Irish intoxicated by heady air of revolution


On October 14th, 1791, stimulated by the successful transition of Britain's American colonies into an independent democracy by 1785 and by the challenging implications of the French Revolution of 1789, the committee of the Society of United Irishmen is formed in Belfast.

The diverse nature of its membership reflects the rapid changes in Irish society from the 1770s in which longstanding Protestant fears of religious persecution at the hands of the Catholic majority have greatly abated. Indeed, the toppling of the corrupt Ancien Regime in France by Catholic revolutionaries is wildly celebrated on Bastille Day by many of Belfast's 18,000 residents.

Tom Paine's serialised The Rights of Man, a stirring defence of 1789 against Edmund Burke's conservative Reflections on the Revolutions in France, is hugely popular and widely distributed.

Such is the desire of the masses to keep abreast of politics that illiterate workers hire educated men to read the burgeoning polemics aloud. Dubliners signal their admiration of their French counterparts by addressing each other as "citizen" and cutting or "cropping" their hair short in the style of the Jacobins.

The growing influence of such notions as the rights of man and liberty, equality and fraternity operate powerfully on the minds of the liberal Dublin and Belfast intellectuals who come together to form the United Irishmen.

Their leading personalities include a Protestant lawyer from the capital, Theobald Wolfe Tone; a Catholic doctor, William James MacNeven; and a Presbyterian social radical, Samuel Neilson, of Belfast. These and other predominately middle class radicals envisage uniting their Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter (i.e. Presbyterian) countrymen in the cause of parliamentary reform, not least Catholic emancipation.

The government of Ireland is vested in the hands of an elitist parliament in the Houses of Commons and Lords at College Green, Dublin. King George III is monarch of Britain and Ireland and his Viceroy, or Lord Lieutenant, closely monitors the political affairs of the nation from Dublin Castle. Parliament is dominated by the established Church of Ireland Ascendancy and its members are elected by their propertied freeholder co-religionists or appointed by powerful borough patrons.

The United Irishmen resent the sectarian franchise restrictions and that this forum, notwithstanding the wresting of certain constitutional rights from London in 1782, remains subordinate in many respects to Westminster and British interests.

At their inaugural public meeting on October 18th, 1791 the United Irishmen unanimously adopt resolutions calling for a "cordial union of all the people of Ireland" to counteract the "weight of English influence". Their stated objective is the "complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Ireland", which, in the interests of justice, must include "Irishmen of every religious persuasion".

Tone privately informs his friend Thomas Russell, a Cork army officer, that their agenda is underwritten by a commitment to effecting separation of Ireland from Britain. On November 9th, 1791 Tone is present at the founding of a second club of United Irishmen at the Eagle Tavern, Eustace Street, along with Napper Tandy, Dr William Drennan, Simon Butler and Archibald Hamilton Rowan.

Ruan O'Donnell is the author of Rebellion in Wicklow 1798 to be published shortly by the Irish Academic Press