Ulster Presbyterian and the Aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion

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Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
In this thread we shall consider how Ulster Presbyterians reacted following the defeat of the 1798 Rising, and to the Act of Union with Great Britain, to see if this was evidenced of their increasing conservatism.

Only five years after the rebellion in 1803, the vast majority of Ulster Presbyterians were in favour of legislative union with Great Britain. However, one shall argue that support for the union should not be interpreted as evidence of increasing political conservatism. First of all, let us remember that 1798 was not primarily a war between Britain and Ireland, but an Irish civil war between revolutionaries and the Protestant Ascendancy interest that controlled the Dublin parliament. If Presbyterians had become more conservative, then they should have supported the maintenance of the Ascendancy parliament.

The Synod of Ulster had been anti-revolutionary before the rebellion, and remained so in its aftermath; indeed, it was a cause of great embarrassment to the Synod when Dickson was released from prison in 1802. Yet, although they did not represent the official position of Ulster Presbyterianism, there were a number of reasons why radical Presbyterians cooled their revolutionary fervour after 1798. Firstly, the massacre of Protestants by Catholic rebels in Wexford caused radical Presbyterians to look beyond present grievances and see themselves as part of a vulnerable Protestant minority in a Catholic Ireland. For radicals like John Dickey, the massacres indicated that a successful rebellion would have led to a bitter sectarian civil war.

Another factor was the brutal counter-insurgency measures used in the suppression of the rebellion. The sight of the burning of town, destruction of property, torture, floggings and public executions – including that of Rev. James Porter – had a profound psychological effect on many Presbyterians. Despite being only ten years old in 1798, Henry Cooke wrote that ‘impressions were left in my mind that I have never forgotten’ , such was the distressing nature of seeing the Ulster countryside torn apart by the rebellion and its suppression. Similar impressions seem to have been left of many former Presbyterian United Irishmen, as by the end of 1798 many had joined the yeomanry, and even the Orange Order, as the revolutionary elements within Ulster Presbyterianism rapidly dwindled. Hence, it is not surprising that Robert Emmett’s Dublin rebellion in 1803 was ignored by former Presbyterian revolutionaries, who within five years had repositioned themselves behind a position of support for the union.

But this marginalisation of radicalism should not mean that Presbyterian contentment with the union was necessarily evidence of increased political conservatism. Presbyterians remained liberal and reformist in their political outlook after 1798, being prepared to support the legitimacy of a civil government whose political philosophy they rejected. However, Presbyterians saw legislative union with Great Britain as the means by which the reformist policies they supported could be introduced, without having to resort to armed revolution. Far from becoming Tory reactionaries, Presbyterians (with the exception of the Ballymena Presbytery) did not oppose Catholic Emancipation when it was introduced in 1829, despite the best efforts of Henry Cooke to persuade the Synod of Ulster to the contrary.

Another factor in the Synod of Ulster’s compliance with the union was the increase of the regium donum by the government in 1803; having taken the king’s coin, Presbyterian ministers were the king’s men, and were highly unlikely to bite the hand that fed them. Consequently, the objective of the increase – which was to extend state control over the Synod of Ulster – seems to have been fulfilled, because subsequently Presbyterians were afraid of anything (including the release of William Steel Dickson) that could potentially affect the amount of money they received from the state should they appear to be disloyal.
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