In 1798, Ireland was a land of misery and terror where an individual was forced to choose sides. After that choice was made, the family home, the farm, or the person’s source of income was often destroyed by the partisans of the side not chosen. The British Protestant masters of Ireland had imposed suffocating regulations upon the Catholic peasantry as a tool of eradication, and many of those peasants joined forces with a group of liberal republican Protestants—the United Irishmen—to ignite a revolution across the island. Not unlike the American War Between the States, Irish brother fought against Irish brother, son against father, daughter against mother. The loyalist forces—those who fought on the side of the British—enjoyed the upper hand in terms of firepower and organization, and they combed the countryside meting out punishment to any and all suspected subversives whether the latter were guilty of such charges or not. Suspicion alone was enough to earn some poor soul sufficient lashes to bare his ribs, a hanging, a burning, or any of a number of other tortures. The notorious North Cork Militia devised the “pitch cap,” where a paper sack was filled with pitch, placed on a suspect’s head, and lit on fire. The victim would lose his hair and skin in his attempt to remove the burning material. Sometimes a militiaman added gunpowder for extra amusement. The rebels, however, were just as violent in their reprisals. Some rebel groups buried their loyalist captives alive. One incident, where Catholic militants burned some 150 men, women, and children alive in a barricaded barn, would taint the republican effort throughout the uprising. Catholic priests held court on several consecutive days in May and June in county Wexford, whereupon those they deemed guilty of being traitors to the cause were piked to death on the spot. British soldiers burned down crowded hospitals in the same county to retaliate against that retaliation. And those horrors continued for weeks until the less-organized and more poorly-equipped rebels were beaten, tortured, and massacred into submission.
The government kept garrisons in towns across the island, and the authorities eventually began declaring martial law in county after county as the threat of rebellion increased. Too, the British established the system of free quarters, in which military units could billet on the best houses of suspected individuals, often leaving family members destitute, raped, or dead in the process. By early 1798, the military, the militia, civilian volunteer yeomanry units, and the Protestant-only Orange Order were running roughshod over the peasant population, burning the homes and barns of any person suspected of being involved with the rebel United Irish organization. Informers were known to satisfy personal vendettas in this fashion, or debtors would bear false witness against creditors. Commanding officers ordered the citizens to turn over their weapons, and if the number of weapons that turned up was deemed insufficient, the soldiers turned the town to ashes. If soldiers found a weapon on a man’s property, they killed him. They applied torture without restraint. No considerations of age or infirmity sufficed as protection against loyalist outrages.
There was something notable to the 1798 rising, however, that took place in the counties of Wicklow and Wexford. The rebel effort, which was long assumed to be just a spontaneous insurrection, was, on reflection by many historians of the period, too methodically conducted not to have been the product of skilled military planning. In fact, had it not been for a couple of poorly-followed-up victories against the loyalists, the rebel effort would in all likelihood have succeeded, and driven the British from the island. A minutely-devised uprising in Dublin, commanded by local Protestant aristocracy, was only thwarted as it began because spies had infiltrated the inner circle. The Wicklow/Wexford insurrection commenced at roughly the same moment, and began sweeping in a wide swath toward Dublin, as if a pincer movement had been put in place, intended to surround British forces. This rising lasted for weeks where it should have petered out in a day or two, that is, if it had only been a spur-of-the-moment inciting of the rabble as historians and observers then tended to portray it. The rebellion was extraordinarily successful on many fronts. The question is: Who was the mastermind?
In “Beyond the Berezina,” that individual was Sir Malcolm Ussher, member of Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy, who wished that the government of Ireland be transferred to the Irish rather than left in the hands of the British. While the Ascendency was at least superficially sympathetic to the plight of the Catholic peasantry, the main Protestant objective was self-government, self meaning the high-born Irish Protestants. Still, Sir Malcolm was genuinely concerned with the betterment of the Catholic condition, as were many Protestants of the day. Not for another 123 years would the Republic of Ireland become a free nation. The rebellion of the Irish Catholics against the loyalist element still goes on, though, to one extent or another in Northern Ireland, whose six counties remain part of the United Kingdom.
Life in 18th and 19-century Ireland for the Catholic—and generally Irish-speaking—peasant was one of servitude. The majority of the island’s land was owned by absentee landlords who left the management of their estates to agents. The tenant peasant was allowed a small piece of dirt to farm potatoes for his own subsistence, but spent most of his time working the landowner’s property to pay the rent. The agents by and large were brutal and corrupt men who intimidated the tenants into submission. Tenants were expected to evince respect for their superiors at all times. Agents, judges, aristocracy, and nobility dealt harshly with any low-rank insolence—such as failing to yield the right-of-way on a road or cutting down a tree for firewood. (Peasants could dig and burn peat for warmth and nothing else.) The 17th-century Penal Laws, designed to eliminate Popery in Ireland altogether, had only lately been relaxed, and certain severe articles yet remained. Probably the worst of these was the tithe. Catholics (and Presbyterians) were required to pay a substantial percentage of their income to the Church of Ireland, which was a branch of the Anglican Church—a church not attended by Catholics or Presbyterians. Tithe proctors collected tithes from the tenants, often by way of the lash, which made these men despicable to the Irish peasant. For decades Catholics had been forbidden to be teachers, and although that law was rescinded a few years prior to 1798, the Catholic population was overwhelmingly illiterate because of it, and consequently impoverished and dependent. Famine and disease swept through the Irish countryside every several years, and hunger was a way of life for the peasantry.
The majority of the Irish who rose up against their government in 1798 had nothing to lose. The wealthy Protestants who provided the leadership and lit the fire, on the other hand, had everything at stake—people such as Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and the Sheares Brothers, Henry and John, of Dublin. And then there was that mysterious architect of the Wexford insurrection, known in “Beyond the Berezina” as Sir Malcolm Ussher.