Chapter Three

The Protestant Ascendancy gave an impression of stability and control to Irish government.  But the 18th century in Europe was also the Age of Revolution, and England watched with increasing anxiety as first the American colonies, and then more dramatically the French, overthrew traditional rule and instituted democratic governments. France in particular threatened English interests, because as a Catholic country France had long held ties to the Irish and supported Ireland in its resistance to France’s oldest enemy, England.  This unease led to some lessening of the restrictions on the Irish, but at the same time the air of revolution caused the Irish to form their own rebellious movements. Most prominent among these was the United Irishmen, formed in Belfast and Dublin in 1791.  This group combined elements of American and French republicanism with British commonwealth doctrine and Irish patriotic fervor.  It was composed of Presbyterian, Protestant, and Catholic elements, and initially aimed at a unified Ireland of all religious denominations.  Though initially the United Irishmen sought parliamentary and voting reform, they gradually shifted to advocating militant revolution.

Martello Tower

A Martello Tower, one of the many watch-towers the British built along the Irish coastline in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s to guard against a possible Napoleonic invasion.  This particular tower is in Sandymount, outside Dublin, and was the brief residence of James Joyce in 1903.

In 1798, under the leadership of the charismatic Wolfe Tone, they attempted an insurrection. Tone had garnered support in France, and he sailed to Ireland with an expeditionary force but was quickly captured and the uprising failed.  Tone was imprisoned and died mysteriously while in English custody–the official line was that he committed suicide, but the Irish always suspected the English of killing him, and Tone became another in a line of Irish martyrs who died fighting to free the nation from the foreign oppressor.  He certainly is the foundational figure for Irish Republicanism, the powerful impulse behind much of the conflict in Northern Ireland today.


A similar fate was bestowed on Robert Emmet five years later.  Emmet was another leader of the United Irishmen who worked in the aftermath of the 1798 debacle to foment a new revolt.  In 1803 he attempted to capture Dublin Castle, hoping that the Irish population would rise up in a spontaneous revolt, and also hoping that aid from France would come.  His attempt was quickly put down, and Emmet, along with 21 other leaders, were executed within a month of the attempt.  Emmet delivered a very famous “speech from the dock” at his trial, which reverberates throughout Irish history as another document in the annals of the Irish martyrs. 


Robert Emmet was the central figure in the uprising of 1803.  He was sentenced to death for treason, and on the eve of his execution he delivered this magnificent speech, ever after known as Emmet’s “speech from the dock”:


I am going to my cold and silent grave: my lamp of life is nearly exinguished: my race is run: the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom! I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world–it is the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them. let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

Monument in Dublin erected on the site of Emmet’s execution.

These defeats marked the end of the United Irishmen, and the end of significant Irish armed rebellion until the early 20th century. One of Lady Gregory’s finest plays, Kathleen ni-Houlihan of 1902, has the 1798 rebellion as its crucial historical background.  It is noteworthy that the allure of these revolts was kept alive during the early 20th century, as a new tradition of armed resistance to England came to the fore.   Yeats, who co-authored some of the speeches in the play, later asked, “did that play of mine / lead certain men to be killed?”