“The entire island is United…”

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), The United Irishmen, Volume 8

St John's, Newfoundland, seen from outside the Narrows, 1798. (British Museum)

St John’s, Newfoundland, seen from outside the Narrows, 1798. (British Museum)

I have a vast heap of trouble on my hands as I must be very soon preparing no small number of the Newfoundland Regiment for death. Those villains who formed a plot to take and plunder the town, were strictly bound together with the infamous link of the United Irishmen’s Oath, and are supposed to have been determined to meet at mass on the 20th of April and proceed thence to the Protestant church and make prisoners of all that were there.

[From a letter of Bishop James Louis O Donel to fellow government supporter and loyalist, Fr. Joseph Octave Plessis, St John’s, Newfoundland, 14 May 1800.]

Dr. James Louis O Donel, Catholic bishop of St John’s, Newfoundland, had got wind of a plot by United Irishmen in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencibles to take over the town, if not the entire colony, just a few days before it was to take place, and he immediately informed the authorities. The plan was for the Unitedmen in town to rise with their colleagues in the garrison while the unarmed Protestant officers and soldiers were at church on the morning of Sunday 20 April 1800. The authorities realised that the situation was serious, but they did not panic; the officers kept the suspected leaders of the plot under observation, and when Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, they announced that they would avail of the unusually fine weather to put the entire garrison on parade. Sunday services were cancelled and the soldiers were put through a series of drills and exercises throughout most of the day.
The Unitedmen in the regiment suspected that their officers were aware that something was up, and so they hurriedly revised their plans, fixing the following Thursday for the rising. In the meantime, Bishop O Donel busied himself dissuading the townsfolk from having anything to do with it, pointing out that British military might would inevitably prevail. On the evening of Thursday 24 April, a number of soldiers deserted their posts, with the intention of rendezvousing at a designated location away from the town and the military bases; but they were spotted and all but a few were captured. In spite of the fact that no blood was shed, eight of the Unitedmen were hanged and several more sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Newfoundland Irish alienated from the Crown

What documentary evidence we have of the events is from the reports and letters of government officials and military men; there is nothing at all from the United Irishmen. But it seems certain that they were well organised in those outports and harbours around the coast of Newfoundland where the Irish predominated. The great majority of the 3,500 inhabitants of St John’s in 1800 were Irish, and since the fencibles were recruited locally, most were also Irish. The authorities were not sure how loyal they would be in the event of any attack from French forces, with whom Britain was then at war, and there had been earlier evidence of discontent among the garrison in St John’s which caused them further unease.
David Webber, historian of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencibles, emphasises that while conditions for the majority of ordinary people were appalling then and later, they were particularly difficult for the Irish. The penal laws, which repressed the social and religious activities of Catholics in Ireland and Britain, were implemented against the Irish in Newfoundland, as well.
There can be no doubt that the existing social structure in the colony had already alienated the Irish from the Crown. There were many contributing factors—the poor living conditions of the troops, the near slavery of the fishermen and labourers who were kept in debt by their employers year after year, the denial of religious and political freedoms, the laws which forbade the free movement of the inhabitants and a host of other pieces of legislation which made any chance of betterment of the poor impossible.

Waterford/Wexford connections

The vast majority of the Irish in Newfoundland came from within a thirty mile radius of Waterford city, and thousands of young men from the area went to Newfoundland in the spring and returned the following autumn. It is safe to assume therefore that many of the Irish of St John’s and soldiers in the garrison had become acquainted with the twin aims of the United Irishmen of parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation in Ireland.
General John Skerrett, the commander of the troops in St John’s since May 1799, had served in the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, and in his correspondence was inclined to exaggerate the threat from the Irish in Newfoundland. But if we are to believe his version of events, the United Irishmen were organised on the island in 1798. The Duke of Kent, commander of the British forces in British North America, was based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Skerrett wrote to him a week after the attempted rising of April 1800: ‘In 1798 they [the Unitedmen in St John’s] had their Directory of five’. In any case, by the winter of 1799, it seems certain that the United Irishmen were organising on the island, and plans were being laid for an rising of some sort the following spring.
In the summer of 1799 Governor Waldegrave wrote to the Duke of Portland expressing his misgivings about the Newfoundland Regiment of Fencibles. His fear was that they could not be depended upon in the event of an attack by the French:

Your Grace is well acquainted that the whole of these are of the Roman Catholic persuasion. As the Royal Newfoundland Regiment had been raised in the island, it is needless of me to endeavour to point out the small proportion the native English bear to the Irish in this body of men. I think it necessary to mention this circumstance, in order to show your Grace how little dependence could be placed on the military in case of any civil commotion in the town of St John’s.

Several people who had been caught up in the terrible events of 1798 in Ireland sought refuge in Newfoundland, availing of an easy escape route through ports like New Ross and Waterford. General Skerrett claimed he recognised forty of those whom he alleged were recruiting members for the United Irishmen in St John’s, and he goes on to talk of the events leading up to the rising: ‘The most ardent missionary to this place was an intriguing priest, Father John, a man of boisterous eloquence endowed with abundant [sic] of talent to do the utmost detriment to society’. Skerrett claimed that after his service in the rebellion in Ireland he arrived in St John’s and found Father John

with forty united men that he [Skerrett] had sent to New Geneva Barracks in Waterford to be transported for their revolutionary impiety. They bribed their way out of prison. They soon spread disruption in Newfoundland and caused the revolution in the garrison.

The entire island is United... 2

But Skerrett always liked to paint as dark a picture as possible, overstating the case in order to boost his own standing with the colonial authorities, and there is no record of his having arrested any of these alleged Unitedmen either before or after the attempted rising; nor is there any record of a priest called Fr. John in St John’s at the time.

Bishop O Donel: ‘a very valuable man’

In any case, Bishop O Donel (an Irish-speaking Franciscan from Tipperary) would never have tolerated any member of his clergy getting involved in anything that smacked of rebellion or sedition. Skerrett leaves us in no doubt as to where O Donel’s loyalty lay:

I have had frequent communication with [O Donel]. He says if there is danger in the United People, it is with this regiment…At one time from the dissolute manners of his people he lost all confidence with them and he was preparing to leave the island.

It was with very good reason that Skerrett described O Donel in the same letter as ‘a very valuable man’, because when the Bishop heard about the plot, the general was the one he informed about the plan. It is still believed in Newfoundland, even to this day, that O Donel learned about it from a woman in confession. O Donel’s mentor in Ireland was Dr. Troy, the archbishop of Dublin, and like him, he had an absolute horror of French revolutionary ideas.
Documentary evidence of what took place in April 1800 is scarce, but from what we do know, it is evident that there were Unitedmen not only in St John’s and the Newfoundland Regiment of Fencibles, but in several outports along the coast. In a letter to Governor Waldegrave in July 1800, the chief justice of Newfoundland, Johnathan Ogden, stated that there were four hundred men in St John’s who were ‘privy to this business’. He added that most of the men in those outports where the Irish predominated had taken the United oath. Skerrett confirmed Ogden’s view of the numbers  involved, and added that it was these same people and not the men in the regiment that were behind the plot:

The management of this conspiracy appears to have been under the direction of the same united men in town, and is of greater extent than I at first viewed it. If I was at this moment empowered to declare martial law, I would say that the standard of rebellion was erected in this Island. The Magistrates are fearful to do their duty, and the United villains are no longer restrained by fear, from the fullest conviction that they will be supported by many of the military.

In that same letter the general stated that he was forced to strengthen the garrison in the town of Placentia, seventy-five miles southwest of St John’s, ‘as the United men there have been destroying houses and plundering the well affected’. It is worth noting that the most important merchant in Placentia at that time was Pierce Sweetman in whose family home at Newbawn, County Wexford, the 1798 Wexford insurgent leaders, Bagnal Harvey, John Colclough, Michael and Matthew Furlong and others—according to Sweetman family tradition—prepared for the battle of Ross. In his A Personal Narrative…, Thomas Cloney, who took a leading part in the battle, states that they returned to the house when it was all over.
In another letter to the duke a couple of days later Skerrett provided the additional information that many were supportive of the planned rising. He was convinced that there was a connection between the attempted rising in St John’s and the immigration of United Irishmen after 1798. In his 1863 history of Newfoundland, Charles Pedley, goes even further and states that the United Irishmen in Ireland were behind the plot and that this was set in motion some time before the rebellion in Ireland:

This conspiracy seems to have been secretly working for some time, suggested, as was given in evidence afterwards by one implicated in the plot, by a communication from Ireland, where was organising the movement which led to the rebellion of 1798.

The man who was ‘implicated in the plot’ was Nicholas McDonald, and apart from three Unitedmen who were hanged in Halifax, his is the only name we have of those arrested following the failed rising. We know nothing of his background or what became of him afterwards. Pedley adds:

In St John’s an association of United Irishmen had been formed, the members of which were leagued together by an oath. The terms of the oath were very general, as setting forth the objects of the association, so far as these were communicated to the majority of the members.
From the evidence of Nicholas M’Donald, who himself had been sworn, it appears to have consisted of three parts. They are thus stated by him before the courtmartial:-
1st. ‘By the Almighty Powers above, I do persevere to join the Irishmen in this place’—then he kissed the book.
2nd. ‘I do persevere never to divulge the secrets made known to me’—kissed the book.
3rd. ‘I do persevere to aid and assist the heads of the same, of any religion’—kissed the book. The last clause was probably directed to meet the case of such of the leaders as were not of the Catholic pale.
McDonald also said that the members used signs and passes to identify themselves, and he stated that there were about four hundred men in the town who were involved in the organisation. The success of the whole venture, he said, depended on the participation of the Newfoundland fencibles, and the Unitedmen in town were quite anxious about this; however, as Pedley says, they need not have worried, because the soldiers had their own grievances, and ‘were only too likely to sympathise with the social and religious feelings of that body’.

No United Irish accounts

Most of the information we have on the events of late April 1800 comes from the reports of General Skerrett and one or two other officials. Apart from the small amount of evidence given by Nicholas McDonald, there is nothing at all available from the Unitedmen; nor can we be sure how reliable McDonald’s statements were.
The rising was set for Sunday 20 April, when soldiers and officers were at their religious services—’English to church, Irish to chapel’ was how one officer described it. This afforded the disaffected soldiers the best opportunity of surprise because officers and soldiers were forbidden to carry their arms to divine service.

Dr James Louis O Donel, Catholic bishop of St John's-from the British government's point of view ‘a very valuable man'. (Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation)

Dr James Louis O Donel, Catholic bishop of St John’s-from the British government’s point of view ‘a very valuable man’. (Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation)

According to Skerrett the plan was to massacre all the officers and the Protestant merchants in the town. Pedley adds:

Should the work be thus successfully inaugurated at St John’s, this was to be the signal for its reproduction throughout those districts in the colony where the conspirators were in sufficient force.

However, Skerrett and his officers, being forewarned, cancelled church services and the garrison was put on parade. The United leaders, realising that the authorities had tumbled to their plans, decided to seize the town a few days later, commandeer a vessel, and make their escape to the United States.
On the following Thursday evening, 24 April, a Sergeant Kelly and twelve of the regiment deserted their posts on Signal Hill above the harbour of St John’s, and at the same time, six members of the Royal Artillery at Fort Townshend above the town, left their posts and headed for a powder shed behind the fort. They were all armed and were to be joined there by thirty more soldiers—’all of them united men’. But they were captured before they got very far. Shortly afterwards, three others were seized, four more surrendered, and the rest made for the woods.
In one of his reports, written shortly afterwards, Skerrett claimed that some of the soldiers who deserted their posts fired at those who were after them, and adds

the conspiracy was under the leadership of some United men in town, aided by that wretch James Murphy and it is of greater extent than I at first viewed it…We are now surrounded by traitors.

He said that ‘James Murphy has had correspondence with the United men to the southward’ It seems that Sergeant Kelly and Murphy managed to escape.
According to Skerrett, the sheriff of St John’s was afraid that efforts might be made to rescue the prisoners, and perhaps it was for this reason that he hurriedly tried them. Five were immediately hanged and eleven were sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in chains. On the morning of 1 July 1800, three of these eleven were hanged: Garret Fitzgerald, Pierce Ivory and Edward Power; the rest were sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Ineptitude or provocation?

Cyril Byrne is of the opinion that the authorities were at fault for appointing Skerrett as head of the army in Newfoundland, and that perhaps it was a calculated move on their part to use his experience in Ireland to check any attempts at a similar rising in Newfoundland. Was it merely ineptness on the part of the government, or was it deliberately intended as a provocation to goad the United Irishmen in St John’s into open rebellion? Skerrett was colonel of the Durham fencibles who fought at the battle of Arklow, on 9 June 1798, and his gunners were credited with the killing of Fr. Michael Murphy who was charging at the head of his men in a last desperate attempt to take the town. Pedley takes a similar view, stating that many of those Irish who found refuge in Newfoundland following the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, were ‘exasperated by defeat’ and their presence in St John’s ‘added fuel to the fire’.

St John's from a water colour by R.P. Brenton. Fort Townshend is above the town. Just above the ship moored on the left is the Catholic chapel and the residence of Bishop O'Donel. (Public Archives of Canada)

St John’s from a water colour by R.P. Brenton. Fort Townshend is above the town. Just above the ship moored on the left is the Catholic chapel and the residence of Bishop O’Donel. (Public Archives of Canada)

After six years in the lonely outpost of Newfoundland, Skerrett was still ‘crying wolf’ in his letters to London. On 28 May 1805, he asked for more money to help with his expenses, and said that he had ‘forced loyalty in the midst of 50,000 United Irishmen, by crushing rebellious propensities, insurrection and mutiny in the troops’. There were hardly more than 25,000 people on the whole of the island at the time!
It is interesting to note that Dr. O Donel, too, was concerned about money that same year. He was thinking of retiring, and wanted to make sure that the pension of £50 that he had been awarded for his part in helping to put down the rising would continue after he stepped down. Pedley states that O Donel wrote to the king beseeching him to continue paying the pension after he retired from the island
It still is not clear what precisely the Unitedmen had in mind when they planned the rising, but according to one source, their only defence at their trial was that they were dissatisfied with the authorities who had reneged on a promise to allow the soldiers of the garrison to work at the fishery that summer. It may very well have been spurred by a burning resentment following the brutal suppression of the rebellion in Ireland and the continuing unsettled conditions there.
Although the United Irishmen’s attempted rising in 1800 failed, it did not stifle Catholic agitation for equality and reform. On the contrary, Irish Catholics were to the fore in seeking self–government for Newfoundland. According to Raymond Lahey, the irony of it all was that the intervention of Bishop O Donel enhanced the standing of the Catholic church in the community, and won it the favour of an appreciative government: ‘Indeed, his handling of the affair cemented an alliance between the government of Newfoundland and the Roman Catholic clergy that was to endure well into the future. This co-operation worked to mutual advantage.’

Aidan O’Hara is a writer and broadcaster.

Further reading:

R. Lahey, ‘Catholicism and Colonial Policy in Newfoundland’ in T. Murphy and G. Stortz (eds.), Creed and Culture (Montreal and Kingston 1993).

C. Byrne (ed.), Gentlemen-Bishops and Faction Fighters: The Letters of Bishops O Donel, Lambert, Scallan and other Irish Missionaries  (St John’s 1984).

C. Pedley, The History of Newfoundland, Longman (London 1863).

D.A. Webber, Skinner’s Fencibles—The Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1795–1802, Newfoundland Naval & Military Museum, vol.2, no.1.

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