Irish Rebellion of 1798: Effect on Irish Immigration

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The Irish Rebellion of 1798: How Did the Rebellion Effect Irish Immigration?

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 began as an uprising initiated by the Society of United Irishmen, ultimately leading to Great Britain tightening its reigns around Ireland. Though the Irish Rebellion was led by some of Ireland’s greatest political figures of the 18th century, the rebels were unable to make any gains outside of County Wexford. The aftermath of the Rebellion, as well as the Union Act of 1800, eventually caused an influx of emigration to the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The Society of United Irishmen, an Irish political organization formed by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading Irish revolutionary figure and nicknamed the father of Irish republicanism, joined forces with James Napper Tandy of the Whig Party, and Thomas Russell. On the 11th of February, 1791, a resolution was passed to apply to Parliament to seek national sovereignty and form a society for the united Irish. Wolfe Tone proposed several resolutions for the new society over the course of six months: denounce the continuing interference of the British establishment in Irish affairs; full reform of the Irish parliament; a union of all religious faiths in Ireland and give Catholics political rights. The society was founded in October 1791 – the movement spread rapidly across the country.

 “The weight of English influence in the government of this country is so great, as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce; The sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed, is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament; No reform is just which does not include every Irishman of every religious persuasion.” [1]

The United States witnessed an increase of Irish immigration in the 18th century as the British Government continued to oppress Catholics in Ireland. These laws also prohibited Irish Catholics from emigrating, meaning that most emigrants were of Scots-Irish heritage, or identifying as Protestant. However, some Irish Catholics could make the journey if they agreed to work as indentured servants without pay for up to five to seven years for free passage. Statistics relating to Irish immigration to America estimate that approximately half a million people had originated in Ireland. Of these, over two-thirds are said to have been Scots-Irish from the province of Ulster. [2]

            However, many of the Penal Laws, first introduced in the late 17th century, were later redacted in the 1790’s, making Irish emigration a possibility for thousands of Catholics. Seeking Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, the Irish sought a new life in America to escape the harsh reality of British political oppression.

The Hardships

            During the late 18th century, Ireland was ruled by the Church of Ireland, or Anglican landowners and aristocrats. Most of the population was not Anglican, and even if they could accumulate wealth and land, they were excluded from political power. Ulster was dominated by Presbyterians who had displaced earlier Catholic settlers of that region. Outside of Ulster and Dublin, the population was overwhelmingly Catholic. However, the complex religious division between class and geographic lines created by the British Government lead to the idea of dividing and ruling. This system of religious discrimination contained Penal Laws – a series of laws forcing Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept the denomination defined by the British. [3]

            The Irish witnessed severe disciplinary action if they participated in Catholic worship, including imprisonment, fines, and sometimes death. These laws barred Catholics from owning land, voting, holding public office, practicing religion, and education and were sporadically enforced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. However, by 1832, the laws were completely nullified through the 1926 Roman Catholic Relief Act, the Relief Act of 1791, Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, and the Roman Catholic Charities Act of 1832. [4]

            Between the 17th and 18th centuries, Ireland had been part of wars and battles heightened by religious division and discrimination. Both the Catholics and Protestants, on opposing sides, claimed religious motives which led to many sectarian massacres, causing the creation of sectarian politics which has dominated parts of Ireland ever since. The history of religious wars and inequalities led to sectarianism in the general population, though Armagh was an exception as the population was evenly divided between the Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. The Penal Laws continued to cause tension throughout Ireland, leading to volunteer companies recruiting and arming Irish Catholics to help with the cause. In the mid-to-late 1780’s, Protestant and Loyalist forces began raiding Catholic homes – unarming, stealing, and on many occasions, killing them. Dunmurry, Co. Antrim witnessed a bloody raid which took place at “The Diamond.” Soon thereafter, the principal Unionist organization of Northern Ireland, the Orange Order, was formed. [5]

            The Irish upper class, including landlords and aristocrats, and the British government collaborated in the promotion of sectarianism across Ireland. The Irish Catholics had no rights and were alienated by the upper class – over 6,000 absentee landlords living outside of Ireland owned over seven million acres of Irish land, making it increasingly difficult for Catholics to survive. Since they were unable to own land, many experienced famines throughout the 18th century, the first of which in 1740 killed 400,000 Irish Catholics. [6]

A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottier dares to refuse to execute… Disrespect, or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security. A poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift a hand in his own defence. Landlords of consequence have assured me that many of their cottiers would think themselves honoured by having their wives and daughters sent to the bed of their master – a mark of slavery which proves the oppression under which such people must live.[7]

Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, released in May of 1791, saw over 20,000 copies printed and sold for digest in Ireland alone. The enthusiasm for the French Revolution by the Irish people sparked interest in the book, shedding light on British Parliament. A few months following the start of the French Revolution, the Belfast Volunteer company celebrated the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. At this celebration, a new society was announced. Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Irish-Protestant revolutionary figure had been asked to remark on the resolutions for the society – The Society of United Irishmen. [8]

            The foundation of the societies in both Belfast and Dublin occurred in October and November of 1791. The organization initially demanded democratic reforms, including Catholic emancipation, and continued to fight for the rights of all Irish men and women. In response to pressure placed on the British government, some reforms were granted. However, this period of reform ceased in 1793 once war with France broke out in the French Revolution. The Society of United Irishmen’s path to revolutionary separatism was completed when Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the society, met at Cave Hill in 1795, taking an oath and ultimately launching the Rebellion of 1798. The two revolutionists hoped that with the French supporting their movement, they would be able to dismantle the connection with Britain so that Ireland could witness democratic reform. [9]

In the present era of reform, when unjust governments are falling in every quarter of Europe, when religious persecution is compelled to abjure her tyranny over conscience, when the rights of men are ascertained in theory, and theory substantiated by practice, when antiquity can no longer defend absurd and oppressive forms, against the common sense and common interests of mankind, when all governments are acknowledged to originate from the people, and to be so far only obligatory, as they protect their rights and promote their welfare, we think it our duty, as Irishmen, to come forward… We have no national government, we are ruled by Englishmen, and the servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption, and whose strength is the weakness of Ireland; and these men have the whole of the power and patronage of the country, as means to seduce and subdue the honesty of her representatives in the legislature. – The Constitution of United Irishmen, 1797 [10]

The Start of a Rebellion

            While most of the United Irishmen began as reformists searching for equal rights, this society was particularly different from earlier movements. Rather than lobbying for reform, they aimed for the mobilization of the Irish. These men did not focus just on Catholic emancipation alone – they also hoped to see a future where all Irish people, both Protestant and Catholic, would be equal.  

In December 1796, 15,000 French troops arrived off the Bantry Bay coast in County Cork making it the closest the United Irishmen would come to victory. However, the poor weather ultimately saved Great Britain from defeat. Because of this failed skirmish attempt, loyalists flocked to join the British Army. The rebellion initially began in Kildare, Carlow, Wicklow, and Meath, which had been primarily suppressed by government forces.  The leaders of the United Irishmen Society felt forced to call on an uprising and set the date for the 23 of May, 1798. This sparked major risings in County Wexford, as well as counties Antrim and Down. These counties saw battles with tens of thousands of soldiers and freedom fighters, while some areas, such as Dublin, only experienced small skirmishes. [11]

During this time, a statement was released by Dublin Castle, confirming that there was a major rebel success in Wexford. Over 100 men from the North Cork Militia took place in the engagement at Oulart, making it the most significant battle of the rebellion. Wexford became a centralized point of the rebellion, pushing the county over the edge. Rumors were spreading of floggings, pitch-cappings, and house burnings conducted by the North Cork Militia just north of the county. There were reports of United Irishmen executions, particularly in Carnew, where 35 prisoners had lost their lives. By Spring 1798, the British began attacking and attempting to destroy the United Irishmen Society, leading to many of the leaders’ arrests. On the 26 of May, approximately 34 United Irishmen were executed at Dunlavin, south Wicklow. [12]

            In April 1797, another four Irishmen from Monaghan were executed in front of thousands of soldiers. The United Irishmen, seemingly abandoned by the French, lacked strong leadership and were practically unarmed, despite having over 300,000 members of the society. The executions were effective at undermining the society, though also created martyrs such as William Orr, a United Irishmen who was later executed in October of that same year, charged with administering the United Irish Oath to a soldier – deemed an executable crime by the British Parliament.

            In a letter from Lord Visount Gosford, Colonel of the Armagh Militia and Major Wardle of the Ancient British Light Dragoons addressed to Lieutenant General Lake dated 24 of May, 1798, the men discussed the failed rebel attempt to gain control of “the Town,” presumably located in County Kildare.

This morning, about half past 2 o’clock, a Dragoon from an outpost came in and informed Major Wardle of the Ancient British that a very considerable armed body were approaching rapidly upon the Town. The whole garrison were instantly under arms and took up their position according to a plan previously formed in case of such an event happening. The made the attack upon our Troops, posted near the Gaol, with great violence, but were repulsed: They then made a general attack in almost every direction, as they got possession of almost ever avenue into the Town. They continued to engage the troops for near three quarters of an hour, when they gave way, and fled on all sides. The Calvary immediately took advantage of their confusion, charged in almost every direction, and killed a great number of them (rebels)… We took another prisoner whom we have spared in consequence of his having given us information that will enable us to pursue these rebels; and from this man we learn that they were above a Thousand strong. [13]

The rebellion ended in October 1798 when government forces overran the United Irishmen just five months following the start of the violent bloodshed. The conclusion of the rebellion saw 34 members of the United Irishmen executed, all of which were leaders of the society – Theobald Wolfe Tone being one of the executed.  Out of fear of further rebellions or skirmishes, the British Parliament quickly enacted the Act of Union of 1800 in order to bring Ireland under Britain’s control. Wealthy landowners supported the Act of Union which unified Ireland and England as the United Kingdom in 1801. [14]This unification between two separate kingdoms caused much disdain and heightened oppression against the Irish Catholics throughout Ireland, despite the British redacting many of the anti-Catholic laws.

First Article of the 1800 Act of Union: That Great Britain and Ireland shall upon Jan. 1, 1801, be united into one kingdom, and that the titles appertaining to the crown shall be such as his Majesty shall be pleased to appoint. [15]


            In the 1790’s, many of the Anti-Catholic Penal Laws were repealed making emigration more obtainable for the Irish. However, despite the repeals, the effects of years of hatred and oppression carried on for centuries later, leaving some to sacrifice their identity to create a better life for themselves and their families. Other Irish Catholics, however, took this moment to gather as one to rebel against Great Britain, igniting a new wave Irish Nationalism – a wave that carried on for centuries later. Through this new form of nationalism, the Irish continued to rebel against the British in various uprisings throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. [16]

In the early 1800’s, Irish immigration to America increased significantly, partly due to promotional advertisements placed in Irish newspapers and journals, posters displayed in Irish towns, as well as the continued oppression the Irish Catholics experienced daily. Many immigrants underwent the three-month long journey departing from ports all over Ireland, including Derry, Cork, Limerick, and Galway.[17] Hundreds of emigrants were crammed into steerage of ships, also called “Coffin Ships.” The dismal conditions on board these vessels often caused disease and illness, such as typhoid, to spread like wildfire. Steerage was the most common class for the Irish to travel as it was the least expensive and sometimes free option for the immigrants, especially for those who agreed to become indentured servants upon arrival. By 1840, almost half of America’s immigrant population came from Ireland, settling in cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, along the east coast.

            Irish settlement into Canada and the United States ignited following the 1798 Rebellion, many arriving as political refugees from Northern Ireland. Of these immigrants, approximately 5,000 emigrated per year from Ulster alone arriving in Philadelphia, Newcastle, Wilmington, and New York. Many of the Irish had experience in construction, road working, tilling, and clearing land and would prove to be beneficial to the Americans during the Industrial Revolution. Since the Irish were experiencing better living conditions in both Canada and the United States after escaping oppression in Ireland, the immigration flow increased, and by the mid-1800’s, there were more Irish in Canada than British or Scots. [18]

As yet it’s only natural I should feel lonesome in this country, ninety-nine out of every hundred who come to it are at first disappointed. Still, it’s a fine country and a much better place for a poor man tan Ireland. – John Doyle, a letter to his wife. [19]

Irish immigration gained momentum during the mid-19th century in the United States and Canada. Thousands of Irish immigrants landed in these countries hoping for a better life for religious freedoms, opportunities both in the workplace and with their land, allowing them to raise their families free of oppression and harsh realities. However, in many instances, the protestants of the United States still frowned in disgust upon the Irish Catholics, portraying them as poor, drunk, and belligerent. Life in America was not always easy for the Irish settlers, though it did open new doors for the emigrants, allowing them to make significant impacts the world would see a half a century later: the color photograph, invented by John Joly of County Down; the monorail, invented by Louis Brennan of County Mayo; the submarine, invented by John Philip Holland of County Clare, who later commissioned the invention to the United States Navy in 1900. [20] Between 1820 and 1930, approximately 4.5 million Irish immigrants migrated to the United States. [21] The Irish continued to influence the world in many ways, all of which positively affected the lives of millions around the world.


Bartlett, Thomas. “BBC – British History: The 1798 Irish Rebellion.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.

Cusack, Mary Francis. The Illustrated History of Ireland: From 400 AD to 1800 AD. New York: Gramercy, 2001. Print.

“Economic Distress and Popular Radicalism.” The National Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Penal Laws.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 July 1998. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.

Grada, Cormac O., and Diarmaid O. Muirithe. The Famine of 1740-41. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Staff. “U.S. Immigration Before 1965.” A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Howell, Samantha. “From Oppression to Nationalism: The Irish Penal Laws of 1695.” (2016): n. pag. University of Hawaii. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

“Ireland.” The Maritime Heritage Projects – Ships, Captains, Merchants, Passengers to 1800s San Francisco. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

“Ireland and Opposition to British Rule.” The University of Kansas (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

Jones, John. An Impartial Narrative of the Most Important Engagements Which Took Place between His Majesty’s Forces and the Rebels, during the Irish Rebellion, 1789 … Carefully Collected from Authentic Letters .. Dublin: J. Jones, 1799. Print.

Miller, Kerby A. Ireland and Irish America: Culture, Class, and Transatlantic Migration. Dublin: Field Day in Association with the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the U of Notre Dame, 2008. Print.

Pakenham, Thomas. The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798. London: Abacus, 2000. Print.

Society of United Irishmen of Dublin. “The Declaration, Resolutions, and Constitution of the Societies of the United Irishmen.” (1791): n. pag. Villanova University. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.

Willcox, Walter Francis, and Imre Ferenczi. International Migrations. New York: Bureau, 1929. Print.

Wolfe Tone, Theobald. The Autobiography of Theobald Wolfe Tone. 1763-1798 Volume 2. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

[1] An Illustrated History of Ireland, Margaret Anne Cusack, Sister Mary Frances Clare. Library Ireland.

[2] International Migrations, National Bureau of Economic Research, Walter F. Willcox

[3] Ireland and Irish America: Culture, Class, and Transatlantic Migration. Kerby A. Miller, pg. 63-65.

[4] Penal Laws, British and Irish History. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[5] The 1798 Irish Rebellion, Professor Thomas Bartlett. BBC.

[6] The Famine of 1740-41, Cormac O Grada, Diarmaid O Muirithe

[7] Arthur Young’s Tour of Ireland, Arthur Young

[8] Ireland and Opposition to British Rule, The University of Kansas Libraries

[9] The Autobiography of Theobald Wolfe Tone, pgs. 10-44

[10] The Declaration, Resolutions, and Constitution of the Societies of the United Irishmen, Villanova University

[11] The 1798 Irish Rebellion, Professor Thomas Bartlett. BBC.

[12] The Year of Liberty, The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798, Thomas Pakenham

[13] An Impartial Narrative of the Most Important Engagements Which Took Place Between His Majesty’s Forces and the Rebels During the Irish Rebellion of 1798, John Jones

[14] The Year of Liberty, The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798, Thomas Pakenham


[16] From Oppression to Nationalism: The Irish Penal Laws of 1695, Samantha Howell, University of Hawaii

[17] Ireland, The Maritime Heritage Project

[18] The Year of Liberty, The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798, Thomas Pakenham

[19] Letter, John Doyle to Wife, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

[20] iWonder, Made in Northern Ireland, BBC.

[21] U.S. Immigration Before 1965,

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