Rebellion in Ireland - Union with Great Britain
Although the government had been able, in 1783, to procure a dissolution of the volunteer corps, the bulk of the Irish people continued to express the most anxious desire for such a reform in their Parliament as might render it a more just representation of the popular voice. Unable to yield to them on this point, Mr. Pitt endeavored to appease them by extending their commercial privileges but his wishes were frustrated, chiefly by the jealousy of the British merchants. A strong feeling of discontent, not only with the government, but with the British connection, was thus engendered in Ireland.
The commencement of the revolutionary proceedings in France excited the wildest hopes of the Irish. Towards the close of the year 1791, they formed an association, under the title of the United Irishmen, comprehending persons of all religions, and designed to obtain 'a complete reform of the legislature, founded on the principles of civil, political, and religious liberty.' The government from the first suspected this association of meditating an overturn of the state, and took strong measures for keeping it in check. Acts were passed for putting down its meetings, and the secretary, Mr. Hamilton Rowan, was tried and sentenced to a fine and two years' imprisonment for what was termed a seditious libel. At the same time, some concessions to the popular spirit were deemed indispensable, and the Irish Parliament accordingly passed acts enabling Catholics to intermarry with Protestants, to practice at the bar, and to educate their own children.
On discovering that a treasonable correspondence had been carried on with France by some leading persons in the society of United Irishmen, the government was so much alarmed as to send (1794) a Whig lord-lieutenant (Earl Fitzwilliam) to grant further concessions; but ere anything had been done, the ministers were persuaded by the Protestant party to return to their former policy. The patriotic party now despaired of effecting any improvement by peaceable means, and an extensive conspiracy was entered into for delivering up Ireland to the French republic. The scheme was managed by a directory of five persons, and though half a million of men were concerned in it, the most strict secrecy was preserved. In December 1796, a portion of the fleet which had been fitted out by the French to cooperate with the Irish patriots, landed at Bantry Bay; but measures for a rising of the people not being yet ripe, it was obliged to return. Next year, the losses at Camperdown crippled the naval resources of France, and prevented a renewal of the expedition. Losing all hope of French assistance, the conspirators resolved to act without it; but their designs were betrayed by one Reynolds; and three other members of the directory, Emmett, Macnevin, and Bond, were seized. Notwithstanding the precautionary measures which the government was thus enabled to take, the Union persisted in the design of rising on a fixed day. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, another of its leaders, was then arrested, and being wounded in a scuffle with his captors, soon after died in prison. On the 21st of May 1798, Lord Castlereagh, secretary to the lord-lieutenant, disclosed the whole plan of insurrection, which had been fixed to commence on the 23d.
Though thus thwarted in their designs, and deprived of their best leaders, the conspirators appeared in arms in various parts of the country. Parties attacked Naas and Carlow, but were repulsed with loss. A large party, under a priest named Murphy, appeared in the county of Wexford, and took the city of that name. Slight insurrections about the same time broke out in the northern counties of Antrim and Down, but were easily suppressed. In Wexford alone did the insurgents appear in formidable strength. Under a priest named Roche, a large party of them met and defeated a portion of the government troops; but on a second occasion, though they fought with resolution for four hours, they were compelled to retreat. Another defeat at New Ross exasperated them greatly, and some monstrous cruelties were consequently practised upon their prisoners. On the 20th of June, their whole force was collected upon Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, where an army of 13,000 men, with a proportionate train of artillery, was brought against them by General Lake. They were completely overthrown and dispersed. From this time the rebellion languished, and in July it had so far ceased to be formidable, that an act of amnesty was passed in favor of all who had been engaged in it, except the leaders.
On the 22d of August, when the rebellion had been completely extinguished, 900 French, under General Humbert, were landed at Killala, in the opposite extremity of the country from that in which the insurgents had shown the greatest strength. Though too late to be of any decisive effect, they gave some trouble to the government. A much larger body of British troops, under General Lake, met them at Castlebar, but retreated in a panic. They then advanced to the centre of the country, while the lord-lieutenant confessed the formidable reputation which their countrymen had acquired, by concentrating an immensely disproportioned force against them. On the 8th of September, they were met at Carrick-on-Shannon by this large army, to which they yielded themselves prisoners of war.