The 1700s in Ireland’s history is alternately referred to as the “Penal Era” and the “Age of Ascendancy.” The two references aptly describe the difference in the lives of Ireland’s Catholics and the Protestant English living in Ireland. Irish Catholics made up the Irish poor who constituted 80 percent of the population and owned less than one-third of the land. As the Protestant English landowners “ascended” to the gentrified class in the 1700s, the Irish Catholics descended deeper into lives of desperation and deprivation. During this time, Ireland was theoretically an autonomous Kingdom with its own Parliament, but in reality it was a client state controlled by the King of Great Britain and supervised by his cabinet in London.
The state of Ireland’s poor in the 18th century can be party attributed to the devastation caused by the armies of Oliver Cromwell during 1649–53. The war that Cromwell waged against those Irish rebelling against English rule went way beyond conquering Ireland. Cromwell’s armies employed “scorched earth warfare,” burning land, crops and food stores in their wake. The impact of the war on the Irish population was unquestionably severe. The war resulted in famine, which was worsened by an outbreak of bubonic plague. Estimates of the drop in the Irish population resulting from the Parliamentarian campaign range from 15 to 83 percent. The English also transported about 50,000 people as indentured laborers, sending them to the English colonies in North America and the Caribbean.
Catholics in Ireland were then socially marginalized by the Penal Laws introduced in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The laws were designed to suppress the Catholic religion and strengthen the Protestant stronghold on Ireland’s economy. In 1690 the first Penal Laws stipulated that no Catholic could have a gun, pistol, or sword. Over the next 30 years other Penal laws followed: Irish Catholics were forbidden to receive an education, enter a profession, vote, hold public office, practice their religion, attend Catholic worship, engage in trade or commerce, purchase land, lease land, receive a gift of land or inherit land from a Protestant, rent land worth more than thirty shillings a year, own a horse of greater value than five pounds, be the guardian to a child, educate their own children or send a child abroad to receive an education. Catholics who owned even small amounts of land were prohibited from willing their land to the eldest son, as Protestants did. The land had to be divided among all male heirs. This law in effect reduced each heir’s individual land ownership to barely tillable plots.
The Irish poor served as tenant farmers on the large estates of absentee English landlords. Nearly all of the tenant farmer’s crop was sold to pay rent on the land. The tenant family existed on potatoes, which they grew on their own small plot, buttermilk and, on rare occasions, herring. The overworked soil produced potatoes of poor quality and usually less than sufficient in quantity to sustain the family. The tenant farmer’s housing was crowded and of poor construction. Families found it difficult to maintain even basic personal hygiene. These conditions led to epidemic infections and intestinal problems.
The Irish poor of the 1700s were not eligible for any public assistance and the only relief available to them came from charity and volunteer organizations. In 1772, the Irish Parliament set up 11 workhouses for the unemployed poor, but that was not enough to make a significant impact. Moreover, the conditions in the workhouses were so deplorable that only the most desperate of the Irish poor, or those who were forcibly taken off the streets, entered into workhouse service.
The only education available to the Catholic Irish poor were the charter schools established by the Irish Parliament in 1733. The government’s stated goal of these schools was twofold: to rescue children from abject poverty and free them from the restraints of what the government considered a dangerous religion. Parents were told their children would be provided food, clothing, shelter, free education and instruction in the Protestant religion. Irish Catholic parents recognized the charter schools as a form of bribery and only sent their children there during times of famine, withdrawing them when conditions improved. In 1788, a Parliament-sponsored committee investigating the charter schools found students living in deplorable conditions and treated essentially as slaves.
The United Irishmen and the Rebellion of 1798
The prospect of reforming the Penal Laws inspired a small group of Protestant liberals in Belfast to found the Society of United Irishmen in 1791. The organisation crossed the religious divide with a membership comprised of Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, other Protestant “dissenter” groups, and even some from the Protestant Ascendancy. The Society openly put forward policies of further democratic reforms and Catholic Emancipation, reforms which the Irish Parliament had little intention of granting. The outbreak of war between France and England, early in 1793, forced the Society underground and toward armed insurrection with French aid. The organisation spread throughout Ireland and had at least 200,000 members by 1797.
To augment their growing strength, the United Irish leadership decided to seek military help from the French Revolutionary government and to postpone any rising until French troops landed in Ireland. Theobold Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, traveled in exile from the United States to France to press the case for intervention. Tone’s efforts succeeded with the dispatch of 14,000 French veteran troops under General Hoche, which arrived off the coast of Ireland at Bantry Bay in December of 1796 after eluding the Royal Navy. However unremitting storms, indecisive leaders and poor seamanship all combined to prevent a landing.
The British government was highly alarmed by the French attempt to invade Ireland and dispatched Lieutenant-General Gerard Lake to the province of Ulster. His orders were to disarm the United Irishmen and their Defender allies under an Insurrection Act which effectively put the country under martial law. Lake vowed to subdue the populace of Belfast by the use of terror. Throughout 1797 he initiated searches in Belfast and the surrounding towns, seizing many firearms and pikes. He loosed his Yeomanry and Orange militias upon the countryside, spreading terror by burnings and merciless floggings. This reign of terror was very effective in depleting the numbers of those supporting the United Irishmen.
In 1798 Gerard Lake was promoted to Commander in chief of the army, in spite of Irish government’s outrage at the savagery of his troops, and turned his attentions to the province of Leinster. Here his officers delighted in using the pitchcap, half-hanging and floggings. By the spring of 1798, it appeared that Dublin Castle had been successful in its determined efforts to destroy the Society’s capacity for insurrection: many of its leaders were in prison, its organisation was in disarray, and there seemed no possibility of French assistance. Despite these difficulties, on the night of the 23rd/24th May, as planned, the mail coaches leaving Dublin were seized – as a signal to those United Irishmen outside the capital that the time for the uprising had arrived.
The initial outbreak of the rebellion was confined to a ring of counties surrounding Dublin. The fighting in Kildare, Carlow, Wicklow and Meath had been quickly suppressed by government forces, and the capital secured, when news arrived of a major rebel success in Oulart, County Wexford, followed up by further successes at Enniscorthy and Wexford Town.
While rebellion was raging in the south-east, the north generally had been quiet. But on June 7th a large number of rebels assembled in different parts of County Antrim. In Ballymena, the green flag was raised over the market house, and there were attacks on Larne, Glenarm, Carrickfergus, Toomebridge and Ballymoney. The rebels, almost entirely Presbyterian, captured Antrim town for a few hours, but were then driven out ‘with great slaughter’ by government artillery fire. An attempted mobilization in County Derry had come to nothing, but the United Irishmen in the adjacent County Down began to assemble their forces. However at Ballynahinch, some 12 miles from Belfast, the rebels were routed on 12th-13th June, suffering several hundred casualties. The rebels were hunted down and no quarter was given. Reprisals took place all over Ulster. United Irishmen and women were hanged and imprisoned in the hundreds.
With the rebels scattered in the north, attention shifted once again to those still ‘out’ in Wexford, and the army laid plans to attack their camp at Vinegar Hill outside of Enniscorthy. On 21st June, General Gerard Lake surrounded Vinegar Hill with some 20,000 men, in four columns of soldiers, in order to prevent a rebel breakout. Battle was joined. It lasted about two hours: the rebels were mercilessly shelled, and artillery carried the day. Although a ‘little war’ continued in the Wicklow mountains for some time afterwards, in effect, after Vinegar Hill, the rebellion in the south-east was over. Retribution for the rebel leaders was swift and largely uncompromising. They were executed; their heads were cut off and stuck on spikes outside the courthouse in Wexford town. Father John Murphy, the hero of Oulart and Enniscorthy, was captured in Tullow, County Carlow. He was stripped, flogged, hanged, and beheaded: his corpse was burned in a barrel. With an eye for detail, the local Yeomanry spiked his head on a building directly opposite the local Catholic church, and with great glee, they forced the Catholics of Tullow to open their windows to admit the ‘holy smoke’ from his funeral pyre.
For a brief period in late August, there appeared a prospect that the rebellion would flare up again. On 22nd August, a French force of some 1,100 men, under the command of General Humbert, waded ashore at Kilcummin Strand, near Killala, County Mayo. Humbert scored a striking victory at Castlebar, but then his campaign ran out of steam. It soon became clear that the apparent signal victory at Castlebar was an empty triumph. On 8th September at Ballinamuck, County Longford, the French force, vastly outnumbered, laid down its arms. The French were treated as honoured prisoners of war, but those Irish auxiliaries who had recklessly joined them were promptly massacred.
When the rebellion was finally over between 10,000 and 25,000 rebels (including a high proportion of non-combatants), and around 600 soldiers had been slain, and large areas of the country had been effectively laid waste.
The Act of Union, passed in August 1800, came into effect on 1 January 1801 and took away the measure of autonomy granted to Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy. It was passed largely in response to the rebellion and was underpinned by the perception that the rebellion was provoked by the brutish misrule of the Ascendancy as much as the efforts of the United Irishmen.