Ireland’s problems were exacerbated by social and religious tensions which regularly erupted into dreadful violence. For example, during the 1790s the Protestant and Presbyterian ‘Peep-O’-Day Boys’ attacked and burned the houses of Catholics in Armagh. To protect themselves, the Catholics formed armed associations known as the ‘Defenders’. After a terrific battle between the two factions at Diamond in Armagh in 1795, some Protestants formed the first Orange Lodge with the avowed intention of killing all Roman Catholics.
But some Irishmen like Theobald Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and others wanted to promote religious toleration, give the vote to disadvantaged Catholics, and push for an independent Ireland. Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–1798) recalled that the thunderbolt of the French Revolution ‘changed in an instant the politics of Ireland…This oppressed, plundered, and insulted nation...sympathised most sincerely with the French people, and watched their progress to freedom’.
The Society of United Irishmen of Belfast was founded by Wolfe Tone and others in 1791. The Society promoted the works of Thomas Paine. The Belfast group was joined a few weeks later by another Society in Dublin, which had James Napper Tandy, a former Volunteer, as Secretary.
|James Napper Tandy.|
At this date the United Irishmen wanted peaceful, constitutional reform: universal manhood suffrage. The Society’s mostly middle-class members included Catholics and Protestants; they tried to damp down the ongoing sectarian violence.
However, Ireland’s Roman Catholics were bitterly disappointed in 1793 when Pitt the Younger, under pressure from George III, shelved Catholic emancipation. Many Irishmen believed that civil war was now inevitable between the Protestant landowners and Catholic peasantry.
The Dublin government gave local magistrates sweeping powers to search for arms and disperse meetings. Militia regiments were embodied, public meetings were made illegal, societies like the United Irishmen were banned, and spies set to work.
Wolfe Tone and James Napper Tandy, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Ireland. Barclay’s Dictionary, 1813. Author’s collection.