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1800s Irish Rebellions Against Britain

Updated on March 15, 2013
Famine Mural on Whiterock Road, Belfast 2007
Famine Mural on Whiterock Road, Belfast 2007 | Source

A handful of names and dates stand out in Ireland's history from the late 1700s to the end of the first phase of the Land War with the introduction of the 1881 Land Act.

The history is in great part one of hidden histories; of class struggle, rich and poor, political power games, greed, naivety, idealism and a right to survive.

Wolfe Tone

Edward Delaney's statue of Wolfe Tone at the corner of St Stephen's Green in Dublin
Edward Delaney's statue of Wolfe Tone at the corner of St Stephen's Green in Dublin | Source

The Late 1700s, The Birth of Sectarianism in Ireland, British Politico-Military Atrocities, The 1798 Uprising and Wolfe Tone

Towards the end of the eighteenth century some of the more privileged and liberal members of Irish society, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, began to agitate for reform and greater equality.

At the time of the American Revolutionary War, the Irish Volunteers, employed to defend Ireland from the threat of French and Spanish Invasion, also began to press for greater Irish independence.

At this point in history, few people had the franchise – the right to vote or the right to hold public office. A group called The United Irishmen formed in Belfast, growing out of one company of the Irish Volunteers, under the leadership of Wolfe Tone. They sought to gain greater autonomy for Ireland from Britain, and emancipation for the majority Catholic population, who were barred by their religion from holding the franchise.

The United Irishmen organisation comprised both Catholics and Protestants, fighting for the same causes – greater independence from Britain; political freedom in the form of the right to vote and hold public office; and religious tolerance.

In the face of this concerted attack on the political dominance of Britain in Ireland, British political powers sought to divide this growing threat by agitation in the form of propaganda that pitched Protestant against Catholic.

In 1796, Wolfe Tone attempted to organise an invasion with the aid of French troops on Irish soil, but the attempt had to be aborted before the ships landed at Bantry Bay, and the would-be rebellion retreated.

By 1797, the United Irishmen counted 200,000 members of the Irish population in their ranks, and British political powers began a vicious and violent campaign of military rule in Ireland.

The 1798 rebellion proper opened on 24th May, but the rebels were quickly and violently quashed by Crown military forces. In the aftermath, captured rebels were brutally put to death en masse, with many even being burned alive.

The extreme nature of the British political and military response to what essentially began as a cry for equality, democracy and some measure of self-determination, and the sectarian lines that were nascent at this point but growing as a tool of political machinations on both sides of the Irish-British divide, would come to dominate perceptions, memory and the historical record.

1803, Robert Emmet

Emmet was from a wealthy Protestant background, but was firmly against the inherent political and social inequality of the political structure of Ireland – that is, that the Catholic majority were barred from political representation.

Whilst still in his teens, Emmet joined a secret United Irish society in college, and later fled to France to escape arrest. He returned to Ireland in 1802, to plan an uprising for the same ideals as the 1798 rebellion, with which he had been in sympathy.

The 1803 uprising was unsuccessful, failing to gain the same widespread support as Tone's campaign, since fear of British military reprisal was overwhelming now, and informants loyal to the Crown were rife.

The rebellion turned into something of an uncontrolled, unmanaged riot, and Emmet's attempts to call a halt to the violence after he witnessed a brutal killing went unheeded.

Emmet was captured by the British authorities and sentenced to death by hanging, followed by the beheading of his corpse.

Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O'Connell
Daniel O'Connell | Source

1820s, Daniel O'Connell, the Catholic Association, the Tithe War, and Campaign for the Repeal of the Union

Daniel O'Connell was from a privileged Catholic family, and studied in France and then as a barrister in London and Dublin. His sense of equality and liberty was strong, and he was ethically opposed to violence – whilst he shared many of the ideals of Emmet, he was very much against that man's methods, or indeed any armed rebellion, preferring an intellectual battle to a physical one.

O'Connell formed the Catholic Board in 1811, and the Catholic Association in 1823 to fight for the rights of Catholics, in particular political emancipation and socio-economic equality.

In 1829 O'Connell won the by-election in county Clare, but was unable to take his seat in the House of Commons as he could not, according to his Catholic religion, take the Oath of Supremacy that was a requirement at the time.

Fearful of unrest in Ireland if the popular O'Connell were denied his democratically elected place in politics, the British government conceded and passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, which removed the previously compulsory section of the Oath that was objectionable.

Tithe War 1830-33

Land Workers in Britain and Ireland were required by law to pay a tithe – a proportion of their income – to the official Protestant Church. As the majority of land workers in Ireland belonged to the Catholic Church, this was seen as outrageously unfair, and a peaceful protest began wherein Catholics withheld payment of the tithe.

The protest turned violent when the constabulary was given orders to collect the tithes through force by seizing workers' property. Workers responded by violent resistance, with which they were then charged, but O'Connell successfully defended many of the thus accused who were subsequently acquitted.

After 1833, force was no longer used as a method to collect tithes.

Repeal of the Union Campaign

In 1840, O'Connell set up the Repeal Association, which became a hugely popular movement opposing the Act of Union of 1801 that had merged British and Irish parliaments.

The movement was quashed by the British government, who in response to its overwhelming popularity banned one of its 'Monster Meetings' at Clontarf, and imprisoned O'Connell despite that he complied with the ban because of fears of bloodshed and violence. His imprisonment and conviction was overturned by the British House of Lords, but his health had already been irreparably damaged by his time in prison, and he died in 1847.

Bereft of O'Connell as its guiding light, the Repeal Association became rife with dissension and fractured.

Young Ireland Movement and Rebellion

The Young Ireland movement was active from 1842-48. It was started by idealistic graduates from Trinity college, Dublin. Although their aims were along similar lines to the spirit of O'Connell's activism, O'Connell and the Young Ireland group seemed to have a mutual distrust of one another.

YI aims were more romantic and cultural than the Repeal campaign, promoting Irish literature and language, but they were also advocates of the repeal of the Act of Union, and were opposed to sectarianism.

However, when O'Connell formally brought into the Repeal Association a requirement for its members to eschew the use of force in achieving its aims, the YI movement split from the association despite that they had no plans to use force or outright rebellion at the time.

The Young Ireland Rebellion in 1848 was poorly thought-out and managed. British troops were dispatched quickly to dispel the uprising, the authorities having been alerted by informers, so the rebellion was ended quickly and no blood was shed. Those rebels who were arrested and charged with treason were transported to what is now known as Tasmania, what was then called Van Diemen's Land.

Background to the Young Ireland Rebellion

The year of the rebellion – 1848 – was in the middle of the period of the Great Famine (1845-49), when hundreds of thousands of Irish people were dying of starvation and diseases caused or exacerbated by malnutrition – the most recent estimates by researchers suggest that one million people died as a result of the famine.

It is the darkest period of Ireland's history, and a crisis that the government failed to manage or mitigate: by 1847, the inadequate and badly administered measures included importation of corn and maize that was sold to the starving Irish population at above the market rate, and often useless employment creation schemes where workers' wages were often delayed for weeks, with the result that those workers were either unable to buy food, or could buy it only by taking out loans from private lenders, and thus accruing interest they could ill-afford.

Fenian Movement and Uprising

The Fenian movement began in the United States among the Diaspora – the immigrants to the US who had left Ireland to escape the disease and starvation of the Famine.

A former Young Irelander, John O'Mahony, had escaped to Paris from the British authorities after the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, and from France he went to the US. Once there found support for the cause of Irish Independence among others who felt that the government had acted inadequately during the years of famine and who thus believed that an Ireland independent from British rule was the only way forward. Another former YI, James Stephens, had similarly escaped to Paris, but returned to Ireland and started a secret society in Dublin in 1858 with revolution as its aim.

The attempts at rebellion, most notably in 1867, failed for a variety of reasons – the organisation had been infiltrated by the British government; they lacked funds; and there were divisive splits within the organisation.

However, the legacy of the Fenian movement was a far-reaching one, not because of what they did themselves, but because of the heavy-handed actions of the British government. On 18th September 1867, two Fenian prisoners were being transported when their van was attacked. In the fracas, an unarmed policeman was shot and killed. Out of five members of the Fenian organisation charged with the killing, three were executed. But the shooting of the policemen, though tragic, was seen by many as accidental, and the executed became known as the 'Manchester Martyrs', which fired public support, if not for the Fenian movement itself, then for Irish nationalism and Home Rule, which had previously attracted little public support.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Statue of Charles Stewart Parnell, O'Connell Street, Dublin, Ireland
Statue of Charles Stewart Parnell, O'Connell Street, Dublin, Ireland | Source

The Land War

After years of inadequate harvests during the famine years, problems peaked once more for tenant farmers when crops began to fail again in the 1870s due to foul wet summers. Many farmers were simply unable to pay rents to their landlords, and landlords were in turn beginning to evict their tenant farmers.

There was little protection in law for the farmers of the South of Ireland. Some had been on their plots of land for generations, and had made improvements both to the homes they lived in and the land they worked. In the North, such improvements and tenant rights were given weight through what was known as the Ulster custom, but in the South no such rights existed.

The Land War turned rapidly into a war on landlordism, fuelled by the British connection of landlords and rhetoric of rights, ownership and past grievances liberally applied by the Land League organisation that sought to gain tenant rights.

The Land League was an organisation headed by master politician Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was born into a Protestant landowning family, but he was also a keen political player and a nationalist. The Land League provided funds to help tenant farmers fight evictions and build alternative accommodation.

However, Parnell's part in the Land War is not without its critics, since it can be seen as a stepping stone in his political career and a manoeuvre towards Home Rule, rather than a sincere humanitarian effort.

The Ladies' Land League

Parnell employed the help of his sisters Anna and Fanny as part of the Land League's efforts – Fanny founded the New York Ladies' Land League to raise funds in the US for the cause, and Anna headed the Ireland-based Ladies' Land League. The women were hugely successful, and Anna in particular attracted great crowds when she spoke at rallies and meetings, and orchestrated front-line aid for dispossessed farmers and their families, and even used her own money to do so at times. In many histories of the era, Anna is relegated to a footnote, partly because the records of the Ladies Land League have been lost, but partly because her brother Charles Stewart Parnell cut off the funding of the Ladies' branch of the Land League when he turned his back on the agrarian cause, a move that Anna complained of bitterly in her autobiography The Great Sham.

1881 Land Act and Tenant Rights

The Land War was pacified by the introduction by Gladstone in 1881 of the Land Act, which provided some tenant rights – essentially codifying the Ulster custom for the whole of Ireland: Fair rent, Fixity of tenure and Free sale, known informally as the 'three Fs'. However, the agrarian struggle continued in various forms well into the twentieth century, with land seizures and rent strikes occurring up to 1923.

Time for Peace

Time for Peace Mural, Whiterock Road, Belfast 2007.
Time for Peace Mural, Whiterock Road, Belfast 2007. | Source


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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I learn more about history from HubPages than I did in college. Thank you for this history lesson. Perfectly described and explained.

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