Sensing their growing strength, the Volunteers, who were predominantly Protestant, began to make increasing demands for reform. They focused first upon the English stranglehold over the Irish economy, and non-importation associations were formed to boycott English goods. These demands soon went further. Early in 1782 elected delegates from a large number of Ulster companies met at Dungannon and produced what was in effect the Volunteer manifesto, and what they now demanded was not just Free Trade, but proper legislative independence for the Irish Parliament.
As Peter Smyth pointed out:
“It was appropriate that Ulster should have provided the final impetus towards achieving legislative independence. Ulster had almost as many Volunteers as the other three provinces combined, and a much higher proportion of its population was politically active. This population was well-leavened with the yeast of the Presbyterian tradition of independence of thought… Grattan and other politicians, declaring that ‘Liberty is a native of the North’, echoed the popular toast, ‘May the Northern lights ever illuminate the Irish nation’. Such sentiments helped foster Ulster’s high opinion of itself as the arbiter if national aspirations.” [The Volunteers, 1778-84, Peter Smyth, Educational Facsimiles 141-160, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland]
Such radicalism belied the moderate constitutionalism which had deep roots within the movement. As Smyth points out, some of the Volunteers’ public pronouncements reflected this, depicting legislative independence not as something which would separate Ireland from Great Britain but as the means by which the two countries would draw closer together in a community of mutual interest. In June 1782 the Irish Parliament did begin to initiate its own legislation for the first time in two hundred years, but proved hidebound through lack of proper reforms, while the Volunteer movement itself went into decline.
A demand for unity of action with Catholics had been voiced by the Belfast companies; indeed the First Belfast Volunteer Company raised half the cost of construction of St Mary’s Catholic chapel and on the date of its opening paraded in full dress to attend the service. However, this demand for unity met with resistance, and it was to be another group of radical Presbyterians who were to grasp the nettle of proclaiming unity among Irishmen. The French Revolution further stimulated progressive thinking in Belfast, and, following a meeting in Peggy Barclay’s Tavern in April 1791, ‘The Society of United Irishmen’ was founded by William Drennan and Samuel Neilson, dedicated to building “a cordial union among all the people of Ireland… of every religious persuasion”.
As with the Volunteers, the politics of the movement was complex, at its inception most United Irishmen, excepting individuals like Wolfe Tone, were not republicans, let alone revolutionaries, but reformers who believed they could achieve their aims “solely by unanimity, decision and spirit in the people”. Government repression helped radicalise the United Irishmen and forced them to become a secret revolutionary organisation. In March 1797 the government, realising that the United Irishmen posed a real threat, especially in their stronghold among the Protestants and Catholics of Ulster, ordered that the North be disarmed, and this was done with extreme brutality.
Robert Kee, whom I met at dinner with Lindy Guinness, the last Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, quotes one eyewitness account:
“There was no ceremony used in choosing victims, the first to hand done well enough … They were stripped naked, tied to a triangle and their flesh cut through without mercy. And although some stood the torture to the last gasp sooner than become informers, others did not and one single informer in the town was enough to destroy all the united Irishmen in it.” [Ireland – A History, Sphere Books, 1982.] In September one of the leaders, William Orr, was hanged. Then, thanks to informers, almost the entire National Directory was arrested in March 1798, and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, another leading United Irishman, was betrayed and mortally wounded.
The year of 1798 was to be the first year of liberty for the United Irishmen. The rising broke out first in Wexford, but rapidly took on the character of a religious war. Only in Ulster did the rising strive to be a truly united one, but even before it had begun there its leaders were dismayed by news of the massacre of Protestants at Scullabogue, which led to a reinforcing of traditional sectarian attitudes within the population. Nevertheless, the Northern rising went ahead, Henry Joy McCracken being made commander-in-chief of the United Army of Ulster. On 7 June McCracken’s men took Larne and Antrim, but were soon defeated.
On 9 June the ‘Hearts of Down’, under the leadership of Henry Munro, won a skirmish at Saintfield but were defeated at Ballynahinch. McCracken, Munro and others were captured and hanged. Among them was Archibel Wilson, my own ancestor. James Orr of Ballycarry survived to become the finest poet of Ulster-Scots. By the time Wolfe Tone arrived with a French force the rebellion was over, and Tone was captured. Rather than be hanged he committed suicide. Paradoxically it was among the loyalist ranks that sectarian animosities were overcome. The Catholics of the militia and the yeomanry fought side by side with Orangemen, and the force which had contained the rebellion in June was an overwhelmingly Catholic one.
The failure of the rising led directly to Acts of Union being passed in both Britain and Ireland. The proposed Union was seen by the imprisoned United Irish leaders as actually an achievement of their aims and an admission by the Westminster parliament that the Irish parliament had been corrupt and unjust… Nothing changes. In 1799 Samuel Neilson wrote from Fort George prison in Scotland: “I see a Union is determined on between Great Britain and Ireland. I am glad of it. In a commercial view, it cannot be injurious; and I can see no injury the country will sustain from it politically.”Another ‘98 leader saw in the union the downfall of one of the most corrupt assemblies I believe ever existed, and instead of an empty title, a source of industrious enterprise for the people.”
On 1 January 1801 Ireland officially became part of the United Kingdom. We have reached the 210th anniversary of that momentous occasion in the knowledge that we have at least been able to keep Northern Ireland within that greatest of all Kingdoms. Toast it when you sing with me in my native Scots, or as I say Ullans , the words of Auld Lang Syne, or as you say in English, “Old Time’s Sake”.