Irish Rebellion of 1798

From Academic Kids

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 or 1798 rebellion as it is known locally, was an uprising in 1798, lasting several months, against the British establishment in Ireland. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, were the main organizing force behind the rebellion.



Since 1691 and the end of the Williamite war, Ireland had been controlled by a Protestant Ascendancy on behalf of the British Crown, governing the majority Catholic population via a form of institutionalised sectarianism known as the Penal Laws. As the century progressed, progressive elements among the ruling class were inspired by the example of the American Revolution and sought to form common cause with the Catholic populace to achieve reform and greater autonomy from Britain.

When France joined the American colonists in the war, London responded to the threat of invasion by calling for volunteers to join militias to protect the interests of the British Crown and defend the country from invasion. Many thousands joined the Irish Volunteers who used their new powerful position to force the Crown to grant the landed Ascendancy self rule and it's own parliament.

Society of United Irishmen

Theobald Wolfe Tone-United Irish leader.
Theobald Wolfe Tone-United Irish leader.

The promise of reform inspired liberals to found the Society of the United Irishmen in 1791, openly putting forward its policies of democratic reform and Catholic emancipation, reforms that the Irish Parliament was incapable of granting and the British government just as unwilling to enforce. The declaration of war against France in 1793 following the execution of Louis XVI forced the Society underground and toward the French revolutionary model of agitation as opposed to the American example. The avowed intent of the United Irishmen and Theobald Wolfe Tone, the leader of the United Irishmen, was now to "break the connection with England" and the organisation spread throughout Ireland, helped by linking up with Catholic agrarian resistance groups, known as Defenders, and had at least 100,000 members by 1797.

A decision was made to seek military help from the French revolutionary government,at the time at war with Britain and to postpone the rising until French troops landed in Ireland. In December 1796 a force of 15,000 French troops under General Lazar Hoche eluded the Royal Navy and arrived off the coast of Ireland at Bantry Bay but unremitting storms intervened to prevent invasion.

A series of coordinated uprisings around the country were planned, centred on Dublin. However, Lord Edward FitzGerald and the other leaders of the Dublin rebellion were arrested before it could take place.

Government Crackdown and Counter Revolution

The shaken Establishment launched a campaign of repression and coercion using tactics that included house burnings, torture, pitchcapping and murder, particularly in Ulster as it was the one area of Ireland where large numbers of Catholics and Presbyterians had affected common cause (this unprecedented "unholy union" caused great fright in London). Loyalists all over Ireland had already organised themselves in militias in support of the Government, supplying recruits and vital local intelligence to the Government. The opposition of the Catholic Church in Ireland to the expected rebellion was secured by the establishment of Maynooth College and seminary in 1795 and it was, barring a few individual exceptions, firmly on the side of the Crown throughout the rebellion. Intelligence from informers also swept up much of the United Irish leadership in raids in Dublin in March 1798. A premptive rising in March in Cahir, county Tipperary had been crushed and martial law imposed over the county, the unrelenting brutality of which put the United Irish organisation there under severe pressure.

By May 1798 the United Irish rump leadership finally decided to launch the rising without French aid, fixing the date of the rising for May 23rd.


The initial plan was to take Dublin, the counties bordering Dublin to then rise to prevent it's reinforcement and then the remainder of the country to rise. However, Lord Edward FitzGerald and the remaining leaders of the Dublin rebellion were arrested a week before the date and last minute intelligence from informers provided details of rebel assembly points which were occupied by the military barely one hour before rebels were to assemble. The nucleus of the rebellion had imploded but the counties surrounding Dublin rose as planned and the long threatened rising which was to cost between 20,000 and 50,000 lives in little more than three months began.

Outbreak of the Rebellion

The signal for the rest of the country to rise was to be the interception of the mail coaches from Dublin. The Munster bound coach was stopped near Naas and the passengers killed. Surrounding districts of Dublin were first to rise and rebels began to gather in Wicklow, Meath and Kildare with the first clashes of the rebellion taking place just after dawn on May 24th, quickly spreading with widespread fighting throughout county Kildare.

Despite the Government successfully beating off almost every rebel attack, all military forces in Kildare were ordered to withdraw to Naas for fear of their isolation and destruction as at Prosperous, but heavy defeats at Carlow , and hill of Tara, Co Meath effectively ended the rebellion in those counties. News of the rising spread panic and fear among loyalists with the military massacring suspected rebels at Dunlavin Green, and Carnew.

The Rebellion Spreads

In the north-east, Presbyterian rebels under Henry Joy McCracken briefly occupied Antrim town on 7 June before being defeated on 13 June. The rebels had more success in the south-eastern county of Wexford, where a rebel army up to 15,000 strong led by a Catholic priest Father John Murphy captured Enniscorthy on 29 May and Wexford the following day. Further victories at Three Rocks and Tuberneering gave the rebels control of the county but a series of bloody defeats at New Ross, Arklow, and Newtownbarry prevented the spread of the rebellion and 20,000 troops poured into Wexford inflicting defeat at the battle of Vinegar Hill on 21 June. The dispersed rebels spread in three columns through the midlands, Kilkenny and towards Ulster not meeting final defeat until 14th July at Ballyboghill, North County Dublin.

The prelude to and suppression of the rebellion throughout Ireland was characterised by the vicious brutality of Crown forces who were responsible for several massacres of civilians as well as rebels, but the Wexford rebels brought shame on their movement, by killing many loyalist civilians at Scullabogue and Wexford bridge.

French Landing

On 22 August, two months after the main uprisings had been defeated, about 1,000 French soldiers under General Humbert landed in the north-west of the country, at Killala in County Mayo. Joined by up to 5,000 local rebels, they inflicted a humiliating defeat (known as the Castlebar races to commemorate the speed of the English retreat) on the British at Castlebar, before final defeat at the battle of Ballinamuck, in County Longford, on 8 September 1798. The French troops who surrendered were repatriated to France in exchange for English prisoners of war; the Irish rebels were massacred at the site of the battle.

On 12 October 1798, a larger French force consisting of 3,000 men, and including Wolfe Tone himself, attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly. They were intercepted by a larger Royal Navy squadron, and surrendered after a three hour battle without ever landing in Ireland. As a result of this French involvement, 1798 was often referred to as "The Year of the French".


Pockets of rebel resistance remained in Wexford and Wicklow in the years after 1798 but the failure of Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803 finally convinced the last organised rebel forces under Michael Dwyer to a negotiated surrender in 1804.

The Act of Union on January 1st 1801 which took away the measure of autonomy granted to Ireland's Protestant minority was largely in response to the rebellion and the feeling that the rebellion was provoked as much by the brutish misrule of the Ascendancy as by the efforts of the revolutionaries. Irish politics in the 19th century was steered away from the unifying vision of the United Irishmen, encouraged by Dublin Castle and exploited by politicians such as Daniel O’Connell, towards a sectarian model which has largely endured to the present day.

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