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Birth of the United Irishmen


The United Irishmen began as an open reformist movement opposing English domination, but which rapidly became underground, revolutionary and republican and the driving force behind the great rebellion of 1798.

The origin of the movement can be traced to the Volunteer clubs of the previous decade. The Irish Volunteers were formed in 1778 and by the end of 1781, they had about 80,000 men. It was out of the radicalism of the northern Volunteer clubs that the society of United Irishmen was born.


In 1791, a twenty-eight year old Dublin barrister, Theobald Wolfe Tone, travelled to Belfast for the founding of the society of United Irishmen. Similar organisations followed in Dublin and in many parts of Ireland. The United Irishmen knew that for a successful insurrection they needed support of the Catholic peasantry. They found a ready response among the members of a Catholic secret society called the Defenders, influenced by the French Revolutionary ideas.

The first arrests of United Irishmen began in 1793. Wolfe Tone was expelled to America in 1795, whence he moved to France.

In Carlow, the movement appears to have caught on fairly quickly. The general impression was that the opening words of one version of the oath implied an obligation to gain as many as possible to the system once one had been sworn in.

'I will persevere in endeavouring to form a brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of all persuasions.'

Men actually carried prayer books on them for the purpose of swearing in others. Many of them involved at committee level were masons, smiths, stonecutters, saddlers, shop-keepers, victuallers, publicans and jobbers.

On the 19th of October Patham wrote to William Burton stating that he had heard of several meetings in Carlow of the United Irishmen - who were becoming more daring everyday. He stressed the need for more military. It was estimated that the number of United Irishmen in the county was around three thousand at the time.

In County Carlow, the committee at each level of the United Hierarchy had a treasurer and each new member was "fined" a sum on being enrolled. McCarthy stated that he gave a shilling entrance money at his first meeting and a further sixpence for the monthly meeting. William Farrell stated that he paid sixpence on entrance and a further twopence monthly to the fund, but he also added that there was some irregularities in payment of subscription...

"as there was too much good nature among the brotherhood, they would not hurt the feeling of each other by pressing the demand too strictly"

Meetings were held frequently in private houses, inns and public houses. Meetings of larger numbers took place in rural chapels or on estates adjoining the town. (Attending wakes was one of the commonest excuses given by men found travelling together at night without any signs of legitimate business about them). By the spring of 1798, it is estimated that their was around eleven thousand United Irishmen in Carlow.