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Protestants and Catholics fought the British -- and told the tale as propaganda

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 went beyond sectarianism

by Sylvain Comeau

This year, the Irish government is commemorating the Irish Rebellion of 1798. According to speakers at a recent panel at Concordia, the event is still a source of division and controversy for the Irish, even after 200 years have passed.

The rebellion was a three-week spasm of bloodletting in which both Catholic and Protestant rebels tried unsuccessfully to shake off British rule.

At the centre of the rebellion were the United Irishmen, a radical group that aspired to unite Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. But from the beginning, the rebellion was marked by intense sectarian violence. The result has been wildly divergent interpretations on what the event was really about.

Tom Bartlett, professor of modern Irish history at University College, Dublin, argued that the sectarian violence was perpetrated by individuals and groups taking advantage of the chaos, in defiance of the wishes of rebel leadership.

"Was the rebellion a war of religion?" Bartlett asked. "Despite the sectarian violence, one can hardly think that that was the United Irishmen's original intention. Many of the heads of the Irishmen were themselves Protestant, and the leaders denounced sectarianism. It was clearly easy for evil individuals to exact personal revenge during the disorder of rebellion."

Kevin Whelan, director of Dublin's Notre Dame Hill Centre, said that "after 1798, memories split into two major groups, one Protestant, one Catholic." An early Protestant version of the rebellion was solely concerned with the sectarian violence, "reducing it to simply one more episode in the age-old story of Catholic barbarity and Catholic assaults on Irish Protestants."

This version has a lasting influence on Irish Protestants, even to the present day. "It was very simplistic, very straightforward, but also enormously potent."

The most influential Catholic account of the rebellion was published in the late 1800s by a Franciscan friar, Father Patrick Cavenaugh, who was born in Wexford, one of the counties at the centre of the rebellion.

"His version was essentially a history of the rebellion in Wexford," Whelan said. "He said that the Catholics of Wexford were goaded into rebellion by the outrageous onslaught of the British army, the Orange Societies (Protestant groups loyal to the Crown) and the Loyalists. He also said that the rebellion was not organized, but spontaneous, and that its single most important feature was not the United Irishmen, but the clerical leadership."

This version remains compelling to many Irish Catholics. "That became the dominant version of 1798," Whelan said. "Up to the present day, this is the one that survives in Wexford and elsewhere."

Whelan said that both versions share the same flaw. "In some senses, they are mirror images of one another; both are sectarian versions. The only difference is that the good guys and bad guys are reversed. Both are also, in some senses, morality tales. They are not at all concerned with understanding the 1790s or 1798. They are crucially concerned with using those events for political propaganda."

In order to reconcile these mirror-images, Whelan suggested that the Irish need to restore a more balanced view of the past.

"While the past cannot be restored, memory can. It is precisely the task of historians and artists to create a cultural memory. If one restores a more generous and enabling version of 1798, we can begin the difficult task of moving Irish politics out of the sectarian rut in which it has been confined since 1798."

The panel was presented as part of the Concordia Irish Lecture Series.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.