In February 1793 war was declared between Britain and revolutionary France, and tensions in Ireland rose still further. Until this date, it had still seemed possible for radical Irish reformers to make political advances through constitutional means, and in particular to introduce the Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform that were their declared aims. It appeared that the Irish system might truly be able to reform itself peacefully from within. As late as 1792–3, indeed, the prime minister, William Pitt, and his home secretary, Henry Dundas, had forced a Catholic relief bill through the Irish parliament, hand-in-hand with a militia bill ending the prohibition on Catholics bearing arms; within a few years, there were seven thousand Catholic armed militiamen in Ireland. Now, however, the declaration of war with France caused a change in the political climate. Suddenly, the conservative faction had no need to persuade and oppose: it and the British administration were suddenly on the same side. The need to maintain political stability and guard against the spread of the revolutionary virus was now paramount, and the authorities were in no mood to grant further reform of any kind.
At a local level, the cooling of this climate of conciliation and revolutionary zeal had immediate ramifications. Clashes between Protestant and Catholic factions – the Peep O’Day Boys and the Defenders – in south Ulster, which had for a while almost died away, erupted again into violence. At one pitched battle at Loughgall in September 1795, a large party of Defenders came off much the worse; and the Peep O’Day Boys now coalesced under the more impressive name of the Orange Order. The Order’s name came from the memory of William of Orange and his victory at the Boyne; and the organization itself was dedicated to stemming the expansion both of the non-denominational United Irishmen and of Catholic influence. Rapidly the situation in Armagh and other areas became deeply alarming, with the Volunteers, who provided the effective police in Armagh, absorbing former Peep O’Day Boys into their ranks. This dynamic was played out at higher levels in Ulster and across Ireland throughout the 1790s: the Orange Order was by no means trusted in government circles, but ultimately the authorities in Dublin and London would throw in their lot with those Protestants who would be their most reliable allies in an increasingly dangerous situation.
In the aftermath of this crackdown, the United Irishmen were banned: and with the possibility that the armed might of the State would be used against it, the organization went underground. By 1794, Tone was producing reports for French agents on the state of Ireland: ‘The Government of Ireland is to be looked upon as a Government of Force; the moment a superior force appears it would tumble at once as being neither founded in the interests nor in the affections of the people.’ In 1795 he passed through Belfast, climbed the promontory of Cave Hill overlooking the city and with other United Irish leaders swore an oath ‘never to desist in our efforts, until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted her independence’. And with this, Tone left for America on the first stage of a journey that would lead him to France by February of the following year.
In Paris, Tone immediately set about enlisting the help of the authorities. In his diaries, we hear the voice of a young man who is anything but a humourless ideologue: he notes wryly the attempts of French hoteliers to fleece him and of his landlady to seduce him, and (less wryly) the frustration and endless kicking of heels as he waits to press his case to the French government. At last, on 24 February 1796, Tone was called to meet the leaders of the Directory, the government that had succeeded the first republic. Making his way ‘in a fright’ into the splendour of the Palais de Luxembourg and rehearsing speeches all the while, he found a French leader waiting to meet him: none other than the great military tactician and founder of the revolutionary army, Lazare Carnot.
I began my discourse by saying, in horrible French, that I had been informed he spoke English…I then told him I was an Irishman…and that I wished to communicate with him on the actual state of Ireland…I proceeded to state that the sentiments of all those people were unanimous in favour of France and eager to throw off the yoke of England. He asked me then, ‘What they wanted’. I said, ‘An armed force in the commencement’…until they could organise themselves and undoubtedly a supply of arms and some money.
Tone’s opinions fell upon open and eager ears. The French government, though militarily dominant in Europe, had been infuriated by British efforts to foment internal agitation and instability. Now it was ready for vengeance, and in a restless Ireland it saw its opportunity. Carnot was after hard facts: he wanted details concerning Irish anchorages north and south, numbers and possibilities. ‘I think,’ Tone concluded with relief, ‘I came off very clean.’ And in the end, his quest for aid was indeed successful: the French resolved now to send a force of fifteen thousand men, together with munitions and arms, in support of insurrection. The decision would result in one of the most dangerous moments for British authority in Ireland.
On 16 December 1796, a naval force of forty-three ships set sail from Brest. On board the Indomptable was citizen Wolfe Tone, now a chef de brigade in the French navy. The fleet, which had been brought together in conditions of intense secrecy, was an impressive sight – yet it was little short of miraculous that it had been assembled in the first place. French naval power had long been hobbled by shortages of hardware and personnel, a succession of humiliating defeats at the hand of the Royal Navy and British blockades of its most important bases. Until the very last minute, there had been doubt about whether the force should sail: even as it slipped anchor, messengers were on their way from Paris to cancel the entire operation. But too late: in the darkness, the fleet evaded the British blockade of the harbour and made for the open sea. This was a piece of good luck – but it was the last the fleet would encounter: for one ship foundered off the Brittany coast and storms separated the rest, with the flagship being driven out into the Atlantic.
By the time the snow-covered mountains of southwest Ireland were sighted on 21 December, however, thirty-six vessels of the fleet had come together; and on the following day sixteen of them anchored in Bantry Bay, with the remainder waiting outside the mouth of the inlet. The news reached Dublin on Christmas Eve, causing consternation and the dispatch of troops south along rutted winter roads. A landing, had it taken place at this point, would surely have been successful: at no point had the flotilla encountered a single enemy ship, which rather gave the lie to the notion of British mastery of their home waters. The British authorities, indeed, had been foiled by French secrecy, and later guilty of staggering complacency: they simply did not believe that a French naval force would contemplate a midwinter expedition to Ireland. Even when news emerged that the fleet had slipped through the blockade of Brest, the British assumed that its final destination was Portugal, perhaps, or even the West Indies. And in Ireland, there was no great military presence in Munster: the French troops might have taken Cork and its great natural harbour without too much trouble.
But the wind, blowing gales and snow from the land, was against the French; and their spirits had been further lowered by the desolate winter scene and all too evident absence of any fraternal welcome from the Irish themselves. Eventually, after remaining in the area for a week – so close to land, as Tone said, that he might have thrown a biscuit ashore – the invasion force beat a retreat and reached France once more on New Year’s Day, 1797. It was a bitter blow for Tone, who had watched as this glorious opportunity for French intervention had been swept away in an Irish snowstorm. But it was also a blow to French prestige: the authorities in Paris were humiliated by yet another naval fiasco, and angered that there had been no promised Irish uprising. Tone’s stock was greatly reduced.
The threatened invasion – and information that the French government was preparing yet another expeditionary force – whipped up fear and anger in Irish government circles. The result was a two-year security crackdown of unprecedented scale and ruthlessness. By the end of 1797, the organization of the United Irishmen in Ulster had been broken up by means of house-burning, floggings and various forms of torture. One favourite method was ‘pitch-capping’: a piece of softened tar was applied to the victim’s head and set alight; removing it usually resulted in the removal of a portion of the scalp too, while burning pitch flowed into the victim’s eyes. By March 1797, these harsh methods were being applied to the remainder of the country and the national United Irishmen leadership was under arrest. The reform-minded Anglo-Irish nobleman Lord Moira spoke of ‘the most disgusting tyranny that any nation groaned under. The most wanton insults, the most cowardly oppression…thirty houses are sometimes burned in a night.’ But the government’s tactics were certainly successful: arms caches all over the country were exposed and seized, and mass arrests all but destroyed the network built up so painstakingly over the years. Indeed, the uprising against British rule, when it eventually materialized, was driven not by some notional United Irish central command but rather by a sense of fearful panic. After all, there was nothing like the sight of smoke from burning cottages rising on the horizon to impel people into protecting themselves – even against overwhelming odds.
The rebellion broke out first at Dublin on 23 May 1798, but the action there was over within a week. Only in Wexford did the rebels strike effectively: and here they were not primarily inspired by French revolutionary ideas. The actions in the county of government troops – especially those of the North Cork militia, led by Protestants but as usual consisting mainly of Catholics – had been especially violent; and as tales spread of excessive floggings of civilians, these same civilians acted to protect their interests. By the end of May, the rebels had taken the towns of Wexford and Enniscorthy, and government forces were scattered to isolated strongholds.
The decisive battle for the southeast took place at New Ross on 4 June. The rebels had attacked the town, but they were only lightly armed and were driven back with many killed: within twelve hours, fifteen hundred were dead. Corpses lay in the streets for days; one Protestant shopkeeper spoke of seeing straying pigs feasting on the dead. Later that day, rebels at Scullabogue burned to death a group of one hundred or so civilians – mainly, though not exclusively, Protestant – in a barn; those who tried to escape were hacked and bludgeoned to death. The failed rebel assault proved to be the turning point, ending hopes of breaking out of County Wexford in force. On 21 June, the rebel encampment at Vinegar Hill above Enniscorthy was surrounded and crushed with slaughter; many of the wounded were burned alive in their makeshift hospital. A belated uprising in Ulster in June was quickly mopped up with the assistance of the Orange Order; by the end of the summer, thirty thousand people had died. A second French force landed on the Mayo coast in the autumn and even succeeded in winning an engagement at Castlebar before its inevitable defeat: the French soldiers were handled appropriately as prisoners of war, but some two thousand of their Irish allies were executed.
Tone himself was captured on a French ship on Lough Swilly – close to the harbour at Rathmullan, from which Hugh O’Neill had set sail almost two hundred years before. Tone was sent to prison in Dublin and on 10 November 1798 was brought before a military tribunal, clad in his cherished uniform of an adjutant general of the French Republic: ‘a large and fiercely-cocked hat, with broad gold lace, and the tri-coloured cockade; a blue uniform coat, with gold embroidered collar, and two large gold epaulets; blue pantaloons, with gold-laced garters at the knees; and short boots, bound at the tops with gold lace’. The trial was sensational – Tone was remembered affectionately by many Dubliners, regardless of their political views – and the defendant faced the judges as a proud revolutionary: ‘I mean not to give you the trouble of bringing judicial proof to convict me legally of having acted in hostility to the government of his Britannic Majesty in Ireland. I admit the fact. From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Great Britain and Ireland as the curse of the Irish nation, and felt convinced that, whilst it lasted, this country could never be free nor happy….’
That Tone would be sentenced to death was certain. But he wished fervently not to be hanged as a common criminal, rather to face a firing squad as a soldier. After all, he had defended himself as a soldier, citing the example of George Washington; and he had overtly rejected the sectarian lurch that the uprising had taken at Wexford, grieving that ‘any tyranny of circumstances or policy should so pervert the natural dispositions of my countrymen…for a fair and open war I was prepared; if that has degenerated into a system of assassination, massacre and plunder I do most sincerely lament it…’. Tone’s request was denied, but he cheated the hangman by taking a rusty razor and cutting his own throat. Not very efficiently: ‘My dear Sir –’ wrote Chief Secretary Lord Castlereagh to the British spymaster William Wickham, ‘Tone died this morning of his wound.’ He had lingered for two days.
Wolfe Tone’s belief in the principle of Irish independence and self-determination, his links with revolutionary France and his hatred for the British connection have made him a compelling figure in the story of Irish nationalism and a potent symbol for generations of revolutionaries. Yet the totality of Tone’s vision could not fit smoothly into any of the dominant traditions of later Irish history. Here was an atheist of Protestant birth, deeply influenced by middle-class Ulster Presbyterianism, and cherishing dreams of a united and secular republic. Meanwhile, the country he left behind was more bitterly divided than ever: the dream of a non-sectarian Irish republic was gone; and never again would there exist such an alliance between Presbyterians and Catholics. Instead, the events in Wexford had intervened to reveal the sectarianism that so often underlay Irish life. Events such as Scullabogue would lodge in the collective Protestant memory, with the result that 1798 was now inscribed as 1641 all over again. The secular experiment in political organization had failed and the country had been traumatized by the experience of violent revolution. A new leader would emerge in the century to come – one whose understanding of Ireland’s destiny was quite distinct from that of Tone, and one who would accordingly mould Irish nationalism into an entirely different shape.