The failure of a united front in the revolutionary movement in the north of Ireland from 1791 to 1798

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

The memoir of John Hope and the Life of Father James Coigly clearly show the problems in the ranks of the Irishmen who fought for freedom during the revolutionary movement of the north between 1791 and 1798. The writing of the two men about their early careers and the events leading up to the rebellion shows that the revolutionary movement of Ireland was riddled with informants, dissension and miscommunications and this led to the failure of 1798. The use of informers and spies tore apart the unity of factions and the security of leaders.Many people informed out of spitefulness for the disregard of their ideas and others were influenced by the government. James Hope describes in his memoirs the various spies and informers. Hope was a Presbyterian weaver who grew up in Ulster in County Antrim.

He experienced firsthand the troubles of the Penal laws and the rising agitation between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster. He was a member of the Volunteers, a grassroots militia responding to the success of the American Revolution.Hope then joined the new society of the United Irishmen, because they wanted to carry out the objectives of the Volunteers, and he became a vital part of spreading the news and ideas of this new organization as well as recruiting members.

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Hope wrote his memoirs in 1843, long after the troubles of the 1790’s were over. 1 Hope admits, despite his optimistic views, that there were hypocrites in the societies who “… had the enemy’s ranks for a retreat, whenever they feared detection, and they then charged us with their own evil intentions” (Hope 90).He holds true to the fact that he and his fellow leaders would not have withheld truths from each other while in fact he often did not know the names of those above him because of the fear of informants. This shows that there were many suspicious people in the ranks of the United Irishmen.

Hope had to make a series of escapes from the suspicions of his men and from the treachery of spies. He describes the corruption of the government; they often paid agents to inform. He exposes Lord Castlereagh’s informer, James Breese, who took oaths or tests of the societies in order to learn secret information.The importance of swearing these oaths and the means by which the oaths were avowed shows that there was a great distrust of character and an emphasis on honour. There were men who simply swore oaths when it suited them. Hope states that it was advantageous to the enemy to have these men who would “.

.. save themselves at any price… ” (Hope 122) in the ranks of the United Irishmen. He speaks of the fact that there were many mercantile men, even in his ranks, who would rather see a united Ireland fail then lose shipping and commercial interests and income. The spies and informers broke up many coalitions and corruption grew while people waited for orders because “.

.. treachery was too well organized in the middle ranks… ” (Hope 128). The secret organizations that formed because of the 1793 Convention Act and the Insurrection Act fostered spies because of the many cells and increased numbers.

The enemy shook the confidence of the people and provinces by spreading lies and rumours and creating informants. Father John Coigly gives a different report in Life, an account of his waning days in prison as he awaited his death sentence.Coigly grew up in Armagh in the “linen triangle. ” He trained to be a Catholic priest and was in France for the outbreak of the French Revolution. Coigly saw the divisions in Ulster as the product of religious prejudice and he worked to resolve these differences and unite sects like the “Peep-o-day Boys” and the Catholic Defenders.

He traveled outside of Ireland as a United Irishman, trying to gain support for Ireland’s objectives. He was captured and wrote his memoir between April and May of 1798 before his execution in June.Coigly writes to expose the corruption of the government and the treachery surrounding spies and informers. He was arrested because of informants. Coigly was hardly allowed a defense in his trial for high treason and the witness who testified against him was a man who “… through mistaken lenity, I saved this wretch from the gallows” (Coigly 44).

Coigly’s writings are full of frustration at the treachery of the government and the disloyalty of the men in his society. His final words are “I fall an innocent victim to the rage of party? ” (Coigly 44)Coigly tells of the persecution of his family at the hands of the Orangemen; he states that this group of men has not been brought to justice for their crimes and brutalities. He asks, “… has his Majesty or anyone for him taken cognizance of that barbarous oath? Has anyone been prosecuted for taking or administering it? ” (Coigly 34) referring to the Churchmen and king men of Ulster who set out to “.

.. destroy and murder the Catholics” (Coigly 34).

The treachery of informers in factions like the United Irishmen and the Defenders led to the arrest and prosecution of many leaders.Dissension over issues like religion and whether or not to wait for the help of France caused divisions in the ranks of the Irishmen who fought for freedom. These conflicts of interest are directly related to the emergence of informers. The government prayed upon the sectarianism in religious matters to create more divisions. Theobald Wolfe Tone, a member of the Church of Ireland, wrote a declaration to try and unite the ranks of the Irish.

He explains that the Catholics are only so-called savages because they’ve been kept that way.Wolfe Tone was completely for the unification of the Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters of Ireland under the common name of United Irishmen. The latter faction wanted universal suffrage, annual parliaments, a fair voting system, and the abolition of property qualifications. This was not a revolutionary view, nor was it an interest in severing the tie between Ireland and Great Britain. 3 With the 1793 Convention Act, all assemblies that discussed changes and claimed to be representative became illegal. The Catholic Committee was one of the suppressed groups.In 1796, the Insurrection Act was passed proclaiming the death penalty to any radicals.

4 Because of these changes, the societies became secret, dividing into different cells spread out all over the land. The problem with these many cells is it was hard to keep track of informers and it was difficult to keep the same interests; for example, when Defenderism spread, each cell took on the interests of the county or city in which they resided. Because of the distrust and varying ideas “… no one rank was willing to throw in its interests into the common stock..

. (Hope 100). James Hope, in his travels, found the men of Ulster to have united easily. He gives the impression of a completely united Ulster where “… even the Break-of-day-men and Defenders were made friends, and joining in sworn brotherhood, became United Irishmen” (Hope 98).

He states that “Our enemies trembled at the prospect of unanimity… ” (Hope 105). Coigly, however, gives a different account in which dissension is based on religious dispute. He describes the trouble he had trying to unite groups like the Peep-o-day Boys and the Defenders.

He states, “… t would be more easy to mix oil and water together than to make those two parties agree within themselves” (Coigly 33). Coigly seems to be biased towards the Catholics. Anger mounted with the emergence of the Yeomen and the Orange Order; this seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect since the persecution by the latter led to a closer bond between the United Irishmen and the Defenders. Along with the splits in religious and sectarian interest, there was great dispute about the French and their role in Ireland in the 1790’s. Hope saw the French as untrustworthy and traitorous.

He states that the arrival of the French fleet in Bantry Bay brought “…

rich farmers and shop keepers into the societies, and with them, all the corruption essential to the objects of the British Ministry… ” (Hope 105). He felt that the majority of the leaders involved with a French connection became foreign aid men and “amongst their ranks, spies were chiefly found” (Hope 105).

French policy had also changed to an imperial view with the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte. Hope felt that what had been gained in numbers of members of the United Irishmen was lost in worth.Coigly, in the beginning, was not a fan of the French Revolution but as time went on he saw revolution as the only means to freedom. Coigly traveled outside of Ireland, mainly to Britain and France to gain allies. With the failure of Bantry Bay, the divisions were sharpened between those who wanted the help of France and those who wanted to act independently. Coigly was of the extreme view who thought that independent action was essential.

(from daire Keogh). The dominant view of the United Irishmen was identified as moderate; men wanted to wait for the help of the French before the rebellion began. Keogh)This dissension made it hard for the United Irishmen to work together and with the Defenders towards a common goal.Miscommunications and misinterpretations caused united movements and developing plans to fail. The different cells within factions made communication difficult and unsafe. Hope tells of his encounters with men of different societies, each distrusting and spiteful to the other because of misinterpreted deeds or actions committed under a false name. He discusses of the government’s involvement in “..

. ighway robberies, and house-breaking offences, committed in our name. ” (Hope 110) The “Northern Star” newspaper was a great means of communication because it was a central newspaper in Ulster that was critical, pro-French and pro-reform.

It was used as a means of distributing political ideas since “the mass confided in the writers and speakers… ” (Hope 89). It was shut down in 1797 and Hope describes the chaos that followed when the people’s forum was destroyed and “… physical force was then resorted to, by the people, for the preservation of life and liberty” (Hope 99).

The miscommunications in battles and in preparing for battles wreaked havoc on the men of the United Irishmen and Defenders and caused divisions in strength and numbers. Hope states that in early 1797 they had been led to expect a movement. Events had begun in the south and Ulster was eager for battle. The lack of action upon these words made the societies feel “…

that some disappointment had taken place… that our leaders had refused to act” (Hope 122). He discusses the disappointment in leaders like Plunkett who surrendered as soon as he could.

Hope claims that the General of Antrim either did not understand or intentionally misrepresented the signal for the rising in May and kept the troops waiting until June. 6 (123) The failure to act caused a great loss of courage and faith in the movement. Hope states that many leaders deserted or the people dispersed (as in the case of Ballymena when the landlords forgave their tenants a years rent and the tenants happily returned home). 7 (128) Another example Hope gives of misinterpretation is when the enemy’s bugle for retreat was mistaken by the people for the signal for a charge; the people retreated and fled. (130)The fact that the North and Leinster did not synchronize their rebellions and acted at different times contributed to the failure of the United Irishmen/Defender union in Ireland. When the French came to Bantry Bay in 1796 it was a sign of the power of the Irish rebels. Yet because of poor weather conditions, the fleets were separated and sailed back to France. There was much confusion as to whether or when the French would return.

Wolf Tone was a victim of this miscommunication when he arrived with another French fleet in 1798; he had no other allies and was arrested because other rebellions had already been put down.Hope describes the enemy as reminding the other provinces how “…

the Dissenters of the north began the business, and in the time of need were the first to abandon it” (Hope 131). The miscommunication, whether they were accidental or intentional, produced chaos, surrender and the arrest of important leaders. The use of informants, the complications of dissension, and miscommunications led to the failure of a united front in the revolutionary movement in the north of Ireland from 1791 to 1798. Evidence to support these complications can be found in the memoirs of John Hope and Life by Father James Coigly.

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