Interpreting the 1790s

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 1998), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 6

The Year of Liberty: a history of the great Irish rebellion of 1798, Thomas Pakenham (Weidenfeld, 1969 & 1997, £14.99, ISBN: 0297823868).

Partners in Revolution: the United Irishmen and France
, Marianne Elliott (Yale University Press, 1982 & 1998, £14.50, ISBN: 0300043023).

Rebellion in Kildare, 1798-1803, Liam Chambers (Four Courts Press, 1998, pb £9.95, ISBN: 1851823638, hb £30, ISBN: 185182362X).

The Rebellion in Wicklow 1798, Ruan O’Donnell (Irish Academic Press, 1998, pb £17.95, ISBN: 0716526948, hb £35, ISBN: 071652459X).

The Women of 1798, Dáire Keogh & Nicholas Furlong [eds.] (Four Courts’ Press, 1998, pb £9.95, ISBN: 185182359X, hb £30, ISBN: 1851823581).

Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone: memoirs, journals and political writings, compiled and arranged by Willian T.W. Tone, 1826, Thomas Bartlett [ed.] (Lilliput Press, 1998, pb £20, ISBN: 1901866041, hb £40, ISBN: 190186605X).

Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Bartlett (Historical Association of Ireland, Life & Times Series, No.10, Dundalgan Press, 1997, £6, ISBN: 0852211333).

Wolfe Tone, Prophet of Irish Independence
, Marianne Elliott, (Yale University Press, 1989 & 1998, £13.95, ISBN: 0300051956).

Citizen Lord, Edward Fitzgerald 1763-1798
, Stella Tillyard (Chatto & Windus, 1997, £16.99, ISBN: 0701165383).

The French are in the Bay, the expedition to Bantry Bay 1796, John A. Murphy [ed.] (Mercier Press, 1997, £8.99, ISBN: 1856351718).

An Ascendancy Army, The Irish Yeomanry, 1796-1834, Allan Blackstock (Four Courts Press, 1998, £30, ISBN: 1851823298).

Transatlantic Radicals and the early American Republic
, Michael Durey (University Press of Kansas, 1997, £43.95, ISBN: 0700608230).


The rapid growth in the number of books about Ireland in the 1790s can be appreciated by contrasting the (by no means comprehensive) list of titles under review with the paucity of secondary literature available when Thomas Pakenham’s classic, accessible, and fast-moving narrative, The Year of Liberty, first appeared in 1969. Pakenham is a good story-teller, and his account of the 1798 Rebellion remains vivid and fresh, although from the specialist’s standpoint the book is useful mainly as a foil. Pakenham’s rebellion is ‘spontaneous’: a furious peasant  jacquerie, rooted in immemorial sectarian hatreds and emptied of politics. This view had enough mileage left in it by 1988 for Roy Foster—drawing on Marianne Elliott—to characterise events in Wexford as ‘curiously contingent and haphazard’, ‘local…rather than ideological’ and ‘improvis[ed]’. None of those propositions would now be accepted by most historians working in the field. Indeed, the trend of research and interpretation, which has been gathering pace since the publication of Elliott’s pioneering Partners in Revolution in 1982, is marked by broad consensus and stresses widespread politicisation. Among the elements of that consensus are agreement on the formidability of the United Irish movement, and the extent and sophistication of its organisation in east Ulster, Dublin and Wexford; on the central importance of Defenderism; and on collapsing  the ‘two-stage’ constitutional-to-revolutionary model into a radicalised continuum. Work on the 1790s is also largely free of passé revisionist debunkery.
From a historiographical perspective Partners in Revolution is a pivotal monograph, not because of its exhaustive, and probably definitive, treatment of the United Irish-French connection, or of its attention to the neglected British dimension of Irish radicalism, but because it foregrounded the Defenders. Elliott’s United Irish leadership is predictably bourgeois, and somewhat wary of the unwashed. Her Defenders, however, assume a new prominence in the great upheavals of that decade, utterly in keeping with contemporary perceptions as evidenced in newspapers and in magistrates’ and spies’ reports. No longer shoehorned into the conceptual framework of Whiteboy-style agrarian revolt, the highly organised and politicised Defender movement emerged as a key player in the crisis of the 1790s, and this in turn raised questions about the scope, sources and character of lower-class and Catholic politicisation. Our understanding of the period was further transformed by a series of penetrating essays by Louis Cullen which combined close readings of memoirs and ‘instant’ histories, with contextualisation, to deconstruct standard interpretations, in place since the early nineteenth century.
If this scholarship edged towards a new historical paradigm—which like all paradigms is open to modification and will probably one day be superseded—it also set a research agenda. That indispensable grist to the PhD mill, ‘gaps’ in our knowledge, still need filling in. New areas of inquiry suggest themselves. Liam Chambers’ Rebellion in Kildare and Ruan O’Donnell’s Rebellion in Wicklow are exemplary, detailed, local studies, which confirm and illustrate the politicisation model, while at the same time stretching the spatial and chronological categories into which the rebellion is usually squeezed. Both authors naturally insist upon the importance of their subjects, and both make a good case. Chambers locates Kildare disaffection within two contexts. The first is county politics, which under the aegis of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s elder brother, the premier whig grandee, the Duke of Leinster, were predominantly liberal. The second is the infiltration of the Defender-United Irish organisation, which owed a great deal to the county’s proximity to Dublin (and Meath) and not a little to Lord Edward himself. County geography was critical in other respects. The Grand Canal served as conduit for radical propaganda and organisation, the Bog of Allen as an inaccessible rebel redoubt after the rebellion in Kildare had supposedly been put down. The rebellion, in other words, did not end abruptly. The set-piece engagements of late May were followed by what Charles Teeling called ‘a species of fugitive warfare’. And even after the rearguard action of June-July had fizzled out, a slow-burning disaffection smouldered on, briefly flaring up again during the Emmet conspiracy in 1803.
Chambers’ findings point to the tenacity, seriousness and longevity of the republican challenge in Kildare. O’Donnell reaches the same conclusions for Wicklow, only more so. The scale of events in Wicklow has hitherto been obscured, according to O’Donnell, by the understandable focus on the epicentre of rebellion, County Wexford. Yet more Wicklowmen, for example, were transported to the penal colonies afterwards, than from any other county. The operation of rebel bands under Joseph Holt and Michael Dwyer—surveyed by Thomas Bartlett in ‘Masters of the Mountains’, his essay in Wicklow: History and Society (1993)—is characterised here as ‘one of Europe’s first guerrilla campaigns’ and, echoing Teeling, as a ‘brigand war’. Moreover, the persistence of rebel actions, again as in Kildare, perilously close to Dublin, ‘prevented the normalisation of Irish politics’. As far as many loyalists were concerned the rebellion was not over after Vinegar Hill, or even Ballinamuck. Dwyer proved them right. But Wicklow was also different from Kildare. Its terrain was much more inhospitable, thus more hospitable to insurgents, ‘living on their keeping’. In contrast to the former’s ‘liberal’ establishment, politics in the latter, with its substantial Protestant settlement, were polarised along Orange-tinted sectarian lines. Nevertheless, in confirmation of the ‘new history’ of the 1790s the rebellion in Wicklow is presented as an essentially political phenomenon.
Although neither county, nor the post-rebellion period, have been entirely neglected in the past, these two books do succeed in recalibrating the geographies and chronologies of insurrection. Another new direction for the study of the 1790s is the exploration of gender issues. As O’Donnell argues in his contribution to The Women of 1798 ‘if the recent progressive trend of social, cultural and political re-evaluation of 1798 is to advance other aspects of experience must be addressed’. These essays offer an introduction to, rather than a comprehensive treatment of, the gendering of late eighteenth-century Ireland. Most of the usual suspects are included: Mary Anne McCracken (Henry Joy’s sister); Matilda Tone (Theobald’s wife); and the Quaker, Mary Leadbetter; but not Anne Devlin, Betsy Grey or even the prime suspect, Maria Edgesworth. There are, of course, major difficulties with the evidence. Women, observes Bartlett, generally appear as symbols, role-models or victims, rarely as political activists or combatants. This explains the ultimately unsatisfactory emphasis on well-known, and comparatively well-documented figures, such as McCracken. Rank-and-file women, those who participated in the Dublin crowd, for instance, are condemned to eternal anonymity by male-constructed archive material. Still the task is not hopeless. Bartlett’s sifting of female testimony at the courts martial trials, Mary Helen Thuente’s examination of female imagery in United Irish literature, and Nancy Curtin’s proposition that the public—or political—sphere should be collapsed into, not strictly demarcated from, the private—or family—sphere, and the agreement throughout the volume on the masculinity of Irish republicanism, are each richly suggestive of the ways in which the gender dimension of the 1790s might develop.
Curtin describes Matilda Tone’s marriage as a ‘republican partnership’. Bartlett in his introduction to the new edition of Tone’s Life and in his short biography Theobald Wolfe Tone, places his subject at the head of what he calls Ireland’s ‘first republican family’. Tone’s status as the ‘first’ Irish republican, or as the ‘founding father’ of the United Irishmen is contested. A.T.Q. Stewart, not unpersuasively, awards that accolade to Dr William Drennan, whereas Tom Dunne attempts to deflate Tone’s reputation in the entertaining Wolfe Tone, Colonial Outsider, published in 1982. Following upon the ultra-loyalist historian, Sir Richard Musgrave, who called Tone a ‘turbulent adventurer’, Dunne depicts him as a socially displaced careerist and a militarist. Indeed, Dunne recycles and elaborates on the militarist theme in a recent essay, ‘In the Service of the Republic’ in The French are in the Bay. Marianne Elliott’s full-dress scholarly biography—to which Bartlett acknowledges his debt—Wolfe Tone, Prophet of Irish Independence, first published in 1989, and now reissued, is more careful and more generous to her subject. Tone emerges here as a first rate propagandist, a gifted political organiser, particularly as agent for the Catholic Committee, and as a skilled diplomat, the architect of the French-United Irish alliance. On the other hand Elliott is in agreement with Dunne in detecting a lack of consistency and originality in Tone’s political ideas. Her Tone is also a curiously reactive, rather than proactive, figure, an ‘accidental’ republican, swept along by events and circumstances.
In short, ‘the unfortunate Mr Tone’ (to borrow the caption of a nineteenth-century print) has become a much kicked about historiographical football. Elliott reviewing Colonial Outsider claims that Tone therein is ‘almost totally extracted from his contemporary background’, criticised on the basis of ‘factual errors’ and an unrepresentative ‘handful of pamphlets’, and demythologised ‘at the expense of reality’. Colonial Outsider is footnoted in her own book as ‘a lively essay…considerably one-sided, in the modern revisionist mould’. Dunne in an otherwise positive review of Elliott, chides her for representing Tone as ‘peculiarly passive’, and summarises her treatment of his ideology as ‘perfunctory’, inadequate, ‘unfocused’ and ‘flabby’. It may come as a surprise then, that in Bartlett’s opinion, many of the ‘valuable insights’ contained in these ‘two very different works’ are ‘complementary rather than contradictory’. Even more surprising is Dunne’s endorsement of Bartlett’s opinion, which he quotes in the essay in the Bantry Bay essay cited above. This reviewer find’s Bartlett’s Tone the most convincing. Where Dunne, for instance, reads Tone’s early failures to strike out on a military, legal or political career as sources of frustration and alienation, Bartlett’s drier assessment of these youthful setbacks, or false starts, as ‘summer jobs’, is surely more accurate. The restoration of Tone as a significant republican thinker—and presence—in an Irish context is also, surely, correct. But it is important to remember, as Bartlett emphasises, that Tone was, from first to last, a man of the eighteenth century, and that, accordingly, his republicanism must always be viewed in that light. Thus the ‘militarism’ denigrated by Dunne, and even the Sandwich Islands colonisation scheme, sits comfortably with the martial virtues of the expansionist ‘republic of increase’ extolled by James Harrington, Henry Neville and other ‘commonwealthmen’. It also looks back, in a way typical of ‘classical republicanism’, to the Roman model. Indeed that habit of thought may provide a clue to the manner of Tone’s death. After he had wounded himself fatally by slitting his own throat, he remarked that he had proved a ‘bad anatomist’. Bartlett takes this to mean that he had cut too deeply, not that he had not cut deeply enough. Tone, that is, sought to prevent his execution by hanging by injuring himself, not to take his own life. Yet to eighteenth-century republicans, notably in France, suicide was the Roman way, the honourable way. The first ‘communist’ revolutionary, Gracchus Babuef, was only one in a long and distinguished line in 1790s France to attempt suicide (others were more successful) before his execution in May 1797. In any event the manner of Tone’s dying added to his legend.
Bartlett poses the question: if we did not have the Life, the edition of Tone’s diaries, journals and writings, edited by his son and published in Washington DC in 1826, would Tone’s reputation have flourished as it did? He concludes that his Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, the most crucial pamphlet of the decade, and it is not too much to say, one of the most important in Irish history, together with the surviving memoranda in the French archives, would probably have secured Tone’s place in the United Irish pantheon. But we do have the Life. We also have later abbreviated versions, such as R. Barry O’Brien’s nineteenth- and Seán Ó Faoláin’s twentieth-century editions. And, for reasons not hard to discern, the Life has sustained the reputation. Tone wrote with vigour, frankness and immediacy. He is revealed as a loyal friend, if a somewhat wayward husband, with a fondness for drink, and a fine sense of humour. On the subjects of women, of his in-laws, the Witheringtons, and of America, which he detested, but where in 1826 his widow had settled, he  was too frank for Matilda’s taste. The offending passages were thus expunged from the first edition. These  are now restored in the new Lilliput edition which sports a substantial introduction by Bartlett and, invaluably for students and researchers, a modern index.
In terms of the space devoted to him in historical writing, the unfortunate Mr Tone has fared better than any of his colleagues. This would have puzzled his contemporaries, because there were others equally famous at the time, such as James Napper Tandy and, above all, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Lord Edward was memorialised in a suitably ‘romantic’ vein in Thomas Moore’s 1831 The Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Three other biographies followed, the last in 1955. Stella Tillyard’s fluently written and sprightly narrative, Citizen Lord, is not a rigorously crafted monograph on the model of Elliott’s Tone. It lists sources but does not have foot- or endnotes, for example, and professional historians will wince at the author’s occasional novelistic flourishes. Nevertheless it stands as the first properly researched, detailed account of that extraordinary life. The title, incidentally, is not merely pithy, but resonant, and succeeds in capturing the essential fact of the career it considers. Lord Edward provides a spectacular case-study of a type familiar in the 1790s: renegade young aristocrats, turned radical, republican or revolutionary. The United Irishmen Archibald Hamilton Rowan, Arthur O’Connor, Simon Butler (brother of Lord Mountgarret), and Lord Cloncurry’s son, Valentine Lawless, all conform to the pattern, and O’Connor and Lawless worked closely with Fitzgerald. The glib option would be to dismiss such aristocratic rebellion as ‘radical chic’. Matilda Tone later remarked that Lord Edward was ‘playing at revolution’. Another option would have been  to indulge in psycho babble about fathers and sons, or—Musgrave again—’disappointed ambition’. Tillyard, however, and for the most part, offers a resolutely political analysis. Lord Edward, she insists, must be understood as political in every fibre of his being.
One of the most striking features of this account is the earliness of his radicalism. In 1789, while still in his Foxite phase (Charles James Fox was a cousin), his sister Lucy remarked that ‘He is mad about French affairs—the levelling principle…one must not say the mob before him, but the people’. In England, and later in France, Lord Edward associated with Thomas Paine, and remained a Paineite for the rest of his days. Notoriously, at a dinner in Paris in 1792 he toasted ‘the speedy abolition of all hereditary titles’, while back in Dublin a few months later he rose in parliament to denounce the ‘Lord Lieutenant and the majority of this House [as] the worst subjects the King has’. Undoubtedly, the flamboyance of his style—the ‘republican’ short haircut and dressing down, the Irish dancing, the hand on the plough and so on—explains the image of showiness substituting for substance. But what others have taken to be ‘man-of-the-people’ affectation, Tillyard sees as a tactic, as a means of getting closer to the lower orders. ‘Unlike many United Irish leaders’, she writes, ‘Lord Edward had no disdain for the ordinary people of Ireland, and he had no fear of them either…The revolution which he urged…might have to be paid for and led by the French, but it would be a popular revolution.’
The Francophile Lord Edward knew France well. His wife, Pamela, was not French merely, but with her less than perfect English, suspiciously and incorrigibly so. He was thus a natural champion of the strategy of a United Irish-assisted French invasion. That strategy almost paid off at Bantry Bay in December, 1796. The essays collected in The French are in the Bay, examine one of Irish history’s greatest ‘might-have-beens’ from both the Irish and the French, the political and the military-strategic, perspectives. Bantry Bay had a powerful impact on the rolling Irish crisis. Like later historians, loyalists at the time speculated on what would have happened if the French had landed? The Lord Lieutenant, Camden, had not dared to march troops out of disaffected Ulster, and the fright which this episode caused in Ascendancy circles lay behind the sharp escalation of repression, and in particular the ‘dragooning of Ulster’, during 1797. The loyalist, Orange and government-sponsored counter-revolution of the 1790s has been dealt with mostly within the framework of the now extensive literature on revolutionary politics. The historiography is lopsided. Yet, as Liam Chambers notes, ‘the strength of the radical threat poses the question, how did the Irish government survive?’. One explanation for the comparative neglect of the loyalist and government side of the equation probably lies in the popular tradition. Who wrote, or who sings, ballads about the undaunted pitch-cappers of ‘98? ‘The Croppy Boy’ has been recorded once again in this bicentenary year, but not ‘Croppies Lie Down’. Certainly, the relationship between folk memory and the foci of historical research bears further investigation. In the meantime Allan Blackstock’s study of the Irish Yeomanry formed in 1796, Ascendancy Army—the phrase is Henry Grattan’s—makes a weighty contribution towards rectifying the imbalance in the historical record. Blackstock sets the Yeomanry against the background of Protestant self-reliance and voluntary self-defence in Ireland, which he traces from the armed settlers of the Ulster plantation at the beginning of the seventeenth century, through the covenanting bands of the 1640s and the county militias of the eighteenth century to the Volunteers of 1778-1793. The volunteering experience is central to the story he tells. Whereas the patriot, ‘colonial nationalist’, and even ‘classical republican’ armed citizen, sides of volunteer politics are highlighted, as often as the progenitive linkage between volunteering and the United Irish  movement has been stressed, Blackstock delineates a more complicated and ambivalent picture. In some areas a strong Volunteer-Yeoman correlation developed, and this became stronger in Ulster, the heartland of both volunteering and the Yeomanry, the further west recruitment moved from Belfast. The decision of former volunteers to join or to oppose the United Irishmen, in other words, was usually a function of the local balance of political forces. Volunteering also troubled and delayed the formation of the Yeomanry. Once bitten by an armed citizenry, beyond its control, which had turned from national defence to national politics, the government shied away from repeating the experience. Earl Fitzwilliam’s proposal for a largely Catholic Yeomanry in 1795 had discredited the idea, but for the government the overriding issue was control. Still, it faced a serious dilemma. With British troops and resources committed to war with France, and overextended in Ireland, and with a largely Catholic-conscript militia, whose political reliability remained severely doubtful, on whom could the government rely? The reluctance to permit any kind of Volunteers mark II is evident in the refusal of offers to raise local corps from Lord Carhampton and others in Dublin in 1795 or from John Knox’s Dungannon Association in early 1796. That reluctance, and the imperative of control, is equally evident in Dublin Castle’s initially tepid acquiescence in the mobilisation of the vociferously loyalist Orange Order. In the end, however, the necessity of embodying its supporters to meet the republican challenge proved ineluctable.
Blackstock details the myriad of locally sensitive compromises which made the Yeomanry possible. Some companies admitted Catholics, many did not, others were Orange; some insisted on purchasing their own uniforms and firearms in the volunteer style; the organising principle was territorial, yet based on the professions—the Merchants and Lawyers corps, for instance—in Dublin. When he comes to the rebellion Blackstock argues that the Yeomanry played an important role, mainly by garrisoning towns, thereby releasing regular soldiers and fencibles for active service. But overall his treatment of the rebellion is rather colourless. A change of register from the administrative-descriptive approach might have helped here, just as a fuller discussion of the popular legend of Yeomanry sectarianism and brutality would have been welcome. These caveats notwithstanding, this is a fine book, richly documented and thorough. It adds significantly to our understanding of the counter-revolution, and to the dynamics of late eighteenth-century Protestant Ireland.
The after-effects of the rebellion, the ‘white terror’, the courts martial and the Act of Union, were not confined to Ireland. The exodus, ‘voluntary’ and by banishment, to America which preceded and followed 1798, made a lasting impact on the new republic. Michael Durey’s splendid Transatlantic Radicals looks first at how British radicals and Irish republicans came to be in the United States, and then at the, possibly decisive, part which they played, as activists and journalists, in Jeffersonian politics. Again, from the vantage point of America, the scale of the United Irish movement is underlined. Of the exiles Durey has managed to identify, eighteen are Scots, forty-nine English and 152 Irish. This volume is witness to their achievement, but it had a dark side. One of the innovative aspects of Stella Tillyard’s biography is the prominence she assigns to Tony Small, the runaway slave who saved Lord Edward’s life during the American war in 1781, and who thereafter became his lifelong companion. Lord Edward’s definition of fraternity extended to all races; so did Thomas Russell’s and Napper Tandy’s. However in early nineteenth-century America the anti-slavery sentiment which had united ‘all sections of the radical movement in Britain and Ireland’ and which had bonded the exiles (themselves the target of American nativisim) as ‘an abstract issue’, divided them as ‘a practical problem’. It is not a creditable story, although Durey tells it with greater sensitivity and nuance that Noel Ignatiev’s schematic and polemical How the Irish Became White.
Seventeen-nineties studies have advanced a great distance since Pakenham’s Year of Liberty. We now know more and understand better. We have still much to learn. But if the recent trend in research and publication is any indication the prospects are bright.

Jim Smyth if Professor of Irish History at the University of Notre Dame.


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