Republicanism and Reaction

The voice of Irish republicanism, Theobald Wolfe Tone, landed in France early in 1796 as an official United Irish emissary, determined to secure French aid for a rebellion against the crown. After months of frustration, Tone finally succeeded and a massive invasion force was assembled under Lazare Hoche, one of the greatest generals of the French Republic. It sailed for Bantry Bay in December but was dispersed by extremely bad weather. Those that did make it to Bantry failed to grasp their opportunity when a window appeared in the storm, and the fleet struggled back to France.

The government had already introduced more stringent measures to deal with disaffection in 1796, notably with the passing of the Insurrection and Indemnity Acts, and the formation of a yeomanry force. The Bantry Bay debacle shocked conservatives and loyalists into action and Dublin Castle responded with forthright military repression. Ulster was 'pacified' and dragooned into submission by General Lake in 1797.

In March 1798 most of the leaders of the Leinster Directory of the United Irishmen, were arrested in Dublin on the information of Thomas Reynolds of Kilkea, one of their own members. This was a severe blow to the movement and it furnished the government with the evidence it needed. The country was proclaimed, in effect, it was put under martial law. Troops visited disturbed areas at free-quarters and in many cases beat them into submission. The pitch-cap, picketing and triangles became infamous as suspects were flogged and tortured.

But the United Irish organisation survived, and plans were made for a rising without French help. The date set was 23 May, and the signal for the country to rise was to be the stopping of the mail coaches. Complete disaster then befell the movement with the arrest of the most distinguished of its leaders, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who had been in hiding in Dublin. A sincere patriot and republican, he was wounded in the struggle, and died in prison on Monday 4 June. Similarly the Sheares brothers, later executed as traitors, were arrested on the eve of the rebellion, but the die was cast and despite the apparent success of the military, Ireland was soon plunged into chaos.

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