The Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape

Chapter Three:  Revolution, Emancipation, Starvation, page 1

The Protestant Ascendancy gave an impression of stability and control to Irish government.  But the 18th century in Europe was also the Age of Revolution, and England watched with increasing anxiety as first the American colonies, and then more dramatically the French, overthrew traditional rule and instituted democratic governments. France in particular threatened English interests, because as a Catholic country France had long held ties to the Irish and supported Ireland in its resistance to France’s oldest enemy, England. (View Martello Tower.) This unease led to some lessening of the restrictions on the Irish, but at the same time the air of revolution caused the Irish to form their own rebellious movements. Most prominent among these was the United Irishmen, formed in Belfast and Dublin in 1791.  This group combined elements of American and French republicanism with British commonwealth doctrine and Irish patriotic fervor.  It was composed of Presbyterian, Protestant, and Catholic elements, and initially aimed at a unified Ireland of all religious denominations.  Though initially the United Irishmen sought parliamentary and voting reform, they gradually shifted to advocating militant revolution.

In 1798, under the leadership of the charismatic Wolfe Tone, they attempted an insurrection. Tone had garnered support in France, and he sailed to Ireland with an expeditionary force but was quickly captured and the uprising failed.  Tone was imprisoned and died mysteriously while in English custody--the official line was that he committed suicide, but the Irish always suspected the English of killing him, and Tone became another in a line of Irish martyrs who died fighting to free the nation from the foreign oppressor.  He certainly is the foundational figure for Irish Republicanism, the powerful impulse behind much of the conflict in Northern Ireland today.

A similar fate was bestowed on Robert Emmet five years later.  Emmet was another leader of the United Irishmen who worked in the aftermath of the 1798 debacle to foment a new revolt.  In 1803 he attempted to capture Dublin Castle, hoping that the Irish population would rise up in a spontaneous revolt, and also hoping that aid from France would come.  His attempt was quickly put down, and Emmet, along with 21 other leaders, were executed within a month of the attempt.  Emmet delivered a very famous "speech from the dock" at his trial, which reverberates throughout Irish history as another document in the annals of the Irish martyrs. (View Emmet's speech.)

These defeats marked the end of the United Irishmen, and the end of significant Irish armed rebellion until the early 20th century.

One of Lady Gregory's finest plays, Kathleen ni-Houlihan of 1902, has the 1798 rebellion as its crucial historical background.  It is noteworthy that the allure of these revolts was kept alive during the early 20th century, as a new tradition of armed resistance to England came to the fore.   Yeats, who co-authored some of the speeches in the play, later asked, "did that play of mine / lead certain men to be killed?"

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