The Wexford Senate 1798-1998

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), News, The United Irishmen, Volume 4

Last November, at Johnstown Castle, Wexford, Minister of State, Avril Doyle TD officially launched ‘Friends of Comóradh ’98’ and their flagship project, the reconvention of the Wexford Senate in 1998. She argued that the 1790s was the pivotal decade in the evolution of modern Ireland. It witnessed the emergence of popular Republicanism and Loyalism, of separatism, of the Orange Order and Maynooth College, and culminated in the 1798 Rebellion and the Act of Union of 1800, which defined subsequent relations between Ireland and Britain.

1798 also cast a long shadow, the Minister continued. The resonant and romantic names of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, Thomas Russell, Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Fr. John Murphy and Miles Byrne, amongst many others, were to reverberate down the echo chambers of Irish history. An honest and accurate understanding of it was not just of scholarly interest but had important implications for current political and cultural thinking.

A window of opportunity was opened in Ireland by the impact of the American and French Revolutions: that moment was brilliantly seized by the United Irishmen who imaginatively created a vision of a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive politics, which could attract and sustain all Irish people in all their inherited complexities. Rather than seeing religious, ethnic and political diversity as a disabling problem, the United Irishmen saw it as a glorious opportunity, to construct a wider, more tolerant and generous vision of Irish identity. Rather than grimly clinging to a divisive past, the United Irishmen sought to create a shared future. By facing into the future rather than the past they wished to heal the hurts of Irish history in a brotherhood of affection. In their first declaration of principle they stated

We have thought much about our posterity, little about our ancestors. Are we forever to walk like beasts of prey over the fields which these ancestors stained with blood?

Citing recent historical scholarship, she maintained that that generous project was deliberately derailed by counter-revolutionaries in the 1790s, largely through the injection of sectarianism to break the United Irishmen’s non-sectarian appeal. We were still living with the consequences of that defeat. The United Irish project of an inclusive, democratic, non-sectarian Ireland remains uncompleted: understanding the reason for its momentous defeat in the 1790s can help us to ensure that history does not tragically repeat itself in the 1990s.

The Minister drew particular attention to the divisive role of propaganda and selective history. The propaganda war which ensued after 1798 ensured that the real principles of the 1790s were buried in a welter of recrimination and political point-scoring. In the acrimonious and anxious aftermath of 1798 and the Act of Union, control of the interpretation of the Rebellion became a vital component of many political agendas. Considerable energy was invested in portraying the 1798 Rebellion as a mere sectarian and agrarian revolt of ignorant Catholic peasants, in an effort to detach Presbyterians from the emerging democratic movement.

The Minister said it was time we discarded this now discredited sectarian version of ’98; we must stress the modernity of the United Irish project, its forward-looking, democratic dimension, and abandon the outdated agrarian or peasant interpretation; and we must emphasise the essential unity of the 1798 insurrection: what happened in Wexford was of a piece with what happened in Antrim and Down. These exciting new interpretations and vistas need to be incorporated into the commemoration of the bicentenary of the Rebellion. We can no longer afford to leave ’98 to be claimed by one political tradition in Ireland. The Catholic-Nationalist version of ’98 which dominated the Centenary, 1938 and 1948 commemorations needs to be abandoned in favour of a pluralist, non-sectarian approach which more accurately reflects what the United Irishmen envisaged.

On behalf of the government, she commended those involved in the creation of the ‘Friends of ’98’, and in particular singled out its flagship project, the reconvening of the Wexford Senate in 1998. Only recently had historians begun to recover the buried history of the embryonic Wexford Republic of June 1798 when the county was governed by a Council or Directory of eight, four Catholic and four Protestant. To bolster this experiment in representative and pluralist government, a Senate of 500 was established comprising leading citizens in the county including two representatives from each parish. The Senate was established to represent the broad popular support for the new Republic and to administer the county under the existing wartime conditions.

Two hundred years later, continued the Minister, it can again serve to encourage us towards that imaginative inclusiveness which the United Irishmen had identified as being essential to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. The Senate will be reconvened in Wexford town in June 1998 when it will be fully representative of the enriching diversity of the Irish people in all their inherited complexity. In particular, it will acknowledge the modern global reach of Irishness through the inclusion of the great Irish Diaspora which itself was profoundly affected by the large-scale emigration and transportation of United Irishmen after the 1798 Rising. The Wexford Senate will be particularly attentive to the voice and role of women, for so long relentlessly sidelined from the political system, and it will be inclusive in its disposition to traditionally marginalised minorities. It will provide a structure through which the Irish Diaspora and the Irish at home can interact at a time when Ireland is involved in a critical period of development and renewal. The object is to give the Irish Diaspora a means of making a contribution to a more confident Ireland in the new millennium. Its remit will be to act as a distinctive Irish voice on cultural, economic, social and political issues of concern to the Irish people as a whole. In particular it will explore the appropriate political projects for the Irish people in the twenty-first century.

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