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Thursday, August 24, 2017
Date Posted:

Days of Deliverance Part 12: The 1798 Rebellion: Irish Protestantism again under threat

Dr Clive Gillis

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chr. 7:14

The breakdown of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century left Bible believing Christians exposed, once more, to great danger.

Protestantism held sway in Ireland from the Williamite victory right to the end of the 18th century, when the 1798 Rebellion broke out.  And worse was to come.  In the period from roughly 1780 to 1845 the Roman Catholic church moved from being a technically illegal organisation to an accepted part of the structure of power.

Not a sectarian struggle

The recent bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion stimulated new research.  One collection of essays covered 750 pages with over thirty experts contributing.  A theme running through all this scholarship was that this was not simply a “sectarian” struggle. However, even if the forces interacting in 1798 were complex, it was nevertheless a Day of Deliverance for the Protestants.

One contributor commented: “Although the Protestant community is renowned for its fetishization of the past, there have been … no heroic scenes from ‘98 painted on the garble walls of east Belfast’s housing estates”.   This is partly because the events immediately after the rebellion were conveniently covered up during this period of advance of the Roman Church in Irish life.  Our brief sketch must necessarily involve oversimplification, but readers unfamiliar with Irish history need to know some background in order to understand Rome’s part in 1798.


The eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment and saw a general waning in faith, followed by the revivals of Whitefield and Wesley.  John Wesley’s journal is a useful source of information about events leading up to 1798 because Methodism grew rapidly in Ireland, as in England, at that time. The Quakers, suited to rural society, also flourished.  The Presbyterian Church, strongest in the North East of Ireland, made huge strides.  Up till then, the Williamite Protestant spirit had been shared by Presbyterians and the Established Church of Ireland, as Protestant brethren who had stood united against the armies of James II.  But this was replaced by sympathy in the course of a few decades.

Anti-popery laws

The anti-popery laws of 1690 were augmented by an Act of 1704 “to prevent the further growth of popery”.  This Act included a sacramental test to be taken by holders of all Crown positions prior to assuming the post.  The candidate had to take Communion in the manner of the Church of Ireland.  This naturally united the Dissenters against the Church of Ireland.  Furthermore it threw the Dissenters into unhealthy alliance with the Romanists.  Research has shown that, happily, “A notion of the Protestant interest … meant that the exclusions promised by the Test were not always realised.”  For instance a Papist was removed from a gunners position in Derry in 1739 when danger threatened and replaced by “an honest Presbyterian Protestant”, although both were theoretically barred.  However as the century wore on and the threat of Popery appeared to diminish, personal interests delayed repeal of the Test.

As ideas of revolution flourished towards the end of the 18th century, so did Irish resentment against Britain.  The feeling arose that Ireland was being treated as if it were a British colony like America.  When John Paul Jones appeared off Carrickfergus in 1778 and eventually boarded and seized HMS Drake, Irishmen were both alerted to their potential peril from invaders and intrigued by the possibility of revolting against British rule.

French revolution

But it was the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century that really made the Irish people embrace enlightenment fervour.  Tom Paine’s Rights of Man fired a resolve to overthrow British rule.  Naturally Britain, facing French hostility, could not allow such a thing, but nor could she offer Ireland a great deal of protection.  “In the autumn of 1778 the Mayor of Belfast was sufficiently alarmed … by French privateers … on the coast to apply to Dublin Castle (the location of the Irish parliament) for military assistance”.  The reply was reputed to be, “The Chief secretary could afford Belfast no other assistance than half a troop of dismounted horse and half a company of invalids”!

Belfast felt “abandoned by the Government in the hour of danger” and men flocked to fight voluntarily for Ireland.  The Volunteers saw that “arms were purchased, uniforms were provided, officers were chosen, parades were appointed and every diligence exerted towards the necessary acquirement of military skill”.  It was this sense of abandonment by Britain which AT Stewart makes the starting point for his book, A Deeper Silence, which examines the origins of the Volunteer movement which in turn is the key to understanding 1798.  The Volunteers became particularly associated with the Presbyterian Church in the north and the organisation soon spread across most of Ireland.

The Volunteer movement

James Seaton Reid in his three volume History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland states that the mass enrolment of the Presbyterians in the Volunteer movement became the “grand secret of their political influence”.   Stewart says, “Presbyterian supplied the rank and file of the whole organisation in the North, and their ministers conducted drum head services in full regimentals … and they frequently elected the more well to do members of their community as officers in preference to the Episcopalian (Church of Ireland) gentry”.  To compress tomes of history into one sentence, we can say that Volunteer movement allowed Patriots to become Republicans.  The United Ireland movement grew from with Protestantism and only later included Romanists.

The New Lights

Stewart uses the papers of the Presbyterian Drennan family to show how the enlightenment and ideas of revolution took over some of the old Presbyterian families.  The children of solid Williamite Gospel minister were training in Glasgow and bringing back the New Light of their heretical teachers, and mixing Gospel with philosophy and politics.  Nonsubscription to the Westminster Confession of faith split Presbyterian ranks as the Lord’s people strove to maintain purity.  The New Light youngsters relished the novelty of political clout.  Eventually Presbyterians even united with Romanists of similar outlook.  And all the while the Volunteers cast envious glances at America’s newly won independence from Britain.

Society of United Irishmen

Some Volunteers eventually formed the even more militant Society of United Irishmen on 14th October 1791.  The Society was immediately dominated by an apportunist, Wolfe Tone, who was a barrister and a nominal member of the Church of Ireland.  Tone made his reputation by writing An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.  He used his peaceful stance, during an outbreak of strife between Protestants and Romanists in 1791, to promote himself.  The Argument is actually quite offensive to the Pope and the priesthood.  Tone was only interested in harnessing Roman Catholics to the United Ireland cause.

When Britain declared war on France in 1793, the United Irishmen hoped to replicate the French Revolution in Ireland.  Tone tried to help the French to invade Ireland in 1796 and again in 1798.  Both attempts failed.  Tone cut his throat in prison to avoid being hung.  As one writer observes, “It is a strange irony that has made Tone, ‘the priest despiser’ revered almost as a saint in thousands of Irish Catholic homes”.

And what of Rome?  The Protestants were active in all spheres and shaped the century.  But they remained a minority.  In 1732 the Irish population was 3 million of which 2.3 million, or 76%, were Romanists.  The population had risen to 5 million by the time of the 1798 Rebellion and then 80% were Romanists and the number of priests had risen from 1,445 to 1,614 despite the penal laws.  Hopes of a return of the Stuart dynasty were kept alive both by the rumour that the Jacobites in Scotland were rearming (it was at this time that the papist gunner was removed) and also by a powerful brew of Gaelic and Catholic Romanticism.

Jacobite songs

Breandan O Buachalla, Professor Emeritus in Irish at Dublin reveals: “The seamless grafting of Stuart claims on to an older ideological stock … in the aisling or allegorical verse,” made, “Jacobite song a primary vehicle of nationalistic rhetoric and poetry in the Irish language”.  He shows a continuity of this verse from the 1641 rising onwards.

“The Jacobite analysis of Irish society was presented in vivid forceful and simplistic terms: the native Irish were in chains ground down in abject poverty and misery, persecuted by a band of foreigners and heretics; they – the descendants of Cromwell, the followers of Luther and Calvin – were a base crew,” and, “their days were numbered”.  One poet, Michael Og O Longain, “scribe of more than 150 manuscripts, composer of more than 350 poems … was an itinerant teacher”.  Hence illiterate folk were reached throughout Ireland.

A few portions of this poetry suggest its impact.

‘This English crew who are in control of Ireland and who bound our poor clergy in slavery; they henceforth will be in bondage serving the Irish.’

‘The treacherous boors will be extinguished and vanquished; the evil progeny of Luther who never yielded to Christ will be expelled over the sea without beer, food or wine; their condition delights me’

‘I am the wife and nurse of Charles (apparently a term for the Jacobite king who will come and drive ‘ye Protestants – Luther’s followers and Calvin’s progeny – to Acheron’s fiery grove’) who is now coming with the news that it will not be long until the captivity of the Irish will be undoubtedly severed.’

Nearer to 1798 the popular yearning arose for France to do the severing.  Sean O Mulain looks for the destruction of the progeny of proud Calvin once the French arrive and he describes the French fleet coming.

‘The fleet is coming from Brest abundantly, armed … proclaiming that liberations nigh for the nobles of Ireland’.

Catholic emancipation

In 1791 the radical celebrated Bastille day in Belfast with no less fervour than the French.  The call for Roman Catholic emancipation was overwhelming.  A public meeting to draw up a motion to send to Parliament in Dublin in January 1792 was so crowded it was transferred from the Townhouse to the third Presbyterian Church and the minister Sinclair Kilburn presided.  A prudent motion for a cautious and measured emancipation of Romanists “from time to time, and as speedily as the circumstances of the country, and the general welfare of the Kingdom will admit,” was angrily stripped of all its cautionary check and balances by the United Irishmen.  Those that had inserted them were made to feel ashamed of their diffidence.

Rome now had a new opportunity.  The Catholic Committee in Dublin replaced its old guard with Roman Catholic “young Dublin merchants … who were ready to adopt a more secular and aggressive approach … Tone was recruited as a paid agent of the Committee and a significant number of the Catholic Committee became members of the Dublin Society of United Irishman, Francis Drennan, had a twinge of unease, commenting, “The truth was, and is, the Catholics wish to have two strings to their bow – a part to treat with the Government, a part to ally with us – and if one string cracks – why try the other”. (ITALICS in original)

Two types of Presbyterianism

Stewart comments with penetrating insight, “From this point onward we can trace two streams of Presbyterian opinion, both originating in Volunteer radicalism.  One leads through the Society of United Irishmen to the Dissenter’s part in the Insurrection of 1798, to political defeat and the chastened liberalism of the nineteenth century; the other through a gradual rapprochement with the government to support of the Union, and even of the Orange order with which the Presbyterians had, at first, very little to do.”

The second of these courses was the appropriate one for Bible Believing Christians because it recognised a continued resistance to and abhorrence of popery and the Lord blessed it.  The sudden raising up of the Orange order in 1795, to re-establish the age-old bulwarks, protected Gospel truth during and after 1798.  This was truly a Day of Deliverance as we shall see it in the next issue DV.

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