Last words on the Rising

 

Now that the bicentenary year is past, cynics are already asking whether we are suffering from 1798 fatigue. Late in the year, a planned commemorative pageant in Gorey, Co Wexford, had to be cancelled due to lack of interest. In the past twelve months, virtually every parish and village in the southeast has unveiled its own monument, staged its own commemoration, and hosted its own ecumenical service, and there has been a plethora books claiming to give new insights on the Rising from national, county and local perspectives.

We have also seen the republication and re-packaging of earlier books, sometimes without any critical reassessment in the light of research. And so a unique and very welcome contribution to the studies of 1798 has been made by Professor David Wilson in his account of the fortunes of those United Irishmen who emigrated to North America after the Rising: United Irishmen, United States, Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic (Four Courts Press, no price given).

Wilson argues that the modern, secular, republican form of Irish-American nationalism originated not with the famine nor with the mass migration at the end of the Napoleonic wars, but with the United Irishmen who arrived in America between 1795 and 1806, including Thomas Addis Emmet, William McNeven, Samuel Neilson, John Chambers, William Sampson, John Burns and the Carey brothers.

He examines the links these United Irishmen forged with revolutionary and radical politics in America, and their significant contribution to the democratisation of American life. Moving through the social networks built up by earlier immigrants, "they effectively took over Irish America and remodelled it according to their own revolutionary democratic republican image." They worked for a broader political franchise, liberalised naturalisation laws, constitutional reform, and a more equitable and accessible legal system.

Dr Wilson, who provides sympathetic cameos of Archibald Hamilton Rowan and his eccentricities, the millenarian Rev Thomas Ledlie Birch and his suffering at the hands of evangelical revivalists during the Second Great Awakening, and John D'Evereux from Wexford, who was implicated in the burning of the barn at Scullabogue and later raised an Irish Legion for Simon Bolivar's army in Venezuela.

Wilson deals a blow to both the myth of a secret United Irish oath to murder Protestants, and Orange rumours of a password that reminded rebels of this oath, Eliphismatis ("Every loyal Irish Protestant heretic I shall murder, and this I swear").

Unfortunately, these myths and legends continue to be repeated, and they are recycled uncritically by the playwright Padraic O'Farrell who has edited The '98 Reader (Lilliput, £5.99), which reproduces a number of significant documents from the period, as well as William Drennan's "The Wake of William Orr", Florence Wilson's "The Man from God knows where", and a number of Orange ballads from the time, including "Croppies Lie Down" and "The Orange Lilly". But a number of unfortunate errors have slipped in: Henry Munroe was a member of the Church of Ireland from Lisburn, not a Scottish Protestant; the Act of Union came into force in 1801, not 1800. Without explanation or justification, he dismisses Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey as "a totally inept leader" who was "totally unsuited" for his appointment, and his introduction to P.J. McCall's "Kelly of Killanne" tells us what he thinks of Harvey, but provides no new assessment of Kelly, who has also emerged recently as one of the Protestant leaders of the Wexford Rising. One has to seriously question the presuppositions of a writer who can seek to praise Henry Grattan by saying that "although Protestant, he campaigned for Catholic Emancipation".

Many of the themes that have emerged in recent research were aired and discussed in this year's Thomas Davis Lectures, which have been collected and edited by Cathal Poirteir in The Great Rebellion of 1798 (Mercier Press, £8.99). This collection draws together a number of important themes and introduces the newcomer to some of the key researchers and writers in this area.

It sets the Ireland of 1798 in the context of revolutionary Europe, and yet paints of a picture of the common people on the eve of the rebellion. Kevin Whelan places the rebellion in the context of three earlier revolutions: England (1688), America (1776) and France (1789), and Dr Daire Keogh challenges the image of 1798 as a priest-led rebellion in the south-east, an image that misses the real significance of the rising's political inspiration and execution.

The lectures also look at some of the many unanswered questions about the Rising: A.T.Q. Stewart asks why the rising in the northeast, the birthplace of republicanism, was so slow to start; Tommy Graham looks at the series of disasters that prevented a major rising in Dublin; and Brendan Mac Suibhne asks why no significant rising took place in the north-west.

The significance of these questions underlines the need for thorough research by local historians, and the past year has seen a number of very professional and well-produced studies of the Rising from regional, county and parish perspectives. A good example is provided by Liam Kelly's A Flame Now Quenched: Rebels and French- men in Leitrim 1793-1798 (Lilliput, £9.99). He traces the Rising in his area from the first sparks in 1795 to the final defeat of the United Irishmen at Ballinamuck, Co Longford. While others have restored the international dimension to the Rising, Kelly looks at the French intervention and yet reminds us of the role played by the Peep O'Day Boys and the Defenders and the significance of the Battle of the Diamond in 1795.

A more detailed work of local history is J.M. Barry's Pitchcap and Triangle: The Cork Militia in the Wexford Rising (Sidney Publishing, Cork, no price given). Although this is a limited edition, and could have been better edited to exclude accounts of events as far back as the 1640s, Dr Barry has provided a much-needed account of the regiments, yeomen and militia who fought in Wexford, and gives biographical sketches of many of the key figures who have retained a reputation for cruelty.

The relevance of 1798 to later Risings has also been portrayed in an accessible and colourful way by Helen Litton in her Irish Rebel- lions 1798-1916, An Illustrated History (Wolfhound Press, £6.99). This is a small, colourful book, and although only a small portion (pages 7-38) deals with 1798, it is a useful introduction.

If 1798 fatigue has set in, then historians can turn their attention to assessing the Act of Union in the years 2000 and 2001, and join in the bicentenary commemorations of Robert Emmet's Rising in 2003. But there are still a number of books about 1798 waiting to be written: there is a variety of studies of the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian clergy of 1798, but Daire Keogh has pointed out the need for a comprehensive study of the attitude of the Church of Ireland clergy to the Rising and their role in the events of 1798; no full, critical study or biography of Bagenal Harvey has been published so far; and there is a crying need both for a 1798 bibliography, and a "Who's Who of 1798". None of these should be left waiting too long to be written.