Society of United Irishmen

Group Founded By Wolfe Tone Instigated Irish Uprising in 1798

The Society of United Irishmen was a radical nationalist group founded by Theobald Wolfe Tone in October 1791 in Belfast, Ireland. The groups original purpose was to achieve profound political reform in Ireland, which was under the domination of Britain.

Tone's position was that various religious factions of Irish society had to unite, and political rights for the Catholic majority would have to be secured. To that end, he sought to bring together elements of society which ranged from prosperous Protestants to impoverished Catholics.

When the British sought to suppress the organization, it transformed into a secret society which essentially became an underground army. The United Irishmen hoped to gain French aid in liberating Ireland, and planned an open revolt against the British in 1798.

The Rebellion of 1798 failed for a number of reasons, which included the arrest of United Irishmen leaders early in that year. With the rebellion crushed, the organization essentially dissolved. However, its actions and the writings of its leaders, particularly Tone, would inspire future generations of Irish nationalists.

Origins of the United Irishmen

The organization which would play such a large part in Ireland of the 1790s began modestly as the brainchild of Tone, a Dublin lawyer and political thinker. He had written pamphlets espousing his ideas for securing the rights of Ireland's oppressed Catholics.

Tone had been inspired by the American Revolution as well as the French Revolution. And he believed reform based on political and religious liberty would bring about reform in Ireland, which was suffering under a corrupt Protestant ruling class and a British government which supported the oppression of the Irish people. A series of law had long restricted the Catholic majority of Ireland. And Tone, though a Protestant himself, was sympathetic to the cause of Catholic emancipation.

In August 1791 Tone published an influential pamphlet setting forth his ideas. And in October 1791 Tone, in Belfast, organized a meeting and the Society of United Irishmen was founded. A Dublin branch was organized a month later.

Evolution of the United Irishmen

Though the organization seemed to be little more than a debating society, the ideas coming out of its meetings and pamphlets began to seem quite dangerous to the British government. As the organization spread into the countryside, and both Protestants and Catholics joined, the "United Men," as they were often known, appeared to be a serious threat.

In 1794 the British authorities declared the organization illegal. Some members were charged with treason, and Tone fled to America, settling for a time in Philadelphia. He soon sailed to France, and from there the United Irishmen began seeking French help for an invasion which would liberate Ireland.

The Rebellion of 1798

After an attempt to invade Ireland by the French failed in December 1796, due to bad sailing weather, a plan was eventually made to spark a rebellion across Ireland in May 1798. By the time for the uprising came, many leaders of the United Irishmen, including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, had been arrested.

The rebellion was launched in late May 1798 and failed within weeks from lack of leadership, lack of proper weapons, and a general inability to coordinate attacks on the British. The rebel fighters were mostly routed or slaughtered.

The French made several attempts to invade Ireland later in 1798, all of which failed. During one such action Tone was captured while aboard a French warship. He was tried for treason by the British, and took his own life while awaiting execution.

Peace was eventually restored throughout Ireland. And the Society of United Irishmen, essentially ceased to exist. However, the legacy of the group would prove strong, and later generations of Irish nationalists would take inspiration from its ideas and actions.

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McNamara, Robert. "Society of United Irishmen." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, January 29). Society of United Irishmen. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Society of United Irishmen." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).