Ireland and Opposition to British Rule

The long history of English rule in Ireland extends back to the late 1160s, when the Anglo-Norman barons, followed quickly in 1171 by Henry II, arrived to claim dominion over the island to their west. In their proclamation of the Irish Republic, the leaders of the Easter Rising remarked, “In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms.” This case examines the last four of these rebellions—1798, 1803, 1848, and 1867—as well as the late nineteenth-century attempt by Charles Stewart Parnell to achieve Irish home rule by parliamentary means.



Founded in 1791, the United Irishmen were a multi-denominational society opposed to English rule. Inspired by the republican reforms of the American and French Revolutions, they grew to advocate for universal male franchise and Irish independence. Suppressed by the British, the society became increasingly revolutionary. This culminated in uprisings across several Irish counties in the late spring and summer of 1798. Perhaps as many as 30,000 or more were killed in the fighting.

Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was one of the United Irishmen’s founders and most eloquent leaders. He is often hailed as the father of Irish republicanism and at his trial declared, “From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Great Britain and Ireland as the curse of the Irish nation […].” During the period leading up to the Easter Rising, nationalist societies named in his honor—Wolfe Tone Clubs—served as sites of revolutionary conversation.

Wolfe Tone, Theobald. Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Founder of the United Irish Society […]. 2 vols. Washington: Printed by Gales & Seaton, 1826. O’Hegarty C1478



Here, a reader has bound together accounts of the trials for treason of several United Irishmen arrested in Dublin shortly before the 1798 rebellion. Thomas Reynolds, a former member of the Society, was the principal informant in these cases. In the passage on display from the trial of John McCann, Reynolds asserts that through his oath to the United Irishmen he conceived he was “joining a party of men united to overthrow the Government.”

Ridgeway, William. A Report of the Trial of John MCann, upon an Indictment for High Treason. Dublin: John Exshaw, 1798. O’Hegarty C3874, Item 2



Following the 1798 rebellion, Britain sought to cement and stabilize its relationship with Ireland through the Acts of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. These acts abolished the separate Irish Parliament in Dublin, which had only achieved legislative independence in 1782, and Irish MPs had to travel to Westminster in London instead. Some Irish had hoped that Union would lead to Catholic Emancipation, lifting the restrictions preventing Catholics from participating in government and public life. However, King George III would not permit such changes. Emancipation did not arrive until 1829, following the campaigns of Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell.

In the lead-up to Union, opponents attacked the proposal from a variety of political and economic perspectives. This scrapbook from circa 1799 includes a variety of anti-Union materials. Tipped in next to issues of a periodical titled The Anti-Union is a hand-colored political cartoon. It depicts Scottish, Irish (center), and English figures holding hands as they are hanged, thereby implying the mutual destruction that Union will bring.

"Union between England, Ireland, & Scotland.” In a scrapbook including clippings in opposition to Union and issues of the Anti-Union. Dublin [?], circa 1799. D1201




Robert Emmet (1778–1803) soon took up the republican mantle after the failure of the 1798 rising. In 1803 he planned a rebellion that was to include the seizure of Dublin Castle, seat of the British Administration in Ireland. However, flawed planning and several misfortunes intervened, including an accidental explosion at his arms depot, which forced him to move up his rebellion. In the end, his men briefly took over two streets in Dublin before dispersing. Emmet was captured a month later and subsequently executed. For some he became a patriot and republican hero, as this cover of the St. Patrick’s Day issue of The Shamrock from 1887 suggests. The illustration highlights the romantic elements of Emmet’s story. He is shown in his cell, holding what appears to be a lock of his love Sarah Curran’s hair. Emmet and Curran conducted their courtship in secret due to her father’s disapproval.

The Shamrock. Double Number, March 19, 1887. O'Hegarty E52, duplicate copy



This autograph book contains inscriptions of Young Ireland leaders tried in Clonmel, Tipperary following an attempted nationalist rising in 1848. Their action had been partly inspired by the flurry of revolutionary activity that swept across Europe that year. In the inscription shown here, Terence Bellew MacManus (1823–1860) proclaims himself, “A Convicted Traitor to English Rule on this Island.”

The volume is also signed by Thomas Francis Meagher (1823–1867), the Young Irelander often credited with first promoting the green, white, and orange tricolor flag that was later used by the leaders of the 1916 rising. For Meagher, the flag symbolized the non-sectarian nationalism of the Young Ireland movement. At a meeting in Dublin he reportedly explained,

The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ and, I trust that beneath its folds the hands of Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.

The convicted Young Irelanders were initially sentenced to death, but this was commuted to penal transportation to Van Diemen's Land, now better known as Tasmania, Australia.

Clonmel Gaol autograph book, signed by Young Irelanders Terence Bellew MacManus, William S. O’Brien,Patrick O’Donohoe, and Thomas Francis Meagher. Clonmel, Tipperary, October 19- November 3, 1848. MS A49



Founded in the late 1850s, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was a secret, oath-bound society committed to the establishment of a democratic Irish republic. Its members, sometimes also called Fenians, launched several brief skirmishes in February and March of 1867. Although these risings were quickly suppressed, 1867 lives on in nationalist memory for an incident that occurred later that year. In Manchester, England, an unarmed policeman was killed when several Fenians attempted to break loose two of their leaders from a police transport van. After nearly thirty arrests, five men were convicted of murder, and ultimately three—William O'Meara Allen, Michael Larkin, and William O'Brien—were executed by public hanging. Their trial and sentences drew sympathy among some in Ireland, and the men became known as the “Manchester Martyrs.”  The cry, “God save Ireland,” the caption to the illustration on display, was uttered by several of the convicted men.  This exclamation became the title of a song commemorating the men by T. D. Sullivan.

Sullivan, T. D., A. M. Sullivan, and D.B. Sullivan. "Guilty or not guilty?": Speeches from the Dock, or Protests of Irish Patriotism. Dublin: A.M. Sullivan, 1868[-1872]. O'Hegarty B2780



Under the leadership of charismatic Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), the path to Irish self-government seemed attainable through constitutional means rather than by force. In November of 1885, Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party won 86 seats for the nationalist cause in the UK general election. This positioned them to hold the balance of power between the two dominant parties, William Gladstone’s Liberals and Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives.

 "THE CONVENTIONS” [Cartoon depicting Parnell with “Erin” (Ireland) as “her boys” head out to the County Conventions, where candidates to stand for parliament were selected.] Supplement Gratis with United Ireland, October 10, 1885. DK 17:16




In April 1886, British Prime Minister William Gladstone proposed a Home Rule Bill that provided for a separate Irish legislature. Though the bill did not go as far as Parnell might have wanted, he argued on its behalf. In the speech displayed here, given on the eve of parliamentary voting on Home Rule, Parnell expresses his confidence that it will be said,

[…] that England and her Parliament in this nineteenth century was wise enough, brave enough, and generous enough to end this strife of centuries and give peace, prosperity, and happiness to suffering Ireland.

Home Rule, however, did not pass. And though Parnell continued to fight for Irish self-governance, his effectiveness as a politician was soon hindered by a romantic scandal.

Parnell, Charles Stewart. The Government of Ireland Bill. Speech delivered by Mr. Charles Stewart Parnell, M.P., in the House of Commons […]. [London]: National Press Agency, 1886. [Inscribed at top by P. S. O’Hegarty.]  O'Hegarty C2751