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Irish Uprising of 1798

Irish RebellionThe 1798 Irish Rebellion: The rebellion, begun 24 May, 1798, ultimately failed and resulted in the execution of 34 of its key leaders and supporters and ultimately led to the Act of Union of 1800, in which Ireland was fully brought under the governmental control of England.
The outbreak of the Irish Uprising of 1798 resulted from longstanding resentment over oppression of Catholic Ireland by the British government, which had occupied Ireland since the twelfth century. Political control took the form of religious and cultural oppression, as the dominantly Catholic population of Ireland became subject to increasingly strict anti-Catholic laws enacted by the Protestant government in England. These laws left the Irish populace divided on several grounds, namely the religious Catholic-Protestant divide, but also along the Irish Gaelic-English speaking divide, as well as the ethnic divide between native Irish and the Protestant Ascendancy (British nobles transplanted into northern Ireland communities after one of the numerous failed uprisings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).

The eruption of the French Revolution in 1789 inspired the formation of the Society of United Irishmen in 1791, an initially peaceful society dedicated to Irish parliamentary reform and the cultural and nationalistic union of the Irish people. However, after the declaration of war between France and Britain in 1793, the Irish and British government chose to suppress the organization because of fears of a domestic war similar to the American Revolution. However, the Society re-emerged as an underground movement, committed to more militant actions in order to achieve democracy for Ireland. Among their plans, members focused on a Dublin-based rebellion, coordinated with smaller supporting rebellions staged throughout nearby counties. The plan’s success depended upon French support, but neither French aid nor the uprising in Dublin were forthcoming and the rebellion failed. In its wake, 34 leaders of the movement were executed for treason and Ireland’s parliament was officially disbanded. Fearing further action, the British government quickly pressed through the Acts of Union of 1800, a conglomeration of laws designed to bring Ireland more directly in line with British control while also mollifying the Irish public with a relaxation of certain anti-Catholic measures. Two novels which deal with issues of English-Irish relations are Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Ennui (1809). As Geraldine Friedman describes, Ennui is a novel which “rewrites” the events of 1798 “to produce a harmonious socio-political formation that, by breaking the brutal cycle of colonial subjection and insubordination in Ireland would prevent violent revolution” (175).

The greatest consequence of the failed uprising, however, is its contribution to the general atmosphere of censorship and paranoia prevailing in England during the early Romantic era. Britain’s efforts to suppress an Irish rebellion by denying the people the right to assemble as well as by the restrictions on the press are characteristic of actions undertaken by the British government to curtail sedition through the 1820s and even into the 1830s, actions which were frequent targets of political satires such as Moore’s The Two Penny Post Bag (1813), Byron’s The Vision of Judgment (1822), and Byron and Leigh Hunt’s publication of the Liberal, the magazine in which The Vision of Judgement appeared. Moore takes several steps, such as employing the trope of “found” letters as well as an authorial persona, in the Two-Penny Post Bag to distance himself from the satiric and seditious statements made, including statements against the Prince Regent and his handling of English-Irish affairs. Byron takes a more aggressive stance in The Vision of Judgment, criticizing the recently deceased King George III and attacking Robert Southey directly for his praise of the monarch in A Vision of Judgment. Malcolm Kelsall asserts that “the main link with the text of Byron’s Vision is the issue of the freedom of the press” (135) based on the witnesses that Satan calls in the judgment of George III. The two witnesses are John Wilkes and Junius, “a blasphemous libertine and an anonymous libeller” (135) who had both been prosecuted for written attacks on the King.

Shannon Heath

Select Bibliography

Bartlett, Thomas. “The 1798 Irish Rebellion”. BBC History: British History in depth: the 1798 Irish rebellion.

Friedman, Geraldine. “Rereading 1798: Melancholy and desire in the construction of Edgeworth’s Anglo-Irish
     union.” European Romantic Review. Vol. 10. No. 1-4. 175-192.

Kelsall, Malcolm. Byron’s Politics. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press Limited, 1987.