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Why Did the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland Fail?

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To understand the failure of the 1798 rebellion we need to consider the nature of Irish society prior to the rebellion. The upheavals of the 1600s resulted in the confiscation of almost all land owned by Catholics.[1, 2] The Penal Laws aimed at the Catholic majority and the dissenters meant that Ireland in the 18th century was dominated by a Church of Ireland elite (Protestant Ascendancy) who owned most of the land and monopolised politics.[3] Dissenters, including Presbyterians, who constituted the majority of Ulster Protestants, were second-class citizens while Catholics were third-class citizens.

Ireland underwent a period of economic growth in the 1700’s with the emergence of a dissenter and Catholic urban middle class which became increasingly irritated at the restrictions on Irish trade imposed by the British parliament. The vast majority of Catholics and many dissenters lived an impoverished existence on the land and was bound to cause later unrest.[4]

The American Revolution of 1776 appealed to dissenters because of the key role played by emigrant Ulster dissenters. It also caused the need to withdraw British troops from Ireland and send them to America. The Protestant Ascendancy established the Irish Volunteers in 1778 to defend Ireland from invasion.[5] The Volunteers came under the influence of the liberal patriot opposition in the Irish parliament who sought political reform. The Irish Government was based on a thoroughly undemocratic franchise controlled by individual aristocrats and by the British government through the patronage system. They were unwilling to permit Catholic emancipation while the more liberal members of the ruling class sought to improve the the rights of Dissenters and Catholics.[5]

In 1791 the United Irishmen were established to promote parliamentary reform in Ireland. Their leadership consisted of well-educated liberal members of the Protestant Ascendency, landed Catholic gentry and wealthy Presbyterians and demanded Irish independence and Catholic and dissenter rights.[5, 6] Besides Catholic and dissenter middle class support, the United Irishmen developed a base among urban workers in the Belfast area who wanted a republic based on universal franchise and a social program for the poor.[6]

The United Irishmen were strongly aligned with the French and were proclaimed illegal in May 1794 shortly after the declaration of war by Britain against France. They went underground and decided that an insurrection was necessary in order to establish an Irish Republic and reorganized themselves. They set up a cell structure in order to facilitate preparations for an insurrection. They sent emissaries across Ireland, Scotland and into the British navy. Crucially, they absorbed the Defenders, the main Catholic rural organization.[5, 6]

United Irishmen numbers were estimated at 280,000 men before the rebellion.[5] They sent Wolfe Tone to seek French military help. In December 1796, 14,000 troops were sent to Ireland but delays, violent storms, indecisiveness and poor seamanship prevented a landing and the French fleet were forced to return home.[7]

The formation of the Orange Order in 1795 in Ulster provided the Government with allies who had local knowledge of the activities of their enemies. The brutal disarming of Ulster in 1797, where the United Irishmen had successfully radicalised both Protestants and Catholics, saw thousands of Catholics driven from counties Antrim, Down and Armagh and the murder, torture and imprisonment of hundreds of Protestants suspected of being United Irishmen sympathisers.[5]

Sectarianism was encouraged in Ulster where the United Irishmen were especially strong in the hope that the Presbyterian republicans would not rebel. The placement of informants within the United Irishmen enabled the Government to carry out raids and confiscate weapons and arrest several leaders in Dublin in March 1798.[5]

Debate among the United Irishmen leadership about waiting for another French landing caused undue delay before the more radical faction advocating an immediate rising won the argument and the date was set for May 23, 1798. The plan was to rebel in Dublin first and then quickly spread to the surrounding counties.[5] However, informants provided last-minute intelligence to the Government of the rebel assembly points and the presence of huge military forces at these points deterred the rebels who dispersed and dumped their arms. Effectively, the armed uprising nucleus had imploded in Dublin but the rebellion spread to the surrounding areas. In the end, the rising was isolated to certain areas, most spectacularly in the southeast and Wexford in particular.

In Ulster, the working class were the backbone of the rising in which 27,000 turned out but the middle class elements in the leadership in Antrim and Down delayed setting a date for rebellion4. On June 7, the United Irishmen in Antrim and Down finally rebelled briefly occupying Antrim town, Ballymena, Kells and other towns before government troops forced a retreat. In Down 7,000 rebels fought staunchly before being defeated on June 14. The undue delay in starting the rebellion in Ulster was to prove costly. The 1798 rebellion essentially consisted of a series of uncoordinated uprisings throughout Ireland and in many cases they were based on local grievances rather than on an overall military strategy. However, in the southeast the rebels had a number of notable successes but finally were defeated. Eventually small French fleets arrived in Mayo and Donegal in August and October 1798 but it was a matter of too little too late for it to be effective since the rebellion was virtually over.[5.

While it is obvious that the rising was a failure, the causes are complex and intertwined. Contributing factors include the penetration of the United Irishmen by government spies; delays in setting the date for insurrection which sapped moral; the ferocity of repression, especially in Ulster where the United Irishmen were strongest; and the brutal disarming of rebels in Ulster in 1797 severely weakened the impact of Ulster in the rebellion.. The constant raids on rebels homes and arms dumps deprived the rebels of essential arms and thereby weakened their military strength. In Dublin the collapse and disintegration of the leadership meant that they were unable to impose any properly organised control of the rebellion. It could be argued that the United Irishmen over planned for the rebellion and as such were unable to quickly adapt and change plans when suitable opportunities arose. The highly democratic structure of the United Irishmen also meant that decisions were slow to be made and so strong leadership was absent.5, 6]

The Government forces outnumbered the rebels and were better armed and trained while rebels were no match for the British forces which also had cannons. The late arrival of the French forces was also a contributory factor. The failure of the Dublin rising was very significant and showed the lack of planning, co-ordination and focus that became obvious as the rebellion spread to other areas. Even the lack of co-ordination between the Ulster and Dublin rebels was very poor. The United Irishmen leadership lacked military experience and tactics and the officers chosen by the leadership to lead rebels had no knowledge or experience of warfare.[5]

Despite these shortcomings the rebels has successes due to the poor discipline and overconfidence of the Irish army and local militia; mainly in Wexford where the rebels were much better equipped and organised. The presence of a large number of non-rebel Catholic hangers-on seeking safety at the rebel camps hindered the rebels’ movements. The British commander Cornwallis’ proposal of a general amnesty was widely welcomed and many rebels returned to their homes.[5]

Rebel officers repeatedly made strategic mistakes, not only during battle, but also in deciding where and when to engage in battles. In a number of cases the rebel leaders engaged in avenging local grievances rather than press forward their advantage in the civil war.

The failed French invasion with 10,000 troops in late 1796 had a profound effect on the 1798 rebellion for a number of reasons. Firstly, it alerted the Irish government to the danger of rebellion by the United Irishmen. This led to to their activities being more closely monitored and scrutinised and the placement of government spies in their organisation. Second, it showed the French that the promised 100,000 rebels did not materialise and this undermined any chance of future large French support. Finally, it convinced the United Irishmen that they needed French military support prior to starting a rebellion.

The United Irishmen lacked strong military officers and central planning to win Irish independence; instead they were isolated, reckless and uncoordinated. The rebels’ lack of practical knowledge and experience severely prevented them from preparing properly for the rebellion. If the rebel forces had been under much more capable military leadership the rebellion may well have had a different outcome.


Simms, J,G. (1956) The Williamite confiscation in Ireland 1687-1703. London, Faber & Faber. Foster, R. F. (1990) Modern Ireland 1600-1972. London, Penguin Books. Simms, J. G. Chapter 13, pp. 204-216 in The Course of Irish History. Edited by Moody, T. W. and Martin, F. X. Revised and enlarged edition 1994. Dublin, Mercier Press. Wall, M. Chapter 14, pp. 217-231 in The Course of Irish History. Edited by Moody, T. W. and Martin, F. X. Revised and enlarged edition 1994. Dublin, Mercier Press. Johnston-Liik, E. M; Johnston, E. M. (1994) Ireland in the eighteenth century. Dublin, Gill and Macmillan. McDowell, R.B. Chapter 15, pp. 232-247 in The Course of Irish History. Edited by Moody, T. W. and Martin, F. X. Revised and enlarged edition 1994. Dublin, Mercier Press. Rosamund, J. (1937) The rise of the United Irishmen, 1791-94. London, Harrap.

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