As a new feature on the website, we begin a series of historical posts, which will recount what I believe to be examples of human civilizations most significant events from throughout history and across the globe. The series will be entitled “Their Finest Hour”, and will emphasize what is best in Man by recounting and interpreting some of our most impressive historical events. I personally have a great interest in history from a variety of periods and civilizations, and so will attempt to represent the entirety of humankind instead of focusing solely on one branch of history. This series is a testament to no single nation or tribe, but rather it is a retelling of humanities struggle for what is noble and glorious in life.
The importance of studying, interpreting and passing down significant historical events cannot be overestimated. Unfortunately we live in an age where, despite the vast catalog of human knowledge being available in our very pockets, many of us have lost our connection with our past. This is the tragedy of the modern age: we think we are the pinnacle. We neglect the ancestors who put us here and do not show them any reverence. We forget the many struggles they endured, the wars they waged, the blood they spilt, so that we their descendants might stand free and never know the burden of the yoke, or the sting of the masters whip. I have no doubt that, were they still living, our heroic ancestors would weep for shame at the ignobility of modern Men. No doubt they would be overawed by our technological mastery, but the state of our character often pales in comparison to The Glorious Dead.
So it is the purpose of the “Their Finest Hour” series to reignite some sense of gratitude, interest, appreciation and reverence for the honorable Men and Women who shaped the world within which we dwell by their sweat and their blood.
The first entry to the series will recount one of the most significant episodes of the long and troubled history of my homeland: The Rebellion Of United Irishmen in 1798. The following articles in the series will appear sporadically in between our regular posts, and will cover a wide range of historical milestones. But I would love to hear your ideas for future posts. What would you like to read more of on the blog? Any ideas for historical events, mythological or philosophical topics to interpret? Let me know in the comments below, through email at email@example.com, or on the Unchaining The Titan Facebook/Twitter page.
It began in France. In 1789, the French Republic was born in the bloodstained bed of violent revolution. The heads of the ruling aristocracy rolled, and Democracy was the song which lulled every low-born French child to sleep. The political doctrine of Democracy was not a new concept in 1789, having been the model with which ancient Athens rose to its Golden Age over 2000 years past. But in the 18th century, democratic governance was rarely put into practice. When the fires of rebellion died down in France, the newly installed French government offered to send aid to any group who wanted to kill their King, and install a Democratic Republic in his place. Inevitably this led to war with England, as well as other powerful monarchies. The French had been a thorn in the side of the British Empire for centuries, but tensions between the two powerful nations had come to a head a decade previously when France sent aid to the American Revolutionaries who had declared independence from their oppressive British masters. The Revolution had succeeded and in 1783 the American Republic was born, while France was left destitute. The aid they had sent to the American Separatists coupled with an inefficient financial system, widespread aristocratic corruption and the loss of major French assets in the Americas meant that the French economy had hit rock bottom. From their desperation and poverty, revolutionaries took to the streets and ended the rule of the Ancien Régime, the French aristocracy, in 1789.
Throughout this turbulent period, thousands of volunteer militia had been sent to Ireland by the British government to defend the island against possible French invasion. As a reaction to this incursion of foreign troops, many thousands of Irishmen joined the Irish Volunteers and pressured the British government to grant more property and voting rights to the native Irish population who had been largely discriminated against due to their religion being something other than Protestant Church of England. The Society of United Irishmen was formed in 1791 by members of many religions, with the aim of achieving democratic reform. The war between France and Britain drove the United Irishmen underground for fear of being silenced by agents of the Empire. They regrouped as a secret society, bound by sworn oaths to pursue the establishment of a Republican government in an independent Ireland. By 1797, the Society had gathered at least 200,000 members who were working towards armed rebellion with the military aid of the French Republic.
Theobald Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen, and the man who sailed to France to oversee the arrival of French troops on Irish soil. He sailed for the Irish coast with 14,000 French veterans at his back, but failed to land them due to fierce storms and indecisive French leadership. The fleet sailed home and the United Irishmen found themselves staring into the jaws of the British Empire alone.
A wave of bloody retribution spread across Ireland. Martial Law was declared and any sign of resistance was met with brutal torture, public punishment and open murder. The government turned a blind eye to military excesses in the hopes that it would quash any further attempts at revolt. 14,000 French troops getting close to landing in ireland was a narrow escape for the establishment that sent them into panic. The authorities had adopted a strategy of using religion as a means to divide and conquer the Irish. Old religious resentments were used to prevent the formation of a united resistance, and the government managed to buy the cooperation of the leaders of the powerful Catholic Church, who remained allied to the British Empire throughout the Rebellion.
The situation was growing desperate for the United Irishmen. If their dream of revolution was to have any effect, they had to act soon before the espionage, betrayal, state sanctioned torture and military brutality crushed the people’s will to fight. The leadership made the decision and the date for the rebellion was set for May 23. They spread word amongst their members to lie in wait for a signal that would be given, at which point they would seize the capital Dublin and its neighboring counties by force. But the government had been one step ahead of the revolutionaries and found out their plans. Huge military force was sent to occupy Dublin and the rebels were disheartened and fled. The rebellion in Dublin was crushed, but surrounding territories rose up as planned. By Dawn on May 24, blood was being spilt by Irish and British men in the fight for Irish liberty.
Many groups of Rebels were overwhelmed by the might of the enemy forces, but some enjoyed success. The uncertainty amongst government officials as to who was winning the fight led to the massacre of any suspected rebels. Commoner and aristocrat alike were executed on suspicion of treason in an attempt at Damage-Limitation. The small number and poor armament of the United Irishmen meant that they mostly engaged the British with hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. Joseph Holt led 1000 men through the mountains of County Wicklow and lured huge numbers of British forces into their kill-zone.
Further south in Wexford, the rebels seized control of the county and captured many strategically important settlements. They managed to storm Enniscorthy Town by sending in a stampede of cattle to brush aside the garrison, before the rebel soldiers rushed in to fight for the town. But 20,000 enemy troops came south to meet them, and the rebels lost the decisive battles at New Ross, Arklow and Bunclody. It was the Battle of Vinegar Hill which put an end to the rebellion once and for all. The rebels had abandoned guerrilla warfare and decided to send approximately 20,000 troops to meet the British Army in open battle. Poorly armed with long spears called pikes as their main weapon, the rebels were outgunned. Bombarded by cannon and harassed by well trained cavalry, the United Irishmen eventually broke and fell back in retreat.
The aftermath of Vinegar Hill was brutal. Suspected rebels were captured and tortured to death in public. Women were gang-raped by British Servicemen. Rebel wounded were grouped into buildings at New Ross and Enniscorthy which were then burned to the ground. Civilians were murdered and “half-hanged” by the rampaging government troops. Commanders of the Wexford rebels had their heads cut off and placed on pikes in Wexford town. A priest had his head placed on a pike outside the church, while his body was dismembered and burned in barrel. Soldiers made the civilians open their windows in order to smell the pious rebels body burning. The situation was so horrific that it drove some groups of desperate rebels to commit horrific atrocities in retaliation. At Wexford Bridge, loyalist prisoners of war were stripped naked, marched to the bridge, and piked to death. They also burned up to 200 Protestant men, women and children alive in a barn shed. The British forces escalated their campaign of revenge for their losses by mercilessly slaughtering Rebels and their sympathizers, regardless of nationality or gender. Those rebels who escaped the bloodshed fell back and began to regroup, but their weakened status forced them to resort to ineffectual mobile raids.
Two months after the main uprising, 1000 French troops landed and joined a group of 5000 rebels. After a few initial victories, these forces were defeated and the French prisoners of war were repatriated back to France. The Irish rebels were executed. In October, Wolfe Tone attempted to land 3000 French troops in the north of Ireland, but they were captured by a Royal Navy squadron after a three hour battle at sea. Wolfe Tone asked to be executed by firing squad as a soldier, but instead he was sentenced to death by hanging as a common criminal. He cheated the hangman, and cut his own throat in his prison cell.
The remaining rebel forces waged a guerrilla war against British forces for another six years before falling defeated in 1804. The rebellion had finally failed, marking the most concentrated outbreak of violence in Irish history. Numbers of the dead range between 20,000 to 50,000 depending on who was doing the counting. Those who had been associated with the cause of Revolution kept silent in the aftermath in order to avoid violent retaliation and as a result, little can be said of this period with any certainty. The Revolution had been inspired by the hope of following in the footsteps of the newly established French and American Republics, but in the end all that remained was disappointment, disillusionment and fear. The world of the United Irishmen ended not with a bang, but a whimper.
What is certain is that 50,000 Irish men rose in violent revolution at an appointed time. This number is added to by the vast numbers of men and women who supported the rebels without actually fighting. All this in an age which had never known the kind of instant communication that we enjoy today. No Twitter or Facebook or Whatsapp or texting or email or telephone. If a man was lucky, he might be able to read and write. But even written communication would take days or weeks to travel throughout the rugged Irish countryside. 50,000 men organized, trained, supplied, drilled, strategized and rose in revolt at a very specific appointed time. All this happened mainly through word of mouth and through some limited and very secretive printed media. How hard would it be to organize 50,000 Irish people to unite and do anything today? Even with our ease of communication and transportation, our high standards of living, our access to childcare and our entitlement to time out of our jobs; it would prove a truly difficult task to get that number of people marching to the same tune.
But a little more than 200 years ago, it happened. They rose not in protest, but in revolt. They decided that it was better to face death in the noble pursuit of liberty and the right to self-determination, than to continue their meagre existence as a slave to foreign empire. The Irish commoner at the time was little more than bipedal cattle to be milked for all he was worth by the agents of aristocracy. But he rose. And though he fell, what glory there was to be had in his defeat. The Rebellion of 1798 inspired the members of the Young Irelander Rebellion 1848, the Fenian Brotherhood Rising of 1867, the Easter Rising of 1916, and the War of Independence which eventually led to our separation from the British Empire after centuries of oppression and poverty. It was a pivotal moment in the long history of our ancestors struggle for freedom and prosperity.
Men under foreign rule will always rise in revolt. It is the nature of humanity that we seek the right to govern our own lives according to whatever political institution gives the most power to our voice and our strength of arm. 1798 was not the first time it happened on Irish soil, nor the last. But I account it here because of the sheer logistics of the affair. As I described above; they organized, rose, fought and fell with uncanny motivation and momentum. Even the more recent and more well-known Easter Rising of 1916 was largely treated as a joke by the average citizen. Their numbers amounted to only 1000-3000 troops, most of whom took no part in the fighting. During the semi-successful War of Independence, the strength of the Irish Republican Army is estimated at 15,000. But in 1798; 50,000 men united themselves under the cause of Irish freedom so that we today might live at ease and dictate our own future, not have it dictated to us by foreign overlords. They loved freedom more than life and many of them paid the blood-price to achieve it. They put us to shame with their valor.
Song: The Rising of the Moon
“Oh then tell me, Shawn O’Farrell, Tell me why you hurry so?”
“Hush my boys, now hush and listen”, And his cheeks were all a-glow.
“I bear orders from the captain, Get you ready quick and soon,
For the pikes must be together at the rising of the moon”.
At the risin’ of the moon, at the risin’ of the moon,
For the pikes must be together at the risin’ of the moon.
“Oh! then tell me, Shawn O’Farrell, Where the gathering is to be?”
“At the old spot by the river, it’s well known to you and me.
One word more—for signal token Whistle out the marchin’ tune,
With your pike upon your shoulder, By the rising of the moon”.
By the risin’ of the moon, by the risin’ of the moon,
With your pike upon your shoulder, by the risin’ of the moon.
Out from many a mudwall cabin Eyes were watching through that night,
Many a manly heart was beating For the glory and the fight.
Murmurs passed along the valleys Like the banshee’s lonely croon,
And a thousand spears were flashing at the rising of the moon.
At the risin’ of the moon, at the risin’ of th moon,
And a thousand spears were flashing at the risin’ of the moon.
All along the sacred river That vast mass of men was seen,
High above their shining weapons Hung their own beloved green.
“Death to every foe and traitor! Forward! strike the marchin’ tune,
And hurrah, my boys, for freedom! ‘Tis the rising of the moon”.
‘Tis the risin’ of the moon, ‘Tis the risin’ of the moon,
And hurrah my boys for freedom! ‘Tis the risin’ of the moon.
There they fought and died for Ireland, And full bitter was their fate
Oh! what glorious sons and heroes Fill the graves of Ninety-Eight.
Are there any now who’d raise their voice in manly marching tune?
Who now follows in their footsteps, At the rising of the moon?!
At the rising of the moon, at the risin’ of the moon,
Who would follow in their footsteps, at the risin’ of the moon?
May 24, 2015. Dublin.