I EARLY observed, that in the different ranks which had sprung up under the influence of war-making wealth, no one rank was willing to throw its interests into the common stock, and act in concert with another for the public benefit. In every rank there were a few honourable exceptions; but these were marked for death, banishment, or for ruin if they had property, wherever the power of the enemy could reach, or bring pretended friends to desert or betray them.
The demands of the popular leaders of that day, were, for a bill to regulate places, one to regulate pensions, and one to make the servants of the crown more responsible. Had Grattan produced drafts of these bills, instead of that of the insurrection bill, by which he pointed out to ministers, at a later period, how to tie the people’s hands, he might have done a little good. But Grattan was with a party, not with the people, though he took the test of the United Irishmen from Mr. Samuel Neilson, and the rules of the society from its founder. The knowledge he gained is displayed in the bills which originated with him, when he declared in Parliament, that Ireland required a strong government; for a French party existed in the country. The wounds he had inflicted on faction with his tongue, he healed with his pen, when he drew the gagging bills for his country, and thereby made his peace with the high priests and ministers of despotic power; but it is hard for me to note the recollections of fifty-seven years without digression, or be correct in dates. I must only follow my recollection as matters strike me.
Grattan declared, in the House of Commons, that they might as well stamp on the earth to prevent the rising of the sun, as think to prevent the eventual parliamentary independence of Ireland, when he saw their drift was a Legislative Union, which, he said, would terminate in a total and perpetual separation after two civil wars. How far he contributed to their success in the first civil war, it is difficult to say. The conduct of public men, of popular men in those times, convinced me, that so long as men of rank and fortune lead a people, they will modify abuses, reform to a certain extent, but they never will remove any real grievances that press down the people.
It was either in the year 1790 or 1791, that the Belfast Battalion of Volunteers, with the sovereign, Stewart Banks, at their head, first celebrated the taking of the Bastille, on the 14th of July, and next year a review of the Volunteers took place for the same purpose: the company to which I belonged, marched into the field in coloured clothes, with green cockades. We had a green flag, bearing for a motto, on one side — ‘Our Gallic brother was born July 14, 1789. Alas! we are still in embryo;’ and on the other side — ‘Superstitious galaxy;’ ‘The Irish Bastille — let us unite to destroy it.’ These are the words, though somewhat varied by a writer of a History of Belfast; and I have a better right to know them, being the one who dictated them, and my brother-in-law, Luke Mullan, painted them on the flag.
Mr. Neilson’s incarceration, and the destruction of his printing materials, left the venal press in quiet possession of the agricultural interest, which had not then emerged from the cupidity of former ages, when every man looked into his neighbour’s field, and wished he could annex it to his own. — The higher classes of the old Volunteer officers abandoned their corps, and began to yawn for rank in a mercenary militia.
There are circumstances which should be kept always before one connected with the events of 1798; to which their production is mainly to be attributed. As a people, we were excluded from any share in framing the laws by which we were governed. The higher ranks (in which there never was, nor never will be a majority of honest-principled men) usurped the exclusive exercise of that privilege, as well as many other rights, by force, fraud, and fiction. By force the poor were subdued, and dispossessed of their interests in the soil; by fiction the titles of the spoilers were established; and by fraud on the productive industry of future generations the usurpation was continued.
A person called Atkinson, who lived in Belfast, and a Low Church clergyman near Lisburn (Philip Johnson), organised a faction of intolerant turbulent men into lodges, like Freemasons, called the Loyal Orange Institution. It at first consisted of persecuting yeomen, renegade ‘croppies,’ the hangers-on about landlords, and Low Church clergymen, with their spies and informers, all over the country — the bullies of certain houses in garrison towns, and those of fairs and markets in the rural districts. This association, under the nursing Care of the magistrates, left no visible protection for either life or property out of its own Circle, and its members boasted, that the government protected its institution, and that a judge did not ride the circuit that was not a friend to Orangeism. Their July rites were duly observed by the sacrifice of numerous victims to the memory of King William the Third; and when legal redress was resorted to by the relations and friends of the sufferers, the conduct of the authorities fully justified the above assertion. The character of the Orange lodges was such, that no man who had any regard for his character would appear in them; but most of the United Irishmen, known as the Foreign-aid men, found some means of secret connection with them; some took the Orange oath in personal confidence, and were reported in the lodges to be loyal men.
These renegades were the cause of more bloodshed in 1798 than the open enemy whom we knew and might avoid. Some of the sufferers took personal vengeance, but paid dearly for it, either by death or banishment, and several suffered for acts of which they were known to be innocent; for at that time there was any money got for swearing; and in every district there were some men, who by taking contradictory oaths, became habituated to swear whatever any cause required, in which they were embarked; and although these were few in proportion to the mass, they were sufficient for the reign of terror, and there were still men of high rank among them, who had the address to retain the confidence of the people, who are ever ready to give such men credit for more than they deserve.
Ulster was the seat of politics, in which there were three parties: those whose industry produced the necessaries of life, those who circulated them, and those whose subsistence depended on fictitious claims and capital, and lived and acted as if men and cattle were created solely for their use and benefit, and to whom a sycophantic clergy were ever ready to bow with the most profound respect. The town of Belfast was the centre of this factitious system, and, with few exceptions, the most corrupt spot on the face of the earth. In Belfast, the British ministry had, and long continued to have, its sheet anchor, whenever a political storm menaced its interests. These circumstances, and changes in the currency, the staple manufacture of the country, and condition of the people, tended to a state of things, in which hucksters became merchants, merchants became bankers, and bankers became provincial bashaws; and then, as now (1834), when the fitness and capability of Ireland for independence were discussed, the above classes were always with the government. I remember being present at one of these discussions. Mr. Henry Joy McCracken was the only man present who supposed self dependence possible. His arguments had little effect on the company. One — the chief difficulty with those who opposed his opinion — was, in reference to naval protection. I said, that Ireland was the eye of Europe — it required no naval protection; it was the connecting link in the chain of the commerce of the two hemispheres.
When we parted, McCracken blamed my rashness, and bade me never use such language while Ireland remained as she then was; ‘for’ said he, ‘there are many mercantile men, and some of them were in that very company, who are efficient members of our society, and who, rather than see their shipping interests or commercial establishments, on the east and north-east of this island, lessened in value, by the increased traffic on the western coast, would see the whole island, and every vestige of our liberty, sunk into the sea.’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘Harry, these are the men that will put the rope on your neck and mine, if ever they get us into their power.’
‘Are you afraid of being hanged, Jemmy?’ said he.
‘It would ill become one, who has pledged his life to his country, to shrink from death in any shape,’ I replied; ‘but, I confess, I have no desire for that distinction.’
‘For my part,’ said he, ‘I do not desire to die of sickness.’
The struggle at that period, as at the present, was merely between commercial and aristocratical interests, to determine which should have the people as its property, or as its prey; each contending for the greatest share. When an appeal was made to the mass, the mercantile interest had the support of opinion, but the aristocracy, which carried with it the landed interest and the court, had the absolute sway. Grattan was the darling of the merchants, for his exertion in 1782, and Castlereagh that of the landlords; and with these competitors for power, — to a certain extent having one common object, the promotion of the interests of the wealthy classes, — Pitt rode rough shod over the people, and eventually secured or banished all the active leaders of the north, taking care that a traitor or two, should keep them company in prison or in exile, who might furnish him with their secrets the more easily, having gained their victim’s confidence, from having apparently shared his punishment.
The influence of the union soon began to be felt at all public places, fairs, markets, and social meetings, extending to all the counties of Ulster, for no man of an enlightened mind had intercourse with Belfast, who did not return home determined on disseminating the principles of the union among his neighbours. Strife and quarrelling ceased in all public places, and even intoxication.
The ‘Break-of-day boys,’ and ‘Defenders,’ lamented their past indiscretions on both sides, and tracing them to their legitimate source, resolved to avoid the causes which led to them. In short, for a little time, Ulster seemed one united family, the members of which lived together in harmony and peace. A secret delegation to Dublin was resolved on, and I was one of two persons, who were appointed to proceed there, to disseminate our views among the working classes. We succeeded to our wishes, and likewise formed connections with Meath and Kildare, which soon extended to the other counties. In Leinster the gentlemen soon found the people prepared to support them in any effort, and the power of a united population became perceptible everywhere. Our enemies trembled at the prospect of unanimity, they insinuated themselves among the people, and even some of them joined the association. These were the parties who were mainly instrumental in deluding the people into conspiracy, and a desire for foreign aid, pointing out France as the then arbitrator of the destinies of Europe, which the success of her arms seemed to indicate. The people were advised to prepare for action; in 1797 some of their friends who had fled to the Continent were accompanied by traitors, who by the assistance of other traitors at home, deceived the principal leaders abroad, and urged them ultimately to consent to attempt with a handful of men, what in reality they knew would have required a considerable and well provided force.
The idea of foreign aid, and French connection, which although the original projectors of the society did not approve of, was now introduced by men of weight and influence in the societies. Henry Joy McCracken was the first who observed the design and operation of this underplot. The majority of the leaders became foreign aid men, and were easily elevated or depressed by the news from France, and amongst their ranks, spies were chiefly found. They were also the prolific source of contradictory rumours, to distract the societies and paralyze confidence.
The appearance of a French fleet in Bantry Bay, brought the rich farmers and shop keepers into the societies, and with them, all the corruption essential to the objects of the British Ministry, to foster rebellion, to possess the power of subduing it, and to carry a Legislative Union. The new adherents alleged, as a reason for their former reserve, that they thought the societies, only a combination of the poor to get the property of the rich. The societies as a mark of satisfaction at their conversion, and a demonstration of confidence in their wealthy associates, the future leaders, civil and military, were chiefly chosen from their ranks. We had traitors in our camp from the beginning to the close of the career of our society. For years our agent in Hamburg, (Mr. Turner), and one of our state prisoners, at Fort George, were furnishing Pitt with all our secrets, foreign and domestic.
McCracken, who was by far the most deserving of all our northern leaders, observed that what we had latterly gained in numbers, we lost in worth: he foresaw that the corruption of Ulster would endanger the union in the south. Agents had been sent to Paris at an early period of the revolution, and while the Republican party predominated, funds were at their disposal, but on the change of parties in France, and the unfavourable turn of affairs at home, many of the refugees were left to starve, or to embarrass private friends. Such was the state of the refugees, when those from Fort George arrived in Paris. For the reason above stated Bonaparte did not like the Irish, and for the same reason they had no confidence in him. It was easy to persuade them, that he was in treaty with the British Government to banish them from France; and even in America, their asylum had been doubtful under one president. But the republican spirit of the Irish refugees did not accord with Bonaparte’s imperial views, this was the chief cause of his unfavourable dispositions towards them. The first attempt at invasion, that of Hoche’s expedition, seemed powerful enough, but was disconcerted by separation from their commander at an unfavourable season. The aristocrats rushed into the societies, complaining that they had only been deterred from joining, from a suspicion that foreign aid could not be had, but that they now most earnestly wished to join in every prudent attempt to free their country.
Their plausible pretensions soon lulled the people into confidence, and having obtained it, they began to persuade the people that if the French came here with a formidable force they would hold the country as conquered, that a few experienced officers, an able general, and a small supply of arms and ammunition, was all that would be required and that the standard once raised would soon collect a sufficient force. This being communicated to Bartholomew Teeling, in Paris, he made the demand of the French Government, which they reluctantly complied with, as afterwards became evident from their ordering him immediately to the place of embarkation, and then delaying the sailing of the expedition, by retaining the pay of the troops, until General Humbert had to force the officer whose duty it was, to pay the troops, which he said he only delayed for want of orders.
The other half of the expedition, with J. N. Tandy, was detained until the defeat of the first was known at Paris, and from this it is conjectured, if not fully ascertained, that there was treachery all along with the French Government, for Admiral Sir John Borlace Warren, knew when to fall in with the last division of their fleet, with a superior force, and to capture it in sight of land. General Hoche, who commanded the expedition to Bantry Bay, was of opinion that the frigate in which he sailed was separated from the rest of the fleet by treachery, and this is thought by all who knew him, to have broken his heart, as he died soon after. The internal enemies of Ireland were no less successful at home than abroad, headed and directed by a renegade Volunteer, Castlereagh, whose very name rouses all the angry passions of the Irish heart.
The secret of organization of the people, while it sheltered treachery and nourished spies, completely tied the hands of the honest and resolute: this class, naturally unsuspecting, and possessing moral, as well as military, courage, patiently waited the signal for action, from the year 1797, until May, 1798, whilst the country, suffering every species of military depredation, was driven to distraction. The counties of Wexford and Wicklow, which had not been so long organized, were selected by government for singular vengeance. A considerable number of the Foundling Hospital Boys, of Dublin, had been nursed in those counties, and having settled in it, without any natural ties of blood or kindred, prejudiced by their education against the Roman Catholics they were found to be ready tools, from their local knowledge, to point out the men who were suspected. Thus they became a public scourge in those parts: the corrupt and the corruptible, of every circle, from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear, were known to the dominant despotism of that day, and regularly employed either as yeomen or spies.
The seeds of corruption, it was evident to me, were sown in our society, but I was unable to convince my acquaintances, my observation was only useful to myself, and prepared me for the worst, which realized my dreariest forebodings, without, however, sinking my spirits in the least, or making me regret any step I had taken. Although I executed the part assigned me, in every movement cheerfully, I was always prepared for defeat, for none of our leaders seemed to me perfectly acquainted with the main cause of social derangement, if I except Neilson, McCracken, Russell, and Emmet. It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class, was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty, till measures were adopted that went to the root of the evil, and were specially directed to the restoration of the natural right of the people, the right of deriving a subsistence from the soil on which their labour was expended. The plan of the United Irishmen was carried into effect with success, until Lord Castlereagh had the address to get into the confidence of a United Irishman, named James Breese, who afterwards suffered death in ’98; by taking the test or oath of the society, he was put in possession of all the secrets of the society that Breese was acquainted with, by which means he could weigh all the other secret informations he received, and find out proper agents for any purpose he might require.