Tuesday, 15 May 2018 09:21

'Of no court tyrants we're afraid': the literature of the United Irishmen

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in Poetry
Mary Ann McCracken
Mary Ann McCracken

Jenny Farrell introduces the literature of the United Irishmen, part of international and democratic liberation literature, expressing ideals which are still to be achieved.

24 May marks the 220th anniversary of the rising of the United Irishmen, a struggle for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an Independent Irish Republic in 1798. This rebellion continued over the summer and into autumn and ended with the deaths of tens of thousands. The Society had almost 300,000 sworn members at the time.

The 17th century in Ireland marked the murderous and complete obliteration of the Gaelic system, beginning with the Battle of Kinsale 1601/2 and ending finally with the Treaty of Limerick 1691, the culmination of Britain’s systematic conquest of Ireland. Less than ninety years later, the American War of Independence led to the formation of the so-called Volunteers, to replace the British troops sent from Ireland to America. With the Volunteers, an important new factor entered the Irish political stage.

The French Revolution became a catalyst for further political development, culminating in the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen in November 1791. This Society consisted of parts of the Irish bourgeoisie and, as time went on, an emerging proletariat. Its membership was increasingly balanced between Anglo-Irish Protestants, Presbyterian Scots and Irish Catholics. The movement’s great strength was the conscious rejection of denominational sectarianism. Both America’s independence and the French struggle for freedom became models and a driving force for the movement. The United Irishmen encompassed in their demand for equality the Catholic population, women, and, internationally, slaves. These were not vague aspirations, but specific demands, reflected in the United Irishmen’s publications. Thus, Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” argues in detail for the complete emancipation of Catholics. The “Northern Star” in its enthusiastic review of Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, calls for female politicians, as “I scorn the reasoning which says what has been shall be”. The United Irishmen also enthusiastically supported the non-consumption of tea and sugar in solidarity with the struggle against slavery.

Northern Star

The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 and Britain’s entry into the coalition against France brought a clampdown on opposition at home. The Orange Order emerged; martial law was imposed. By the end of 1793, the opposition was isolated. A year later, the power of the United Irishmen had been broken, its leadership arrested or dispersed. It reconstituted as a secret organization. In contrast to 1791, it was now made up predominantly from the ranks of the radical petty bourgeoisie, the developing proletariat and the peasantry.

This new Society’s goal became “separation of Ireland from England and her establishment as an independent Republic”. Throughout his life, Wolfe Tone, the most active advocate of this course, recognised “the blasting influence of England” as the main obstacle to true Irish sovereignty. He sought the complete break with London while at the same time drawing closer to revolutionary France.
The United Irishmen made every effort to realise their plan. Military training took place during so-called “diggings”, joint fieldwork. Weapons were smuggled into the country. The revolutionaries, supported by France, made their first attempts at a violent overthrow in late 1796. They all, including the final nationwide uprising in 1798, were doomed to failure, due to the strength of the opponent, their own military and organisational weakness, treason, and bad weather, which prevented French troops from landing. The United Irishmen were crushed, their members arrested, executed, exiled.

wolfe tone

Political Journalism in the Age of the Revolution

The United Irishmen founded the radical press in Ireland. They had three newspapers, aspiring to cover the entire country: the Belfast “Northern Star” (ca 600 editions Jan 1792 – May 1797), the Dublin “Press”, and the Cork “Harp of Erin”. All leading United Irishmen wrote for their press, almost everybody under a pseudonym. Both inside as well as outside these newspapers, a number of literary writings appeared, penned with a political purpose, often breaking with literary convention. Among these were essay, satire, fable, dialogue, song, poetry etc., popularised through their newspapers, pamphlets or leaflets. Although these writings were in English, there is also an awareness of Gaelic culture in evidence, not least in the title “Harp of Erin” and reports on and reviews of Gaelic traditions in the “Northern Star”.


The essays of the United Irishmen begin with Tone. His contributions in the early 1790s represent an important step towards forming a radical opposition. Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” addresses one of the fundamental problems of Ireland’s national movement, making Catholic emancipation a precondition for progress. Thomas Russell’s political essay “Letter to the people of Ireland” of 1796 led to his arrest and imprisonment without trial.

Satire thrived in a situation of political powerlessness, reprisals and draconian censorship. The Irish satirical tradition began with Swift in the early 18th century, in its most caustic form - social satire.
William Pitt and Edmund Burke enjoyed special satirical attention. A prime example is a personal satire published in the “Northern Star” in 1795 under the title “Mustapha’s Adoration of the sublime Sultan Pittander the Omnipotent”, in which the omnipotence of Pitt and his political guiles are described from the perspective of Mustapha, his worshipping slave. Another satire entitled “Pitt’s Ghost, being an account of the dissection, funeral procession. Epitaph of the Minister of state” is an obituary, based on the fictitious death of the politician, and proof that his badness reaches to the core. The dissection of Pitt’s ribcage reveals, his heart

was so remarkable as to deserve a particular description .....(it) was extremely cold to the touch, and very hard... The inside was perfectly black and consisted of a sort of powder which emitted an exceedingly foetid smell. When this powder was narrowly inspected, with the aid of a microscope a great many small shining objects were visible, shaped like swords, daggers and bayonets...

To his innermost being, Pitt is infested with war and aggression. The satire ends with his spirit yet among the living, Pitt making occasional appearances in Downing Street and Whitehall.

An example of social satire is “Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand”, serialised in the “Northern Star”. With Firebrand and Billy, his informant, two representatives of the gentry and the submissive clergy are satirised. When Firebrand learns of a meeting between Billy’s neighbour and a Catholic priest, their toasts and songs, Firebrand’s reaction is typical of his class. Everything smacks of turmoil and rottenness, even the slightest gesture takes on political significance, he smells adversity and recalls times, “before men turned their thoughts to thinking,” in which it was possible

(to) imprison Catholics for keeping arms in their houses, .... (to get) a Presbyterian assassinated for voting against him at the vestry... (to fine) Quakers for not paying tythes.

Billy has a dream vision, in which members of all classes and denominations, poor and rich, sick and weak, come together, and the Union of all Irishmen becomes reality.

The “Chinese Journal” is a satirical travel diary, written from the point of view of a fictitious correspondent reporting on an English legation to the Chinese court. Following some initial impressions of an exotic environment, the narrator informs the reader of his meeting with the emperor. Reminiscent of “Gulliver’s Travels”, the reader gets an insight into the thinking of members of society and learns about the circumstances of their country. Here the envoy’s description of his English king:

The King, my Master, our mightiest son of the firmament! reigns in the hearts of all his subjects: his councils are all wise, his virtues unparalleled and his wisdom is more than tongue can tell.

Far from awe-struck, the Chinese emperor reveals knowledge of England:

I cannot help seeing some little regard for the nation which has produced a Newton and a Priestley, but your vainglorious boasting, your tyranny and conquests have brought upon you universal devastation.

Members of a Turkish legation, also in China, emulate the criticism. They ascertain the true motive for the journey of the English, claiming that London’s emissaries came to China on behalf of the East India Company with predatory intent. The narrator, himself part of the legation, is consternated, seeing himself, his country and his king in the dock. He escapes into a dream, which turns into a nightmare. He finds himself caught in the machinations of court proceedings from which he cannot escape. The radical reader recognises such dreams from personal experience: being dragged through the courts, is business as usual for a patriot.

Poetry appeared in many popular forms, including song: drinking songs, folk songs, dance songs, ballads. They gave people new confidence, and channelled fears into laughter or anger at opponents.
In politically turbulent times, songs can play an important role. Here, a balladeer draws our attention to the purpose of his appearance:

That something is a left us, we all must agree;
Though talking’s forbidden - Yet singing is free
Plain truth may be blamed and honesty wrong;
But sure there’s no harm in an honest old song.
One verse for myself, Sirs; and then I have done
Hard times and large Families make but poor fun;
And when children for bread cry around in a throng,
I’m oft forced to quiet their mouths with - a Song!

Ballads usually relate historical or current events, uprisings, attacks by the opponent, heroic acts of martyrs, revolts, landings, etc. Reciting a critical poem or singing a political ballad in the field, at work, “digging” (subversive military training in the field) or at festivals expressed political opposition and an awareness of common resistance to the ruling class. Firebrand expresses displeasure and anger at the songs sung by the people and their effect on public morality : “’tis songs that is most to be dreaded of all things” he confesses to Billy, his informant, and then continues:

Singing, Billy, is a d-n’d bad custom, it infects a whole country, and makes them half mad: Because they rejoice and forget their cares, and forget their duty, and forget their betters. By H-n’s I’ll put an end to singing in this part of the country, in a short time.

To reinforce this threat, he refers to the example of one of his neighbours, who

within three months ... sent two chimney-sweepers, three blind fiddlers, a ballad-singer, and a drunken man to the black hole and the flocks for singing and playing tunes against the law.

Firebrand’s fear of Billy is understandable, given lyrics like the following:

No longer lost in shades of night
Where late in chains we lay;
The sun arises, and her light
Dispels our gloom away.
Demanding Freedom All!
While kings combine
We boldly join,
Nor cease till tyrants fall,”

From another song

Of no court tyrants we’re afraid,
We’ll spin our term of freedom out:
Secure of each true patriot’s aid,
And put oppressors to the rout.

The poetry of the United Irishmen drew its political impetus both from their own egalitarian positions and from their revolutionary role models at home and abroad. They translated a whole series of French songs, including the Marseillaise. The songs and poems of the United Irishmen reveal their patriotic character most when they refer to Ireland. Titles like “To Ireland”, “Erin”, “Hibernia” are about the fate of the homeland deprived of its freedom. A considerable part of the poetry deals with the suffering and misery of individuals, their pain is symptomatic of the misery of all. It describes the fate of the peasants, expresses sympathy for the exiled, compassion for the enslaved, or the freedom fighters who died in battle and for their country - beacons of resistance and sacrifice. Their profoundly humane content and their social realism express forcefully the United Irishmen’s compassion for their people and the essence of their political and literary practice.

Internationalism is deeply engrained in their poetry. They stood up for the interests of the exploited and slaves. One example of this is “Negro’s complaint”;

Trembling, naked, wounded, sighing,
On this winged house I stand;
Which, with poor black man is flying
Far away from his own land.
Fearful waters all around me;
Strange the sights on every hand;
Hurry, noise, and shouts confound me,
When I look for Negro land.
Every thing I see affrights me;
Nothing I can understand:
With their scourges, white men fight me,
If I weep for Negro land.


Mary Ann McCracken, republican and social reformer, led the Women's Abolitionary Committee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement. She was the sister of one of the founding members of the United Irishmen Society.

The literary writings of the United Irishmen are part of international and democratic liberation literature. The ideals they fought for have yet to be achieved.

This article is indebted to Eckhardt Rüdebusch, “Irland im Zeitalter der Revolution”.


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