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'History of Republicanism - Republican Lecture Series No.4', Sinn Féin (1981?)

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Text: Sinn Féin ... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn

book cover HISTORY

(PART 1)




Published by Sinn Fein
Education Department



THE STRUGGLE for an independent Irish republic has gone on now for over 180 years. During this time there have been three notable periods when the intensity of the struggle reached such a high peak that it shook the British imperialists and forced them to modify how they controlled Ireland.

These stages are the rising of the United Irishmen in 1798, the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence which followed, and the present-day struggle which has been going on now for the last twelve years.

The purpose of this lecture is to examine these phases; and in particular the first two so that we get a clearer understanding of where the present-day Republican Movement came from and what factors influenced the development of the struggle over this period.

The notion of establishing a republic was first mooted by Theobald Wolfe Tone who was the leader of the United Irishmen between 1791 and 1798. Inspired by the French revolutionaries Tone set to work building a force which would command enough support and strength to end British rule in Ireland.

His vehicle was an organisation called the Society of the United Irishmen which he, Thomas Russell and Samuel Neilson formed in Belfast in 1791. The immediate objective of this society was the reform of the parliamentary system. They took as their point of departure what had been the high-water mark of the volunteers’ agitation which was defeated in 1783 - Catholic emancipation.

The Society also stood for the principles enshrined in Thomas Paine’s book ‘The Rights of Man’ which were: manhood suffrage; equal brotherhood; no property qualifications; annual parliaments; and payment of members.

But they did not confine themselves to purely political demands. They declared for the abolition of church establishments; of tithes; for resistance to rack-rents; and ultimately for sweeping measures of agrarian reform. Through their organ the Northern Star (founded by Samuel Neilson in Belfast in early 1792) they gave a cordial welcome on their first appearance to Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ and Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’.

Tone had a decisive influence at every stage of the development of the United Irishmen and historians have described him as the most formidable revolutionary ever to challenge British rule in Ireland.

That he was a revolutionary for his time there is little dispute. He enthusiastically embraced the poor and underprivileged and those affected by sectarian bigotry, which in the case of the Catholic peasantry numbered three million. At the time the standard of living of the mass of Irish people was one of abject destitution.

To help us get a better picture of the political conditions Tone and his fellow revolutionaries worked in we need to sketch through the previous thirty years before their arrival on the scene.

English official policy in the 17th and 18th century treated its colonies as children which had claims upon, but also had duties towards, their parent country. This policy, originated in the Navigation Acts, was designed to make London the commercial trading centre of the world and break the Dutch mercantile monopoly. Goods were refused entry into England unless carried in English ships or in ships of their country of origin. Exports were permitted only in English ships or those of their country in which the goods were invoiced.

In effect, this policy restricted the colonies to producing raw materials in exchange for English goods, all the carrying being done by English ships.

In Ireland it involved destroying, deliberately, trade and manufacturers that had already evolved and were competing successfully with English rivals. A few examples will illustrate this process.

In the 17th century a profitable Irish trade in fat cattle exported to England grew up. English graziers protested and the trade was prohibited. Irish cattle-breeders exported, instead, lean cattle, for English graziers to fatten. English cattle-farmers protested and the trade was once again stopped. Ireland then exported slaughtered carcasses, English butchers protested and the trade was banned. Finally, salt beef and pork, in barrels, became the outlet for Irish livestock breeders; this trade, being useful to the English navy and the mercantile marine, was allowed to pass without protest. It became one of Ireland’s staple industries.

At the time the political administration in Ireland was dominated by the landlord class and developed in their interest. The Dublin parliament was widely corrupt and operated on patronage. But despite this baseness the English parliament forbade them to legislate on political or economic matters. This arose because the English were afraid of Ireland being used by a foreign power to invade it and the ruling class wanted to maximise the plunder of the Irish economy.

Not surprisingly, these punitive restrictions reduced the peasantry to mere chattels and also not surprisingly some peasants took matters into their own hands to remedy the situation. The first recorded uprising by the frustrated peasantry took place in Limerick in 1781. This is known as the ‘Whiteboy’ conspiracy. It occurred when landlords tried to wall-off commonly owned land used by peasants to graze their livestock. Faced with this calamity the peasants turned out at night, threw down the walls, filled the trenches, ploughed-up the meadows and returned the land to its original condition. The landlords abandoned their attempt. From this successful beginning the Whiteboy movement spread through Munster into Connacht and Leinster.

From sporadic and occasional resistance to attempts to substitute grass farming for tillage, the movement developed into a permanent resistance to rack-renters, evictors, Iand-grabbers and tithe-proctors. Finally, it offered resistance to landlord-employers who offered - and labourer tenants who accepted - employment at less than a standard rate.

From 1761 to 1778 the landlords and the authorities waged perpetual war against the Whiteboys. Military expeditions were led against them. Suspects were taken out and hanged in scores. The death penalty was administered to anyone taking the Whiteboy oath of fidelity.

A similar but less militant movement developed among the Protestant peasants in the North. This movement was called the ‘Oakboys’. Formed in Monaghan it spread into Tyrone and Armagh. They revolted against forced labour for the repair of roads but were finally defeated in a bloody battle at Armagh.

The ‘Steelboys’ were Protestants in Antrim and Down who put up mass resistance to fines for the renewal of tenancies, to rack-rents, to tithes and to an attempt to introduce grass farming. They were a very strong organisation capable of mobilising thousands of peasants.

These agrarian struggles testified to an unrest which gave added force to the opposition which was being waged inside the Dublin parliament against the landed oligarchy for legislative reform.

Parallel with the constitutional struggle being waged by Henry Grattan and the agrarian unrest, the American War of Independence, also played a decisive part in revolutionising the political situation. The Irish trading class, of whom Grattan was the thief spokesman, were largely in sympathy with the American rebels. They could identify with the grievances they held about the economic restrictions imposed by the imperial ‘motherland’. There were also the effects which the sanctions imposed by Britain on America were having on the Irish trading class.

When the English government tried to raise an army to fight for it in America it met with widespread opposition throughout Ireland and so the British settled for a volunteer movement in Ireland for the purpose of defending Ireland against invasion from France or Spain, who had joined in with America against England. The volunteer movement spread rapidly and within one year there were 100,000 volunteers.

These volunteers transformed the situation and became a potent force used by Grattan to win legislative reform in parliament and a better deal for the emerging industrial bourgeoisie. Volunteer agitation spread and in 1782, 243 delegates from every volunteer corps in Ulster met in Dungannon and proclaimed as unconstitutional rule by Westminster and ‘Poyning’s Law’* and welcomed the relaxation of the Penal Laws against Catholics.

Just when everything seemed to be going well for Grattan and the Patriot Party a rival emerged from within the party. Henry Flood was claimed as more ‘radical’ than Grattan. Disputes over as to how to go forward rent the party and the volunteer movement asunder and the volunteers dissolved.

So it can be seen that a combination of social, economic and external political factors influenced this period and created a hothouse climate, especially in the North of Ireland, for the advent of the United Irishmen movement.

It can never be overestimated, the affect the French revolution had on the attitude and actions of the United Irishmen, and in particular Wolfe Tone himself. Writing of it in his diary he said: "The nation was in a state of lethargy... As the revolution advanced and as events expanded the public spirit of Ireland row with rapid acceleration. The fears and the animosity rose in the same or higher proportion. 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 that was a democrat from the beginning."

Just how interested the Irish were in the success of the revolution can be seen from the fact that Thomas Russell, soon to become one of the United Irishmen leaders, wrote to Tone and invited him to come to Belfast in 1791 to speak at a celebration marking the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Following the formation of the United Society, frequent and cordial correspondence took place between them and the Jacobin Society in Paris. In their journal, the Northern Star, they reported regularly the proceedings which took place at the Jacobin meetings. The progress of the revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy, the foundation of the republic, and the victories of the conscript armies, all received enthusiastic applause from the United Irishmen.

While Tone held a commanding position inside the United Irishmen he also held an equally influential position inside a middle class Catholic group pressurising for a relaxation of the Penal Laws to allow Catholics to play a role in Irish political life. This organisation was called the Catholic Committee. Until Tone took up a position it was a toothless and passive organisation. But he injected some militancy and before long the committee was demanding equality instead of begging for it ‘as they had done previously.

Tone accompanied a delegation which visited the English king demanding equality with Protestants. Facing war with revolutionary France over the execution of Louis XlV, the British conspired to win Catholic support in Ireland and so agreed to their requests. However, on returning home to Ireland the delegation bent under pressure from the Dublin parliament. All but Tone accepted less than what was agreed during the meeting with the king.

Meanwhile, the United Irish Society had been working away gaining more and more confidence and recruits and spreading the message of unity between the diverse religious sects for the purpose of attaining independence from Britain.

The ascendancy clique in Dublin Castle were greatly concerned about the unity being forged and set about fanning the flames of sectarianism and to foment division. Sectarian riots took place in County Armagh and the Protestant ‘Peep-O-Day boys’ re-emerged and began attacking farms owned by Catholics and driving them from the land. This gave rise to the Catholic ‘Defender’ organisation which acted to stop the ransacking of the farms.

When England declared war on France the Irish administration used it as a pretext to declare war on the United Irishmen. As a result, the Society was declared an illegal organisation and driven underground. The Irish administration treated it as a Jacobin conspiracy in the hope that the Catholic landed gentry would also oppose them.

Until this time the United Irishmen were a constitutional force but the actions of the administration quickly turned them into a conspiracy. Drilling and training were soon part of their curriculum.

The government passed repressive acts which virtually forced the country into a state of martial law despite there being no insurrection nor the likelihood of one for another four years. The United men made the mistake of rhetorically calling their volunteers to arms without actually making any provisions for doing so in fact. Hence their position fell to the government without a blow.

The Irish administration, to contain the growth of the United movement and to maintain their class interests, unleashed a campaign of horror which had not taken place in Ireland since Cromwell’s murderous exploits. Troops arrived from England and, with those already in Ireland, they set about the systematic terrorising of the entire country. They were authorised to use whatever methods they chose to suppress the rebels. Officers were told to quarter their troops anywhere and without payment, on anyone they thought fit; to requisition horses, carriages and carts; to demand forage and provisions; to hold court-martials; and to issue proclamations.

Homes were burnt wholesale, hundreds were murdered and thousands were arrested. The most rebellious were rounded up and forced to join the army. They were later sent to fight the French, much against their will because to a man they sympathised with the French.

To assist them in their terror campaign a body of Armagh magistrates, squires, squireens and parsons formed together under the pretext of law and order and the Protestant religion and formed the Orange Order. This oath-bound society was formed with the precise intention of renting asunder the solidarity engendered by the United Irishmen. The beneficiaries of such a development were the Dublin Castle clique and their hangers-on. The Orange Order functioned as a ‘union smashing’ force operating in the interests of an oligarchical class threatened with their overthrow by a revolutionary democratic advance.

After the arrest of numerous leading United men Tone agreed to go into voluntary exile. But before going he made a vow on Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast, with other compatriots, "never to desist from our efforts until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence."

Tone left for America in January 1796. By December of the same year he was on his way to France to raise an expeditionary force to land in Ireland and fight the British. Gale force winds blew for eight days preventing him from landing the 15,000 trained men and the guns for 20,000 more. At the time of the abortive landing there were not 3,000 soldiers defending Ireland. Tone tried on another two occasions but each time the bad weather prevented a landing. On the third occasion his ship was scuttled and he was arrested.

Prior to Tone’s arrest, whilst he was in France, the leadership of the United men fell to three men, Thomas Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Arthur O’Conor. When the first French landing failed they decided to set a date on which to commence the insurrection. They decided on May 22nd-23rd but two weeks before the date O’Conor and Emmet were arrested. Fitzgerald promptly appointed the Sheare brothers, from Cork, to replace those arrested. One week before the planned rising Fitzgerald was gravely injured when soldiers surrounded a house he was in. On the day before the planned rising the Sheare brothers were arrested and to complete the disaster Samuel Neilson, the ablest of the United men left, was arrested when storming the prison to get the others out.

When the eventful day arrived there was no member of the National Directory left in Ireland to co-ordinate the rising. Nevertheless the insurgents fought well. In twenty centres throughout the midlands risings took place. It is estimated that in Wexford alone 130,000 peasants and artisans took to the battlefield. Here the strong tradition of agrarian uprisings provided the backbone of the resistance.

In the North the counties of Antrim and Down also rose up and they too fought well. But by about June 21st, when the Vinegar Hill headquarters of the United men fell, the battle was all but over. The final blow was struck when Tone was arrested on his third attempt to land with a French expeditionary force.

When it was obvious that the rising was defeated the Irish ruling class sought their revenge in a sea of blood. The poorer quarters of Dublin were besieged for weeks with suspects being rounded up and systematically flogged. As usual the Orange Yeomanry surpassed the worst excesses, they were still hunting down and hanging United men four years later in 1802.

As soon as it was clear that the ‘98 rising had been crushed and that the French, as a consequence of the crippling of their fleet by Nelson at the Nile in August 1798, had ceased to be immediately dangerous, Pitt and the English government proceeded to exact their price for saving the ascendancy class in Ireland. That price was the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland.

Passed on January 1st 1801 the English ruling class got rid of revolutionary republicanism and was adding considerably to the power of the English government and ruling class to hold the Irish people in permanent subjection and to divert Ireland’s economic development into channels profitable to the English ruling class.

There was virtually no political opposition to the Union. The 102 members in the Irish parliament took their seats at Westminster without a murmur of protest. Almost to a man they were nominees of the landed interest. They were to be an invaluable asset to the landed class in Westminster who were at the time under pressure from 'the English trading and manufacturing bourgeoisie who were clamouring for parliamentary reform.

The Catholic hierarchy, who played a divisive role against the revolutionary United Irishmen, favoured the Union. They saw it as a way of trying to convert the English Protestants back to Catholicism and were further encouraged by the rumours that the state might subsidise them.

The Emmet rising in Dublin on July 23rd 1803 was, in part, a response to the Union, but more basically it was the last flare-up of the fire lit by the United Irishmen.

Robert Emmet was the brother of one of the ‘98 leaders Thomas Addis who made his way to Paris after the rising. There Addis was visited by Robert Emmet who also visited Bonaparte, the First Consul in the French republic. He returned to Ireland convinced that the French would soon invade England. This, he thought, would give Ireland its opportunity to rise again and he planned accordingly.

Emmet recruited his insurgents from the Dublin working class as well as from among the labouring element of the county districts.

His plan was to capture Dublin Castle and, with the help of old United men, Dublin city. He thought that success with his plan would lead to a country-wide rising.

The plan failed and instead of a rising there was an intense riot in the centre of Dublin. The rebels were routed and Emmet was captured a short time later. He was hanged on September 20th 1803.


* 'Poyning’s Law' in effect meant that any law passed by the bourgeois administration in Ireland could be vetoed in Westminster.




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