The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 15

Author: William O'Connor Morris  | Date: A.D. 1800

Union of Ireland With Great Britain;
The Great Irish Rebellion

A.D. 1800


For more than three centuries the condition and claims of Ireland have engaged the attention of the world. That country is often spoken of as having been during this long period in a state of "chronic rebellion" against English rule. Of the actual organized rebellions which mark its history from 1565 to 1870, no fewer than nine distinct outbreaks or serious demonstrations are recorded. Among these the "Great Rebellion" of 1798 was the most formidable. Although unsuccessful, it taught the insurgents how better to estimate the forces at their command for advancing the country’s interests, and gradually led to more intelligent and systematic endeavors in the fields of discussion and statesmanship. From time to time, during the nineteenth century, clear gains for the cause of Irish liberty were won by her champions in Parliament, on the hustings, and in the ranks of literature.

The "Great Rebellion" was preceded by the organization of many Irish societies in hostility to the British Government. Chief among them was the Society of United Irishmen, founded at Belfast, in 1791, mainly by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young barrister of English descent, and, like most of the members of the society, a Protestant.

At first the United Irishmen formed an open organization, whose chief avowed aims were parliamentary reform, repeal of the penal laws, and Catholic emancipation. Later it became a secret society with revolutionary objects. The story of its acts, of the rebellion which it was instrumental in causing, and of the union with Great Britain which soon followed, is well told by Morris, long a member of the Irish judiciary, and one of the most competent historians of these events.

UNITED Irish leaders, seeing there was no hope of accomplishing their ends by constitutional means, began, as Tone had done from the first, to think that revolution was their only chance. Their organization was made military; their societies were prepared for a call to the field; supplies of arms were eagerly sought; the districts in which they possessed influence were placed under the command of officers; and attempts were made secretly to enroll and drill levies capable of an armed rising. The emissaries sent to France became more numerous; the principal of these was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a scion of the great Geraldine name; and the heads of the French Republic were invited to strike England through Ireland, and to set the Irish people free. At the same time, true to their policy from the first, the United Irishmen made renewed efforts to drag Catholic Ireland into their wake; the confiscation of the land was held out as a bribe to the peasantry; Irishmen were to have their own when they were released from the bonds of landlords and the collectors of tithe. A movement, now distinctly rebellious, was thus linked with a movement springing from the land; thousands of Catholics fell into the United Irish ranks; agrarian outbreaks, in many places, assumed the aspect of a predial war; and the tendency of Irish agrarian trouble to resist the power of the State, and to become revolutionary, grew very manifest. As yet, however, the United Irishmen, except in Ulster, were hardly organized; and the Catholic peasantry were still a chaotic mass, tossed hither and thither, without real leaders.

A movement, meanwhile, of a very different kind, directly opposed to that of the United Irishmen, but indirectly giving it powerful aid, had been acquiring considerable strength in Ulster, and even extending beyond its limits. In the Northern Province, the Celtic Irish, all Catholic, and the Protestant descendants of the old settlers, were, in many districts, closely intermixed; perennial feuds had existed between them. This state of disorder had greatly increased, as lawlessness had spread through parts of Ulster; and from 1791 to 1795 the Protestant "Peep o’ Day Boys," as they were called, and the Catholic "Defenders" came into repeated conflict. The first named body, largely composed of members of the Established Church, disliked the Presbyterian and United Irish movement, which Catholic Ireland was invited to join, and formed the "Orange" Society. The ranks of the Orangemen rapidly increased; their organization became powerful, and spread even to the Southern provinces; undoubtedly it obtained the support of a considerable number of the Ulster gentry, and possibly even of the Irish Government.

It is certain, however, that the Irish Catholics were not prepared to attempt to rise against the State in force. Wolfe Tone landed at Havre, France, in the first months of 1796-one of other emissaries but their born leader-and his capacity and earnestness made a real impression on the Directory, then in the seat of power in Paris. He advocated a formidable descent on Ireland, with the arguments of an enthusiast; it is to his credit that he made scarcely a stipulation for himself, and that he tried to obtain pledges that, in the event of success, his country was not to be made a dependency of France. A large fleet carrying fifteen thousand troops, under the command of the illustrious Hoche, set sail from Brest, in December, upon the enterprise. It is remarkable that it did not make for Dublin, or a port of Ulster, as Tone had advised; it sought to effect a landing on the extreme verge of Munster, perhaps because an attempt of the kind had proved successful more than a century before. The French navy, however, was in a wretched state; Hoche, in a frigate, never reached the Irish coast, and the principal part of the invading fleet, after making Bantry Bay in safety, was driven out to sea by a furious tempest. It has been thought, however, that Grouchy, the second in command, might have landed with a not inconsiderable force; if so Munster might have been over run, and become, for a time, a French province; on this occasion, as on the day of Waterloo, Grouchy perhaps did England really good service. The failure of the expedition has been ascribed to chance. History more justly points out that it is not easy to invade an island, cut off from the Continent by a dangerous and most stormy sea, especially with an inferior naval force.

The failure at Bantry did not change the purpose of the United Irish leaders; but it made them cautious, and they resolved, if possible, not to attempt a rising before the French had made a successful landing. Ulster, nevertheless, and other parts of Ireland, were in a state of hardly suppressed rebellion, sustained by a savage war of classes, throughout nearly the whole of `797. A United Irish Directory had been formed in Belfast, enforcing its mandates far and wide; an insurrectionary army was held in the leash, drilled, and to a certain extent, disciplined; it may have numbered, on paper, one hundred thousand men. Another United Irish Directory had its seat in Dublin; some of its leaders were able men; but their chief trust was placed in Lord Edward Fitzgerald who was to command the armed levies of the South, and whose great name seemed a tower of strength. These levies, it was said, numbered two hundred thousand men-an estimate, beyond doubt, excessive; but tens of thousands of the Catholic peasantry had by this time become United Irishmen, and many of them had been rudely armed and disciplined. The plan of the conspirators was to seize the Castle of Dublin, as in 1641, to occupy the capital, and to make the men in power prisoners; and then to rise generally throughout the country, when the invasion of the French had been made certain. In the interval of time remaining, fresh efforts were made to exasperate and extend the agrarian war; maps of the old confiscated lands were prepared; old prophecies that the Saxon was to be expelled from Ireland were noised abroad, and the peasantry were told that their alien masters were doomed. In this way the rebellious and the agrarian movements became thoroughly united in some districts; plantations were cut down and smithies blazed for the manufacture of a formidable weapon, the pike; and the organization of the "Whiteboy" system with its central and local secret societies, was set on foot to promote the United Irish cause. This combination, however, does not appear to have been complete in more than a few counties; and it did not exist, it has been said, in Connaught.

This state of things in Ireland was perilous in the extreme; affairs in Europe, and even in England, increased the peril. Notwithstanding the failure of 1796, a great French fleet had assembled at Brest, and a Dutch fleet was at anchor near the Texel, in order to renew a descent on Ireland-Tone had indefatigably pressed on the enterprise; France had already nearly mastered the Continent; the very naval power of Great Britain had been shaken, especially by symptoms of disaffection in the fleet. The Irish Government was perfectly justified in resolving to crush out rebellion in time; Clare, its master spirit, deserves credit for a resolution and daring worthy of Strafford. But it was more unfortunate that it had not the support of a regular and well organized military force. The army in Ireland was only a few thousand men; the militia had become deeply tainted; the men at the "Castle" had largely to rely on the yeomanry, a numerous volunteer levy, raised to a great extent by the local gentry, and mostly Protestants. Ulster was selected as the first point of attack; the leaders of the conspiracy were arrested; the incendiary press was scattered to the winds; a general process of seizing and collecting arms was enforced in the Province without scruple or mercy. Houses were burned down wholesale to compel the surrender of weapons; bands of yeomen harried the Catholic districts; confessions were extorted by atrocious methods; wherever an attempt at resistance was made, it was repressed by wild and relentless cruelties. In a word, a kind of savage guerilla warfare not unlike that of the Desmond conflict, and aggravated by a furious strife of race and creed, raged for a time in many parts of Ulster; and hundreds of captives were hurried off, and put on board the fleet-an event ominously connected with the Mutiny at the Nore. The head of the rebellion was broken; it should be added that, ruthless as the means were, they had been sanctioned by the Irish Parliament. The Government, after a pause of a few weeks, turned against the conspiracy in the capital. It must be borne in mind that though a French invasion had been stopped by the great fight of Camperdown, the warrior of Italy was at this very moment on the French coasts, planning a descent on England. Spies and informers had kept Camden, Clare, and the Council apprised of all that was going on; the members of the Directory were made prisoners; and the arrest and subsequent death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald deprived the leaders of the intended rising of a head in whom they placed extraordinary trust, though there was little to recommend him except a name, still a spell of power among the peasantry of the South.

If excesses had already occurred, the Irish Government, up to this point of time, recollecting the situation, can be hardly blamed. The brain of the’ conspiracy had, so to speak, been smitten; but the paralyzed members still stirred with life; all prospects of a rising had not disappeared. Fitzgibbon knew that the plan of the leaders was not to move until the French had landed; he seems, like Claverhouse, to have deliberately resolved to force insurrection into premature being and to stifle it before it could obtain aid from abroad. By his counsels more than by those of any other personage, the system which had succeeded in the North was carried out in parts of the Southern provinces. This policy, which, be it observed, was denounced by Abercromby, the commander-in-chief of the regular army, and a true soldier, had the result expected from it. It became impossible to await the coming of the French; the people in several counties were driven into revolt; and the sanguinary rebellion of 1798 broke out on May 23rd in that year.

The rising was confined to a part of Leinster; it was generally feeble and ill-combined, it became formidable in a nook of the province only. An attempt to attack Dublin from without, connected with an insurrection within, was easily quelled by the armed force on the spot, and though deeds of blood were done, Kildare, Carlow, and Meath were quickly subdued. The rising, however, was universal and fierce in the two beautiful counties of Wicklow and Wexford, the fairest part of the southeastern tract of Ireland. In this prosperous region, the strife between the Orangemen and Defenders had raged for some months, and the efforts of the Government to bring rebellion to a head had been marked with peculiar cruelties. The conflict from the first was a savage war of religion; it was also to some extent a struggle of race; but, in this instance, the double lines of distinction in Ireland did not coincide, the rebels were for the most part of Anglo-Norman or English descent; it was a war of armed Protestants, backed by a military force, waged with a Catholic peasantry, half maddened by wrong. For nearly a month the issue of the contest was very doubtful; it assumed a terrible and hideous aspect; it is impossible to adjust the balance of evil deeds done on either side. The horrors of the scene are relieved by the proofs of devoted courage that were shown; the Protestants fought with the reckless pride characteristic of a dominant race; the Catholics exhibited heroic daring, at Vinegar Hill, Oulart, and New Ross; the fowling-piece and the long pike had great effect in brave and resolute hands; and one of the rebel leaders displayed a capacity worthy of a born general. After many efforts the rising was at last quenched, in ashes and blood; but the Catholics had occupied the town of Wexford for a time, and, had the march of the Catholics on Arkiow proved successful, the capital would have been probably taken.

The uprising scarcely made a sign in Connaught; it appeared in Munster in only a few weak gatherings. Ulster, where the conspiracy had been most deeply laid, did not stir during the war in the southeast. The causes of this deserve passing notice. The preparations for a rising had been already prevented; the Presbyterians waited the advent of the French; they resented, too, a quarrel between France and the United States. But the most effective cause of their inaction was this: the struggle in Wicklow and Wexford was one of religions; and the United Irishmen of Ulster stood aloof from a purely Protestant and Catholic conflict which ran counter to their hopes and sympathies. The rebellion of 1798 was almost wholly fought out by Irishmen; it had nearly ceased when troops poured in from England; but it had called out high Irish qualities. By this time Camden had been replaced by Cornwallis, a capable and humane soldier; but a kind of guerilla struggle lingered for a few months among the valleys and hills of Wicklow, the fastness of the Celtic mountaineers of old.

Nevertheless the state of Ireland was lamentable after the close of 1798; it left a legacy of blighted hopes and most evil memories. It was not only that fair parts of the country had been ravaged by a barbarous strife; the material was as nothing to the moral ruin. The influences that had, for many years, seemed to lessen the differences of blood and faith, and even to have healed many wounds of the past, had disappeared in an inhuman struggle; the old distinctions had come out, deeply marked as ever; the conflict, if not wholly, had been in the main a war of race, and above all, of religion. The hopeful visions of the United Irishmen had gradually disappeared; the ideal of Grattan had proved impossible; the aspirations of a new era had been as idle as the French dreams of 1789. The ruling orders of Ireland had been made revengeful; the classes beneath them had beheld the prospect of enlarged liberties suddenly withdrawn; the lines of demarcation between the owners and occupiers of the soil, and between Catholic and Protestant, had been greatly widened. This change for the worse, which put the whole country back, was very marked in the Irish Parliament; it had become a mere court to register what the Castle and Clare ordered; the independent party in it had dwindled almost to nothing; and Grattan and his followers, indignant at recent events, unable to check the course of the Government, and saddened at the failure of the hopes of 1782, had seceded from it in anger and despair. Long before this time they had made a last fruitless effort in the cause of Catholic emancipation and Parliamentary reform.

Before the end of the struggle, a French squadron, and a few hundred men, had landed near Killala, on the coast of Mayo. Napoleon had taken the main fleet of France to the East, where it perished in the great battle of the Nile; he had no taste for rebellion, Irish or other; the French Directory sent only an insignificant force to the shores of Ireland. Its leader, Humbert, however, was a brilliant soldier; he routed a body of militia, threefold in numbers, in a combat known as the "Race of Castlebar"; he gave Cornwallis much to do before he was compelled to surrender. Another petty French descent was remarkable only for the capture of Wolfe Tone after a sharp engagement. The unfortunate chief of the United Irish movement-he had served in the expedition to Bantry and had witnessed the disaster of Camperdown-was doomed to the ignominious death of a felon, though he held the commission of a French general, and only averted his fate by suicide. Tone was unquestionably the first of the Irish leaders; he had capacity, resource, true faith in his cause, and patriotism; his figure will live in Irish history. After a few severe examples had been made, the conspirators, who had fallen into the hands of the Irish Government, were amnestied, under not unfair conditions; their lives were spared, but they had to leave the country. They were, none of them, men of marked powers; but some won honor in foreign lands; two or three gallantly followed Napoleon’s eagles; more than one made a name for himself in America. Much in their conduct is to be sternly condemned; yet, at this distance of time, it deserves a kind of sympathy. They had at first only constitutional reforms in view; they were drawn into rebellion in part by the revolutionary ideas of France, but in part by the mistakes of the Irish Government.

The rebellion of 1798 had only just ended, when Pitt began to lay grounds for the Union. The contest had been tardily put down; reinforcements from England had come in late; but we may summarily reject the wicked myths-evil phantoms rising from a field of carnage- that Pitt fomented a rising in arms, and let Irish factions tear each other to pieces in order to promote a measure he had at heart. The Union of Great Britain and Ireland had not only been projected by many able thinkers; it had been in the minds of several English statesmen, ever since the Revolution of 1782. Apart, however, from this, Pitt, it is evident from his letters and speeches, did not thoroughly comprehend the whole reasons that made a union a necessity of state at this time, or perceive the consequences that might flow from it. He saw, as the "Regency Question" had made manifest, that the two legislatures might dangerously clash; he saw, too, the danger of this at a period of war, though, in England’s struggle with Revolutionary France, the Irish Parliament had given him most cordial support. He saw also that probably the best means to secure the Established Church in Ireland, to keep the land in Protestant hands, in a word to maintain what he called "the Protestant Settlement," was to make Ireland one with Great Britain; nor was he blind to the possible evils of the existing state of Catholic Ireland. But, though he was not insensible to them, he did not completely grasp the truths that, after the horrors of 1798, the only hope for Ireland, torn as she had been by a barbarous strife of race and faith, was to bring her under the control of an imperial parliament; and that the only wise policy for a British minister was, with the aid of a strong and just government, to place Catholic and Protestant, Saxon and Celt, on an equal level of civil and religious rights. This justification of the Union he did not fully realize, at least he did not act boldly as if he did; and we may smile at his notions that the introduction of Irish members into the United Parliament might largely increase the power of the Crown, and that a union would cause Irish faction quickly to cease. Pitt, in fact, as we have before remarked, was ignorant of the true state of Ireland, and in the case of Ireland as in that of France in 1792-1793, he had not the genius to perceive what was beyond his immediate ken.

It was the wish of Pitt to combine the Union with the emancipation of the Irish Catholics, and with measures to provide funds for the support of the Catholic Irish priesthood, and for the commutation of the tithes of the Established Church; he had seen, we have said, the bad effects of this impost. This policy was in the right `direction; but it was not original, as has been alleged; the Irish Parliament would have conceded the Catholic claims in 1795; the payment of the priests was an old idea, and had been advocated by Irish writers and statesmen; the corn-mutation of the tithe was a favorite plan of Grattan. Pitt, however, did not persist in the project, which he had hoped to make an essential part of the Union; he yielded to the counsels of Clare, greatly trusted by him in Irish affairs, and consented to deprive his measure of these features; he knew, too, at this time, that George III was obstinately opposed to the demands of the Catholics. This was the first of his grave mistakes on the subject; it is the more to be blamed because Cornwallis, able to gauge Irish opinion on the spot, always insisted that the Union could not succeed, if Catholic emancipation was not made, so to speak, its gift.

Means were taken, toward the close of 1798, to ascertain the judgment of Irishmen on the question of Union and Catholic emancipation. A few of the great peers agreed to support the scheme, should it serve their interests; a number of members of the Irish Houses were ready to obey the minister on the usual terms; some of the independent landed gentry, alarmed at the events of 1798, beheld in the Union safety for themselves; the leading men of Catholic Ireland, much as they had resented Fitzwilliam’s recall, were not unwilling so consider the subject. But an immense majority of the Irish Protestants, the trading classes of Dublin almost to a man, and nine-tenths, at least, of the Irish bar, were indignant at the very thought of a union, and expressed their sentiments in emphatic language: this is the more remarkable because the country was held down by a British armed force, and the views of the British Ministry were perfectly well known. In these circumstances, Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, the chief secretary of Cornwallis, announced, somewhat vaguely, the policy of Pitt, in the Irish House of Commons in a speech on the address made in January, 1799; but an amendment was rejected by one vote only; and, as this was plainly equivalent to a defeat, the measure was permitted to drop for a time.

Though the Government had been baffled in the Irish Lower House, it obtained a large majority in the Irish House of Lords, where the influence of Clare was easily supreme. The British Parliament had, about the same time, passed resolutions in favor of the Union by an overwhelming majority of votes; and Pitt insisted that the measure could be carried out in Ireland. But it was far from easy to give his purpose effect; and means were adopted, the exact nature of which has been matter of controversy ever since, but of which the general character is not doubtful. The Irish Parliament had long been swayed by corrupt influence; this had probably increased since 1782; it had been openly exercised on the "Regency Question." Direct bribery was not employed; but promises of peerages were lavishly scattered; places were created and places unscrupulously filled, in order to obtain support for the scheme; officials were threatened with dismissal if they did not vote for the Government; appeals were persistently made to the hopes and the fears of the members in both parts of the Irish Parliament. Simultaneously, pledges were given that immense sums were to be paid to the patrons and the proprietors of the numerous boroughs to be disfranchised; and one of the reforms effected in 1793, by which placemen in the House of Commons were compelled to vacate their seats, was twisted into a method to secure a majority. By these expedients, regarded by Cornwallis with disgust, but employed by his chief secretary with unflinching boldness, the Irish Parliament was packed to vote for a union; but it is only just to add that, from the first, many of its members-and the number certainly tended to increase-conscientiously approved of Pitt’s policy.

Recourse, too, was had to other means to influence Irish opinion outside the Parliament in behalf of the contemplated measure. Able pamphlets were published, and the press subsidized; Cornwallis went through different counties, to canvass, so to speak, for the Union; and many favorable addresses were obtained, though these were of a questionable kind, and the adverse petitions were much more numerous. The Irish Government, however, chiefly directed its efforts to enlist Catholic Ireland on its side; and incidents occurred, even yet obscure, that form an unhappy passage in Irish history. Pitt had informed Cornwaffis that the Union was to be a "Protestant Union," in the phrase of the time; he told the Lord-Lieutenant, very plainly, that Catholic emancipation was to be no part of the measure. But his own speeches in the British House of Commons implied that he approved of the Catholic claims, and that they might be conceded when the Union had become law; he certainly encouraged Cornwallis, and gave him power to bid openly for Catholic support; he perhaps authorized Cornwallis to assure the Irish Catholic leaders that their cause was his own. That upright but not very astute nobleman, always the earnest champion of the Irish Catholics, placed his own interpretation on Pitt’s hints and words: he had many conferences with the heads of Catholic Ireland, and entreated them to use their influence to promote the Union; he unquestionably held out hopes, if he did not make promises; he left them under the impression that their emancipation was certain and at hand. It should be added that, before this time, Cornwallis had been negotiating with the Irish Catholic bishops, with reference to a provision for the priesthood; Pitt seems to have been not aware of this; but the fact is, not the less, of extreme significance. The broad result was that the Catholic leaders generally threw in their lot with the Union, and drew the Catholic masses with them; Catholic Ireland, in the main, declared for the measure; and this, Pitt and Cornwallis agreed, was of supreme importance. A small minority, however, of the Irish Catholics, with more insight, and perhaps with more ambitious views, protested vehemently against the proposed scheme: among these was Daniel O’Connell, a young lawyer, just beginning his career.

The devices employed to bring about the Union made their effects apparent in the Irish Parliament, when it assembled again in January, 1800. An amendment to the "Address," by which it was sought to stop the progress of the measure, was rejected; the "Question" was introduced, a few days afterward, by a message from the Viceroy sending to both Houses the resolutions voted by the British Parliament, and recommending the policy sanctioned by it. The debates on the subject, arising in different ways, were impassioned, and took up much time; but they are marked by ability of a very high order. Castlereagh advocated the scheme, with calm power and thoroughness; Clare, in a speech of real insight and force, insisted that in a union lay the only hope of property, of law, and of the Established Church in Ireland. A fine array of eloquence was marshalled on the other side; the bar engaged its most brilliant ornaments, Saurin, Plunket, Bushe, and other eminent worthies; the Speaker, Foster, rose to the height of a great argument, in a most weighty and thoughtful harangue. But Grattan towered above all his fellows-he had lately returned to the House of Commons. In language of singular beauty and pathos, accompanied by solemn and prophetic warnings, he advised the Parliament not to destroy itself, and to preserve its existence for the Irish "nation." All opposition, however, proved vain; the Government retained the majority it had procured; resolutions, passed by the Irish Parliament, in favor of a union, were translated into articles and bills, and the measure of Pitt received the sanction of both the Irish and the British Parliaments. It deserves notice that a proposal to refer the decision of the question to the Irish electorate was angrily resented by Pitt and Castle-reagh; the voice even of Protestant Ireland, though that of a minority of the Irish people, and of a minority in the main loyal, was not allowed to pronounce on this matter. It is certain, however, that, in its later stages at least, the measure did not provoke widespread discontent; there was no passionate outburst of opinion against it. Dublin and the Irish bar, indeed, remained bitterly hostile; but there was little murmuring in the country districts; the mass of Catholic Ireland did not stir; its leaders looked forward with anxious hope; the trading classes were induced to expect that the Union would bring them large benefits; Presbyterian Ireland seems to have thought that its favorite linen manufacture would make great progress. The attitude of the majority of the people was one of apathy; it was felt that a measure, backed by the British Parliament and the British army, could not be withstood; but unquestionably a minority, growing in strength, inclined very decidedly toward a union.

The Union was accomplished by questionable means; nor was it a well-conceived measure, even within the narrow limits traced out by Pitt. The Irish and British Legislatures were merely combined, and emerged in a single imperial Parliament; Ireland retained the viceroy, a separate Government, a separate Administration, separate courts of justice, even separate exchequers for a considerable time, and the shadow of an independent state was suffered to exist. The remaining portions of the scheme were of less importance and do not deserve particular attention.

The maintenance of the Established Church was made a solemn and fundamental law; with what results time was to show in its fulness; the settlement of the land was left of course, as it was; but undoubtedly the hope of preserving this had weight with numbers of the landed gentry alarmed at the threats uttered in 1798 to undo the confiscations of the past. The fiscal arrangements were harsh to Ireland; she was to contribute two-seventeenths to the imperial expenditure, a proportion certainly in excess; her trade was somewhat further enlarged, and ultimately was to be completely free; but the commercial benefits which Castlereagh declared would follow the Union were not realized. The Irish peers lost their seats in the Irish House of Lords; a small body of the order have ever since been chosen to represent them in the imperial Parliament; the three hundred members of the Irish House of Commons were reduced to one hundred in the imperial House, a number that ought to have been adequate to make the will of Ireland sufficiently felt. For the rest, while much that the Union should have contained was unhappily not comprised in it, much that was discreditable in its incidents was faithfully carried out; the borough-mongering nobles and commoners were gorged with the spoil that had been promised; and the pledges of corruption were duly fulfilled.

Pitt was a large-minded and enlightened statesman; he certainly desired, when the Union was secure, to carry out the measures of relief for the Irish Catholics which, from the outset, he had had in view. He probably reckoned on his prodigious influence; but he had unhappily kept the King in the dark, though fully aware of the King’s sentiments; a ministerial cabal was formed against him; and George III, on a preposterous plea, pressed with the obstinacy of a distempered mind, peremptorily refused to listen to the Catholic claims. The subsequent conduct of Pitt in this matter has indisputably thrown a shadow on his name. He resigned his office, when he had persuaded himself that he could not carry out his Irish Catholic policy; I]e is entitled to every credit attaching to the act. But in a very short time he let his master know that he would not urge the question again; he supported a violent Anti-Catholic Ministry; he returned to office, but took no steps to vindicate the demands of Catholic Ireland.

All this has exposed his memory to grave suspicion; and history can hardly withhold its censure. It is idle to say that he told Cornwallis that the Union was to be a Protestant one only: he held out hopes himself to the Irish Catholics; he invited Cornwallis to do the same; he carried the Union, to some extent at least, by obtaining Irish Catholic support, secured only by what were deemed promises that Catholic relief would certainly follow. In these circumstances, it was not enough to have simply abandoned the helm; he ought to have insisted on the King’s adopting his measures; and had he done so, he must have attained his object; and his subsequent attitude has a look of in-sincerity, if not worse. We fear it must be said that, in his wish to accomplish the Union, he did not scruple to allow the Irish Catholics to entertain hopes which, he well knew, might not be fulfilled; that he all but pledged himself to them, through the Lord Lieutenant, though he felt he might not be able to redeem the pledge; and that he thought his conscience absolved by a resignation-which he took care should not last long-without even trying to give effect to a policy to which he stood committed as a man and a minister. The best excuses, perhaps, to be made for him are that, in his ignorance of Ireland and her real state, he did not understand all that was involved in the course he took, and that, in the death struggle of the rebellion, he believed it was his duty to become the head of the state, without regard to consistency or too fine a sense of honor.

Under the Constitution of 1782 Ireland unquestionably made social and material progress; the ancient divisions of blood and creed, which for centuries have kept her races apart, and her feuds of class, had to some extent disappeared. In these circumstances it was not impossible, though in our judgment it was not probable, that Grattan’s ideal might have, with a free Parliament and a powerful landed gentry, the respect of a contented peasantry. But the French Revolution scattered these hopes to the winds; its destructive influence was as fatal, perhaps, in Ireland, as in any part of Europe; it blighted the fair promise of the dose of the eighteenth century. We must add, too, that having regard to the relations it created between Great Britain and Ireland, the Constitution of 1782 was not likely to endure; it was hardly compatible with the security of the British empire; it was distrusted by British statesmen. Be this as it may, the French Revolution, searching Irish institutions to the very core, proved how errors of policy and faults of the British and Irish Governments prevented reforms which might, conceivably, have averted the disastrous events that followed. Rebellion, however, began to lift its head; a revolutionary movement to combine Irishmen in a league against England, the common enemy, and to stir up anarchical strife, was crossed and baffled by another movement, characteristic of the ill-feeling of the past; and the end was a horrible war of race and religion. For much that was done in 1798, Clare and the men at the Castle are to be severely blamed; but their position, we must recollect, was difficult in the extreme; and if they forced civil war to come to a head, they certainly prevented a worse catastrophe. As affairs stood when the rebellion had ended, a union had become a necessity of state, in the interest of Ireland and of Great Britain alike; but Pitt managed the settlement badly; and the Union was an ill-designed measure, carried by sinister means through the Irish Parliament, and accompanied by an act of wrong to Catholic Ireland, of which the results were long felt. Still Pitt must not be too harshly judged; in the existing state of the world he was bound to accomplish a union at almost any risk or cost.

Ireland entered into a union with England under unhappy conditions, and at an inauspicious time. The Catholic question was one of pressing importance, and, if unsettled, certain to cause trouble; the country required other reforms, the necessity of which had begun to be seen by some of the best men in the Irish Parliament. Ireland was in want of a strong but progressive government; but she had been united with Great Britain at the very time when the conflict with France was soon to become one of life and death; when all hopes of changes in the state seemed gone; when reactionary ideas had immense force; when unbending Toryism was supreme, nay absolute. And the reforms she needed were, in some instances, in direct conflict with British ideas; in others, were little understood by British statesmen; and Ireland was to be ruled by a Parliament that knew her not, and by politicians well meaning, indeed, but often ill-informed and without sympathy; it being doubtful, too, if in the peculiar state of her representation, she would possess sufficient influence of her own. The prosperity of Ireland had been largely destroyed; the land had been devastated by civil war; the dregs of rebellion lingered; animosities of race and faith had been fearfully revived; and the island was behind England in cultivation and wealth. These circumstances alone made it no easy task to govern Ireland well in an imperial Parliament, and by ministers dependent on it. If the Union was a necessity of the time; if, on the whole, it was to effect good, it was to be seen that it was not an unmixed blessing, and that it was to be accompanied, at least, with some real evils.


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Chicago: William O'Connor Morris, "Union of Ireland With Great Britain; the Great Irish Rebellion," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 15 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2023,

MLA: Morris, William O'Connor. "Union of Ireland With Great Britain; the Great Irish Rebellion." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 15, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 28 May. 2023.

Harvard: Morris, WO, 'Union of Ireland With Great Britain; the Great Irish Rebellion' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 15. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2023, from