The People’s Rising: Wexford 1798 Daniel Gahan (Gill and Macmillan, £12.99) The Mighty Wave: the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford Dáire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong (eds.) (Four Courts, £9.99) Sir Richard Musgrave’s Memoirs of the Irish Rebellion of 179

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 1996), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 4

It was commonplace in the late 1970s and early 1980s for political historians to venture that the imbalance in Lecky’s coverage of the eighteenth century, which prompted him to devote three of his seminal five-volume History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century to the 1790s, would soon be remedied. This expectation was informed primarily by the substantial corpus of work on parliamentary history and Anglo-Irish relations that was then being presented revising our understanding of the nature and operation of eighteenth-century politics. Since then, ironically, the 1790s has consolidated its place as the decade of the eighteenth century that historians are most eager to explore. This development was signalled by Louis Cullen’s controversial reinterpretation of the rebellion in Wicklow and Wexford in The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1600-1900 (1981) and Marianne Elliott’s detailed study of the United Irishmen and France, Partners in Revolution (1982). It has been reinforced since by a host of important books and articles transforming and deepening our understanding of this ‘pivotal decade’ from Bartlett, Cullen, Smyth, Keogh, Curtin, Whelan and others. The four books under review bring the reinterpretation of the 1790s a step further. They vary significantly, and sometimes fundamentally, in their approach and effectiveness, but taken together they are revealing in the perspective they throw on the state of scholarship on the United Irishmen and on current attitudes to the 1798 Rebellion.
Until recently, the prevailing historical view of the 1798 Rebellion was that, in its most dramatic manifestations, it was the work of a desperate and disorganised Catholic peasant jacquerie driven by religious hatred and the desire to extirpate not just their Protestants rulers, but all Protestants. This reconstruction of ‘98 as violently sectarian can be traced ideologically to Sir Richard Musgrave’s controversial Memoirs of the different Rebellions in Ireland, which is one reason why the initiative of Round Tower Books in publishing a new edition based on the third edition of 1802 is so timely. There are other reasons: the addition of an index to the massive narrative and extensive appendices that go to make up its nine hundred plus pages is invaluable, while the footnotes indicating where the text deviates from what appears in the first two editions is likewise to be welcomed. Musgrave is not an easy read, because of its scale as well as the passion which infuses his narrative but, as David Dickson rightly observes in his biographical foreword on the author, it cannot be ignored by anybody interested in the period because of ‘its relentless accumulation of documentary and oral evidence’.
Musgrave’s influence is certainly detectable in Thomas Pakenham’s widely read popular account of the 1798 Rebellion, The Year of Liberty. Pakenham comes in for some harsh criticism from a number of authors in The Mighty Wave, a selection of papers edited by Dáire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong from those presented at the inaugural Comoradh ‘98 conference and Byrne-Perry Summer School held in County Wexford in 1995. Kevin Whelan’s dismissal of his approach as ‘crude reductionism’ may be intellectually sustainable, but it is perhaps more categorical than it needs to be given the failure of scholars for so long to offer an alternative interpretation. This apart, Whelan’s essay on the reinterpretation of the rebellion in Wexford offers a characteristically vigorous exploration of how current views on this event differs from the likes of Pakenham, and if it shows signs of haste (for example, virtually none of its endnotes possess page numbers which makes tracing the references problematic), this is not entirely unexpected given its origins as a public lecture. It fulfils its purpose of providing an excellent insight into the revision in historical understanding of the background to, and course of, the rebellion that has taken placed in the past fifteen years. This purpose is also well-served by a further instalment of Tommy Graham’s important work on the planning for the rebellion in Dublin which puts events in Wexford in their national context and is complemented by Louis Cullen’s stimulating commentary on the historiography of the rebellion, which includes some piquant remarks on the apotheosis of Fr John Murphy and an original perspective on why Wexford rose. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the volume is less compelling. Indeed, a number of papers would have benefited from further reconsideration and rewriting prior to publication. Part of the problem for some contributors is that their identifiable sympathy for the insurgents and allied incaution in the use of language sometimes gets in the way of the sound interpretation of events. This is quite manifest, for example, in Brian Clery’s description of the battle of Oulart as ‘an incredible success’, in his reductionist perception that the source of the problem that led to the rebellion was ‘imperialism’, and in the extraordinary concluding flourish to Nicholas Furlong’s unconvincing piece on the ‘strategic importance of Wexford’. This is a pity, because as Daniel Gahan demonstrates in his essay in The Mighty Wave and in his detailed history of the Wexford Rebellion, The People’s Rising, it is possible to be empathetic without being partisan.
As his title suggests, Gahan’s primary focus is those in rebellion. This is most welcome, and he accomplishes what is clearly a labour of love with panache. The book is thoroughly grounded in the surviving documents and memoirs of the participants on the rebel side; it is lucidly written, well organised, generally secure in its judgements and honest in its appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the main protagonists and their tactics. Thus, after a too brief mis en scene, Gahan carefully and confidently describes the outbreak of the rebellion in north and east Wexford and its rapid mobilisation and spread into the centre of the county within days of its commencement. His account of the reaction and response of Crown forces, by contrast, is more sketchy, but this is compensated for by his firm location of Wexford in its national context and the context of the United Irishmen’s military plan. The realisation in early June by the Wexford rebels that they were pretty much on their own, that they were in fact one of the few counties to rise, dramatically changed their mood and prospects. Indeed, it is only following this that the outrages with which the insurgents were so indelibly identified by their critics began to take place. These are vividly and honestly described by Gahan, and his narrative also demonstrates convincingly that they were fewer in number and consequence than those perpetrated by loyalists. There were, among those in rebellion, individuals like Thomas Dixon (about whom one would like to know more), whose behaviour bordered on the psychopathic, but there is little question that the behaviour of loyalists, Yeomanry and regular soldiers, was much more exceptionable in this respect and that thousands of participants and innocent civilians died as a consequence of their egregious vengefulness. The random and deliberate acts of violence perpetrated by them so casually are shocking, though one ought not to be surprised, perhaps, since, in contrast to the United Irish leadership, whose object was to create a more inclusive society, they were motivated by the wish to protect the existing inegalitarian status quo by teaching those in rebellion a harsh lesson. Their decision to move decisively against the Wexford insurgents was delayed briefly by concern with what was happening in Ulster, but when General Lake assumed personal control of the army’s multi-pronged movement against Wexford on 17 June, the rebellion was put down quickly and forcefully. The Wexford rebels were too poorly equipped and badly led to resist regular soldiers with any success for any length of time. Their strategy was to try to hold out until the French arrived, but their decision to risk all on one big battle at Vinegar Hill, rather than to embark on guerrilla warfare, was misconceived. Despite this, a hard core successfully evaded interception and tried in vain to spirit up rebellion elsewhere in Leinster. Their efforts attest to their resolution, and to what might have been achieved if they had been better led.
The same point can be made of the less dramatic uprising in Antrim and Down. A.T.Q. Stewart account of this is full of interesting detail, insightful character sketches and hitherto unrevealed experiences derived largely from little used materials in the Scottish and Northern Irish archives, but the book over all compares unfavourably with Gahan’s on Wexford because of its failure to get close enough to those in rebellion. This contrast in approach is well illustrated by its main title ‘The Summer Soldiers’. The phrase was first used by Tom Paine as a derogatory description of fair-weather supporters of the American Revolution, and suggests that those who went into in rebellion in Ulster were less than fully committed. Stewart cites many incidents of desertion which support this conclusion, but his case would have been more convincing if the account presented took on board the full corpus of recent scholarship on popular politicisation and radicalism (no work by Cullen, Whelan or Graham is cited in the bibliography, for example), and the approach taken was less episodic (its 264 pages are apportioned among thirty short and thematically varied chapters). Stewart’s view of the rebellion is certainly at odds with the positive account recently offered by Nancy Curtin, and while descriptions such as that of the insurgents’ camp before the decisive encounter at Ballynahinch justify his rather than her conclusions, his failure to balance this and his narratives of individual experiences with a clearer military and national perspective leaves the reader without a sufficiently clear perspective on the events he describes. Nonetheless, Stewart’s Summer Soldiers provides an accessible, slightly self-indulgent, but informative account of the Rebellion in Antrim and Down upon which others can build.
With the obvious exception of Stewart, there is an identifiable tendency among many of those researching the 1790s at present to perceive and to present radicalism in a positive light. There is no denying that rehabilitation was called for, but there is a danger of going too far, as I believe Kevin Whelan does when he defines the ‘Wexford Republic’ in 1798 as ‘a shining symbolic movement in Irish history’ and ‘an exercise in representative government and direct democracy’ that is ‘a fitting and dynamic memorial to the ideals of the United Irishmen’. He is equally open to challenge when he writes of ‘the successful course of the rising in Wexford’, as is Tommy Graham when he defines the outbreak of the rising in Wexford as a ‘spectacular success’. Indeed, one is sometimes given the impression reading some of the current work on Wexford and 1798 that in the eagerness to rehabilitate the United Irishmen not enough attention is accorded their organisational, tactical, military and strategic mistakes. There is plenty of instances of such errors in the books reviewed here, but they are not always explored in sufficient detail. This is what makes Tom Bartlett’s essay on Myles Byrne in The Mighty Wave so significant. Byrne was in no doubt but that serious errors were made during the 1798 Rebellion, and the ease, for example, with which the United Irishmen were penetrated by spies indicates that they were made at other times too. It is only when we are prepared to accord their deficiencies and their achievements equal attention that the elusive balanced history of the 1790s will be possible. Much has been achieved, not least by the publication of books under review, but there is still plenty to be done.

James Kelly


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