The Calls for Irish Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Northern Star became the mouthpiece of Protestant Irish discontent, fanning the flames of nationalism in the years leading up to the Irish Rebellion.

Summary of Event

In October of 1791, two years after the outbreak of the French Revolution, a small group of Belfast radicals banded together to form the Society of United Irishmen, Society of United Irishmen a political club differing from its parent organization, the Northern Whig Club, Northern Whig Club chiefly in the strong emphasis it put on Roman Catholic participation and the importance of Catholic emancipation. Catholic emancipation Shortly afterward, twelve of the city’s businessmen joined forces to found a newspaper, the Northern Star, Northern Star (newspaper) to disseminate the principles of the United Irishmen. The first issue appeared on January 4, 1792. Thereafter, the paper appeared biweekly until its eventual suppression in 1797. It was distributed all over Ireland, achieving a maximum circulation in 1795 of five thousand copies per issue, the largest circulation of any paper in Ireland and comparable to the largest London papers. [kw]The Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence (Jan. 4, 1792-1797) [kw]Independence, The Northern Star Calls for Irish (Jan. 4, 1792-1797) [kw]Irish Independence, The Northern Star Calls for (Jan. 4, 1792-1797) [kw]Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence, The (Jan. 4, 1792-1797) Irish independence Irish Rebellion (1798) Protestantism;Ireland [g]Ireland;Jan. 4, 1792-1797: The Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence[3010] [c]Communications;Jan. 4, 1792-1797: The Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence[3010] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 4, 1792-1797: The Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence[3010] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 4, 1792-1797: The Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence[3010] Neilson, Samuel Porter, James Russell, Thomas Tone, Wolfe

Several circumstances combined to make Belfast, Belfast, Ireland the so-called Athens of the North, a fertile ground for radicalism. Both the business community and the working class were predominantly Presbyterian, and until 1793 Protestant Dissenters Dissenters (Protestants) did not enjoy the electoral franchise in Ireland. The large, literate middle class was deprived of participation in civic affairs, which were entirely under the control of the marquess of Donegal and the twelve burgesses he appointed. These burgesses also elected Belfast’s two representatives to Irish parliament.

The eighteenth century Irish nationalism expressed in the Northern Star had found its first coherent expression in the Volunteer movement Volunteer movement (Ireland) of the 1770’s and 1780’s. This movement, which at its height boasted 100,000 active members throughout Ireland, created a paramilitary force to protect Ireland from invasion by France or Spain after England removed most of Ireland’s standing militia force to the American colonies to fight in the Revolutionary War. Organized specifically to prevent invasion by foreign Catholic nations, the Volunteer movement was emphatically Protestant. It left a legacy of armed Protestant extremists in Northern Ireland, against whom the Catholic minority armed themselves. Something resembling a low-level internal civil war was the result. By seeking to enlist the support of the emerging Roman Catholic middle class and pinning their hopes on aid from the now secular government of revolutionary France, the United Irishmen hoped to create a new Irish identity. They were remarkably unsuccessful.

From the outset, the tone of the Northern Star was markedly Francophile, with translations from the French revolutionary press occupying large chunks of column space. With respect to local news, the paper was uneven, making no attempt to be comprehensive. For several months in 1793, the main topic of interest was a dispute between the ultraconservative marquess of Downshire and one of his tenants over violations of the game laws. After the emergence of the Reign of Terror, the execution of Louis XVI, and especially the outbreak of war between England and France in October of 1793, pro-French sympathies became increasingly marginalized in the British Empire, and people who espoused them were subjected to official sanctions. By 1796, the United Irishmen had evolved into a paramilitary organization whose avowed purpose was achieving complete Irish independence from England by force of arms, and their mouthpiece could justly be convicted of disseminating sedition.

The Northern Star’s first brush with the authorities arose from the publication, on December 15, 1792, of Wolfe Tone’s “Declaration and Resolutions of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast.” "Declaration and Resolutions of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast" (Tone)[Declaration and Resolutions of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast] This manifesto claimed that there existed no national government in Ireland and spoke of “a constitution falsely called free.” Although the complaints of parliamentary corruption and the untenability of continued discrimination against Catholics were valid and legal, the terms in which they were couched and the intemperance of the language led to the arrest and prosecution of the editor, Samuel Neilson, on charges of seditious libel. The charges were dropped after it was pointed out that the long-established and more moderate Belfast News-Letter had also published Tone’s declarations.

The Northern Star owed some of its popularity to publication of a series of satires by the Reverend James Porter, a Presbyterian clergyman of radical sympathies. “Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand” consisted of dialogues between an oafish informer and a paranoid magistrate who saw in every piece of public-house banter evidence of antigovernment conspiracies. The series, which made fun of various local personalities, was often performed in amateur theatricals. Because of his literary celebrity, Porter became a popular lecturer; not surprisingly, he was suspected of traveling for other than literary purposes and was closely watched.

Another frequent contributor of editorial commentary on Irish issues was Thomas Russell, who together with Neilson wrote most of the pieces on economic issues and social inequality. Russell also wrote extensively against the African slave trade and was chided by his fellow United Irishmen for failing to concentrate on Ireland. In Belfast, which was emerging as a center of cotton manufacture, slavery was more than an armchair issue.

On September 16, 1796, militia under the command of Downshire’s son raided the offices of the Northern Star, searching for materials implicating the United Irishmen in collaboration with France. They arrested Neilson and Russell for sedition and transported them to Dublin, where the journalists remained in Kilmainham jail, awaiting trial, until armed rebellion broke out in Ulster in June of 1798. Meanwhile, Porter assumed the role of acting editor of the Northern Star in Neilson’s absence, publishing the paper until May of 1797, when a contingent of the Monaghan Militia appeared, demanding that the paper print a loyal declaration. When Porter refused, the militia smashed the presses. This action is presumed to have been engineered by the central Irish government.

Porter was arrested for participating in a rebel attack on a mail coach during the Irish Rebellion. Though his proven actions consisted only of reading dispatches to the illiterate attackers, he was found guilty of treason by a military court-martial and executed during the brief period of savage repression following the hostilities. Neilson remained in prison until 1802, when, broken in health, he was permitted to emigrate to the United States. He died shortly after his arrival. Russell, released at the same time, returned to Ulster, where he was executed in 1803 for his role in the abortive rebellion led by Robert Emmett.


In retrospect, the long-term influence of the Northern Star was rather slight, despite its large circulation and contemporary popularity. In nearly every case in which progress was made on those social and economic fronts where the United Irishmen led the vanguard, the actual agents of reform were staunchly loyal Whigs or even Tories. The armed rebellion in Ulster in 1798 was a flash in the pan. By the time the uprising got under way, most of the United Irish leaders still committed to separation had either been imprisoned or fled the country. In their absence, the contest became a conflict between desperately poor, illiterate Catholic peasants and anyone connected with the Protestant establishment.

The resulting carnage firmly convinced moderates on both sides of the Irish Sea that Ireland was unfit for even the partial legislative independence it had won in 1782. The Irish parliament dissolved itself and merged with that of Britain in 1801. In the process, representation was substantially reformed but at the cost of relinquishing control over Irish affairs to the larger, imperial legislature. Catholic emancipation, begun in 1793, was not fully achieved until 1828, by which time stalled reform had fueled a resurgence of nationalism and separatism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Budge, Ian, and Cornelius O’Leary. Belfast—An Approach to Crisis: A Study of Belfast Politics, 1613-1970. London: Macmillan, 1973. Clear explanation of the Volunteer movement and the crucial role local Belfast politics played in the early stages of the United Irishmen movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, Denis. The Man from God Knows Where. Blackrock, Ireland: Columbia Press, 1995. A biography of Thomas Russell, good for accounts of his literary career and role in the Northern Star.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDowell, Robert Brendan. Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, 1760-1801. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979. A clear, well-balanced account of Irish politics in the latter part of the eighteenth century; places the Northern Star in its historical and cultural context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Late Eighteenth Century.” In Belfast: The Origin and Growth of an Industrial City, edited by J. C. Beckett and R. E. Glasscock. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1967. Contains a good chronological account of the publication history of the Northern Star, and of its relationship to the Belfast News-Letter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This multivolume set includes detailed biographies of Neilson, Porter, and Russell. It is an invaluable source for biographies of obscure British historical personages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quinn, James. “The United Irishmen and Social Reform.” Irish Historical Studies 31 (1998): 188-201. Cites the Northern Star on landlord-tenant issues, combinations, and the electoral franchise.

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