Irish Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Motivated by the example of the French and the American Revolutions, Irish nationalists planned rebellion against British control. Although the uprisings were mainly uncoordinated and short-lived, the revolt acted as an inspiration for subsequent generations of Irish Nationalists and, more immediately, set in motion the union between England and Ireland.

Summary of Event

The American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);influence on Irish independence[Irish independence movement] and, even more acutely, the French Revolution French Revolution (1789-1796);influence on Irish independence[Irish independence movement] in 1789 gave a more coherent form and purpose to widespread discontent in Ireland over British domination. In Belfast in 1791, the first United Irish Society United Irish societies was formed by members of the Protestant middle class, the lawyer James Napper Tandy becoming its first secretary. United Irish societies, which were then established throughout much of the country, were dedicated to the principles of liberal democracy as practiced in the Revolutionary United States and in France. [kw]Irish Rebellion (May-Nov., 1798) [kw]Rebellion, Irish (May-Nov., 1798) Irish Rebellion (1798) Irish-British conflicts[Irish British conflicts] British-Irish conflicts[British Irish conflicts] [g]Ireland;May-Nov., 1798: Irish Rebellion[3340] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May-Nov., 1798: Irish Rebellion[3340] [c]Government and politics;May-Nov., 1798: Irish Rebellion[3340] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;May-Nov., 1798: Irish Rebellion[3340] Tone, Wolfe Fitzgerald, Lord Edward Cornwallis, first marquess Harvey, Beauchamp Bagenal Humbert, Jean-Joseph Lake, Gerard Tandy, James Napper Murphy, John McCracken, Henry Joy Monro, Henry

Particularly close ties were forged between the United Irishmen and the French government; these ties strengthened as authorities in Britain in Ireland began cracking down on their activities as subversive and threatening members with arrest. In the face of repressive tactics, some United Irish became more radical, advocating violent rebellion, which they hoped would be assisted by French intervention. Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone, in particular, became active in plotting such an insurrection with authorities of the Directory Directory (France) —the French French-Irish Alliance (1798)[French Irish Alliance] French-British conflicts[French British conflicts] British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] government at that time. In Ireland, radical leaders formed provincial or county and city “directories” of their own, so to coordinate the efforts of United Irish agents abroad. By early 1796, the mainly urban, Protestant United Irish were making common cause with the agrarian Catholic Defenders Catholic Defenders with the potential of creating a powerful rebel army. In December, 1796, a French fleet carrying fifteen thousand troops—under the command of General Lazare Hoche Hoche, Lazare and accompanied by Wolfe Tone—made an abortive attempt to land in County Cork but was frustrated by bad weather.

The long-awaited revolt was set for spring of 1798, but the government at Dublin, warned by informants, took stern measures. The new British military commander in Ireland, General Gerard Lake, who had a reputation for ruthlessness, tried to forestall trouble by rooting out subversives and arresting the leadership of the United Irish Leinster Directory. The most serious loss was that of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald, Lord Edward the chair of the Directory, who eluded capture for a while but was shot in the shoulder and apprehended after a fierce struggle on May 19. He eventually died of his wound on June 4, 1798.

The death of Fitzgerald and the imprisonment of his colleagues left the movement without a central, guiding hand, and the uprisings were consequently ill-planned, disorganized, and short-lived. Localized revolts in Counties Kildare, Laois, Offaly, Carlow, and Meath from May 23 to July 14 were soon quelled. In County Antrim, a better-organized force under Henry Joy McCracken enjoyed some initial success, but it was destroyed on June 7 at the Battle of Antrim; Antrim, Battle of (1798) several miles away, the United Irish Rising in County Down under Henry Monro was defeated at the Battle of Ballinahinch Ballinahinch, Battle of (1798) on June 13. In County Wexford, where fighting broke out on May 26, the scenario was different. The movement there, led by Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, Father John Murphy, and others, enjoyed spectacular success, took control of the county, and for a brief moment engendered a “Republic of Wexford” (proclaimed May 31-June 26). The situation was considered serious enough for the British government to dispatch the seasoned general and administrator the first Marquess Cornwallis to Dublin as lord lieutenant.

Without promised assistance from the French government, the rebels in Wexford suffered significant setbacks at New Ross and Arklow before being crushed by Lake’s forces at Vinegar Hill on June 21. Shortly thereafter, Harvey, Father Murphy, Monro, and McCracken, among others, were executed. On August 22, the French made an unexpected landing in western Ireland at Killala, County Mayo. Again, there was a heady, initial victory: The French badly routed a British force on August 27 at the Battle of Castlebar Castlebar, Battle of (1798) (which was dubbed the “Castlebar Races” in recognition of the speed with which the British left the field) and pushed into the Midlands. However, without substantial local support, French general Jean-Joseph Humbert was beaten and forced to surrender to Lake at Ballinamuck, County Longford, on September 8. Irishmen serving in the French ranks were slaughtered.

Tandy and Tone belatedly attempted to effect a landing. Tandy actually made landfall on September 16 at Rutland Island, off County Donegal. Learning of Humbert’s surrender and knowing that his force of itself was inadequate, Tandy withdrew. Tone, who sailed with the fleet of French admiral Jean Bompart, actually engaged in action with a British fleet off the northwest coast of Ireland. The British were victorious and captured Tone as he tried to land at Buncrana, in County Donegal, on November 3. Tone was tried, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to hang, but he slit his own throat two days later to “cheat” the hangman. He lingered a week before dying on November 19, 1798.


Tone’s death marked the effective end of the rebellion, though partisan bands operating in the Wicklow Mountains remained undefeated and operated against Crown forces until 1803. Though the insurrection achieved little militarily, its political repercussions were significant. British prime minister William Pitt the Younger Pitt, William, the Younger was able to play on fears that an autonomously governed Ireland might be more vulnerable to future revolts and attacks from foreign powers and successfully pressed for the absorption of the independent Irish parliament into that of Britain. The Act of Union, Union, Act of (1800) as this arrangement was termed, was officially consummated on January 1, 1801, and Great Britain and Ireland merged into the United Kingdom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliot, Marianne. Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A very thorough explanation of the close and tight connection between French Revolutionary ideals and those fostered by the Irish rebels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geoghegan, Patrick M. The Irish Act of Union: A Study in High Politics, 1798-1801. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Describes, among other things, the galvanizing effect of the 1798 rebellion on William Pitt the Younger’s campaign to unite the crowns of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Alvin. Ireland, 1798-1998: Politics and War. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1999. The author sets great store in depicting the 1798 rising as a key to subsequent long-term political developments in Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keogh, Daire, and Nicholas Furlong, eds. The Mighty Wave: The 1798 Rebellion in Wexford. Blackrock, County Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1996. Gives a detailed description of the action taking place in the Irish county that was most profoundly affected by the rising.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moody, T. W., and F. X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1984. Sets the 1798 risings quite readily into the overall Irish historical context. The time line offered is quite useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Donnell, Ruan. The Rebellion in Wicklow, 1798. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998. Sheds light on the little-known story of rebellion and rebel activities in the mountainous region bordering on the County Dublin and near Ireland’s capital city.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pakenham, Thomas. The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798. New York: Random House, 1997. By far the most complete and readable of the general histories of the rebellion, suitable for both scholars and nonacademics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyrrell, John. Weather and Warfare: A Climatic History of the 1798 Rebellion. Wilton, County Cork, Ireland: The Collins Press, 2001. An unprecedented approach that makes a case for the decisive nature of meteorological phenomena during the course of the revolution.

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