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The origins of the 1798 rebellion in Ulster

Two of the main influences on the people who supported the 1798 rebellion in Ulster were the War of Independence in America and the French revolution. For example, in Ballymoney, Co Antrim:

The first efforts of the people in America in support of their rights were hailed with joy and gladness in Ireland.

In Coleraine in 1792, a sum of 600 pounds was subscribed for the French National Assembly. When travelling near Coleraine in 1796 or 1797, a Frenchman called de Latocnaye talked to a young man who spoke to him about fraternity, equality, taxation, toleration and reform of Parliament.

However, the origins of the discontent can be traced back to earlier years. On 23 December 1770, angry farmers met at Templepatrick (Co. Antrim) Meeting House, and set out for Belfast to try to release a comrade, who was held on the charge of "houghing" (deliberately laming) cattle belonging to Waddell Cunningham, a ship owner and speculator. The problem was that poor tenants on the Upton estate in Templepatrick had not been able to bid high enough (against speculators like Cunningham) to renew their leases and had been evicted. The farmers were armed with crowbars, firelocks, pistols and pitchforks, and called themselves the Hearts of Steel. They burned Cunningham's house in Belfast, they were fired on by the military (who killed 5 and wounded 9), but they did force the authorities to release their comrade.

The Hearts of Steel (and the Hearts of Oak in Armagh) continued this type of agrarian disturbance in 1771 and 1772, mainly because of:

Heavy rents which are become so great a burden to us that we are not scarcely able to bear ... Betwixt landlord and rectors, the very marrow is screwed out of our bones.

The crisis was certainly made worse by harvest failures (1770, 1771 and 1772), followed by a slump in the linen trade in 1773. The Irish parliament rushed through:

An Act for the more effectual punishment of wicked and disorderly persons in Antrim, Down, Armagh, the city and county of Londonderry and county Tyrone.

In about 1778, because many troops had been sent across to America, local people formed Volunteer companies to protect the country against a possible French invasion. The Volunteers became a political force with radical ideas. They were disbanded in 1793, but managed to hide some of their arms.

The United Irishmen were first founded in Belfast by Presbyterians in 1791. A month later another club was formed in Dublin, with Presbyterian, Catholic and Episcopalian members. The "Northern Star" newspaper in 1792 was also founded by Presbyterians (the editor was Samuel Neilson). Captain John Nevin of Kilmoyle, Co. Antrim (member of the Secession church at Ballywatt) was one of the leaders of the local United Irishmen. He was smuggled through Coleraine in a barrel and escaped to America. An inscription on a commemorative jug reads:

To the memory of John Nevin, of Kilmoyle, who was by the Foes of Reform banished from his native home in June 1798. He lived in the State of Exile 7 years, 11 months, 8 days and departed this life in Knoxville Tennessee, 19th May 1806. Much lamented by all his friends, acquaintances and Friends to their country.

In Co. Armagh, there was considerable fluctuation in the linen trade, and this may have contributed to the religous rivalry there. From about 1786, the Protestant Peep O' Day boys and Catholic Defenders were involved in violent attacks. The Defenders were well-organised, and also had a nationalist political objectives. They became allied to the United Irishmen, although the objectives of the two did not entirely coincide.

The Orange Order was formed in 1795, after the Battle of the Diamond. The Defenders and the Orange Order brought increased religious tension as they spread though other counties. Many Catholic weavers in Co. Antrim were forced to leave their homes, being told to "betake themselves to hell or Connaught". In April 1798, Camdem wrote that:

The most alarming feature of the movement is the appearance of the present contest becoming a religious one.

In fact, the picture which emerges is a confusing one. There were several groups involved in the rebellion, and several others opposing it. The objectives of the rebels ranged from those who wanted a republic, those who wanted reform, and those who appear to have been most concerned about economic grievances.

Book reviewed:
A.T.Q. Stewart, "The Summer Soldiers - the 1798 rebellion in Antrim and Down".

See also:
Jonathan Bardon, "A History of Ulster".

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