On 1 April 1791 a group of progressive thinkers met in Peggy Barclay’s tavern in Belfast with the purpose of forming a society to promote the ideals that were inspiring so many of the Belfast radicals, men like Dr William Drennan, Robert and William Simms, Thomas McCabe, Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson. The natural extension of this meeting was the invitation to the young Dublin lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone to come to Belfast on 14 October 1791, on which date was founded the Society of United Irishmen “to form a brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion.” Tone recorded in his Diary during his first visit to Ulster in July that Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man had already become “the Koran of Blefescu”, as he nicknamed Belfast in his private correspondence.
In December the proclamation which led to the famous harpers’ festival declared that “some inhabitants of Belfast, feeling themselves interested in everything which relates to the Honour, as well as the Prosperity of their country, propose to open a subscription which they intend to apply in attempting to revive and perpetuate the ancient music and poetry of Ireland.”The following year the United Irish Society established a radical newspaper, The Northern Star, in Belfast, edited by Samuel Neilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister.
In 1793 Britain declared war on France, and Pitt, the British Prime Minister, pressurised the Irish government to raise a largely Catholic militia to defend Ireland for the Crown. The Volunteers were at the same time disbanded by proclamation, and the proprietors of The Northern Star prosecuted. The Society of United Irishmen, or Liberty Men as they knew themselves, rapidly became a secret, oathbound movement dedicated to the overthrow of the state. In 1794 a Church of Ireland clergyman, the Rev William Jackson, landed in Ireland as an agent of the French government, and was captured the following year in possession of a paper which sketched a republican uprising. This paper described the Presbyterians of Ulster as “the most enlightened body of the nation”. Jackson was charged with treason and executed in April 1795. Suspicion also fell on Wolfe Tone, who was thus forced to leave for America. Before he did do, he and the Northern leaders, Tom Neilson, Henry Joy McCracken and Thomas Russell, ascended the Cave Hill outside Belfast, where they swore to overthrow the power of England in Ireland for ever.
However, the American War of Independence had also closed the door to further emigration from Ulster for the present, and sectarian rivalry for land began to come into prominence again. In September 1795, following a long period of disturbances, Catholic ‘Defenders’ attacked a notorious Protestant ‘Peep o’Day Boys’ tavern at the Diamond in County Armagh, and were defeated in a pitched battle. Out of this skirmish was born the Orange Society which was to develop later into the Orange Order. In the autumn of 1796 a new force named the Yeomanry was enlisted for the government in Ulster, and these were chiefly Orangemen.
Yet the majority of the Presbyterians of Ulster remained true to the ideals of the United Irishmen, who had now received a new convert in the tragic young Protestant aristocrat, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. In March 1797 the government decided to disarm the North, and this was done with great cruelty by General Lake. Belfast, in particular, suffered the scourge of the Catholic and Gaelic-speaking Monaghan Militia. By May the whole island was put under martial law, and many atrocities were committed both by British Army regiments such as the ‘Ancient Britons’, a Welsh cavalry regiment, and the Orange Yeomen. The latter were not a mass movement at this time but a small, mostly agrarian society who represented the interests of the landed gentry, particularly in Monaghan and Armagh. It is doubtful, however, if United Irish feeling would have remained strong in Ulster if it had not been for the hanging of one of the Presbyterian leaders, William Orr, in September 1797. ‘Remember Orr’ was a slogan as long imprinted on the hearts of Antrim as was ‘Betsy Gray’ later on the ‘Hearts of Down’.
To be continued