THE VOLUNTEERS

The Treaty of Limerick in 1691 saw thousands of Jacobite supporters leave the country and the soldiers ( the " Wild Geese ") take up service with France and Spain. This was of itself ominous but it left the vast majority (4/5ths) of the population, Roman Catholic, excluded from the political process.  It led to the creation of a virtual church state and a Catholic `nation` was born.

The Protestants of the Church of Ireland were the only ones to be called `Protestant` and they had a monopoly on power. Neither the Catholics or the Dissenters - mainly the Presbyterians, were represented in the Irish Parliament and were subject to penal laws. They paid tithes to the Established church - the Church of Ireland, and the Catholics also paid to their own church by tradition and loyalty.

The only option open to Catholics was trade and industry and they made the provisioning trade virtually their own. This led to a strong middle class and a potential ally for the aggrieved Protestant middle class.

A turning point for the movement was the decision to parade in Dublin on 4 November 1779, William III`s birthday, and declare their support for `Free Trade` ie to trade direct with the British Colonies. Their protest succeeded and a new voice in Ireland was born.

The first Convention at Dungannon 15 February 1782 saw some 250 delegates from 143 Ulster Volunteer Companies joined in debate and producing resolutions that Poynings Law ( the supremacy of the Privy Council over Parliament) was unconstitutional; sought relaxation of penal laws against Catholics and repeal of the Declaratory Act which prevented service under the Crown . On 16 April1782 Henry Grattan moved a Declaration of Rights to Parliament and it was unanimously agreed; this was ratified by the English Parliament 27 May 1782. The Declaratory Act was repealed and Bills were presented to repeal Poynings Law, the Perpetual Mutiny Act and to secure the independence of the judiciary.

There was further debate that the repeal of the Declaratory Act was just that and not acceptance of the right of the Irish to legislate for Ireland. This led to a second Convention on 21 June 1782 and support for Henry Flood who had pursued the point against the de facto leader Lord Charlemont. The British Parliament finally passed a Renunciation Act explicitly giving up the right to legislate for Ireland. But the damage was done; first there was division in the leadership and thus its policies. Second, there was a growing awareness of the Volunteer Conventions which seemed to be giving instruction to the Irish Parliament.

Bitten by the power and results they had achieved, a third Convention at Dunmurry met on 8 September 1783. Here the main issues became parliamentary reform and political rights for Catholics (the latter another cause for division in the Volunteers ranks ). The main resolution was that specific details of a plan to reform Parliament be brought to a National Convention in Dublin on 10 November 1783.

On 29 November Henry Flood and other MPs took a draft Bill to Parliament ; this they did dressed threateningly in their Volunteer uniforms. This colossal error of judgment was their downfall. For six years Parliament had acceded to popular proposals and cooperated although they were always wary of military threat. Now, however, the American War was over and General Burgoyne was back in Ireland with 20,000 troops under his command. Parliament rejected the demands by 157 votes to 77. William Drennan later wrote that the fall of the British Empire began from that day.

The American War, repeal of the Sacramental Test, independence for the Irish Parliament, the renunciation dispute and the subsequent parliamentary and Catholic emancipation were all burning issues to the Presbyterians. It was against this backcloth that the young Dr William Drennan graduated from medical school in Edinburgh. On his return to Belfast in August 1778 he joined the Blue Company of Belfast Volunteers where he took a keen interest in politics. He moved to Newry where he helped form the Newry Union Volunteers that included Catholics, in 1784.

A sea change in membership of the Volunteers began as more members from the lower classes, including Catholics, were recruited and the nature of the Volunteers changed. Such that in letters to Dr Bruce in February 1784, May 1785 and August 1785 Drennan was proposing that there ought to be an inner circle of radical reformers. Things came to a head as a result of proposals for a Grand Parade to celebrate Bastille Day, 17 July 1791 and a civic commemoration of the French Revolution.

By 1791 Drennan `s views and that of others, including Wolfe Tone, had become more radical and they wished to reconstruct the Volunteers. Both Tone and Drennan were approached and asked for a set of resolutions suitable for the occasion. In 1794 Drennan was charged with seditious libel that his Address to the Volunteers incited armed rising. Fortunately he had the services of John Philpot Curran as his lawyer and he was acquitted.

Tone was elected to honorary membership of the Belfast Volunteers and invited to come to Belfast " in order to assist in framing the first club of United Irishmen". The first meeting was at Barclays Tavern on 1 April 1791. Three weeks after this Napper Tandy and Drennan founded the Dublin Society of United Irishmen. Whether it was Drennan or Tone or someone else who coined the title of the United Irishmen is still debated, but the society`s existence was self evident.

At this juncture there was the influence of the French Revolution and the fear of the British government of French invasion; changing views on courses of action, the creation and involvement of the Catholic Committee; dissent amongst themselves and a pervading influence in the Volunteer movement of Freemasonry. Official perceptions were that the Volunteers were potentially dangerous and they were forbidden to parade in uniform and disbanded by Proclamation of the Lord Lieutenant in 1794,  This led the Society of United Irishmen to go underground and Wolf Tone becoming resident in Paris where French assistance to join in a Revolution was his goal.

Drennans letter to Dr William Bruce 7 February 1784: (PRONI.D553/20)

" I should like to see the institution of a society as secret as the Free-masons, whose object might be by every practicable means to put into execution plans for the complete liberation of the country. The secrecy would surround the proceedings of such a society with a certain awe and majesty, and the oath of admission would inspire enthusiasm into its members. Patriotism is too general and on that account weak. We want to be condensed into the fervent enthusiasm of sectaries, and a few active spirits could, I should hope, in this manner greatly multiply their power for promoting public good. The laws and institutes of such a society would require ample consideration: but it might accomplish much. "

By 1791 his views had hardened :( PRONI. D553/70 )

" It is my fixed opinion [he wrote to Brucel ] that no reform in parliament, and consequently no freedom, will ever be attainable by this country but by a total separation from Britain; I think that this belief is making its way rapidly, but as yet silently, among both protestants and catholics, and I think that the four quarters of the kingdom are more unanimous in this opinion than they themselves imagine. It is for the collection of this opinion (the esoteric part, and nucleus of political Doctrine) that such a society, or interior circle, ought to be immediately established, around which another circle might be formed, whose opinions are still halting between, who are for temporizing expedients and patience, and partial reform. "

Wolf Tone`s credo ran thus: (Tone :Autobiography pp 50-51 )

" To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means. "

And over 200 years later the squabbling goes on .......

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact