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Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone, and the Great Rebellion

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Revolution on Friday, 30 September 2011

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This edited article about Ireland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

Great Rebellion, picture, image, illustration

In December, 1796, a French fleet attempted to land 15,000 men in Ireland to help Wolfe Tone, by Andrew Howat

The so-called “Great Rebellion of 1798 (it would be more apt to call it the Great Massacre) is still remembered in song and in story both by the Green Nationalists of the Irish Republic and by the Orange Unionists of Northern Ireland. But it was anything but great in the generally accepted meaning of the word.

To the casual observer of history it might appear that the rebellion was an attempt by the Irish to set up a republic allied to the newly-created French Republic, and so provide France with a jumping-off point for an invasion of England, with whom she was then at war.

It is not difficult to draw this conclusion, especially when one considers that the French despatched two expeditions to Ireland during the course of the year and, had the rebellion succeeded, the England we know today might not exist. Certainly, the divided Ireland and the consequent ills of partition would not exist.

However, the annexation of the British Isles by France did not figure in the original plans of the leaders of the rebellion. What they sought was reformation of the British administration of Ireland which discriminated against followers of the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian religions, while favouring those of the Established Church (Church of England).

Ireland at the time had its own Parliament, but it was corrupt and unrepresentative. Only adherents of the Established Church could vote in elections. And although the Irish Parliament had in theory been given its independence, England had still retained control of Irish affairs by appointing the Executive of the Parliament.

Some members of the Irish Parliament realised that it would have to be reformed to give Catholics and Presbyterians a bigger share in the government of the country. In doing so, they hoped to prevent the possibility of rebellion which they knew would continue to exist while there was discrimination against the great mass of the population.

To this end, the Society of United Irishmen had been founded. Among its leaders were Lord Edward Fitzgerald and James Napper Tandy, two prominent Irish Parliamentarians, and Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Protestant lawyer from County Kildare. But their attempts at reform failed.

To Wolfe Tone and the other leaders, the outbreak of war in 1793 between Britain and France provided a golden opportunity. There were very few troops stationed in Ireland, most of them being in Britain and on the Continent. The time was ripe for a rebellion in Ireland.

Landing Thwarted

To this end, Wolfe Tone and Napper Tandy went to Paris seeking French aid for a rebellion. The French agreed, and on 15th December, 1796, a fleet of 43 ships, carrying 15,000 soldiers, sailed from Brest. But storms scattered the ships and only part of the expedition reached the Irish coast. An easterly gale prevented a landing being made and the fleet returned to France.

A second attempt at aiding the rebel Irish was made in June, 1797, when a Franco-Dutch fleet collected at the Texel, but it was met and defeated on 11th October by Admiral Duncan’s fleet at Camperdown.

Realising that they could not depend on French aid, the Directory of the United Irishmen in Dublin determined on a rising without it. A general insurrection was planned for 23rd May, 1798, but the Government, knowing through spies what was afoot, struck at once and arrested the rebel leaders. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, chief among them, died of wounds inflicted on him when he was arrested.

Despite the swift action of the British authorities, the rebellion broke out as planned. But it lacked all coherence. The original plan of the rebels had been to seize the capital and thus paralyse the Government. Without the leadership of the Dublin Directory this was not immediately possible, and the isolated risings throughout Leinster were quickly and brutally put down by the Government forces.

In Ulster several thousand rebels took the Field. Three pitched battles were fought at Antrim, Saintfield and Ballinahinch, but on each occasion the rebels lost with heavy casualties despite their military skill and the headlong courage of their pikemen.

By 13th June the back of the rebellion in Ulster had been broken.

It was in the county of Wexford that the rebellion made most headway. There, the insurrection began on 26th May, and on the following day, commanded by a Catholic priest who had given the signal for revolt, the rebels defeated and almost annihilated a body of Government troops. This victory brought them the support of the bulk of the Catholic peasantry. Soon almost the whole county, including the towns of Wexford and Enniscorthy had fallen into their hands.

On 5th June, they launched an attack on the town of New Ross, situated on the River Barrow. In doing so they had a two-fold object; firstly to make contact with fellow United Irishmen in County Kilkenny; and, secondly, to cut the authorities’ supply route by the river from Waterford.

The Garrison commander at New Ross had only 1,400 troops at his disposal, and if the rebels had pressed their first advantage they might have carried the town. Unfortunately, their discipline and military organisation were not as great as their courage. During 12 hours of furious fighting, they captured the town, lost it, recaptured it and were repulsed again with enormous slaughter.

Some idea of the fury with which this particular battle was fought can be seen from the fact that during the three-hour period of the second assault on the town, some of the regulars fired one hundred and twenty rounds.

The battle of New Ross proved to be a turning point in the rebellion. It was the first major defeat suffered by the Wexford rebels and following it their forces began to disintegrate.

By this time thousands of English troops had been brought into Ireland and on 21st June the final blow fell. An army of 13,000 stormed Vinegar Hill at Enniscorthy where the rebels had made their headquarters, and from the resulting massacre very few of the rebels escaped to continue the fight.

Believing the rebellion to be well and truly subdued, the Irish Parliament passed an Act of Amnesty on 17th July. This led to the submission of the few remaining pockets of rebels.

But on 22nd August, when it was too late, French aid again revived the flame of rebellion. A force of 1,000 Republican troops landed at Killala Bay in County Mayo. The effect of so small a force was startling.

Five days later it was confronted at Castlebar by a vastly superior British Army. The battle which followed lasted approximately half an hour and is remarkable only for the speed with which the British troops ran away. This battle is still remembered in Ireland as “The Races of Castlebar”.

Had General Humbert, the commander of the French forces, pushed forward instantly into Ulster or towards Dublin, he might have shaken the Government. Instead, he wasted time organising the Connaught peasantry who were not very revolutionary minded. The few recruits he got were worthless.

Because of this delay in Connaught, Humbert had unwittingly given the authorities a chance to rally their forces and surround his small army at Ballinamuck on 7th September. He had no alternative but to surrender. The French troops were well treated. The Irish were slaughtered. But this was not the end.

On 10th October, eight French ships, with Wolfe Tone aboard one of them, arrived off Lough Swilly in Ulster. No sooner had they anchored than a British fleet surrounded them. Most of the French vessels managed to get away. The Hoche with Tone aboard was hopelessly trapped. Tone was taken to Dublin where he was court-martialled and sentenced to be hanged like a common criminal. Before the sentence could be carried out he committed suicide. With his death the “Great Rebellion” ended.

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