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The History of Ulster
The Ulster Volunteers


The Opening Years of the Reign of George III—Marked by the Establishment of Secret Societies—The Hearts of Oak Boys—The Hearts of Steel Boys — The Comments of Arthur Young on these Secret Societies—The War of American Independence—The Irish Volunteers—The Movement originates in Ulster—Ulster's Example followed by all Ireland—The Convention of Dungannon—Influence of the Volunteers—Free Trade obtained and a Free Parliament demanded.

The opening years of the long reign of George III were, in Ireland, marked by the establishment of secret societies for the redress of grievances which lay heavy on the people, and to which the Government displayed great indifference. The poorer classes, unable to endure any longer the grinding tyranny under which they were condemned to live, made spasmodic efforts by a war of outrages, conducted by secret oath-bound associations, to call attention to their unhappy condition, and to, in some measure, obtain relief. These organizations were in most cases defensive, but there were some propagandist or offensive bodies.

In the south this sad condition of things led to the establishment of the White Boys, so called on account of the members wearing, during their nocturnal visitations, night-shirts over their clothes. In Ulster the organizations were formed among the weaving or manufacturing small farmers, though they included many working men who possessed no land, and some small farmers not in any way connected with the linen trade.

The Presbyterians, as we have seen, suffered several religious disabilities, and, like the Roman Catholics, paid excessive rents and oppressive tithes, though not to the same extent. The scarcity of money, not only as capital, but also as coin in circulation; the heavy taxation, caused by the war, and the consequent interruption of trade, and especially the high price of bread, produced dire misery, nearly always verging on, and sometimes terminating in famine. Such a state of things is bound to produce lawlessness and crime, and only requires some act of gross injustice to bear fruit.

The injustice which led to the formation in 1761 of the Oak Boys was duty work on roads. Every householder was required to give six days' labour in making or repairing the public roads, and if he possessed a horse he had to give six days' labour of his horse. The complaint was that this duty work was only levied on the poor, and that they were compelled to work on private job roads and even upon what were the avenues and farm roads of the gentry.

The title of Oak Boys, or Hearts of Oak Boys, was derived from the members in their raids wearing oak twigs in their head-gear. The organization spread rapidly over the greater part of Ulster. Although the grievances were common to Protestant and Catholic workmen, and there was nothing religious in the objects or constitution of the Oak Boys, the society was an exclusively Protestant body, owing to the total absence at that period of any association between Protestants and Catholics.

The Steel Boys, or Hearts of Steel Boys, followed the Oak Boys. They also were exclusively Protestant. The origin of this organization was the enormous fines for renewals of leases levied by an extravagant landlord, who thereby introduced into his part of Ulster an unjust and bad custom. The greater part of his tenantry, being unable to pay the fines, were evicted. This inhuman oppression called the Steel Boys into existence.

The Oak Boys and Steel Boys gradually developed into general reformers; they resisted the payment of tithes and exhibited a certain amount of republican spirit. Both societies had good reasons for combination, and they were free from religious intolerance and hatred. They committed many outrages, however, especially the Steel Boys. Arthur Young, referring to members of these societies, says: "Acts were passed for their punishment, which seemed calculated for the meridian of Barbary. This arose to such a height, that by one Act they were to be hanged under circumstances without the common formalities of a trial, which though repealed by the following session, marks the spirit of punishment; while others remain yet the law of the land, that would, if executed, tend more to raise than quell an insurrection. From all which it is manifest that the gentlemen of Ireland never thought of a radical cure, from overlooking the real cause of disease, which, in fact, lay in themselves, and not in the wretches they doomed to the gallows. Let them", he continues, "change their own conduct entirely, and the poor will not long riot. Treat them like men who ought to be as free as yourselves: put an end to that system of religious persecution which for seventy years has divided the kingdom against itself; in these two circumstances lies the cure of insurrection, perform them completely and you will have an affectionate poor, instead of oppressed and discontented vassals."

The Oak Boys and Steel Boys did not last long, and when put down did not revive, because the general exodus to America carried off all those who were most energetic and intolerant of oppression, and at the same time relieved the labour market to some extent; but chiefly because the grievances which led to their formation were redressed. Some of them who were taken and tried at Carrickfergus escaped through the unwillingness of the jury to bring in a verdict against them.

The dispute and subsequent war with the American colonies was especially prejudicial to Ulster. The exportation of Irish linen to America had been very considerable, and now that source of national wealth was completely closed by an embargo which was laid upon the exportation of provisions from Ireland to the rebellious colonies. The effect was disastrous. Wool and black cattle, as well as land, fell suddenly in value, and in many places the rents could hardly be collected. As the American fisheries were now cut off, it became necessary to supply their place, and on the nth of October, 1775, the matter was brought before the English House of Commons, with the result that it was resolved to encourage the Newfoundland fishery, and it was also resolved that it would be lawful to export from Ireland clothes and accoutrements for such regiments on the Irish establishment as were employed abroad ; and that a bounty of five shillings a barrel should be allowed on all flax-seed imported into Ireland, as a remedy against the evils apprehended from the cutting off of the supply from America.

England being at this time (1779) involved in war with America, France, and Spain, and Ireland being threatened with invasion, it was deemed prudent, as regular troops had been withdrawn for service elsewhere, and public funds were unavailable for the payment of the militia, to entrust the defence of Ireland to Volunteer forces. The movement originated in Belfast, and the example of Ulster spread rapidly throughout the country. Large military associations were formed, and all classes took up arms to resist foreign invasion. The spirit of Volunteering absorbed the energies of both classes and masses, and, popular sentiment running in this direction, the country became very tranquil, and with universal drill, observance of the law became also universal.

The Government, satisfied with the bona fides of the phenomenally large number of Volunteers, supplied them with arms; but they made at the same time an effort to bring the new force, thus formed, under the immediate control of the Crown, in which attempt they were unsuccessful. The movement, having become popular, could not be restrained, and in the end the State sanctioned what it could not suppress. In 1780 the Volunteer force in Ireland was computed to be nearly 40,000 strong, and composed of well-appointed and perfectly disciplined men.

Being thus acknowledged by the Government, the Volunteers soon began to show that their object was by no means confined to the defence of the kingdom against the attacks of foreign enemies, for they proceeded to canvass the political questions of the day, and declared their intention to unite in demanding and protecting the national rights. The movement became general, without distinction of creed, and when Parliament met on the 12th of October, 1779, and the address was carried by the Speaker to the Lord-Lieutenant, the streets of the capital were lined by the Dublin Volunteers, under the command of the Duke of Leinster. Later the thanks of the House of Lords to the Volunteers throughout the country was carried with but one dissentient voice. Riots ensued in Dublin, the populace being pacified only by the personal influence of members of the lawyers' corps of the Volunteers.

Alarmed at the conduct of the Irish Volunteers, and at the spirit shown in the Irish Parliament, Lord North, as Premier, laid before the English House of Commons his three propositions for the relief of Irish commerce, which consisted in allowing Ireland free export of her wool and woollen manufactures, as well as of glass and all kinds of glass manufactures, and free trade with the British plantations, on certain conditions, of which the basis was an equality of taxes and customs.

These propositions had, however, little effect in calming the agitation in Ireland. The Volunteers, having obtained free trade, now sank all other objects in asserting the constitutional rights of Ireland, and resolved to obtain a free Parliament. Constant correspondence was carried on between the various armed associations in order to ensure uniformity of action, and they made no secret of their intention to retain their arms until they had succeeded in obtaining the independence of Ireland. Early in 1780 they entered upon a "plan of campaign", arranging reviews for the summer and choosing their officers. In addition they now commenced to publicly announce their decisions, and state their opinions on public affairs. These were printed in the newspapers, and were markedly unanimous in declaring the general opinion that Ireland was an independent kingdom, and that no power but the King, and the Lords and Commons of Ireland could make laws to bind the Irish people, who were ready to risk their lives in resisting the encroachments of any external legislature.

The session of 1780 closed on the 2nd of September, and the Earl of Buckinghamshire, having displeased the ministry by the weakness of his administration, was recalled, the Earl of Carlisle being sent to replace him. The new Viceroy found the people greatly agitated by the great question of legislative independence. During the summer of 1781 reviews of the Volunteers were held in various parts of the country, and caused much excitement. The organization of the Volunteer movement made phenomenal progress, and when Lord Carlisle met the Irish Parliament on the 9th of October it was evident, from the conciliatory tone of his address, that he dare not risk a stronger policy than that of his predecessor. The Lord-Lieutenant omitted all reference to the Volunteers, whom the Government wished to discourage and eventually disarm. A vote of thanks to the Volunteers was, nevertheless, passed unanimously, "for their exertions and continuance, and for their loyal and spirited declarations on the late expected invasion". The resolution was proposed by Mr. John O'Neill of Shane's Castle; it was opposed by Mr. Fitzgibbon, afterwards Lord Clare; but, the Government having been obliged to acquiesce, it was carried without a division. It may therefore be regarded as a triumph for Ulster.

The Government, strong and secure in their majority, cared not to make concessions to popular demands. Such concessions as they had been forced to make were granted grudgingly, and frequently too late to please the people who had clamoured for them. Such a condition of things could not long continue. The first movement toward amelioration was made by the officers of the southern battalion of the first Ulster regiment of Volunteers, commanded by Lord Charle-mont, who met at Armagh on the 28th of December, 1781, to consult on the state of public affairs, and who, having declared that they beheld with consternation the little attention paid by the majority of their representatives in Parliament to the constitutional rights of Ireland, invited all Volunteer Associations throughout the province to send delegates to a meeting to be held in Dungannon on Friday, the 15th of February, 1782, to deliberate on the alarming aspect of public affairs.

The proceedings of the Ulster Volunteers had been marked by moderation and firmness as well as by their numerical strength. In the Volunteers themselves were admirably combined the characteristics of the citizen and the soldier. They were steady and peaceable, strong and self-reliant, and full of the dignity which springs from a consciousness of difficult duties well performed. They seemed each and all moved by the sentiment which inspires the sentinel to whom "that hour is regal when he mounts on guard".

The invitation of the Ulster regiment won a ready response from 143 Volunteer corps of the province, and the Government, though provoked, looked on powerless to prevent the meeting or to disperse the assembly. The delegates met at Dungannon on the appointed day. Most of them were large landed proprietors and of recognized patriotic proclivities; they felt the gravity of the proceedings in which they were taking part, proceedings which might involve unlooked-for consequences to the country. The meeting took place in the church, the chairman being Colonel William Irvine, and among the more distinguished men present was the Earl of Charlemont. Twenty-one resolutions were adopted, which were in substance as follows:—

"That whereas it has been asserted, that Volunteers, as such, could not with propriety debate, or publish their opinions on political subjects, or on the conduct of Parliament or public men: Resolved, that a citizen by learning the use of arms does not abandon any of his civil rights; Resolved, that the claim of any body of men other than the King, Lords and Commons of Ireland, to make laws to bind this kingdom, is unconstitutional, illegal, and a grievance; that the powers exercised by the Privy Councils of both kingdoms, under colour or pretence of the law of Poynings, are unconstitutional and a grievance; that the Ports of Ireland are by right open to all foreign countries not at war with the King; that a Mutiny Bill, not limited in point of duration from session to session, is unconstitutional; that the independence of the judges is equally essential to the impartial administration of justice in Ireland as in England." The Volunteers also stated that it was their "decided and unalterable determination to seek a redress of these grievances", and as they declared they held "the right of private judgment in matters of religion to be equally sacred in others as" themselves, they rejoiced "in the relaxation of the penal laws against our Roman Catholic fellow-subjects"; and conceived "the measure to be fraught with the happiest consequences to the union and prosperity of the inhabitants of Ireland".

Such was the famous convention of Dungannon. Its resolutions were adopted by all the Volunteer corps of Ireland, and served as the bases of Parliamentary proceedings in both countries. No sooner had the proceedings been made public than a new spirit seemed to animate the popular party. The Volunteers in other parts of the country held meetings, committees were formed, and a bond of frequent correspondence established, while a central national committee regulated the movements of this new force in politics.


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