The Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791, embraced Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters in its aim to remove English control from Irish affairs.
It was formed in Belfast in 1791 by Presbyterian merchants and tradesmen who hoped to reform Parliament and, if necessary, separate from England. The United Irishmen were led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken, William Drennan and Robert Emmett.
Shortly after its formation, the Society began to publish its own popular newspaper, The Northern Star, which helped to spread its political manifesto throughout the country.
Many of the ideals which the United Irishmen preached were associated with the political aspirations of the new regime in France. The following were the introductory passages to its Constitution:
In the present era of reform, when unjust governments are falling in every quarter of Europe, when religious persecution is compelled to abjure her tyranny over conscience, when the rights of men are ascertained in theory, and theory substantiated by practice, when antiquity can no longer defend absurd and oppressive forms, against the common sense and common interests of mankind, when all governments are acknowledged to originate from the people, and to be so far only obligatory, as they protect their rights and promote their welfare, we think it our duty, as Irishmen, to come forward, and state what we feel to be our heavy grievance, and what we know to be its effectual remedy.
We have no national government, we are ruled by Englishmen, and the servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption, and whose strength is the weakness of Ireland; and these men have the whole of the power and patronage of the country, as means to seduce and subdue the honesty of her representatives in the legislature. Such an extrinsic power, acting with uniform force, in a direction too frequently opposite to the true line of our obvious interest, can be resisted with effect solely by unanimity, decision, and spirit in the people, qualities which may be exerted most legally, constitutionally, efficaciously, by the great measure, essential to the prosperity and freedom of Ireland, an equal representation of all the people in parliament.
Impressed with these sentiments, we have agreed to form an association, to be called the Society of United Irishmen, and we do pledge ourselves to our country, and mutually to each other, that we will steadily support, and endeavour by all due means to carry into effect the following resolutions:
1st. Resolved, That the weight of English influence in the government is so great, as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties, and extension of our commerce.
2nd. That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in parliament.
3rd. That no reform is practicable, efficadous, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.
When England again went to war with France in 1793, the United Irishmen were seen as dangerous subversives. In May 1794 the Society was outlawed and forced underground. Still more local societies, sometimes known as lodges, were set up.
Governing committees were initiated at county, provincial and national level, mirroring the pyramidal structure of Presbyterian church government. By 1796 they had transformed themselves into an army - three local societies would form a company, and several companies a battalion. These military units then elected their own Colonels, Captains and Lieutenants.
The year 1796 also saw the introduction of oppressive government legislation. The Indemnity Act exempted Magistrates if they committed illegal or extreme acts ‘in order to check insurrection and maintain peace’. Coinciding with this, the Insurrection Act made the administering of an unlawful oath, such as that to join the United Irishmen, punishable by death.
The United Irishmen made contact with the new French revolutionary government and were promised military support. In December 1796, a fleet of ships with 15,000 French soldiers arrived in Bantry Bay but were unable to land. Despite this ill-fated invasion attempt, however, the involvement of their powerful new ally inspired the United Irishmen and helped them strengthen their membership.
With the formation of the Orange Order, and the persecution of Roman Catholics which followed, members of a Catholic group known as the Defenders had increasingly joined the ranks of the United Irishmen. The Defenders had also been formed as a secret Society, but they were militant and sectarian in principle, and did not share completely the same objectives of the United Irishmen. This eventually led to conflicts of leadership and mistrust, and any alliance between the two movements became strained.
On 13 March 1797, a Proclamation was issued by Lieutenant General Gerard Lake, commander in the North of Ireland which it was hoped would suppress the increasing Rebel activity. In essence, it placed Ulster under Martial Law. Weapons had to be handed in to the authorities, and every effort was made to imprison the leaders of the United Irishmen. The Proclamation had to be signed by 24 June and was to be taken by every adult male. It took the form of an Oath of Allegiance to the King.
At Ballymoney, in the three days leading up to the deadline, 948 men took the Oath, swore that they were not United Irishmen and nor would they become so. 34 men admitted to taking the Oath of the United Irishmen and swore they would no longer be involved. Weapons were also surrendered, including 60 muskets and some ‘old swords’.
Despite these strict measures, the United Irish leaders believed the unity of the people was strong and set a date for rebellion. On 23 May 1798 the uprising began in the South of the island, but planned outbreaks across the country failed due to informers within the movement and brutal tactics by the government. Many Irishmen still expected help from the French, and delayed their involvement until they could be sure of this valuable military support. In the end, after limited success in the South, the United Irishmen of the North could wait no longer, and the day chosen for rebellion was Thursday 7 June 1798.
On 7th June 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 mobilisation in County Derry had come to nothing, and by the evening of 8th June, the Antrim rebels had also lost heart and had begun drifting home. Some weeks later McCracken was captured and executed.
As the rising in County Antrim, and elsewhere was petering out, on 10th June (known thereafter as ‘Pike Sunday’) the United Irishmen in the adjacent County Down began to assemble their forces. This was under the command of Henry Monro, a shopkeeper from Newtownards and, ironically, a direct descendant of General Robert Monro who had commanded the Scottish force in Ulster in the wars of the 1640s. At Ballynahinch, some 12 miles from Belfast, the rebels were routed on 12th-13th June, suffering several hundred casualties. Military losses were three dead and some thirty wounded. ‘General’ Monro was captured and, a few days later, hanged outside his front door. The rebellion in the north-east was over. It resulted in the 1801 Act of Union, which brought Ireland tighter still under British control.