A history of Ireland in 100 objects: Pike, 1798
No Irish event of such consequence is more powerfully symbolised by a single object than the 1798 insurrection and the pike. Pikes had been a standard weapon of medieval and early modern armies, but by the 18th century they were much more strongly associated with revolutionary violence. Every village had a blacksmith, and pikes were cheap to make. So symbolic of popular insurrection has the weapon become that it is generally forgotten that crown forces in Ireland in 1798 used pikes as well.
The first seizure of hidden pikes was in Dublin in 1793. Four years later the directory of the United Irishmen ordered all members who could not afford firearms to equip themselves with pikes. They were made in vast numbers: more than 70,000 were found in government searches in Leinster and Ulster in 1797 alone. When fighting finally began, charges by massed ranks of pike-wielding men were the main rebel tactic. The rebel leader Joseph Holt claimed that “the pike, in a charge, was much superior to any other weapon”. Jonah Barrington, an independent observer, noted “the extreme expertise with which the Irish handled the pike”. But even this expertise was seldom sufficient for very long against trained troops.
The United Irishmen had been founded in Belfast in October 1791, aiming, as one of its leaders, Theobald Wolfe Tone, put it, to “comprehensively embrace Irishmen of all denominations” in the cause of democratic reform and “national government”. Its initial methods were constitutional, but after Britain declared war on revolutionary France in 1793, demands for peaceful reform were increasingly met with frustration and repression. Sectarian clashes in Armagh in 1795 led to the foundation of the Orange Order and the banning of the United Irishmen. Campaigns for reform turned to dreams of revolution. Tone and other leaders went to Paris. A French invasion fleet of 43 ships set sail for Bantry Bay in 1796 but was driven back by gales.
The government launched a ferocious campaign of repression. Through house-burnings, floggings, torture and executions, it smashed the United Irish organisation in Ulster, which had deep support among Presbyterians there.
While Tone waited for another French invasion, the rebellion erupted unexpectedly in Wexford on May 23rd 1798, largely in response to savage repression. By the end of May the rebels had taken Wexford town and Enniscorthy. They were driven back from New Ross on June 4th, however, and crushed at Vinegar Hill above Enniscorthy on June 21st. By then a belated rising in Ulster, beginning in Antrim on June 7th and partly led by the young Belfast cotton-maker Henry Joy McCracken, had also been defeated.
By the time a small French force under Gen Jean Joseph Humbert arrived at Killala Bay, on August 22nd, it was no more than a bloody coda to the bloodiest rising in Irish history. When Tone, captured on a French ship, took his own life, he was one of about 30,000 who had died violently since May.
The United Irishmen’s hope for a nonsectarian Irish democracy was drowned in this bloodshed; the conflict ultimately reinforced sectarian divisions by shattering Presbyterian radicalism. The idea of “the pike in the thatch” as a symbol of revolutionary continuity retained its romantic appeal. But 1798 changed Ireland for good: the revolutionaries’ ideal of unity became an ever more distant dream.
Thanks to Lar Joye
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie