The return of inflation, a fuel crisis, strikes and recession, together with Russia’s invasion of a neighbouring state, all to the soundtrack of a resurgent Swedish pop group, has prompted many to ask if this is the 1970s all over again. However, some striking parallels with today’s problems can be found almost 200 years earlier, in the 1790s, with a cost-of-living crisis, climate change, unpopular wars and, to add a particularly local flavour, constitutional upheaval and sectarian strife. So, in the prophetic words of the now immortal and immutable ABBA, could it be that “The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself”? Several pivotal events from the last decades of the 18th century would certainly appear to have some relevance for us today. However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s declaration that his vision of a united Ireland was informed by the events of 1798 passed almost unnoticed in a recent Slugger article.
The implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the legislation that sets out this region’s post-Brexit trading arrangements with the rest of the United Kingdom and the European Union, has united the various unionist parties in opposition to the perceived erosion of a historic constitutional cornerstone, the 1801 Act of Union. This earlier instrument for the realignment of sovereign relations saw the abolition of the ‘devolved’ Parliament in Dublin and the induction of 100 elected Irish representatives into a new United Kingdom Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland at Westminster. The Irish peerage were represented by 28 of their number sitting in the House of Lords. Some modifications to the symbols of state would also be necessary.
The first Union Flag was created by royal proclamation on 28th July 1707. This followed the Acts of Union, an attempt to settle long-standing grievances, mainly Scottish, over religion and trade, the National Flags of Scotland and England were combined to form the new National Flag of Great Britain. A succession of disarming acts was also introduced, with the aim of preventing Highlanders from having “in his or their custody, use, or bear, broad sword, poignard, whinger, or durk, side pistol, gun, or other warlike weapon”. The penal laws that followed the 1746 battle of Culloden included the Highland Dress Proscription Act, with a penalty of six months imprisonment followed by transportation for a second offence. Its repeal in 1782 led to the development of the Highland garb and clan tartans worn today.
For Ireland to be represented in the Union Flag, a third heraldic device would need to be combined with those of Scotland’s St Andrew, older brother to St Peter and disciple to Jesus, who was martyred on an X-shaped cross or ‘saltire’, and England’s St George, martyred under Diocletian, partitioner of the Roman empire. However, having died naturally, the uncanonised Patrick did not warrant an emblematic cross of any description. The red saltire eventually attributed to him was the crest of the Geraldines, a family of Welsh aristocrats represented in the band of Cambro-Norman knights ‘invited’ to Ireland in 1169 by Dermot, King of Leinster. Nevertheless, on 1 January 1801 a Royal Proclamation declared that the new Union Flag would be “Azure, the Crosses Saltires of St. Andrew and St. Patrick quarterly per saltire, counterchanged argent and gules; the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the third, fimbriated as the Saltire”.
These constitutional changes introduced by the 1801 Act of Union were in direct response to the rebellion of 1798, a significant but largely overlooked event in Irish history that must be considered in the light of what British historians have referred to as “the long 18th century”. This typically begins in 1688 with the outbreak of the Glorious Revolution, so called because its objectives, the overthrow of the Catholic King James II, replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, were achieved without the spilling of blood, at least not on English soil. It ended with Wellington’s victory in 1815 when, “At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender / Oh yeah”.
The 18th century is also regarded as the Age of Enlightenment throughout Europe and America and, consequentially, it has been argued, the Age of Revolution with the American War of Independence (1775-83) followed shortly after by the French Revolution (1789-99). Meanwhile, in London, in the summer of 1780, some of the most destructive rioting ever seen in the capital was, for many historians, the closest England ever came to an all-out revolution. Longstanding economic and political discontent played a significant role in the build-up to the London riots. For much of the 1770s Britain had suffered a cost-of-living crisis while the deeply unpopular war in America served up one ignominious defeat after another. Climate change has also been held to contribute to the social unrest witnessed during this period. From the mid-14th to the mid-19th century a phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age caused sever fluctuations in world-wide weather patterns and, consequentially, poor agricultural conditions. There were several particularly severe cold snaps, with one of these recorded about 1770. However, the overarching factor in the breakdown of civil society in several regions across Britain and Ireland in the late 18th century was religious intolerance.
The discontent of the English mob in 1780 was rooted the Papists Act of 1778, intended to mitigate a body of legislation known as the penal laws, first introduced by William in the 1690s with the express intent of “further preventing the Growth of Popery”. The eccentric zealot Lord George Gordon reacted by forming a Protestant association to oppose the enactment of any legislation granting greater freedoms to Catholics, including the right to join Britain’s severely depleted armed forces. For several days crowds of up to 50,000 left a trail of destruction much greater than that seen in Paris during the entire French Revolution. Nearly 300 rioters were shot dead by the 15,000 troops mustered to quell these unprecedented disturbances. Britain’s reputation on the international stage also suffered at a time when it needed allies to fight its costly war in America.
In Ireland, the penal laws had included the 1695 Act for “better securing the government by disarming papists”. This provided that “searches of dwellings shall be made only between sunrise and sunset” while an amendment that came into effect on 1st July 1740 stated that “all justices of the peace, magistrates and chief officers of cities and towns are ordered to make yearly searches for arms”. The penalty for the first offence was a fine of one hundred pounds, and for a second, to suffer praemunire, essentially to be deemed treasonous and stripped of all rights and possessions and jailed indefinitely.
As in Scotland and England, legislative measures revoking the penal laws in Ireland were enacted during the final decades of the 18th century. One of the last, the 1793 Act “for the Relief of His Majesty’s Popish or Roman Catholick Subjects of Ireland” swept away most remaining disqualifications. The Militia Act of the same year saw the reorganisation of the Volunteers, local reservists first raised in 1778 to guard against French invasion while regular troops fought in America. Much to the consternation of Ireland’s Protestants, this allowed Irish Catholics to enlist thus granting them access to firearms. Indeed, in many parts of Ireland the Protestant working-class felt betrayed and vulnerable, an alien minority.
In Armagh, the most populous county in Ireland, the Protestant Peep o’Day Boys, an agrarian secret society that drew comparison in the Irish House of Commons with “Lord George Gordon’s fanatics”, intensified the searching of Catholic homes for arms. To this they added the serving of written decrees advising Catholic tenants to relocate “to hell or Connaught”. Failure to comply would result in the destruction of possessions, particularly linen weaving machinery, so depriving targeted families of their livelihood and eliminating commercial competition. This campaign of ‘papering and wrecking’ passed with relatively little interference from the authorities.
‘The Armagh Troubles’ also resulted in the formation of the Defenders, a Catholic agrarian secret society that frequently engaged in confrontation with the Peep o’Day Boys. Rural Ireland had a long history of informal recreational violence known as ‘faction fighting’. Throughout the 19th century, mass brawls involving hundreds of antagonists became a fixture at most large gathering such as markets, fairs, wakes, race meetings and patterns. Although occasionally lethal, these confrontations were generally rooted in petty grievances between families or neighbours. By the end of the century, however, more coordinated battles were being arranged along sectarian lines. One such confrontation took place on 21 September 1795 at a cross-roads half-way between Loughgall and Portadown known as the Diamond.
Much ink has been spilt over the Battle of the Diamond, an encounter that more closely resembled the ambush of a large body of Defenders by a relatively small number of better armed and positioned Peep o’Day Boys. The former suffered at least 30 dead and the latter none. This rout was closely followed by several noteworthy events including the formation of the Loyal Orange Institution, better known as the Orange Order, the expulsion of a great many Catholics from Armagh and the Defenders making overtures to a group of northern liberals, the Society of United Irishmen.
The United Irishmen were formed in Belfast, in 1791, by Dublin lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone and a few mainly Presbyterian merchants. In 1792 he organized a convention of elected Roman Catholic delegates that forced the Irish Parliament to pass the Catholic Relief Act of 1793. Tone saw this not as an end in itself but as a step towards a secular republic. An Anglican-born freethinker, he had first-hand experience of the revolutions in America and France and his stated aim was “to unite the whole people of Ireland…, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter…”. The Society was formally suppressed in 1794, the year after Britain and revolutionary France went to war.
In late December 1796, the French Expédition d’Irlande failed to land any of its 15000 troops in a storm-wracked Bantry Bay. Nevertheless, for the British, this attempted invasion underlined the seriousness of the situation and produced a draconian response. By 1797, the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star, had been shut down, the Habeas Corpus act suspended, and martial law proclaimed. In addition to summary executions, anyone suspected of sedition could expect to receive the routine military punishment of flogging or picketing but now also improvised tortures such as half-hanging and pitch-capping. All privately held arms were confiscated, however, from its formation in 1795, the Orange Order was closely associated with the yeomanry in mid Ulster who generally retained their weapons.
It has been estimated that, despite robust repression, by 1798 the number of United Irishmen across Ireland had grown to over a quarter of a million. What followed, however, is a tale of two rebellions. While May 23rd had been set as the date for a general uprising across the Island of Ireland, it soon became clear that Government infiltration, internal disagreements, and poor communications would thwart any coordinated start to the rebellion. Nevertheless, on May 27th the rebels of Co Wexford managed to take Enniscorthy, the County’ second-largest town, from a detachment of the North Cork Militia who had been quartered on its inhabitants. Three days later they took Wexford Town. In the north, it was not until June 8th that Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken lead insurgent forces in an unsuccessful attack on Antrim Town. When the rebels commanded by fellow Presbyterian Henry Munro were defeated at the Battle of Ballinahinch, Co Down, on June13th, the uprising in Ulster was over.
The United Irishmen of Co Wexford was led by an unlikely mix of Catholic clergy and Protestant gentry such as Colonel Anthony Perry. Perry was born in Co Down into a family that owned property across Ireland and, although a member of the Established Church, he married Eliza Ford of Ballyfad, Co. Down, a Roman Catholic. In 1792, Perry joined a branch of the still unprescribed United Irishmen in Gorey, Co Wexford. By 1796, he was living at Perrymount in nearby Inch and was a lieutenant in the Coolgraney Corps of Yeoman Cavalry. In the days before the rebellion, however, Perry and any other Protestant considered ‘too liberal’, along with all the Corp’s Catholics, about half its strength, were disarmed. In late May of 1798, Perry was imprisoned in Gorey market-house where, for several days, he was tortured by ‘Tom the Devil’ of the North Cork Militia, the reputed inventor of the pitch-cap.
Notwithstanding his injuries, upon his release Perry mobilised the rebels of north Wexford and mustered them at Vinegar Hill, headquarters of the county’s United Irishmen. For several weeks they engaged in skirmishes and battles with Crown troops across Wexford and struck as far north as Meath. Several miles north of the River Boyne, the dissident forces were finally broken and scattered. Perry and another rebel leader, Fr. Mogue Kearns, a Catholic priest from Kiltealy, Co Wexford, fled southwest towards Co Offaly, then King’s County, but were captured by a squadron of the Edenderry Yeomanry commanded by Captain John Ridgeway. Perry and Kearns were tried by court-martial and sentenced to death as traitors to the Crown. On 21st July, they were hanged before a large crowd at Blundell Wood in Edenderry and beheaded. They were buried together in Monasteroris Cemetery, just outside the town.
The axe used to decapitate Perry and Kearns, two of the most notable commanders of the 1798 rebellion, became a prized possession of the local Orange Lodge but it would not be the only trophy taken that day. The grandson of Captain Ridgeway, Sir William Ridgeway FBA FRAI, an Anglo-Irish classical scholar and Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, recorded that “the priest’s pistol was carefully preserved by my family”. Somewhat more gruesomely, in January 1921, Ridgeway displayed the severed head of Kearns to Thomas Ulick Sadleir, a visiting Irish genealogist and heraldic expert. However, Fr. Peadar Mac Suibhne of Knockbeg College, Co Carlow, later records that in the mid-1960s, in a tale reminiscent of Oliver Cromwell’s a few years earlier, a visiting Jesuit historian rediscovered the head and had it interred in Monasteroris.
So successful was the disarming of the Catholic peasantry that firearms, such as the pistol carried by Fr. Kearns, were the preserve of the rebel elite. The rank and file were obliged to improvise as best they could, and their weapon of choice was the pike, which proved particularly effective against cavalry charges. Local blacksmiths laboured night and day to produce iron pike-heads which were then fastened to long ash shafts. However, not all the blades used were so recently manufactured. Probably plundered from a Cabinet of Curiosities in one of the many Big Housed raided for arms and provisions, there are numerous examples in the museums of Britain and Ireland of Bronze Age weapons which were recommissioned. Short, Middle Bronze Age blades became pikes, while longer, Late Bronze Age swords were generally used as intended.
The extent and significance of the reuse of ancient weapons by Irish insurgents had serious consequences for those academics working in the field of Material Culture, the term used by archaeologists when referring to the physical objects produced by past societies. In the case of prehistoric periods, such as the Irish Bronze Age, our rich collection of metal artefacts has been pored over for clues to their function, particularly the use-wear evidence on bronze blades. Unfortunately, the conflation of ancient and modern damage has resulted in a misapprehension regarding Bronze Age bellicosity.
Whether from 200 or 2000 or more years ago or yesterday, the past will always have relevance for our contemporary lives. To repeat the words of George Santayana, “those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”
For further information on this topic, a three-part video presentation, ‘People, Pots and Pointy Things: A Reassessment of Irish Bronze Age Material Culture’, can be found at The Ulster Archaeological Society’s website.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.