A Narrow Sea - Episode 43

A Narrow Sea - Episode 43

‘A cordial union’?
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

The eighteenth-century parliament in Dublin was even less representative of the people of Ireland than the Westminster parliament.

Protestant aristocrats and gentry decided who got elected; and Catholics – three-quarters of the population – could not be MPs; until 1793 Catholics were even denied the vote.

Presbyterians were very poorly represented in the Irish Parliament and it was from the north-east corner of the island, where they were most numerous, that the strongest demand came for thorough-going change.

In the autumn of 1783 a ‘Volunteer convention’ met in Dublin to demand parliamentary reform. Volunteers were armed men, initially brought together in 1778 to repel a feared French invasion as ripples from the American Revolution spread to Ireland. Delegates to the conference from Belfast and Lisburn went further than most by insisting that Catholics be given the vote! But the time when Volunteers could pressurise the government was over. Peace had been made with the Americans and the French. The convention dissolved in confusion.

Ireland had won legislative independence in 1782 – but the euphoria surrounding this soon evaporated. Power was monopolised by the ‘Ascendancy’ – the privileged Church of Ireland gentry and their relatives.

Then, in the summer of 1789, came the storming of the Bastille in Paris. News of the outbreak of the French Revolution electrified the citizens of Belfast.

Still only around one tenth the size of Dublin, Belfast nevertheless was growing fast. Since the owner of the town, the Earl of Donegall, spent most of his time on his estate in Staffordshire, life in Belfast was largely directed by a vibrant Presbyterian middle class.

As streams were dammed, steam engines were installed and mills erected to spin by powered machinery the exotic tropical textile, cotton, Belfast became the nucleus of Ulster’s industrial revolution.

Also, the ‘Enlightenment’ had taken deep root here – for example, in 1785 Protestant Volunteers had largely paid for the building of St Mary’s, the town’s first Catholic chapel, and had paraded to attend the first Mass there.

In every issue, the Belfast News-Letter reported events unfolding in France in meticulous detail. It described the revolution there as ‘the greatest event in human annals’ and exulted in the ‘sublime’ news that the French were ‘bursting their chains, and throwing off in an instant, the degrading yoke of slavery’. On 14 July 1791 the Volunteers marched with bands, banners and cannon through the town to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.

If the French could overturn arbitrary rule, couldn’t Ireland? This was the question being asked by idealistic young men in Belfast. In October they met in a tavern in Crown Entry and there founded the Belfast Society of United Irishmen. The Society’s Declaration stated that ‘We have no national government’ and called for ‘a cordial union among all the people of Ireland’ and ‘a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Ireland’. Their final resolution declared: That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.

All the founder members of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen were Protestants.

At first the Society was a pressure group and members passionately believed that they could win the day by argument, by the force of reason.

The United Irishmen rapidly spread to towns close to Belfast, among Presbyterian farmers in Antrim and Down, then to Dublin and beyond.

But events in France were also moving swiftly. Blood began to flow in the streets of Paris, war was declared on Austria in the spring of 1792 and in January 1793 Louis XVI was guillotined.

In February 1793 Britain was at war with France. Those continuing to support the French could now be branded as traitors. Many original members of the United Irishmen withdrew. Others, led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Protestant lawyer in Dublin, now schemed to organise a revolution in Ireland, assisted by the French.

Alarmed, the Irish Parliament cracked down on the radicals and imprisoned suspect conspirators.

Meanwhile, mid-Ulster was in turmoil.

In this densely-populated area the spinning and weaving of linen in the home was flourishing. Competition to rent land became fierce in the vicinity of market towns, bleach-greens and the water-powered wash-mills, dye-works and beetling mills.

Here, where Protestants and Catholics lived in roughly equal numbers, enlightened ideas of tolerance and of all men being equal had made little headway. Memories of dispossession and massacre in the 1600s remained stubbornly alive. From the early 1780s sectarian warfare raged year after year, most intensely in County Armagh. Protestants called themselves ‘Peep o’ Day Boys’ and Catholics named themselves ‘Defenders’. Better armed, the Peep o’ Day Boys at first swept all before them. The Earl of Gosford described them as a low set of fellows…who with Guns and Bayonets, and Other weapons Break Open the Houses of the Roman Catholics, and as I am informed treat many of them with Cruelty.

For more than ten years this intercommunal violence convulsed the county and spread out to engulf almost all of mid-Ulster. It was brought to a climax in September 1795 when Catholic Defenders from south Armagh decided to counter-attack northwards.

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