First came the American Revolution, which resulted in the colonies’ split from the British Empire; and then the French Revolution, which saw the execution of a king. By the late 18th century, the spirit of discontent and revolt was boiling and bubbling over throughout Europe, and it was a fearful time for rulers and their governments.
In Ireland especially, the circumstances for a rebellion were ideal and already set in place. The nation was divided by religion and socio-economic inequalities, and a small percentage of the population enjoyed a disproportionate amount of power. Although the capital of Dublin boasted its own parliament, it was essentially a puppet court, its strings controlled and manipulated by England, in whose power Ireland was unhappily situated.
In the late 18th century, the majority of Ireland was Catholic, yet England’s priority was not religious tolerance but rather Protestant dominance. Most Irish Catholics, along with Presbyterians and Methodists—there were some exceptions for wealthy landowners—were forbidden a series of rights, including the right to vote, the right to join the army, the right to hold office, and the right to inherit land in a will.
Naturally, these harsh laws ruptured the nation and nurtured distrust among its people, but they were also responsible for bringing together the Society of United Irishmen in 1791. The organization's initial aim was peaceful reform, but any student of history knows that reform is rarely peaceful. The Society based itself on the principles of the French Revolution, and through this idolization alone they invited bloody violence into their future.
The founder and leader of the Society was Theobald Wolfe Tone, a republican of tenacious character who inspired radical change with his pen as well as his charisma. In 1791 he had boldly published the pamphlet “An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland,” which he signed with the penname “A Northern Whig.” But pamphlets alone couldn’t bring about change, though they certainly planted the seeds.
In 1793, war broke out between the British Empire and France, and the Society of United Irishmen and their ideology were found to be too closely aligned with Britain’s post-revolutionary enemies. The Society was disbanded by government intervention, and Britain considered the matter settled and done with. But the Society continued to operate underground and clandestinely lure in thousands of new members.
Tone went into exile in France and busied himself with recruiting sympathetic French troops for Ireland’s freedom. In 1794, he almost made it back home with a force of 14,000 armed men, but the only battle these men would fight would be with the barbaric storms that destroyed their fleet and washed them up in Bantry Bay in County Cork. The survivors had to return home and regroup.
The Society of United Irishmen, in their own country, had regrouped well enough to have something resembling a plan. On May 23, 1798, the rebels plotted to capture all the mail coaches travelling out of Dublin that day, giving their secret ranks the signal to rise up and fight. Unfortunately, spies that had infiltrated the Society had warned the British government in advance. The plan was sloppily executed in some areas of Dublin and intercepted elsewhere, leading to arrests.
Fighting first broke out on May 24, 1798, leading to a series of grisly uprisings in Carlow, Kildare, Laois, Meath, Offaly, Wexford, and Wicklow. These were brutal clashes between the local Society recruits and British troops, which tragically led to the murders of uninvolved Irish peasants, either in the heart of battle or through retaliations when the British army raided villages. Wexford soon became the center of the conflict, which culminated in the final climatic confrontation, destined to be remembered as the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
The Battle of Vinegar Hill was fought on the 21st of June of that deadly year. It was the Society of the United Irishmen’s last stand against the might of the British army. Between 13,000 and 18,000 British soldiers attacked the main command post of the Society on the outskirts of Enniscorthy, County Wexford. The Society gathered together its own forces, and courageously met with the British army to battle them head-on, but it was a futile enterprise.
Though the Society’s forces amounted to around 16,000 to 20,000, they lacked weapons and proper organization, and were doomed from the beginning. The British army had guns, while most of the Society soldiers were armed only with primitive pikes. The battle began at dawn, and the United Irishmen were crushed and defeated. The fighting spilled from the hill into the streets of Enniscorthy, leading to even more bloodshed and casualties for the native Irish people. The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) later depicted the Battle of Vinegar Hill in his poem “Requiem for the Croppies,” thus immortalizing the lives of those who were slain in the onslaught.
Theobald Wolfe Tone did not participate in the Battle of Vinegar Hill. He was still occupied with gathering forces abroad in France and planning an invasion of Ireland to liberate it from tyrannical British rule. He was involved in orchestrating a series of raids on the Irish coasts, one of which led to the trial and execution of his brother Matthew.
On October 12, 1789, Tone travelled to County Donegal with a ragtag force of 3,000 soldiers, with the intent of resurrecting the rebellion from what was considered its irreversible death. He was captured instead by the British fleet, though it can be said that he put up an admirable fight with a three-hour battle at sea. Rather than be hanged by the imperial authorities and made into a symbol of warning for the rest of Ireland, Tone rebelled for the final time and took his own life by cutting his throat with a penknife on November 19, 1798. He was 35 years old. He was buried in Bodenstown, County Kildare, and his remains are still there today. When he perished, all hopes of continuing the rebellion died with him.
One great change was achieved by the rebellion of 1798, and this was the passing of the Acts of Union in 1800, which absorbed the Parliament of Ireland into the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the intention of lessening the powers of the Protestant Ascendancy. This led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the acknowledgement of Ireland as a kingdom in its own right rather than as Britain’s subordinate. However, George III of England—wary still of the Irish revolutionaries, particularly the Catholic ones—did not grant Catholic Emancipation immediately, as he and his parliament initially stipulated. It would be another 29 years before this promise was fulfilled.
Further aftermath of the rebellion concerns the legacy of Tone, the martyr for his cause. Patrick Henry Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, declared in a 1913 political speech that Tone’s grave and the presence of his fighting spirit made Bodenstown “the holiest place in Ireland,” and it currently remains a pilgrimage sight for students of Irish history.
But it was not always regarded with such relevance. In 1843, Thomas Davis, a poet and leader of the Young Ireland movement, sought out Tone’s grave—as a favor to Tone’s still-grieving widow Matilda Tone. He was devastated to find it unmarked and neglected, but consoled by the local blacksmith who had been guarding it from vandalism. To honor his predecessor of Irish Republicanism, Davis wrote “Tone’s Grave,” a poem that laments the defeat of the Society of United Irishmen. It was published by Young Ireland’s newspaper The Nation. The poem rescued Tone, and the turbulent events of 1798, from full erasure and obscurity. The final stanza is the most telling and heartfelt:
“In Bodenstown churchyard there is a green grave,
And freely around it let winter winds rave
Far better they suit him the ruin and gloom
Till Ireland, a nation, can build him a tomb.”