When I was a graduate student at Cambridge University I once gatecrashed an English faculty reception, where I struck up a conversation with one of the dons. A scholar primarily of renaissance literature, he also had a reputation for knowing something about everything. Asked what I was working on, I decided to test the legend, owned up to being an interloper, and replied “Ireland in the 1790s”. He paused for a moment, then said: “You know I’ve always thought it a tragedy that Cornwallis was not sent to Ireland sooner. It would have saved a lot of bloodshed, don’t you think?” The legend had legs!
He was referring to General Cornwallis’s belated arrival on June 20th, 1798 as both commander-in-chief and lord lieutenant of Ireland, just as the most violent phase of the Great Rebellion was coming to a close. And how Cornwallis preformed in both his military and political capacities when he did eventually arrive suggests strongly that the don’s counterfactual speculation was correct. As commander-in-chief, Cornwallis amassed overwhelming force before confronting General Humbert’s army of French soldiers and United Irish levies, crushing it decisively at the battle of Ballinamuck (Co Longford). It is true that after the battle the French regulars were taken prisoner while the Irish insurgents were massacred, but had Cornwallis’s headstrong predecessor, General Lake, been still in overall command when Humbert’s expedition landed at Killala Bay in Mayo, there is little doubt that he would have led the charge west sooner, and less well prepared, wreaking even greater mayhem and costing even more lives.
In the aftermath of the rebellion, hot-blooded loyalists and hardline ascendancy politicians lusted for punishment and revenge. Had not Cornwallis by then been installed in Dublin Castle, murderous post-Culloden-style reprisals against prisoners, fugitives, and non-combatants would very likely have ensued. In the event, as Tom Bartlett and Michael Durey have both demonstrated, the lord lieutenant restrained the loyalist ultras and prevented an all-out orgy of executions by courts marshal. Meanwhile, in the political sphere he, his chief secretary, Castlereagh, and prime minister Pitt sought (forlornly as it turned out) to conciliate the Catholic majority by coupling Catholic emancipation with the projected act of union.
Many professional historians consider counterfactual history a trivial pursuit, and they have a point. Counterfactuals, especially the further they stray chronologically from the initial “what if?” question, can all too easily lapse into ungrounded speculation. However, the counterfactual as novelistic flight of fancy should not necessarily disbar the counterfactual as serious intellectual exercise. In hindsight historians know – up to a point – “what actually happened” in the past. They know, for example, the outcomes of decisions which were (or were not) made; but it is never quite that simple. Every decision entails choices which, once made, shut down multiple alternative outcomes. In short, counterfactual possibilities are to a greater or lesser degree implicit in all human action. Then there is the role of contingency and chance in historical causation. By bringing choice (or individual agency), chance and accident to the explanatory surface, carefully controlled counterfactuals can enrich our sense of the complexities, contingencies and uncertainties which shaped actual events in the past. Well-designed conjectures about what might have occurred may also cast that which did occur into sharper relief. If Cornwallis’s appointment in June 1798 is excised from the historical record it becomes easy to imagine the copious blood-letting which loyalist and official reaction would surely have unleashed. But what if the calculation is reversed and he is inserted into the historical equation a year earlier? The question is a plausible one because in May 1797 the British government did in fact consider sending Cornwallis to Ireland as commander-in-chief. But first, “what actually happened”.
The tenor and political subtexts of United Irish memoirs range from Miles Byrne of Wexford’s “I’d do it all again, only better” attitude, to William Farrell of Carlow’s scathing denunciation of oath-taking, the folly of pitching pike against musket and the ineptitude of the United Irish “Executive” (the quotation marks are his). There is nevertheless a pronounced pattern in these retrospective accounts regarding the causes of the rebellion. “From the year 1797 until May 1798,” recalled James (Jemmy) Hope, “… the country, suffering every species of military depredation, was driven to distraction”, inciting “that resistance which was offered to mis-government … for I cannot call it by any other name.” “The state of the country, previous to the insurrection, is not to be imagined; except,” according to Byrne, “by those who witnessed the atrocities of every description committed by the military and the Orangemen, who were let loose on the unfortunate, defenseless and unarmed population”; Thomas Cloney and Edward Hay, both also of Wexford, explained the outbreak of rebellion respectively as “a necessary consequence of the lawless excesses which had been committed upon the people”, and as a result of “the conduct of the yeomen, magistrates and military”. Farrell attests that “the ransacking and burning of houses at night, the flogging and half-hanging of the inmates to extort information … extended in every direction with increased violence”; whilst the exiled United Irish leader William Sampson declared that he “had legally and loyally opposed [him]self with honest fairness to the crimes of arson, treason, murder and torture”, and condemned “the unparalleled oppression of my countrymen”.
In all of these accounts the imperatives of self-preservation compel “the people” to defend themselves in arms against a government-sponsored campaign of terror. Some, however, pushed the argument further, asserting that the purpose of martial law and repression was to deliberately provoke insurrection. “Government had attained the object desired,” wrote Charles Hamilton Teeling. “Ireland was goaded to resistance, and security was sought in the tented field.” “Every nerve was strained,” claimed Farrell, “to force [the people] to a premature revolt.” Ironically, Castlereagh supplied the “smoking gun” used to substantiate that allegation. The bargain struck between Dublin Castle and the state prisoners spared the prisoners’ lives in return for their testimony before the lords and commons secret committees (of inquiry into the causes of the Rebellion), which the government assumed would saddle the United Irish leadership with responsibility. But in the course of cross-examination Castlereagh asked one of the prisoners “you acknowledge the union [of Irishmen] would have been stronger, but for the means taken to explode it?” Castlereagh’s slip of tongue (if such it was) entered the annals of historical interpretation, being taken up subsequently by, among others, Karl Marx, to indict the government of the day on the charge of premeditated provocation.
This buck-passing genre surprised me when I first read it as a student. Evasion and apologia, after all, cut across the grain of the popular ballad tradition which inspired my earliest interest in ’98. Why, I wondered, did the “rebel hand [that] set the heather blazing” or the men who “followed Henry Joy” require special pleading? In fact the United Irish memoirists had strong political, and in the early years legal, reasons for so pleading. Any admission of seditious activity by Edward Hay in his History of the insurrection of the County of Wexford (1803) would have left him open to (further) prosecution. Moreover, even Wolfe Tone sought to distance himself from the slaughter and sectarian outrage into which the rebellion had too often collapsed. “For fair and open war, I was prepared,” he told his court martial. “If that has degenerated into a system of assassination, massacre and plunder I do, most sincerely, lament it.” The strategic silences in Thomas Cloney’s Personal narrative, published in 1832, have a political purpose. Implication in revolutionary violence in the past had to be explained away because it could be – and was – used to discredit campaigners – like himself – for Catholic emancipation and repeal of the union in the present. Times and tactics were changing. Even the frank and unrepentant social radical Jemmy Hope came eventually to endorse the O’Connell way: “witness the physical-force men of 1798 (myself among them) appealing to moral force in 1843”.
For all these reasons several memoirists successfully depicted the rebellion as an unorganised, politically inchoate, elemental and spontaneous combustion – or peasant jacquerie as later historians characterised it. Others, like Hope, had a different story to tell, one of United Irish organisation, mobilisation and clear revolutionary intent. Byrne describes the winter of 1797-98 as a period when military preparations were made for the “long-wished-for event”, and, beginning in the early 1980s, modern historical research has confirmed the considerable scope of United Irish organisation and the depth of popular politicisation during the 1790s. The causes of the rebellion were many, various and complex, but there is no doubt that United Irish mass recruitment, incendiary propaganda, intimidation of magistrates, manufacture of pikes, and treasonous dealings with France, were chief among them. The memoirists’ version of events is, to be sure, politically tendentious, monochromatic, and misleading; it does not, however, lack substance: the government did mount a campaign of brutal repression on a scale not seen in Ireland since the days of Cromwell. Thus while acknowledging the partisanship of the Hay-Cloney school of interpretation, the question remains worth asking: to what extent was the state responsible for the unfolding crisis in the years leading up to the rebellion?
From the agitations of Charles Lucas in the 1740s to those of James Napper Tandy in the 1780s, eighteenth century Ireland was no stranger to radical politics, nor, in the shape of Whiteboyism, to agrarian unrest. But none of the challenges to authority, including Volunteering, posed an existential threat to the social and political order. All that changed utterly in the 1790s. The radicalising impact – or contagion as conservatives saw it – of French revolutionary ideas on Irish politics, the unprecedented assertiveness of the Catholic Committee and the rise of the United Irishmen were met by an implacable resistance to reform by the ruling Protestant Ascendancy (a term popularised, significantly, in 1792). And after passing, grudgingly and under pressure from London, the Catholic Relief Act of 1793, the ascendancy considered “the conciliation account closed”. Anti-militia riots later that year were put down with maximum force. Up to that point over thirty years of sporadic agrarian disturbance caused an estimated fifty fatalities; during the course of three months in 1793 the death toll rose to around 250. The state had crossed a threshold of violence. It was not until the recall of Lord Lieutenant Fitzwilliam in early 1795, however, that the political and law and order crises began to escalate steeply and, so it seemed at the time, inexorably. Yet, although the revolutionised United Irish movement now committed itself to insurrection with the aid of French arms, events were still very much driven by state actions.
General Carhampton set the pace, rounding up hundreds of suspected “Defenders” in Connacht and impressing them, without legal pretext, into the British navy. Defenders belonged to a Catholic secret society inspired by a protean mix of French principles, anti-Protestant animus and the notion that “something ought to be done for Ireland”. But to Carhampton in the summer of 1795 they were just so many able-bodied Catholic males. Henry Lawes Luttrell (later 2nd Earl Carhampton) presented a walking caricature of reaction. As the government-backed candidate running against the popular London radical John Wilkes in the 1769 Middlesex bye-election, he lost by 296 votes to 1,143, whereupon Wilkes was disqualified and Luttrell took the seat. A Jamaican plantation owner, in 1792 he opposed the abolition of slavery on the grounds that slaves wished “to murder their masters, ravish their women, and drink all their rum”. In 1796 he was promoted to commander-in-chief.
The security situation continued to deteriorate, and in 1796 parliament passed the Insurrection Act, enabling magistrates to proclaim districts under martial law, and an Indemnity Act, protecting magistrates and others from prosecution for previous illegal behaviour. United Irish leaders were arrested in Belfast and imprisoned without charge or trial. In May 1797 the Northern Star paper was shut down by militia riot. General Lake commenced the notorious “dragooning of Ulster”, while General Knox coolly recommended “spreading devastation” through the middle counties of the province. By 1797 indeed “law and order” dominated public debate. The Whig grandee Lord Moira, who sat in both the British and Irish upper houses, led the high political opposition to government security policies, Henry Grattan condemned martial law in the House of Commons and the Duke of Leinster resigned his commission in the militia. Early in 1798 the United Irishmen formed a “Committee for collecting proofs of the enormities lately committed against the rights of the people”, and pushed the issue to the forefront of their pamphlet, handbill, and press polemic. All to no avail. With a young and inexperienced lord lieutenant, the earl of Camden, resident in Dublin Castle, the hard men of the ascendancy, John Fitzgibbon, earl of Clare, John Beresford, and Speaker Foster, now exercised effective control in the country. All prospects of compromise or political redress were annihilated, and in that sense the memoirists got it right: by the beginning of 1798 unremitting state repression made armed resistance near inevitable.
Would Cornwallis have made a difference if he had been appointed commander-in-chief in May 1797? The probable outcomes of such an appointment can be extrapolated from two solid sets of fact: the general’s record up to that point and his actual conduct after he arrived in Ireland just over a year later. By 1797 Cornwallis had accumulated vast military, administrative and political capital. He had sat in both houses of parliament, held public office, served as an officer in Europe, a general in America and, anticipating his joint appointment in Ireland, as governor-general and commander-in-chief in India. His politics were Old Whig. He supported Wilkes against charges of seditious libel, joined the Rockingham Whigs in opposing the Stamp Act and demonstrated principled independence by also voting against the subsequent Rockingham administration’s Declaratory Act. His sympathies lay with the American colonists, but his first loyalties were to king, country and empire, and when duty called he did not hesitate. He detested petty politicking, jobbery and corruption, and historians have noted his high sense of honour, probity and humanity. All of these attributes were on full display during his tenure in post-rebellion Ireland, although some of them proved less useful than others.
The vengefulness and rabid anti-popery of Irish loyalists appalled the new lord lieutenant, who remarked that they “delight in murder”. Determined upon curtailing the ascendancy backlash, he embarked at once upon a policy of “measured severity”. As William Sampson put it:
Lord Cornwallis, something wiser than his predecessors, or at least unactuated by party spite, saw how nearly all was lost, and formed a better plan. He shut up the houses of torture. He forbade pitched caps to be burned on men’s heads. He put an end, in a great measure, to the ravishing of women and the killing and whipping of Irishmen for sport. He interdicted half hanging to extort confessions. He put a stop to much of the petty-fogging and chicaning part of the administration; and he offered pardon and protection to such as would lay down their arms and return to their homes.
He personally reviewed all court martial cases and in up to one-third of them either overturned the verdict or commuted capital sentences to transportation.
Besides an innate sense of justice, Cornwallis’s motives were pragmatic and imperial. He sought to stabilise Irish politics and society and to conciliate Irish Catholics, both in the interest of empire. The local elites took the more truculent and more local view that disaffection should be rooted out once and for all and the Protestant monopoly of power maintained at all costs. Cornwallis was no Camden, however, and his purposefulness, independence of judgment and political authority enabled him to discount Protestant opinion on the security front. On the other hand, an unconcealed contempt for the everyday vanities and venalities of political transaction hobbled his policy-making agenda. Charged with carrying an act of union against the wishes of a majority of Protestants (including Speaker Foster), more problematically still Cornwallis attempted to include Catholic emancipation in the legislative package. It was not to be, as senior ascendancy politicians, most prominently Fitzgibbon, successfully lobbied in London against making further concessions to the Catholics. Nor did Cornwallis’s aloof disdain for low politicking help his case. In the end it was Castlereagh who cut the deals and purchased the votes which secured passage of the union.
Drawing on the well-documented evidence of his character and conduct throughout his career there is no reason to suppose that, given the opportunity, Cornwallis would have acted any differently as commander-in-chief in 1797 than he did in 1798. For instance, when sounded out for the post in 1797 he requested new concessions on the Catholic question as a condition of his appointment. He did not get his way on this in 1798, and it is extremely unlikely that he would have fared any better in 1797. It is very likely, however, that he would have scaled down proactive repression, restored military discipline, and deflated the law and order crisis. Lake would not have been let loose on Ulster. The Northern Star might perhaps have continued publication. He would not have killed off mass disaffection by applying more tightly controlled and legally constrained coercion; nor would he have changed the ascendancy mind. The United Irish movement would have spread ever further afield and stayed on course for insurrection. In the absence of the grande peur whipped up in the spring of 1798 by marauding soldiers, Orange yeomen and panicked magistrates, we would probably today be remembering the ’99 Rebellion. Cornwallis would then have faced a better prepared and more disciplined enemy, whom his superior, better equipped, better trained, and strategically marshalled, army would have defeated anyway. That ’99 looks a bit more like the open war of Tone’s wishful thinking, than the “system of assassination, massacre and plunder” which he regretted.
If this fictional scenario amounts to a rather modest counterfactual outcome, once its chronology is accepted as plausible it does strongly suggest that, at a very minimum, actual government security policy accelerated the outbreak of rebellion. There is though another, more intriguing, possibility. If Cornwallis’s steady hand had given the United Irishmen more time: what if it had also given their emissaries in Paris enough time to persuade the Directory to mount a second invasion? What, in other words, if the French had landed in the summer of 1799? The establishment of a Hibernian Republic is not hard to envision. Informed by analogies with the experience of other French-sponsored republics, Brendan Simms concludes pessimistically that a successful rising and invasion would have resulted in “a murderous bourgeois secular satellite state, subservient to the needs of French foreign policy”. In the light, moreover, of Anglo-French geopolitical realities, the republic would have not long survived. Maybe so, but except in passing, Simms does not speculate on the possible, arguably even probable, longer-term and beneficent legacies which a short-lived republican regime might have bequeathed to nineteenth century Ireland: a disestablished church, confiscated church and (ascendancy) landlord property, some, at least, redistributed downwards, as in France, to the peasantry, religious equality before the law. Once accomplished, such facts on the ground would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to fully reverse. Finally, remembering a lost republic is entirely different from remembering a failed rebellion. Bitterly divisive attitudes towards the revolution defined French political identities well into the twentieth century and, on the left, sustained a robust, secularist, republican ethos, of a sort attenuated in post-Union Ireland by the overwhelming predominance of confessionally based politics. Popular sectarianism would have persisted under a post-Republican dispensation, but in reconfigured ways. It is possible to conceive, for instance, of a working political alignment between the Catholic hierarchy and disestablished Church of Ireland bishops against secularists and radicals of all creeds, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, inspired still (despite the stain of Jacobinical terror imagined by Simms), by the Good Old Cause. Archbishop McQuaid adieu!
Professor Jim Smyth teaches British and Irish history at the University of Notre Dame. Among his publications are The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century and The Making of the United Kingdom 1660-1800: State, Religion and Identity in Britain and Ireland.