The Rising of the United Irishmen

Defeat of the Rebels at Vinegar Hill by George Cruikshank

“I cannot, by any possible energy of words, express to you the blundering, the delay, the murderous confusion and the stupidity of it all. It accomplished nothing; it delayed independence for a hundred years; it sowed hatred and violence; it spawned out a vile race of informers…” – Stephen Maturin to James Dillon, Master and Commander

In Master and Commander we learn that Stephen Maturin was a member of the United Irishmen, a group that apparently tried and failed to overthrow Britain’s rule of Ireland. From Stephen’s discussions with James Dillon, another former member, we know The Rising was unsuccessful, but Patrick O’Brian gives very few details of the rebellion itself. It was an interesting and important event in Irish and British history that bears further study.

How It Started

The Irish Uprising of 1798 also known as The United Irishmen Rebellion was founded by an organization by the name of The Society of United Irishmen. Created in 1791 by their leader Theobald Wolfe Tone, this group of determined men containing both Catholics and Protestants aimed to abolish the control of Ireland by the British Crown. The creation of the group was highly influenced by the ideas of the American Democracy and the French Revolutions. Towards the end of 1798, the Irish resorted to asking Napoleon Bonaparte of France for assistance to fight against the British.

The Conflict

The main conflict involved the idea of the Irishmen gaining their independence by executing a rebellion against the British. The goal of the United Irishmen was to establish “a peaceful future for Ireland in which Protestants and Catholics could live together in peace and with equality. They hoped to reform their political system, thus improving their society. They wanted to model the French-style democratic republic. However, the Orange Order organization, established to “preserve loyalty to the monarchy developed the conflict for the Irishmen. Also, many Irish Catholics were excluded from voting and running in parliament. Thus, Irishmen saw this as a deprivation to their rights. They did not desire to tolerate the rule of the Anglican Protestant authority. The Irishmen hoped to develop their own independent government separate from Britain, but the British saw this idea as a threat. The British saw this as a threat because they were afraid that it would spark ideas, so they hoped to prevent any potential rebellion. As a result, the British attacked the United Irishmen and killed many Protestant and Catholic members, hoping to abate the uprising and stop the rebellion. They were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Vinegar Hill in County Wexford.

Important Dates

It started with the Society of the United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791. After the French and American revolutions, many citizens of Ireland adopted strong beliefs for the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They agreed to form a courageous secret, non- sectarian society and to rise up against British rule. Following the outbreak of war between Britain and France in February 1793, there were many suspicions of discovered negotiations between the United Irishmen and the French government. This led to the suppression of the society in May 1794. In December 1796, the United Irishmen planned to attack using direct French military intervention. Although weather conditions prevented the French from landing, this set up the start of Dublin Castle’s build up in military defense against the United Irishmen. By spring of 1798, many of the leaders of the society were imprisoned and French assistance seemed impossible. However, in May 1798, the United Irishmen’s plan was successful as all the mail coaches leaving Dublin were seized in order to signal those United Irishmen outside the capital that the uprising had just begun.

Small victories occurred throughout Dublin and Ulster, but eventually the rebellion was suppressed and many of the conspirators executed. In 1801, British Prime Minister William Pitt put forth the Act of Union of 1801, ending the revolution and officially making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.


The aftermath of the United Irish Rising of 1798 brought about the transformation of a society. Relationships within Ireland were shattered due to the rebellion. “Small fragments of great rebel armies of the summer of 1798 survived for a number of years and waged a form of guerrilla or ‘fugitive’ warfare in several counties.  Rebel forces lead by Joseph Holt, Robert Emmet, Michael Dwyer and James Corocoran continued to fight until early 1804. Joseph Holt surrendered in Autumn 1798, Robert Emmet failed with his rebellion in 1803 causing Michael Dwyer’s forces to fail; and in February 1804, James Corocoran lead the last rebel group to defeat. “The Irish parliament was another casualty of the 1798 rebellion, while Union was represented as the perfect answer to those separatists who had sought to pull Ireland and Britain apart”. The Acts of Union did abolish discrimination against the Catholic majority but did not prevent “widespread radical mobilization of the Catholic population under Daniel O’Connell. “The 1798 rebellion was probably the most concentrated outbreak of violence in Irish history, and resulted in an estimated 15,000-30,000 deaths over the course of three months. Overall, the rebellion turned a once great nation into a broken country that was control by its neighbor, the British.

Courtesy of Irish Rebellions.

For a much more in-depth look at this fascinating historical event, please see The 1798 Rebellion and the Origins of Irish Republicanism by Andrew N. Flood.

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