“The dog that didn’t bark”: the North and 1803

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), Robert Emmet, Volume 11

The Lisburn and Lambeg Volunteers firing a feu de joie in the Market Square in Lisburn, in honour of the Convention of 1782 by John Carey. Northern enthusiasm for the American and French revolutions had dissipated by 1803. (National Library of Ireland)

The Lisburn and Lambeg Volunteers firing a feu de joie in the Market Square in Lisburn, in honour of the Convention of 1782 by John Carey. Northern enthusiasm for the American and French revolutions had dissipated by 1803. (National Library of Ireland)

In 1803 the North was very much the dog that didn’t bark. Robert Emmet’s verdict on the Dublin insurrection—‘there was failure in all: plan, preparation and men’—applied to an even greater extent to events in Ulster. The attempt to raise the North produced no battles, or even skirmishes; in fact, probably not a single shot was fired in anger. But Emmet had entertained high hopes of a northern rebellion, and assigned three of his best officers to lead it. Why, then, was the outcome so disappointing?

Thomas Russell

Anxious that his insurrection should be more than just a coup d’état centred on Dublin, Emmet sent a mission north in May 1803 to sound out support. It reported that the renewal of war between Britain and France on 18 May had brought about a revival of United Irish activity in Ulster, and several former United men proclaimed that they would take the field once Emmet had seized Dublin. Encouraged by the report, Emmet appointed the veteran United Irishman Thomas Russell as commander of the northern district. Russell, who had returned from exile in France in April 1803, was a name well known in the North. An original founder of the United Irishmen, he was a key figure in expanding the movement in Ulster in the mid-1790s until his imprisonment from 1796 to 1802.

William Henry Hamilton

Emmet assigned William Henry Hamilton and James (Jemmy) Hope as Russell’s adjutants. Both were Ulstermen and among the most dedicated and resourceful figures in the United movement. Hamilton, from Enniskillen, was a former soldier and lawyer, and had married Russell’s niece. He had assisted Russell in founding United clubs in Ulster in the mid-1790s and went to France in spring 1798 on a political mission. In October ’98 he sailed for Ireland with a French expedition that was intercepted off Lough Swilly. Taken prisoner, he was suspected of being an Irishman because of his height, but his fluent French and the fact that he wore an ear-ring allayed his captors’ suspicions and he was exchanged as a French prisoner-of-war. In France he became one of Emmet’s main organisers among United Irish émigrés.

James Hope

James Hope was one of the few working men to attain a position of influence in the United Irishmen. Born in Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, he worked as a farm labourer and linen-weaver, and managed to educate himself. Drawn to the United Irish movement as a means of securing radical social change, he became one of its leading agents and recruiters, operating throughout Ulster, north Connacht, Kildare and Wicklow.

James Hope. (National Library of Ireland)

James Hope. (National Library of Ireland)

On one occasion he disguised himself as a British army recruiting sergeant and rescued a suspected United Irishman from a courtroom in Roscommon on the pretext of enlisting him. He fought bravely at the battle of Antrim in 1798 and afterwards refused to accept a pardon, but went into hiding and attempted to revive the United movement in Antrim, Down and Dublin. He settled in the Liberties in Dublin and was recruited by Robert Emmet towards the end of 1802. Emmet’s decision to assign him to the North was a bitter disappointment to many Dublin United men, especially the weavers of the Liberties, who thought highly of his courage and leadership abilities.

‘Nothing appeared among them but timidity’

Russell, Hamilton and Hope travelled north in mid-July to prepare for insurrection. Hamilton was given instructions to foment a rising in counties Cavan and Fermanagh, while Russell and Hope, who were to concentrate their efforts on Down and Antrim, went to Belfast. Here they met several old United Irish colleagues and told them of their plans, but, according to Hope, ‘nothing appeared among them but timidity, and a desire to know only what concerned spies’. However, a few claimed that they were ready for action. During the week news came from Emmet that there had been an explosion at one of the arms depots in Dublin on 16 July which had excited some suspicions. To forestall discovery the date of the rising was brought forward to Saturday 23 July. Russell sent immediately for Hamilton, believing that he would not have enough time to rally sufficient support in Cavan and Fermanagh, and gave him responsibility for raising County Antrim.
Despite this disruption to his planning, Russell was still confident of success, believing that the seeds of republicanism he had sown in the 1790s had firmly taken root. A few committed United men remained in the province and Russell enlisted two of them—James Corry, a Downpatrick shoemaker, and James Drake, a horse-dealer—to act as his aides. But as he sought to raise support in his old command of County Down, where seven years before he had been adjutant general of the United Irishmen, he met mostly apathy and suspicion. Former United men proved reluctant to come forward, particularly when they learned that Russell had no arms to distribute. Asked how they were supposed to rise without weapons, Russell told them to seize arms from the yeomanry, but most locals just shook their heads and walked away.
Around 20 July Russell rode to County Antrim, but here too the response was disappointing. His first attempt to rally support was at Carnmoney, which had been a United Irish stronghold in the 1790s, but only a dozen people gathered to listen to him and these refused to help in any way. He travelled on to Broughshane, where he spoke to a larger crowd of about fifty. To impress them, he donned a striking green uniform embroidered with gold lace, and urged them to take up arms. But the crowd was merely curious and showed no enthusiasm for rebellion. Russell changed into civilian dress and rode to Belfast. Here, on Thursday 21 July, he held another meeting, and appointed Stephen Wall, a former sergeant with the Tipperary militia, to command the few who promised to turn out. He instructed Hamilton to concentrate his efforts in the area around Carrickfergus and assigned Hope as his adjutant, giving him the £4 that remained of his war chest.

‘None but fools would join them’

With the date set for the rising fast approaching, Russell was running out of time and he spent the last few days desperately trying to rally support. That night he returned to County Down and summoned a meeting of local men in a public house at Annadorn, about four miles east of Downpatrick. He announced that there was to be a general insurrection throughout Ireland, and blows would be struck simultaneously at Dublin, Belfast and Downpatrick. Rebel forces would also march on the villages of Clough and Seaforde, and take leading loyalists as hostages to prevent any military outrages. But the reception was as frosty as it had been earlier in the week. One local, Patrick Doran, left the meeting maintaining that ‘none but fools would join them’. Russell tried to persuade them that they would be part of a great national insurrectionary movement. He claimed that the rising had been meticulously planned, that ‘there was a store of arms and ammunition underground in Dublin and that the business would be done in one hour all over the kingdom’. But his listeners were sceptical. They still vividly remembered the crushing defeats suffered by United Irish armies at Antrim and Ballynahinch five years earlier. Then they had had arms and thousands of men. What chance would a few dozen of them have armed only with spades and pitchforks?
Later that day Russell and his lieutenant, Drake, travelled on to Loughinisland, possibly hoping to capitalise on some recent tensions between Catholics and Orangemen. There he met an old acquaintance, Patrick Lynch, who had given him Irish lessons in Belfast in 1794. Lynch had heard rumours that Russell was planning an insurrection, and attempted to dissuade him. He saw clearly that Russell was exhausted from his constant travelling and exhortation, and baffled by the reluctance of former United men to come forward. By this time government agents, notably the Belfast attorney James McGucken, had done much to sow seeds of doubt in their minds and generally frustrate Russell’s plans. McGucken, a senior figure in the County Down United movement, cautioned the local people against any rash acts. He consistently advised them to await the news from Dublin before coming forward—advice that seemed sensible to most northerners.
Later on in the day Patrick Renaghan from Clough arrived. He told Russell that the men of his village wanted nothing to do with any rebellion; the local priests had spoken against it and the people would ‘be hanged like dogs’ if they turned out. Believing that the rebellion had no chance of success, the innkeeper, James Fitzpatrick, told a number of people who were waiting around his inn for news that they should return to their homes. Seething with frustration, Russell then left Loughinisland for Downpatrick, where he planned to meet a rebel contingent and then march on the town. A hill at Ballyvange just outside Downpatrick had been chosen as the rendezvous. Earlier in the day, a group of fourteen men, armed only with pitchforks, had formed here under the leadership of James Corry. For several hours they waited for a signal fire to be lit at Seaforde to show that the attack there had begun. But they waited in vain—no fire was seen, and the demoralised handful of rebels gradually melted away. When Russell arrived only three men remained. Since an attack on Downpatrick was now out of the question, Russell decided to return to Loughinisland to make a last effort to rally its inhabitants, but they still refused to budge.
Hoping that the response had been better in Antrim, he rode northwards to link up with Hamilton and Hope, but they were faring no better. On Saturday 23 July they were bluntly told by Wall in Belfast that ‘this town will not act’. They then went to Kells, Co. Antrim, where some men seemed eager to make a stand, but they were too few to mount any effective action. Moving on to Ballymena they learned that a body of men had assembled, but most had returned to their homes when they heard the news that Belfast had not risen. The town’s demoralisation was sealed when a false report was circulated that Russell had gone to Dublin to persuade Emmet to call off the entire insurrection. Only Hamilton, Hope and a local leader remained ready to act. The next morning they went to Slemish Mountain and met some men from Carnmoney and Templepatrick, but they were too few to act on the original plan to march on Belfast or Carrickfergus. In Broughshane, Ballyclare and several other parts of Antrim, the story was the same: small groups gathered but they lacked instructions and determined leaders and they soon lost heart and dispersed. With no prospect of mounting an effective insurrection, Hamilton and Hope decided to abandon their efforts and go into hiding. When Russell eventually arrived in the county he was unable to find them. The collapse of rebel efforts in Antrim finally put paid to any hope for a northern insurrection.

Yeomanry put on alert

On 24 July a number of printed proclamations appeared throughout Antrim and Down, issued by the ‘General-in-Chief of the Northern District’:

Men of Ireland, once more in arms to assert the rights of mankind and liberate your country! You see by the secrecy with which this effort has been conducted, by the multitudes who in all parts of Ireland are engaged in executing these great objects, that your Provisional Government have acted wisely. You will see that in Dublin, in the West, in the North, and in the South, the blow has been struck at the same moment, your enemies can no more withstand than they could foresee this mighty exertion.

By this stage Russell hoped that Dublin would be in the hands of the insurgents, and the counties around the capital would be in open revolt. He was not to know that the rising had miscarried in Dublin. Elsewhere, there were unsuccessful attacks on Maynooth and Naas, while the rest of the country remained quiet.
The very appearance of these proclamations and reports of gatherings of armed men were enough to alarm loyalists. General Colin Campbell, the officer commanding in Belfast, called in vulnerable detachments of cavalry from outlying areas, placed the yeomanry on alert, erected military posts around Belfast and imposed a night-time curfew. In swoops against suspected rebels 62 people were arrested. Rumour and apprehension excited a far greater degree of alarm than the actions of the rebels, and the situation remained tense in parts of Antrim and Down for some time. In Belfast, most of the town’s loyalists turned out with any weapons they could lay their hands on. A week later Martha McTier reported another alarm in the town: ‘drums beating to order, horsemen galloping through the streets . . . then returning and ordering all about, cannon drawing, etc., everything but a battle, no one able to learn for what nor yet, everything bespeaking alarm and preparation, yet no appearance of attack’. In Lisburn, Ballymena and Carrickfergus loyalists requested regular troops to reinforce the local yeomanry and sat up through the night with arms at the ready awaiting an assault.

Countryside in a ‘state of perfect tranquility’

But many were not unduly worried. The Belfast News Letter reported the surrounding countryside ‘to be in a state of perfect tranquility’. McGucken reported back to the Castle that all was quiet: ‘The people in general seem all at a loss. Although in many parts anxious for a rising, yet they can’t see how it is to be effected, having no system amongst them. Arms they have but few.’

Thomas Russell reading Emmet's proclamation. (Francis Joseph Bigger, Four Shots from Down, 1918)

Thomas Russell reading Emmet’s proclamation. (Francis Joseph Bigger, Four Shots from Down, 1918)

In reality, the rebels lacked almost everything required to effect a successful insurrection—popular support, arms, money, effective communications and a realistic plan of action. There were pockets of disaffection in Ulster: in the preceding months there had been reports of nocturnal drilling, probably by Catholic Defenders, but no real efforts were made to establish contact with them. Because Russell believed that the province was rife with disaffection and ready to burst into rebellion, the systematic planning and detailed preparations required for an effective insurrection were almost wholly neglected. Had he been able to distribute large quantities of arms, point to a French invasion or a successful seizure of the capital, then enough men might have rallied to him to mount an insurrection worthy of the name, but without any of these his efforts were doomed.
For some weeks afterwards, Russell hid in the homes of friends and sympathisers, and at times was reduced to sleeping in ditches to avoid capture. Towards the end of August he made one last effort to rally support, but again he was cold-shouldered. Finally he expressed great indignation that the patriots of the North were so reluctant to take the field, and said that their conduct disgraced themselves and their country. He was extremely anxious that a beginning should be made and said that if fifty or a hundred would assemble, they would increase rapidly; ‘the very fields and hedges as they passed would supply recruits and they would soon number thousands in their ranks’. Disgusted at the failure of frequent attempts to rouse them, he reproached their pusillanimity and want of spirit to support the glorious cause of liberty and equality.

Russell’s arrest

Early in September, on hearing of Emmet’s arrest, Russell went to Dublin to attempt a rescue, but he was spotted by a government agent and arrested. Russell’s confidence can be largely explained by the millennialist beliefs that had gripped his mind during his long imprisonment. A devoutly religious man, he had emerged from prison with the belief that the world was then undergoing the time of troubles foretold in the Book of Revelations, and that this would be followed by the millennium, the thousand years of Christ’s reign in peace and justice on earth. He was convinced that his United Irish activities were part of a struggle for universal liberty, and that in fighting for Irish independence he was doing God’s work. These millennialist certainties helped to keep him wedded to the United Irish cause while many others fell by the wayside.
But they also led him to misjudge reality. Ulster had undergone many changes since the days in the mid-1790s when Russell had traversed its roads recruiting United Irishmen—changes he failed to appreciate during his long imprisonment and exile. In the aftermath of 1798 many former United Irishmen had emigrated, while others had completely changed their opinions, severed all links with the United Irishmen and joined the yeomanry or Orange Order. Whereas efforts in 1796 to raise a yeomanry corps in Belfast had to be abandoned because of lack of support, on 5 April 1803 the town’s citizens proclaimed their readiness to repel the attacks of foreign or domestic enemies, and two new corps were raised. The three lieutenants appointed were William Sinclair, Robert Getty and Gilbert McIlveen, all former prominent United Irishmen.
Lurid accounts of sectarian atrocities in the south during 1798 had helped to undermine United Irish ideals. Moreover, many who had fought in Ulster in ’98 bitterly resented their desertion by the movement’s middle-class leaders and had learned a hard lesson when rebel armies were routed by better-armed and disciplined regular troops. A growing disenchantment with France was also important in causing defections from the republican camp.

The arrest of Thomas Russell. (Walker's Hibernian Magazine, 1803)

The arrest of Thomas Russell. (Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, 1803)

In the 1790s many Ulster Presbyterians warmly embraced the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and regarded the new republic as the vanguard of progressive political change. But after the military coup of November 1799, Bonaparte’s cynical manipulation of these ideals, his imperialist foreign policy and his concordat with the papacy in 1801 largely destroyed Presbyterian enthusiasm for the French experiment. Moreover, the Act of Union, by giving preferential treatment to the linen industry and providing it with a secure market, consolidated the North’s growing prosperity and further reconciled Ulster Dissenters to British rule.
Many loyalists were quick to characterise the attempted insurrection as a papist conspiracy. Although all its leaders were Protestant and the Catholic response to Russell’s call to arms was negligible, the authorities believed that Russell must have had good reason to concentrate his efforts on the Catholics of south Down. But while distrust of Catholics had increased, the authorities took considerable reassurance from the inactivity of Ulster Dissenters, whom they believed could now be relied on as loyal subjects. The judge who conducted the trials of the northern rebels concluded that Ulster Presbyterians firmly believed that ‘the present scheme of rebellion has originated with the papists exclusively, and that idea, together with a conviction that should Bonaparte succeed in his designs, there will be no republic, but on the contrary, despotism and pillage, secures their support in the present crisis’. It was now clear that the fraternal euphoria of the mid-1790s was well and truly dead.

Draconian government response

Despite the fact that the northern rising had been such a shambles, the government response was still draconian. Russell was tried for high treason, found guilty and hanged outside Downpatrick jail on 21 October 1803. His aides, Corry and Drake, and two other men, Andrew Hunter and William Porter, who had been active at Carnmoney, were also convicted of treason and hanged. Dozens more were transported. Hamilton was arrested in County Monaghan in October 1803, and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail for three years. After his release he worked as a journalist, and became joint editor of the Dublin Evening Post. In March 1821, aged almost fifty, he joined the thousands of Irishmen who went to South America to fight with Bolívar to liberate South America from Spanish rule. He died of fever in Colombia in 1825. James Hope managed to evade arrest. He settled in Belfast and lived to the age of 82, holding as strongly as ever to his radical republican beliefs and his admiration for Russell and Emmet.

James Quinn is Executive Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Further reading:
M. Hill, B. Turner and K. Dawson (eds), The 1798 rebellion in County Down (Newtownards, 1998).
P. Mac an Bheatha, Jemmy Hope: an chéad sóisialaí Éireannach (Westport, 1985).
J. Quinn, Soul on fire: a life of Thomas Russell (Dublin, 2002).

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