1798: The bloody & failed Irish republican revolt

Eoin Purcell

1789: The 14th July, Bastille Day
Maybe it is the old style liberalism in me but, being deeply suspicious of it, I have never been a fan of radicalism of any description. This has pushed my sympathies in some strange directions. In the case of France that has been with the moderate forces during the French Revolution and to some extent the moderate Royalists who in the early days of the Estates General and The National Assembly and the National Constituent Assembly.

I studied the history of the moderate and reformist aristocracy (and there were certain parts of the second estate that passionately believed in change, I must dig out that essay wherever it is) during my third year in University and they proved to be among the most active reformers in the early days of the revolution, pushing for radical reform and the type of moderate limited monarchy that most liberals would happily settle for and indeed which their close neighbours in England had slowly but surely achieved in the course of the 17th & 18th Centuries (though that development was not without its own fair share of blood).

So the shift from moderate and sensible reform towards radicalism, blood and a spiral of terror that the events of 14th July (The Storming of the Bastille) indicate are a lost opportunity in my mind, not a cause of celebration. To be clear, I don’t blame the citizen of Paris, nor even the less moderate politicians of the third estate, there was sufficient evidence in their eyes that the King and his party had plans to launch a coup, the worrying and increasing presence of foreign born troops was a worrying indicator and the sacking of Necker an equally concern one. There was an atmosphere of distrust that was fostered by the King. But the results were pretty wasteful.

Ireland’s Republican Glory
Much like the storming of the Bastille & 14th July is in France, the 1798 Rebellion is remembered in Ireland as a rather exciting and noble event in Irish history, something I have long failed to understand. The event itself was planned by some high minded people (those behind the United Irishmen) but the net effect of their planning was a violent, bloody and utter failure. It came to a somewhat shambolic end this week in a series of engagements, most notably at Knightstown Bog.

Peasants with little training were thrown upon militia and regular soldiers of the British Crown with some initial success but ultimately savage retribution. The rebellion put paid to Ireland’s Parliament dooming the country to even less self government until the protracted revolution of 1914-1921 delivered a moderate home rule program (again at some cost).

Text From A History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798

Text From A History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798

I often wonder how an Irish parliament might have reacted to the Potato Blight in the 1840s or indeed how a parliament alert to the challenges that faced its landlord membership might have tried to reactivate the economy in the decades following the Napoleonic Wars when agricultural prices suffered so badly due to the increased land supply that had proved very profitable during the wars but now, with the emergence of new grain sources and rapid transport from the US and Russia, drove prices down and increased hardship amongst the poorest, and reduced capital available for investment among the landlords.

How too might a body, without the stains of massacres like Scullabogue or battles like Vinegar Hill or Ballinahinch. While some dismiss it, I don’t think you can validly explore history as it happened without thinking of the alternatives.

All told, I tend to see these periods of radicalism as swathes of history when our worst human tendencies have gained the upper hand and pushed back rational advances until good sense and order has reestablished itself, or more simply, a was eof time, effort, money and a huge waste of lives.
Eoin

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