Historical Happenings for September 2020

Who Fears To Speak Of ’98

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

The 1700’s was a Century of Revolution.  When England’s American colonies struck for independence in 1775 during an age of the Divine Right of Kings, it was an unheard of act.  Yet it not only succeeded, it inspired France to revolt in 1789 and 1792 and they too succeeded.  Another attempt inspired by America took place in 1798 as the Irish rose to break the shackles of Empire.   Yet, that one’s not in our history books because it failed, though it was equally justified.  It didn’t even earn the term revolution; if mentioned at all, it is called a rebellion.  Revolution is defined as the forcible overthrow of a social order in favor of a new system while rebellion is defined as an act of defying the authority of an established government.  After King William defeated King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a century of oppression drove the Irish into a depressed rage.  By that time, the religious prejudice, long a factor in English-Irish relations, had changed.  William offered a fair treaty in 1691 to end the fighting, but it was broken by England’s Irish administrators to insure power to their own class by the subjugation of all others. The basis of that power was a privileged position accorded to Church of Ireland members.  All others were subjected to Penal Laws that restricted their economic existence, including Presbyterians and other dissenting Protestant sects, though not as severely as Catholics.  Then came Theobold Wolfe Tone.

A Protestant graduate of Trinity College, he returned to Ireland after two years as a Lawyer in London and, influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, he developed a philosophy of national independence based on religious suffrage.  In September 1791, he wrote his greatest pamphlet: An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.  Aimed at non-Church of Ireland Protestants, it urged support of Catholic emancipation and was praised by Catholic and Dissenter alike.  He was invited to Belfast and helped organize the Society of United Irishmen. They called for a union of all Irish to peacefully block English influence by parliamentary reform. They even chose a color to symbolize their new Union; it was a blend of St. Patrick’s Blue for the Catholic tradition with Orange for the Protestant tradition. The blended green became identified with Irish nationalism ever since.  Tone then formed a second branch of the United Irishmen in Dublin with patriot Napper Tandy. 

Meanwhile, exaggerated reports of their activities were coming in from informers seeking favor with the Brits.  However, there was no evidence on which to arrest anyone.  Then in 1795, a representative of France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs called on Tone to determine the chances of success for a French invasion.  France had been fighting England ever since they supported the Americans in their Revolution.  France’s representative was arrested as a spy and Tone was exiled to America.  That turned Tone from a parliamentary reformer to a military advocate.  In America, he contacted the French Minister in Philadelphia to determine if the French were serious in aiding a full scale rising of the United Irishmen.  He went to France and secured that aid and in December 1796, a French invasion force sailed for Ireland.  On board, in the uniform of a French Adjutant General, was Theobald Wolfe Tone.

On December 21, a French fleet with 12,000 troops arrived at Bantry Bay, but the ship carrying the invasion commanders had separated from the fleet.  The landing was delayed until their arrival, but as they waited, a full scale hurricane scattered the French fleet.  One by one the ships returned to France.  It was later revealed by a British Admiralty official, that the captain of the commanders’ ship had accepted a bribe to take the Commanders on an alternate route.  Tone returned to France to plead for another expedition.  Meanwhile in Ireland, the United Irishmen were defined as disloyal and had become targets of a new group formed among Church of Ireland men who felt that not enough was being done to exterminate ‘Catholic troublemakers’.  They called themselves the Orange Order; they raided homes d businesses, murdered Catholic tenants and burned their homes to the ground.

Society headquarters shifted to Dublin where men like Lawyer Thomas A. Emmet, Doctor William McNevin and Lord Edward Fitzgerald were involved.  Fitzgerald had served in a British regiment in the American colonies and felt that the guerrilla tactics of the colonists should be used.  Under his influence, the Society grew from a reform movement to an underground army. The leaders argued to wait for French aid, but Lord Edward urged a general rising across the country.  An informer gave the names of the leaders and location of their meeting to Dublin Police who arrested them all except Fitzgerald.  On March 30, the Brits put the country under Martial Law and there followed brutal methods of interrogation – a wooden triangle to hold a man for flogging with a cat o’ nine tails; a portable traveling gallows to half-hang a man and pitch-capping by massaging a mixture of tar and gunpowder into the hair and setting it alight with agonizing effect.  Fear of pitch-capping caused many to crop their hair short even though they ran the risk of being identified as United Irish supporters; they earned the name Croppys.  The song The Croppy Boy may now have more meaning for you.

On May 23, 1798, individual groups of United Irishmen rose in several counties but  were put down by soldiers billeted there.  With no central command to the rising, government successes soon led frenzied Orangemen to engage in ‘croppy hunts’ causing entire villages to flee before them.  The once well-planned reform movement had degenerated into clashes between leaderless mobs and the Brits easily won control.  General Cornwallis, recently defeated by an American army made up primarily of Irish emigrants, was given a chance to redeem himself by a furious King George III.  In June he sailed for Dublin.  Meanwhile, the Brits drove the largest group of rebels in Wexford back to a final stand on a hill near Enniscorthy.  That hill, once covered with wild berrys, had the old local Gaelic name of Fidh naGcaer (Fidh – the Hill; na – of; Caer – the Berrys); it was now covered with people.  Unable to pronounce the Irish, the Brits called it Vinegar Hill, which was also appropriate for what happened there was bitter wine indeed.  On June 21, 10,000 British troops, with 20 pieces of artillery, opened a bombardment on the 20,000 men, women, and children herded together on the summit.  After a day and night of assault, the Irish were massacred.  By August 20 it was over.  The rebellion lasted three months and cost more than 25,000 lives of which only 2,000 were loyalists.  But what happened to the French aid?

That answer came 2 days later on August 22 as General Humbert and a force of 1,000 French troops arrived at the wrong time and at the wrong place – Killala Bay in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast.  Tone was following with a larger force and behind him the indomitable Napper Tandy with yet more troops.  Could the rising begin again?  The word went out: The West’s Awake!  Humbert recruited a thousand local Irish and marched on the English at Castlebar.  He routed them and marched inland.  Cornwallis consolidated the powerful British army and split his forces to surround Humbert and the Irish.  On September 8, he closed the net at Ballinamuck, County Longford.  Humbert was hopelessly outnumbered.  After a half-hour battle, he surrendered his 850 troops and 1000 Irish allies to the British army of 30,000.  The Irish were slaughtered to a man while Humbert and his forces were repatriated back to France as honorable foes, but not before British Captain Packenham disgraced Humbert on the field of battle by taking his sword and stripping his epaulets.  An angry Napoleon dismissed Humbert to a position in the French colony at New Orleans where he later retired.  However, he and Packenham would meet again 14 years later as now General Packenham led the British forces in an attack on New Orleans in the American War of 1812 and Humbert came out of retirement to fight by Andy Jackson’s side to defeat his old enemy; but that’s another story.

On October 12, Wolfe Tone and reinforcements arrived in yet another disjointed piece of the overall revolution.  They ran directly into a waiting British fleet.  Tone commanded a battery of ships guns, but after 6 hours the French fleet was destroyed, and Tone was captured.  On October 16, Napper Tandy, with yet another fleet, landed in Donegal and learned of Humbert’s surrender and Tone’s capture.  He wisely sailed back to the continent.  Wolfe Tone was taken to Dublin and sentenced to be hanged as a traitor.  He requested to be afforded the death of a soldier, to be shot, rather than hanged, but his request was denied.  He died in prison of a neck wound at the age of 35.  History records his death as a suicide but there remains some doubt.  The rank and file of the United Irish society were pursued and eliminated.  Loyalists, believing that all Catholics had all been part of a conspiracy to slaughter them, intimidated the majority of the population into a slave-mentality that crippled the spirit of resistance for a whole generation.  Ireland remained a most depressed country until Daniel O’Connell began raising the cause of Catholic emancipation once again in the 1840s and the Irish began to raise their heads.  When they did, they heard the voice of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders resurrecting the doctrines of Wolfe Tone who was now recognized as the Father of Irish Republicanism.  Tone’s revolution was, in fact, the very first thrust for National independence.  Previous risings were merely attempts at reconfiguring relations with the Crown.  The 1569 and 79 Desmond rebellions; the 1593-1603 Nine Years War of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire; the 1640-42 Confederation War in support of Charles II; the 1690 Rising in support of the Jacobite claim to the Crown would all have left Ireland still a colony of England.  As the spirit of true independence once more began to beat in Irish hearts, a verse appeared in the April 1843 edition of the rebel newspaper, The Nation.   It read:

“Who fears to speak of ‘98?  Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate, who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave, or half a slave who slights his country thus;
But true men, like you men, come fill your glass with us.