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The History of Ulster
The Rebellion of 1798


Sir Ralph Abercrombie appointed Commander-in-Chief in Ireland—His Comments on the Methods of the Military—"Cossacks and Calmucks"— Lamentable Lack of Law and Order—A French Traveller's Account of his Experiences in Ulster in 1797—He finds Belfast in a State of Perfect Peace— Abercrombie resigns—General Lake fills his Place—A Ferocious General—The Bishop of Down's Account of the State of the Country—The United Irishmen become disunited—Presbyterians separate from "Papists"—Ulster's Strange Indifference to the Progress of the Rebellion.

In December, 1797, Sir Ralph Abercrombie, a skilled general, and noted for his upright conduct, was appointed to the command of the army in Ireland, but the disorderly and outrageous conduct of the troops, accustomed to a licence almost incredible, filled him with horror and disgust. In a general order which he issued on the 26th of February, 1798, Abercrombie censured the irregularities and disgraceful conduct of the military, which, he said, proved "the army to be in a state of licentiousness, which rendered it formidable to everyone but the enemy". He had had experience of the Irish. They made "excellent soldiers when they were well commanded". Critical service he had frequently entrusted to Irish regiments. "The people", he, said, "were what the Government chose to make them." But of the purity and wisdom of that Government he had no favourable opinion. The gentry were uneducated, "only occupied in eating and drinking and uttering their unmanly fears. They know that they have been oppressors of the poor, and that a day of vengeance is at hand." They had a great force of yeomanry, but applied to Dublin Castle for troops, and these were scattered about to harass the peaceful inhabitants. He tried to stir them up to manhood and self-reliance, and to reorganize the army. This, as his son remarks, "led to a singular struggle, in which the military commanders wished to restrain the licence of the troops, to protect the people, and to place the army in subjection to the constitution and control of the civil power; while the Government and the magistrates encouraged and promoted the licentiousness of the troops, disregarded the authority of the law, and licensed the oppression of the people". Having thoroughly investigated matters, Abercrombie came to the conclusion that "within these twelve months every crime, every cruelty that could be committed by Cossacks or Calmucks, has been committed here". Commanding the officers to watch over discipline and good conduct, the Commander-in-Chief emphatically directed them to "attend to the standing orders of the Kingdom, which positively forbade troops to act (except in case of attack) without the presence and authority of the civil magistrate".

This search-light on their methods by no means pleased the Government. The Duke of Portland angrily asked, in a letter to Lord Camden dated the nth of March, how came such an order to be allowed which gave a triumph to Moira's friends "over the Chancellor and the heads of your Government?" Lord Moira, speaking in the English House of Lords of what he had himself seen, had declared: "My lords, I have seen in Ireland the most absurd as well as the most disgusting tyranny that any nation ever groaned under".

The state of the country was indeed terrible. When the courts sat, their action was sanguinary. "In one circuit there were one hundred individuals tried before one judge: of these, ninety-eight were capitally convicted, and ninety-seven hanged. One escaped; but he was a soldier who had murdered a peasant." Camden, after a vain effort to resign, proclaimed the country to be in "open rebellion", and in March ordered the Commander-in-Chief to employ his troops "in the disturbed districts", and in districts in danger of becoming disturbed, and to "crush the rebellion by the most summary military measures". Abercrombie, with plenary powers, proceeded to the regions indicated and found nothing save tranquillity, and the people "very civil and submissive". Travelling without an escort, and accompanied by only one servant, he found the people quietly occupied in industrial pursuits, and, commenting on the state of the districts through which he passed, he wrote: "The late ridiculous farce acted by Lord Camden and his Cabinet must strike everyone. They have declared the country in rebellion when the orders of his Excellency might be carried over the whole of the country by an orderly dragoon, or a writ executed without any difficulty, a few places in the mountains excepted."

Abercrombie's experience coincided exactly with that of another dispassionate visitor to Ireland in 1797. De Latoc-naye, a French royalist, who regarded rebellion and republicanism with aversion, made a complete tour, chiefly on foot, of the country from May to December. During that period, such was the hospitality of all classes, he was only six times at an inn. He, also, found the greatest tranquillity prevail. In Ulster he saw a number of men soberly and good humouredly digging the potatoes of a popular landowner, whilst women and children sang and helped. Unless informed, he could not have divined the "sedition". It was unjust to accuse the mass of the people with the guilt of a few murders. "I have heard so much said of the disturbances, assassinations, and conspiracies of which Belfast was the alleged focus", he wrote, "that it was not without repugnance I went thither. I was agreeably surprised to find the town in the utmost quiet (dans le plus grand calme)."

Abercrombie, disgusted, resigned, and on the 25th of April the command was assigned to Lake, whose ferocity in Ulster had recommended him to the Government. A system of coercion and terror was now established, and the tranquil country was rapidly converted into a scene of tyranny, torture, and outrage, with homesteads on fire, provisions destroyed, families ruined, and all the atrocities which licentious ruffianly soldiers living at "free quarters" could inflict upon human victims. Death, by strangulation or the bullet, was common; but it was a merciful fate compared with the fearful floggings which tore off skin and muscles.

Lord Holland gives a vivid picture of the state of Ireland at this precise moment. In his Memoirs of the Whig Party, he says: "The fact is incontrovertible, that the people of Ireland were driven to resistance, which, possibly, they meditated before, by the free quarters and excesses of the soldiery, which were such as are not permitted in civilized warfare, even in an enemy's country. Trials, if they must so be called, were carried on without number under martial law. It often happened that three officers composed the court, and that of the three, two were under age, and the third an officer of the yeomanry or militia, who had sworn in his Orange Lodge eternal hatred to the people over whom he was thus constituted a judge. Floggings, picketings, death were the usual sentences, and these were sometimes commuted into banishment, serving in the fleet, or transference to a foreign service. Many were sold at so much per head to the Prussians. Other more illegal, but not more horrible, outrages were daily committed by the different corps under the command of the Government. . . . Dr. Dickson (Lord Bishop of Down) assured me that he had seen families returning peaceably from Mass, assailed without provocation, by drunken troops and yeomanry, and the wives and daughters exposed to every species of indignity, brutality, and outrage, from which neither his remonstrances nor those of other Protestant gentlemen could rescue them." It was the contemplation of such a state of things that led Sir John Moore to remark to Grattan: "If I were an Irishman, I should be a rebel".

Goaded by "the hardest tyrannies" the United Irishmen, or The Union as it came to be called, determined upon action; but, as often happens, men who are friends in theory frequently disagree in practical matters. Some members of the Union did not consider the hour favourable to a decisive blow, others did, and dissensions arose. From one cause or another the Union rather abated than increased. One unequivocal symptom of its decline was the renewal of dissension between the Dissenters and the Catholics in the north. Sir Richard Musgrave tells us that most of the Presbyterians separated from the Papists in the year 1797; some from "principle, some because they doubted the sincerity of persons in that order; and others, foreseeing that the plot must fail and end in their destruction, . . . renounced their associates. Numbers withdrew because they doubted of success without foreign assistance. The Presbyterians of the Counties of Down and Antrim, where they are very numerous, and where they are warmly attached to the Union from pure republican principles, thought they could succeed without the Papists."

Of this spirit of disunion Plowden says: "Certain it is that the Northern Unionists generally held back from this time; the Protestants of Ulster were originally Scotch, and still retain much of that guarded policy, which so peculiarly characterizes the inhabitants of Northern Britain. Some barbarous murders in different parts of the kingdom were committed; but they do not appear to have been perpetrated by members of the Union, or persons in any manner connected with them. From the report of the Secret Committee, it appears, that from the summer of 1797, the disaffected entertained no serious intention of hazarding an effort independent of foreign assistance, until the middle of March. Their policy was to risk nothing so long as their party was gaining strength. Whatever was the immediate cause of the Union's falling off, we find that from the autumn of 1797 the Roman Catholics, first in the North, and afterwards successively throughout the kingdom, published addresses and resolutions expressive of their horror of the principles of the United Irishmen, and pledging themselves to be loyal and zealous in the defence of the King and Constitution. The northern addresses admitted the fact, and lamented that many of the Catholic body had been seduced into the Union, and they deprecated the attempts which were made to create dissension amongst persons of different religions. This example was followed by the generality of the Dissenters."

On the 30th of March all Ireland was by proclamation placed under martial law. The proclamation stated that a traitorous conspiracy, existing within the kingdom for the destruction of the established Government, had been considerably extended, and had manifested itself in acts of open violence and rebellion; and that, "in consequence thereof, the most direct and positive orders had been issued to the officers commanding His Majesty's forces to employ them with the utmost vigour and decision for the immediate suppression of that conspiracy, and for the disarming of the rebels and all disaffected persons, by the most summary and effectual measures".

Such being the condition of the country, "measures were taken by government to cause the premature explosion" of the rebellion. Lord Castlereagh has been much condemned for this statement, but surely, if a rebellion is to explode, it is better that the explosion should be premature and abortive than that it should be allowed to gather strength and thus increase its powers of destruction. It is not our intention to follow the history of the rebellion of 1798, as the Province of Ulster was but little affected; for while the rest of Ireland was plunged in the gloom of religious strife and all its concomitant horrors, "with no light but the twilight of terror", Ulster, hitherto the nursing home of insurrection and rebellion, maintained an immobility strikingly strange when contrasted with the surprising celerity and suddenness of her movements in the past. The vast majority of her sons felt that in the long, fierce fight for freedom of thought and speech they had won the day and might well rest content. Having seen of the travail of their souls, they were satisfied. All attempts to make them take arms to alter the existing order of things were made in vain; they turned with equanimity to cultivate the arts of peace as, for long, they had cultivated the arts of war.

In all large communities individuals can be found who, on account of idleness, ignorance, self-aggrandizement, cupidity, or any of the multitudinous motives that sway mankind, are willing to take part in any movement, however retrograde, that promises to fulfil their desires, and it is, therefore, not surprising that a few such were discovered in Ulster, chiefly in Counties Antrim and Down; but they were by no means men of light or leading, for the list of representative members of the United Irishmen in the whole of Ulster consisted of "a silversmith for Armagh, a Presbyterian clergyman for Tyrone, a probationer Presbyterian clergyman for Donegal, a farmer for Louth, an Adjutant-General for Londonderry, and a farmer for Monaghan".

These men no doubt deemed they were "serving the Lord ", but they flagrantly disobeyed the remaining portion of St. Paul's injunction, for they were undoubtedly "slothful in business", of which the proof is that at "a meeting of Colonels", the proceedings at which lasted several hours, there was "no particular business" done. No doubt "Colonels" in Ireland at this time were as plentiful as cranberries—as common, indeed, as Mark Twain says Generals were in New York during the American Civil War, when one in throwing a stick at a dog, ran the risk of missing the canine quadruped and of hitting twenty Generals!

"A plan of insurrection was in contemplation by the National Executive; two members were deputed from the Ulster executive to form the said plan, in conjunction with certain deputies from the other provincial executive; the plan was for Dublin to rise and to seize on the Government, and the mail coaches were to be burned for a signal for the whole kingdom to act.

"These delegates returned and reported the same to the Ulster executive; the reporter complained that the Ulster executive had taken no measures to put the people in readiness to act; every application had been made to the executive to call the adjutant-generals together, but without effect; they were required also to summon the provincial delegates together to put the respective counties in a state ready to act, and that they did not obey; he thought they completely betrayed the people both of Leinster and Ulster, and he thought it the duty of the present committee to denounce and vote them out of office.

"The reporter then took a list of all the military through the Province, and their places of quarters, as nearly as he could ascertain; he then asked the different delegates if they thought they could disarm the military in their respective counties; Derry, Donegal, and Louth said they could; Down, Antrim, and Armagh, and the upper half of the county Tyrone thought they could not. He then asked them individually, if they thought the people they represented would act; they all said they would, except Down. Its delegate observed, that he could not exactly answer whether it would or not, but he would try and ascertain it by taking the sense of the adjutant-general and colonels."

It appears, however, to have been easier to "take the sense" of a Colonel than to goad him into action, for two days later another "meeting of Colonels " was held at Saintfield, at which, although they had at a previous gathering "generally determined to act", it was stated that "several messages had passed between the different Colonels as to this resolution"; and "an adjutant-general had resigned", and at a meeting of "twenty-three colonels" "only two resolved for action, and the other twenty-one declared they would not act on any plan but on the invasion of the French, or on the success of the efforts of the insurgents about Dublin".

Of course the Colonels referred to were Colonels in the army of the insurgents. Their courage in the field was never tested, for some of them turned to the more congenial occupation of informers, others became apprehensive and wavering, and separating from their fellow-conspirators, endeavoured to make the line of demarcation as distinct as possible, while others were soon arrested and thrown into jail, and the country was carefully watched by the forces under General Nugent.


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