1798 and the Act of Union

The rebellion of 1798 was the most traumatic event since the wars of the seventeenth century. The patriot movement that culminated in Grattan’s parliament pushed for an Ireland that was within the British Empire as an equal sister kingdom. This new amity was sundered by the impact of the American and French revolutions in stimulating radical circles and escalating existing tensions between the aims of the London government and the Irish administration.

Parliamentary reform came up against a brick wall in 1795, dashing the hopes of radicals for greater autonomy and further lessening of constraints on Catholics. Nevertheless catholic and Presbyterian claims had been advanced, the Penal Laws were in near- desuetude and Catholics were entering into the legal profession. The British army finally permitted Catholics in its ranks, mainly because it required more manpower, and in Ireland itself the local militias allowed some Catholics to bear arms. This entitlement resulted in Irish protestant settler reaction, and lead to sectarian conflict and the foundation of the Orange Order in Armagh.

The United Irishmen and their Defender allied at the same time and proclaimed their desire to see an independent republican Ireland - a new republic where catholic, protestant and dissenter could live as free men in a free polity. There was a counter-revolution before the rebellion as the state, armed with considerable intelligence about the planned rebellion lead by Wolfe Tone and others, moved violently to disarm potential rebels, often encouraging and exacerbating sectarian tensions in the process.

The result of 1798, in the context of British war with France , was to convince William Pitt that his long-held desire to abolish the Irish parliament was now an imperative in the light of the strategic risk to British security that an Irish-French alliance had presented. In a post-catastrophic context of 30,000 dead and rebels crushed, the Act of Union was pushed through for the start of the new century. A vicious propaganda campaign to paint the rebels as sectarian land- hungry primitives was initiated by state and independent propagandists, and Irish protestants were warned that the rebellion that they had lead was an act of madness.

The new Union, presented partly as the protection of Irish protestants within the embrace of a Union predominantly protestant, was to be accompanied by catholic Emancipation; the right of Irish Catholics to sit in the London parliament. For this reason many conservative catholics of the upper classes supported it. However, despite Pitt’s genuine intentions, the opposition of the king and other forces ensured that Emancipation did not pass.

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