Irish Rebellions of the 1800s

The 19th Century in Ireland was Marked by Periodic Revolts Against British Rule

Ireland in the 1800s is often remembered for two things, famine and rebellion.

In the mid-1840s the Great Famine ravaged the countryside, killing entire communities and forcing untold thousands of the Irish to leave their homeland for a better life across the sea.

And the entire century was marked by an intense resistance against British rule which culminated in series of revolutionary movements and occasional outright rebellions. The 19th century essentially began with Ireland in rebellion, and ended with Irish independence nearly within reach.

Uprising of 1798

The political turmoil in Ireland that would mark the 19th century actually began in the 1790s, when a revolutionary organization, the United Irishmen, began to organize. Leaders of the organization, most notably Theobald Wolfe Tone, met with Napoleon Bonaparte in revolutionary France, seeking help in overthrowing British rule in Ireland.

In 1798 armed rebellions broke out across Ireland, and French troops actually landed and battled the British Army before being defeated and surrendering.

The 1798 Uprising was put down brutally, with hundreds of Irish patriots hunted down, tortured, and executed. Theobald Wolfe Tone was captured and sentenced to death, and became a martyr to Irish patriots.

Robert Emmet's Rebellion

Poster of Robert Emmet
Poster of Robert Emmet celebrating his martyrdom. courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections

Dubliner Robert Emmet emerged as a young rebel leader after the 1798 Uprising was suppressed. Emmet traveled to France in 1800, seeking foreign help for his revolutionary plans, but returned to Ireland in 1802. He planned a rebellion which would focus on seizing strategic points in the city of Dublin, including Dublin Castle, the stronghold of British rule.

Emmet's rebellion broke out on July 23, 1803 when a few hundred rebels took over some streets in Dublin before being dispersed. Emmet himself fled the city, and was captured a month later.

After delivering a dramatic and often quoted speech at his trial, Emmet was hanged on a Dublin street on September 20, 1803. His martyrdom would inspire future generations of Irish rebels.

The Age of Daniel O'Connell

The Catholic majority in Ireland was banned by laws passed in the late 1700s from holding a number of government positions. The Catholic Association was formed in the early 1820s to secure, through non-violent means, changes that would end the overt repression of Ireland's Catholic population.

Daniel O'Connell, a Dublin lawyer and politician, was elected to the British Parliament and successfully agitated for civil rights for Ireland's Catholic majority.

An eloquent and charismatic leader, O'Connell became known as "The Liberator" for securing what was known as Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. He dominated his times, and in the 1800s many Irish households would have a framed print of O'Connell hanging in a cherished spot.

The Young Ireland Movement

A group of idealistic Irish nationalists formed the Young Ireland movement in the early 1840s. The organization was centered around The Nation magazine, and members tended to be college educated. The political movement grew out of the intellectual atmosphere at Trinity College in Dublin.

The Young Ireland members were at times critical of Daniel O'Connell's practical methods for dealing with Britain. And unlike O'Connell, who could draw many thousands to his "monster meetings," the Dublin-based organization had little support across Ireland. And various splits within the organization hampered it from being an effective force for change.

Rebellion of 1848

Members of the Young Ireland movement began to consider an actual armed rebellion after one of its leaders, John Mitchel, was convicted of treason in May 1848.

As would happen with many Irish revolutionary movements, informers quickly tipped off the British authorities, and the planned rebellion was doomed to failure. Efforts to have Irish farmers assemble into a revolutionary armed force fizzled out, and the rebellion descended into something of a farce. After a standoff at a farmhouse in Tipperary, the leaders of the rebellion were quickly rounded up.

Some leaders escaped to America, but most were convicted of treason and sentenced to transportation to penal colonies in Tasmania (from which some would later escape to America).

Irish Expatriates Support Rebellion At Home

Irish Brigade Departs New York City
Irish Brigade Departs New York City, April 1861. courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections

The period following the abortive 1848 uprising was marked by an increase in Irish nationalist fervor outside of Ireland itself. The many emigrants who had gone to America during the Great Famine harbored intense anti-British sentiment. A number of Irish leaders from the 1840s established themselves in the United States, and organizations such as the Fenian Brotherhood were created with Irish-American support.

One veteran of the 1848 Rebellion, Thomas Francis Meagher gained influence as a lawyer in New York, and became the commander of the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. Recruitment of Irish immigrants was often based on the idea that military experience could eventually be used against the British back in Ireland.

The Fenian Uprising

Following the American Civil War, the time was ripe for another rebellion in Ireland. In 1866 the Fenians made several attempts to overthrow British rule, including an ill-considered raid by Irish-American veterans into Canada. A rebellion in Ireland in early 1867 was thwarted, and once again the leaders were rounded up and convicted of treason.

Some of the Irish rebels were executed by the British, and the making of martyrs contributed greatly to Irish nationalist sentiment. It has been said that the Fenian rebellion was thus more successful for having failed.

Britain's Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, began to make concessions to the Irish, and by the early 1870s there was a movement in Ireland advocating for "Home Rule."

The Land War

Irish eviction scene
Irish eviction scene from the late 1800s. courtesy Library of Congress

The Land War was not so much a war as a prolonged period of protest which began in 1879. Irish tenant farmers protested what they considered the unfair and predatory practices of British landlords. At that time, most Irish people did not own land, and were thus forced to rent the land they farmed from landlords who were typically transplanted Englishmen, or absentee owners who lived in England.

In a typical action of the Land War, tenants organized by the Land League would refuse to pay rents to the landlords, and protests would often end in evictions. In one particular action, the local Irish refused to deal with a landlord's agent whose last name was Boycott, and a new word was thus brought into the language.

The Era of Parnell

The most significant Irish political leader of the 1800s after Daniel O'Connell was Charles Stewart Parnell, who rose to prominence in the late 1870s. Parnell was elected to the British Parliament, and practiced what was called the politics of obstruction, in which he would effectively shut down the legislative process while trying to secure more rights for the Irish.

Parnell was a hero to the common people in Ireland, and was known as "Ireland's Uncrowned King." His involvement in a divorce scandal damaged his political career, but his actions on behalf of Irish "Home Rule" set the stage for later political developments.

As the century ended, revolutionary fervor in Ireland was high, and the stage was set for the nation's independence.

The Dynamite Campaign

A peculiar interlude in Irish rebellions of the 19th century was the "Dynamite Campaign" which was organized by an Irish exile in New York City.

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, an Irish rebel who had been held in brutal conditions in English prisons, had been released on the condition that he go to America. After arriving in New York City, he began publishing a pro-rebel newspaper. O'Donovan Rossa hated the English, and began raising money to purchase dynamite which could be used in a bombing campaign in English cities.

Remarkably, he made no effort to keep what amounted to a terror campaign a secret. He operated in the open, though the agents he sent to detonate devices in England operated in secret.

O'Donovan Rossa died in New York City in 1915, and his body was returned to Ireland. His large public funeral was an event which helped inspire the Easter Rising of 1916.

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McNamara, Robert. "Irish Rebellions of the 1800s." ThoughtCo, Feb. 22, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 22). Irish Rebellions of the 1800s. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Irish Rebellions of the 1800s." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).