Pitt had learned that a secret Jacobin style army was being raised in Ireland by friends of Wolf Tone - the leader of the United Irishmen. This was also stirring trouble in England , including revolts of the Navy at Spithead and the Nore and demands for better pay and conditions that were met. It was the potential for invasion of Ireland by France that was feared most.

On 30 March 1798 the Privy Council announced martial law in Ireland and the ill fated Rebellion began to come to the boil. Thomas Pakenham in his "The Year of Liberty " sums it up succinctly.

 In the space of a few weeks some 30,000 people - peasants armed with pikes and pitchforks, defenceless women and children - were cut down or shot or blown like chaff as they charged up to the mouth of the cannon. The result of the rebellion was no less disastrous as Britain imposed a Union on terms that proved unacceptable to the majority of the Irish people and there was a legacy of violence and hatred that has persisted to the present day. 

The direct result of the rebellion was the Union with Britain, officially on January 1st, 1801 six months after the Irish Parliament had agreed to vote itself out of existence.


The Year of Liberty ,Thomas Pakenham

The Irish Rebellion ,W H Maxwell

To Right Some Things That We Thought Wrong. David Hume.

History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, W E H Lecky.

PRONI  Educational Facsimile The United Irishmen #61-80, and  "The `98 Rebellion, #81-100.

Orr Name Study Ulster Scots Reference material