Popular Protest and the 1798 Rebellion

Popular protests, many emanating from agrarian grievances, had been a recurring feature of eighteenth-century Ulster. In the early 1760s and the early 1770s movements known, respectively, as the Hearts of Oak and Hearts of Steel, protested against such things as local taxes, rent increases and tithes due to the Church of Ireland. In some areas there was considerable animosity towards between the ministers of the Church of Ireland and the local Presbyterian population. In 1766 one Anglican minister in County Tyrone, described those involved in recent Hearts of Oak protests in his area as ‘the Spawn of Scottish Covenanters, avowed enemies to all Civil and Religious Establishments, and the most violent and furious persecutors of the Established clergy during the late troubles in the North of Ireland’.

Influenced by the American and French Revolutions, some began to consider more radical solutions to what they believed were Ireland’s problems. The Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791 and soon afterwards clubs were founded in Dublin and a number of other places. The Belfast United Irishmen were overwhelmingly Presbyterian and middle class. Following efforts to suppress it, the Society reorganised itself as a secret organisation and began to prepare for rebellion. Rebellion began in Leinster in late May 1798. On the night of 6-7 June it spread to Ulster, but lasted barely a week. There followed a series of executions; one of the last to be hanged was the most famous Ulster rebel of them all, Henry Joy McCracken, on 17 June.

Even before the rebellion had been fully suppressed, the government in London sent Lord Cornwallis to Ireland, delegating to him responsibility for forcing legislation through the Irish parliament to effect a union between Britain and Ireland. There was considerable opposition to this from the Irish elite, but eventually, after much lobbying, the act of union was passed in 1800, coming into effect on 1 January 1800. It was a defining moment in Irish history, though at the time one that meant little to the majority of Ulster’s people, still recovering from the effects of the rebellion.

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