The signing of the Northern Ireland peace deal on the 200th anniversary of the 1798 uprising by the United Irishmen was used by some to demonstrate that the Irish and their history are incomprehensible. For how was it that Northern Protestants, today Britain's most loyal subjects, could be the descendants of the radical Protestants of 1798, who led a mass revolt to get rid of British rule?
Yet those rebellious Protestants of two centuries ago were not freaks of nature whom it is impossible to understand. They represented a rising class - which included Presbyterians and a minority of wealthy Catholics - forced to take on their aristocratic rulers in order to further their class interests. Inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, they felt that Ireland needed a similar transformation. Their struggle was to unleash a movement which was to include over half a million poor, mainly Catholic, peasants who were looking to achieve much more than merely the end of Britain's colonial rule, but an end to the poverty and oppression which had kept them on their knees for generations.
In Ireland at the time absentee landlords owned as much as 85 percent of the land. In the Irish parliament in Dublin no decision could be made independently of Westminster. There were 300 MPs, of whom only 64 were elected and only then by a fraction of the population - the powerful landowning gentry. For instance, in the City of Belfast only 13 people out of a population of 15,000 had the right to vote. The rest of the MPs either bought their seats, were nominated by each other or had their seats passed on to them through their families. The 3 million Catholics and the poor Protestants were neither present or represented. The British ruling class also controlled things economically. For example, Irish producers could not export to the lucrative new markets in America or the West Indies except in English ships, and then for a huge tariff.
Mercantile capitalism had nevertheless developed in Ireland, particularly in the north east, giving birth to a new commercial class of Protestants and Presbyterians who owned, for example, the huge cotton mills springing up around Belfast. But this fledgling capitalism was totally restricted in its development by England's colonial trade policy. As Karl Marx put it, 'Every time Ireland was about to develop industrially she was crushed and reconverted into a purely agricultural land.' Which is what it was like for the vast majority of the population. Catholic peasants lived under some of the most harsh and repressive conditions in the whole of Europe. One of the biggest grievances, after the extortionate rents, was the tithe - a sum of money to be paid for the upkeep of the local Protestant church, the established church of Ireland, even though all the poorest peasants were Catholic.
There had been struggles against such conditions in the middle of the 18th century. Various secret peasant organisations - Whiteboys, Oakboys and Steelboys - took direct action against landlords' property, protesting against high rents, forced labour and the racketeering middle men. In the north these groups were mainly led by Protestants. Elsewhere Catholic peasants banded together and all faced violent repression from landlords including mass hangings.
When in 1778 France and Spain joined America in war with England, the English government told Ireland that it could not spare troops to protect Ireland from invasion and that the Irish would have to raise their own force. The force raised became known as the Volunteers. In most areas only Protestants were allowed to join but Catholics showed their support by raising funds for arms and uniforms. The Volunteers quickly grew to 100,000 strong. They soon became the popular vehicle for grievances against the government.
Revolutionary ideas were taking root, especially in the more industrially developed north east, while in Dublin a young man called Wolfe Tone, a Protestant barrister, mixed with radicals who also dreamed of the day when Ireland's commerce could develop unfettered by the imperial power of England. These educated and ambitious men were united by the desire for an independent Irish parliament that would represent their interests as opposed to those of the Protestant Ascendancy, in effect a society where people would succeed according to merit, not lineage.
From the start Tone was part of the most radical wing of this movement which was to become the United Irishmen. He advocated full emancipation for Catholics as well as Protestants and although he did at first look to the industrialist class he was later to say after their many compromises that 'merchants I see make bad revolutionaries'.
Into the midst of this growing politicisation came what Tone called a 'thunderclap', the French Revolution of 1789. He said, 'In a little time the French Revolution became the test of every man's political creed, and the nation was fairly divided into two great parties, the aristocrats and the democrats. It is needless, I believe, to say, I was a democrat from the beginning.' This event, on the heels of America's independence, was to inspire Tone's progressive bourgeois friends in Belfast and Dublin to form the United Irishmen in 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille in Paris.
The class basis of the movement was clear from its leadership. For example, in the north, Robert Simms was a merchant and part owner of a newspaper; Samuel Neilson a draper and printer, and Henry Joy MacCracken a Presbyterian cotton manufacturer. In the south, Thomas Emmet was the son of a state physician; Dr Rowan Hamilton a lawyer; John Sweetman a brewer, and Arthur O'Connor the educated son of a merchant family.
Their programme, with its call for manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, no property qualification for voting, annual parliaments and payment of members, predated the demands of the Chartist movement in England by several decades. The United Irishmen also called for an end to church tithes and for a multitude of agrarian reforms. Their paper, the Northern Star, had a circulation of over 4,000, and they sold tens of thousands of copies of Tone's An Argument on Behalf of Catholics and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.
But even the suggestion of such reforms was anathema to the ruling elite, and within three years of their formation, the United Irishmen were declared illegal and driven underground. This only led to further radicalisation and the organisation carried on growing, particularly among the poor peasants. In the north, the United Irishmen fought to bring together Catholics and Protestants and overcome sectarian divisions. Any excuse to get round the illegality of protest began to be used to show mass defiance to the authorities and the mood was growing for a rebellion.
In January 1796 Tone travelled to France. He wanted to persuade the French to send a force to Ireland galvanising revolt.
In December a French fleet with Tone aboard left Brest with 15,000 trained men and arms for another 20,000. But a fierce storm broke up the fleet and a relentless gale meant landing was impossible. What was left of the fleet limped back to France.
In Dublin Castle the administration was petrified. There were only 3,000 loyal troops in the south and it could not risk removing troops from the north where the United Irishmen were strong. Tone immediately began to try to organise another fleet first from the Spanish and then from the Dutch - he wanted to take advantage of the mutinies which had immobilised the English fleet (often led by United Irishmen pressed into the navy as punishment for their activity) - but failed. An important opportunity had been missed.
The Irish ruling class did not wait to take action and laws were passed to give immunity to troops who 'exceeded legal powers while on duty' and the recently formed Orange Order was allowed to run mayhem in the north whipping up old anti-Catholic hatred and fanning the land feuds which had died down under the influence of the United Irishmen. Any Catholic on halfway decent land would be terrorised off it by Protestant gangs. That this war was more about economics was demonstrated by the fact that Catholics on neighbouring strips of barren land were left alone. As one commentator said at the time, the 'battle was not about the pope but the potato'.
Yeomanry filled with 'loyal' tenants were set up by the landed gentry to fight the growing revolutionary movement. In the end every militia had its own Orange lodge, although the militias still had to be purged time after time as the trusted tenants involved in them became disaffected and posed a threat to the authorities.
The attempted landing of the first French fleet did not just put the government on their guard. The confidence of the United Irishmen was hugely increased by the knowledge that the French had come. The repression and the actions of the Orange mobs only served to pull many more into the movement which by 1797 had organised a phenomenal half million to its ranks. However some, increasingly frustrated as time went on without sign of any further support, began to see that the chance for a successful uprising was slipping away and, with or without the French, it was time to strike.
A raid on a meeting of the Leinster Directory of the United Irishmen in Dublin forced a decision. Aided by an informer, it led to the capture of the entire leadership of the movement (excepting only Edward Fitzgerald who arrived late). Five days later the Insurrection Act which had been brought in to smash the movement in the north was extended to the whole of Ireland. The violence of the repression which followed shocked even some of the establishment whose position it was meant to protect. Troops were brought over from England with orders to 'crush rebellion'. All ordinary Irish men and women were seen as potential rebels and so homes were burned wholesale and hundreds were murdered. Much of the bourgeois leadership ran scared and the organisation was struggling to hold itself together.
It was now or never. Against all odds Fitzgerald organised a new leadership and despite the military clampdown they got word out that the insurrection was to take place on the night of 22 May. But three days before that date Fitzgerald was arrested. Then, only hours before the rising was to take place, two more leaders were captured and another made his escape on a ship leaving Dublin. This catalogue of disasters was completed by the arrest of the one remaining able leader as he tried to organise a band of men to storm the prison and free the captured rebels. So as tens of thousands throughout Ireland were awaiting the signal that the longed for insurrection was to finally begin, the whole leadership was decimated. Battles did begin and were bravely fought but lack of arms meant they were smashed by government troops whose brutality showed no limits.
In Wexford the story was different. Signalled by hilltop bonfires the rising had an early success in capturing the stately home where pikes and muskets taken from rebels in past weeks had been stored. The rebels forged ahead defeating a party of the North Cork militia, and as news of the victories spread, rebels across Wexford (joined by thousands from other counties) routed the military. Peasants carrying no more than pikes ran at the cannons of the astonished enemy. In the town of Wexford the streets filled with the victors, and one eyewitness reported that servants were heard to mutter that it was 'their turn to be master'. The words 'liberty and equality' were to heard everywhere and the better off townspeople, both Protestant and Catholic, fearing the peasant army which had engulfed their town, found themselves hanging green branches or flags from their windows to feign support for the rebels.
Some accounts have portrayed this as a religious uprising, for in Wexford it was largely made up of Catholics who attacked largely Protestant land and property. But this mistakes the real nature of the battle. Rebels attacked the slate roofed homes of the rich, while the militia burned only thatched cottages in the sure and certain knowledge that the occupants were rebels or sympathisers. The fact that the former contained mostly Protestants and the latter mainly poor Catholics is just testimony to the particularly sectarian nature of the ruling order in Wexford. The rebellion was rather a war of the 'haves' and the 'have nots', a war in which the 'haves' won.
The immense bravery of the rebels was in the end not enough against the troops of a dozen English generals. The Wexford rising was finally beaten at Vinegar Hill when the rebels' massive camp headquarters was captured on June 21.
In the north the rising was delayed but still involved thousands of ordinary peasants despite the military clampdown that had made any sign of opposition to government virtually a capital offence. But it too went down to defeat, with many of its wealthier leaders showing their cowardice by declining to take any lead and so leaving their forces confused and disorganised. Those leaders like Henry Joy MacCracken, who did fight, found no leniency after defeat and were unceremoniously hanged alongside their poorer followers.
The Irish government and the ascendancy class it represented wreaked a bitter revenge on those who had dared to challenge it. Soldiers were allowed to go on the rampage. Such was the ferocity of the vengeance taken out on rebels and any suspected supporters that one English general there, Sir John Moore, who was supervising this 'mopping up' process, was moved to say, 'If I were an Irishman I would be a rebel.' Officers who suggested their men should keep a disciplined restraint were accused of 'criminal sympathy with traitors'. Men were still being hanged in 1802 for crimes allegedly committed in 1798.
Yet even as the battles and the retribution were taking place, Tone, still in France, got word of that the uprising had begun and frantically pleaded with the French government to get another fleet together. A fleet did sail, but not until 7 August and it too was eventually defeated. Three weeks later a larger fleet sailed but it was intercepted before it even reached Irish shores when the English navy reduced the flagship on which Wolfe Tone was sailing to a wreck. As it sank, the crew was forced to surrender and Tone was sent in chains to Dublin where a court martial gave him the death sentence. Defiant to the end, Tone cut his own throat on the night before his execution was one to take place, dying seven days later.
The rebellion was beaten. Ranged against it had been the state and all its armed forces, the English and Irish governments and the institutions of both the Protestant and Catholic churches. The archbishop of Dublin had gone out of his way to show support for the constitution and the Irish government and some rebels were actually refused sacraments unless they turned informer. Despite this many priests whose roots were in the peasant class did fight on the side of the rebels, dying on the gallows with their parishioners.
But the hundreds of thousands of peasants who saw in the United Irishmen a chance to stand up against oppression and poverty were abandoned by those who had sparked the movement. The bourgeoisie had aspired to Irish independence as a means to increase its wealth and influence. It lost its revolutionary fervour when it felt its wealth and property were more threatened by the mass social upheaval it had unleashed than under the old order. The industrialists and merchants made their peace with the administration and became its staunchest allies.
The British government decided that Ireland was no longer stable in the hands of the rotten ascendancy Irish government and so an Act of Union was passed in 1801 which abolished the Dublin government and united the governments of Great Britain and Ireland. Never again were the Protestant bourgeoisie of the north of Ireland to identify their interests with severance of the link with England. Instead England was to ensure that in the future they saw their interests as permanently and inextricably linked to Britain and its empire.