THE INSURRECTION OF 1798.
It is no longer matter of assertion merely, but simple matter of fact, that the English and Irish ministers of George III. regarded the insurrectionary movement of the United Irishmen as at once a pretext and a means for effecting a legislative union between the two countries. Lord Camden, the Viceroy who succeeded Lord Fitzwilliam in March, '95--with Mr. Pelham as his Chief Secretary, in a letter to his relative, the Hon. Robert Stewart, afterwards Lord Castlereagh, announced this policy, in unmistakable terms, so early as 1793; and all the official correspondence published of late years, concerning that period of British and Irish history, establishes the fact beyond the possibility of denial.
Such being the design, it was neither the wish nor the interest of the Government, that the insurrection should be suppressed, unless the Irish constitution could be extinguished with it. To that end they proceeded in the coercive legislation described in a previous chapter; to that end they armed with irresponsible power the military officers and the oligarchical magistracy; with that view they quartered those yeomanry regiments, which were known to be composed of Orangemen, on the wretched peasantry of the most Catholic counties, while the corps in which Catholics or United Irishmen were most numerous, were sent over to England, in exchange for Scotch fencibles and Welsh cavalry. The outrages committed by all these volunteer troops, but above all by the Orange yeomanry of the country, were so monstrous, that the gallant and humane Sir John Moore exclaimed, "If I were an Irishman, I would be a rebel!"
It was, indeed, impossible for any man, however obscure, or however eminent, to live longer in the country, without taking sides. Yet the choice was at best a hard and unhappy one. On the one side was the Castle, hardly concealing its intention of goading on the people, in order to rob them of their Parliament; on the other was the injured multitude, bound together by a secret system which proved in reality no safeguard against traitors in their own ranks, and which had been placed by its Protestant chiefs under the auspices of an infidel republic. Between the two courses men made election according to their bias or their necessities, or as they took local or general, political or theological views of the situation. Both Houses of the legislature unanimously, sustained the government against the insurrection; as did the judges, the bar, and the Anglican clergy and bishops. The Presbyterian body were in the beginning all but unanimous for a republican revolution and the French alliance; the great majority of the Catholic peasantry were, as the crisis increased, driven into the same position, while all their bishops and a majority of the Catholic aristocracy, adhered to that which they, with the natural tendency of their respective orders, considered the side of religion and authority. Thus was the nation sub-divided within itself; Protestant civilian from Protestant ecclesiastic, Catholic layman from Catholic priest, tenant from lord, neighbour from neighbour, father from son, and friend from friend.
During the whole of '97, the opposing parties were in a ferment of movement and apprehension. As the year wore on, the administration, both English and Irish, began to feel that the danger was more formidable than they had foreseen. The timely storm which had blown Grouchy out of Bantry Bay, the previous Christmas, could hardly be reckoned on again, though the settled hostility of the French government knew no change. Thoroughly well informed by their legion of spies both on the Continent and in Ireland, every possible military precaution was taken. The Lord Lieutenant's proclamation for disarming the people, issued in May, was rigorously enforced by General Johnstone in the South, General Hutchinson in the West, and Lord Lake in the North. Two hundred thousand pikes and pike-heads were said to have been discovered or surrendered during the year, and several thousand firelocks. The yeomanry, and English and Scotch corps amounted to 35,000 men, while the regular troops were increased to 50,000 and subsequently to 80,000, including three regiments of the Guards. The defensive works at Cork, and other vulnerable points were strengthened at an immense cost; the "Pigeon House" fort, near Dublin, was enlarged, for the city itself was pronounced by General Vallancy, Colonel Packenham, and other engineer authorities dangerously weak, if not wholly untenable. A system of telegraphic signals was established from all points of the coast with the Capital, and every precaution taken against the surprise of another French invasion.
During the summer assize, almost every considerable town and circuit had its state trial. The sheriffs had been carefully selected beforehand by the Castle, and the juries were certain to be of "the right sort," under the auspices of such sheriffs. Immense sums in the aggregate were contributed by the United Irish for the defence of their associates; at the Down assizes alone, not less than seven hundred or eight hundred guineas were spent in fees and retainers; but at the close of the term, Mr. Beresford was able to boast to his friend Lord Auckland, that but one of all the accused had escaped the penalty of death or banishment! The military tribunals, however, did not wait for the idle formalities of the civil courts. Soldiers and civilians, yeomen and townsmen, against whom the informer pointed his finger, were taken out, and summarily executed. Ghastly forms hung upon the thick-set gibbets, not only in the market places of country towns, and before the public prisons, but on all the bridges of the metropolis. Many of the soldiers, in every military district were shot weekly and almost daily for real or alleged complicity with the rebels. The horrid torture of picketing, and the blood-stained lash, were constantly resorted to, to extort accusations or confessions. Over all these atrocities the furious and implacable spirit of Lord Clare presided in Council, and the equally furious and implacable Luttrel, Lord Carhampton, as Commander-in-Chief. All moderate councils were denounced as nothing short of treason, and even the elder Beresford, the Privy Counsellor, was compelled to complain of the violence of his noble associates, and his inability to restrain the ferocity of his own nearest relatives-- meaning probably his son John Claudius, and his son-in-law, Sir George Hill.
It was while this spirit was abroad, a spirit as destructive as ever animated the Councils of Sylla or Marius in Old Rome, or prompted the decrees of Robespierre or Marat in France, that the genius and courage of one man redeemed the lost reputation of the law, and upheld against all odds the sacred claims of personal liberty. This man was John Philpot Curran, the most dauntless of advocates, one of the truest and bravest of his race. Although a politician of the school of Grattan, and wholly untainted with French principles, he identified himself absolutely with his unhappy clients, "predoomed to death." The genius of patriotic resistance which seemed to have withdrawn from the Island with Grattan's secession from Parliament, now re-appeared in the last place where it might have been expected--in those courts of death, rather than of justice--before those predetermined juries, besides the hopeless inmates of the crowded dock, personified in the person of Curran. Often at midnight, amid the clash of arms, his wonderful pleadings were delivered; sometimes, as in Dublin, where the court rooms adjoined the prisons, the condemned, or the confined, could hear, in their cells, his piercing accents breaking the stillness of the early morning, pleading for justice and mercy--pleading always with superhuman perseverance, but almost always in vain. Neither menaces of arrest, nor threats of assassination, had power to intimidate that all-daring spirit; nor, it may be safely said, can the whole library of human history present us a form of heroism superior in kind or degree to that which this illustrious advocate exhibited during nearly two years, when he went forth daily, with his life in his hand, in the holy hope to snatch some human victim from the clutch of the destroyer thirsting for his blood.
In November, '97, some said from fear of personal consequences, some from official pressure in a high quarter, Lord Carhampton resigned the command of the forces, and Sir Ralph Abercromby was appointed in his stead. There could not be a more striking illustration of the system of terror patronized by government than was furnished in the case of Sir Ralph as Commander-in- Chief. That distinguished soldier, with his half century of services at his back, had not been a week in Dublin before he discovered the weakness of the Viceroy, and the violence of his principal advisers, the Chancellor, the Speaker, Lord Castlereagh and the Beresfords. Writing in confidence to his son, he says, "The abuses of all kinds I found here can scarcely be believed or enumerated." The instances he cites of such abuses are sufficiently horrible to justify the strong language which brought down on his head so much hostility, when he declared in his proclamation of February '98, that the Irish army was "formidable to every one but the enemy." These well-known opinions were so repugnant to the Castle policy, that that party held a caucus in the Speaker's Chambers, at which it was proposed to pass a vote of censure in Parliament on the General, whom they denounced as "a sulky mule," "a Scotch beast," and by other similar names. Though the Parliamentary censure dropped, they actually compelled Lord Camden to call on him to retract his magnanimous order. To this humiliation the veteran stooped "for the sake of the King's service," but at the same time he proffered his resignation. After two months' correspondence, it was finally accepted, and the soldier who was found too jealous of the rights of the people to be a fit instrument of their destruction, escaped from his high position, not without a profound sentiment of relief. His verdict upon the barbarous policy pursued in his time was always expressed, frankly and decisively. His entire correspondence, private and public, bears one and the same burthen--the violence, cruelty, and tyranny of Lord Camden's chief advisers, and the pitiful weakness of the Viceroy himself. Against the infamous plan of letting loose a lustful and brutal soldiery to live at "free quarters" on a defenceless and disarmed people--an outrage against which Englishmen had taken perpetual security at their revolution, as may be seen in "the Bill of Rights," he struggled during his six months' command, but with no great success. The plan, with all its horrors, was upheld by the Lord-Lieutenant, and more than any other cause, precipitated the rebellion which exploded at last, just as Sir Ralph was allowed to retire from the country. His temporary successor, Lord Lake, was troubled with no such scruples as the gallant old Scotsman.
Events followed each other in the first months of 1798, fast and furiously. Towards the end of February, Arthur O'Conor, Father James Quigley, the brothers John and Benjamin Binns, were arrested at Margate on their way to France; on the 6th of March, the Press newspaper, the Dublin organ of the party, as the Star had been the Ulster organ, was seized by Government, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and William Sampson being at the time in the office. On the 12th of March, on the information of the traitor, Thomas Reynolds, the Leinster delegates were seized in conclave, with all their papers, at the house of Oliver Bond, in Bridge Street, Dublin. On the same information. Addis Emmet and Dr. McNevin were taken in their own houses, and Sampson in the north of England: of all the executive, Lord Edward alone escaping those sent in search of him. This was, as Tone notes in his journal, on the ill news reaching France, "a terrible blow." O'Conor's arrest in Kent, Sampson's in Carlisle, and the other arrests in Belfast and Dublin, proved too truly that treason was at work, and that the much-prized oath of secrecy was no protection whatever against the devices of the Castle and the depravity of its secret agents. The extent to which that treason extended, the number of associates who were in the pay of their deadly enemies, was never known to the United Irish leaders; time has, however, long since "revealed the secrets of the prison-house," and we know now, that men they trusted with all their plans and hopes, such as McNally and McGucken, were quite as deep in the conspiracy to destroy them as Mr. Reynolds and Captain Armstrong.
The most influential members of the Dublin Society remaining at large contrived to correspond with each other, or to meet by stealth after the arrest at Bond's. The vacancies in the Executive were filled up by the brothers John and Henry Sheares, both barristers, sons of a wealthy Cork banker, and former member of Parliament, and by Mr. Lawless, a surgeon. For two months longer these gentlemen continued to act in concert with Lord Edward, who remained undetected, notwithstanding all the efforts of Government, from the 12th of March till the 19th of May following. During those two months the new directors devoted themselves with the utmost energy to hurrying on the armament of the people, and especially to making proselytes among the militia, where the gain of one man armed and disciplined was justly accounted equal to the enlistment of three or four ordinary adherents. This part of their plan brought the brothers Sheares into contact, among others, with Captain John Warneford Armstrong, of the Queen's County Yeomanry, whom they supposed they had won over, but who was, in reality, a better-class spy, acting under Lord Castlereagh's instructions. Armstrong cultivated them sedulously, dined at their table, echoed their opinions, and led the credulous brothers on to their destruction. All at last was determined on; the day of the rising was fixed--the 23rd day of May--and the signal was to be the simultaneous stoppage of the mail coaches, which started nightly from the Dublin post-office, to every quarter of the kingdom. But the counterplot anticipated the plot. Lord Edward, betrayed by a person called Higgins, proprietor of the Freeman's Journal, was taken on the 19th of May, after a desperate struggle with Majors Swan and Sirr, and Captain Ryan, in his hiding-place in Thomas Street; the brothers Sheares were arrested in their own house on the morning of the 21st, while Surgeon Lawless escaped from the city, and finally from the country, to France. Thus, for the second time, was the insurrection left without a head; but the organization had proceeded too far to be any longer restrained, and the Castle, moreover, to use the expression of Lord Castlereagh, "took means to make it explode."
The first intelligence of the rebellion was received in Dublin on the morning of the 24th of May. At Rathfarnham, within three miles of the city, 500 insurgents attacked Lord Ely's yeomanry corps with some success, till Lord Roden's dragoons, hastily despatched from the city, compelled them to retreat, with the loss of some prisoners and two men killed, whom Mr. Beresford saw the next day, literally "_cut to pieces_--a horrid sight." At Dunboyne the insurgents piked an escort of the Reay Fencibles (Scotch) passing through their village, and carried off their baggage. At Naas, a large popular force attacked the garrison, consisting of regulars, Ancient Britons (Welsh), part of a regiment of dragoons, and the Armagh Militia; the attack was renewed three times with great bravery, but finally, discipline, as it always will, prevailed over mere numbers, and the assailants were repulsed with the loss of 140 of their comrades. At Prosperous, where they cut off to a man a strong garrison composed of North Cork Militia, under Captain Swayne, the rising was more successful. The commander in this exploit was Dr. Esmonde, brother of the Wexford baronet, who, being betrayed by one of his own subalterns, was the next morning arrested at breakfast in the neighbourhood, and suffered death at Dublin on the 14th of the following month.
There could hardly be found a more unfavourable field for a peasant war than the generally level and easily accessible county of Kildare, every parish of which is within a day's march of Dublin. From having been the residence of Lord Edward, it was, perhaps, one of the most highly organized parts of Leinster, but as it had the misfortune to be represented by Thomas Reynolds, as county delegate, it laboured under the disadvantage of having its organization better known to the government than any other. We need hardly be surprised, therefore, to find that the military operations in this county were all over in ten days or a fortnight; when those who had neither surrendered nor fallen, fell back into Meath or Connaught, or effected a junction with the Wicklow rebels in their mountain fastnesses. Their struggle, though so brief, had been creditable for personal bravery. Attacked by a numerous cavalry and militia under General Wilford, by 2,500 men, chiefly regulars, under General Dundas, and by 800 regulars brought up by forced marches from Limerick, under Sir James Duff, they showed qualities, which, if well directed, would have established for their possessors a high military reputation. At Monastereven they were repulsed with loss, the defenders of the town being in part Catholic loyalists, under Captain Cassidy; at Rathangan, they were more successful, taking and holding the town for several days; at Clane, the captors of Prosperous were repulsed; while at Old Killcullen, their associates drove back General Dundas' advance, with the loss of 22 regulars and Captain Erskine killed. Sir James Duff's wanton cruelty in sabring and shooting down an unarmed multitude on the Curragh, won him the warm approval of the extermination party in the Capital, while Generals Wilford and Dundas narrowly escaped being reprimanded for granting a truce to the insurgents under Aylmer, and accepting of the surrender of that leader and his companions. By the beginning of June the six Kildare encampments of insurgents were totally dispersed, and their most active officers in prison or fugitives west or south.
By a preconcerted arrangement, the local chiefs of the insurrection in Dublin and Meath, gathered with their men on the third day after the outbreak, at the historic hill of Tara. Here they expected to be joined by the men of Cavan, Longford, Louth and Monaghan; but before the northerners reached the trysting place, three companies of the Reay Fencibles, under Captain McClean, the Kells and Navan Yeomanry, under Captain Preston, (afterwards Lord Tara,) and a troop of cavalry under Lord Fingal, surrounded the royal hill. The insurgents, commanded by Gilshine and other leaders, intrenched themselves in the graveyard which occupies the summit of Tara, and stoutly defended their position. Twenty-six of the Highlanders and six of the Yeomanry fell in the assault, but the bullet reached farther than the pike, and the defenders were driven, after a sharp action, over the brow of the eminence, and many of them shot or sabred down as they fled.
Southward from the Capital the long pent-up flame of disaffection broke out on the same memorable day, May 23rd. At Dunlavin, an abortive attempt on the barrack revealed the fact that many of the Yeomanry were thoroughly with the insurgents. Hardly had the danger from without passed over, when a military inquiry was improvised. By this tribunal, nineteen Wexford, and nine Kildare Yeomanry, were ordered to be shot, and the execution of the sentence followed immediately on its rending. At Blessington, the town was seized, but a nocturnal attack on Carlow was repulsed with great loss. In this last affair, the rebels had rendezvoused in the domain of Sir Edward Crosbie, within two miles of the town. Here arms were distributed and orders given by their leader, named Roche. Silently and quickly they reached the town they hoped to surprise. But the regular troops, of which the garrison was chiefly composed, were on the alert, though their preparations were made full as silently. When the peasantry emerged from Tullow Street, into an exposed space, a deadly fire was opened upon them from the houses on all sides. The regulars, in perfect security themselves, and abundantly supplied with ammunition, shot them down with deadly unerring aim. The people soon found there was nothing for it but retreat, and carrying off as best they could their killed and wounded, they retired sorely discomfited. For alleged complicity in this attack, Sir Edward Crosbie was shortly afterward arrested, tried and executed. There was not a shadow of proof against him; but he was known to sympathize with the sufferings of his countrymen, to have condemned in strong language the policy of provocation, and that was sufficient. He paid with the penalty of his head for the kindness and generosity of his heart.