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  • michellebennington

History Behind the Book, Part 1: Irish Rebellion

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

I’m not sure exactly where my book Widow’s Blush began, what compelled me to write it, but it sprang out of my fascination with late Georgian / early Regency eras in Europe and America. The late-1700s to mid-1800s was a time of great revolution and change in culture, philosophy, science, industry, and technology. As such, it was also a time of great upheaval with people divided against each other and creating factions with factions.

Though Widow’s Blush is not historical fiction, it is fiction within a historical setting inspired by real historical events. Over the next few blogs, I’ll pull out a few of those threads to shed more light on the events behind the story.

One event I’d like to discuss is the Franco-Irish collusion against the English in the 1700s. In my story, the main character, Ravenna, is Irish-born, survives the Wexford massacre and makes her way to England. At that point, she’s forced by Irish rebels to aid the Franco-Irish rebellion.

It’s this rebellion I’d like to unpack a little. Entire books have been written about this, so I can't get too in-depth in a blog, but perhaps what I discuss here will whet your curiosity to read further. Though the rebellion I mention in Widow’s Blush takes place in 1797-1798, the matter really began much earlier, as these things so often do.

Let’s go back to a tavern in Belfast in October 1791 where a man named Theobald Wolfe Tone (image right), a barrister, joined together with like-minded men to found The Society of United Irishmen (SUI).

There were other branches of the SUI founded in Belfast in Dublin. Their goal was to peacefully work toward a more independent and democratic Ireland. The majority of the leadership was Protestant, but they wanted to unite across denominations. Keep in mind, Protestants and Catholics have a long, embattled history in Ireland long before and long after this short span I’m discussing here.

Ultimately, the desire to unify the Catholics and Protestants proved too great a task. Though some of their reforms had been successful, ultimately, there was still a great deal of resentment among Catholics and Dissenters because the bulk of the power was still consolidated in among the British government and the Anglican Protestant elite. The Dissenters, it’s important to note, were Protestants who dissented against the Anglican Church and believed they shared more in common with the Catholics.

Meanwhile, tensions rose between Britain and Revolutionary France in 1793. The Reign of Terror carried out in France shook England, a country built on the aristocracy, to its core. They feared the revolution would infect England as well, so the government was determined to fight it with military force. This did not bode well for even the peaceful reformers in Ireland because they were known sympathizers of the French Revolution. Now the British viewed Irish with a suspicious eye and perceived them as a serious threat.

However, it seems British suspicions were not unfounded because in 1794 the British government exposed the collusion between the Irish and the French. The British government cracked down on the SUI and Wolfe Tone fled Ireland to find refuge in America.

If the British government thought the crackdown on the SUI would destroy them, they miscalculated. As often happens with rebel factions, the group was driven underground and radicalized. The British force was the final straw and the SUI were determined to break all ties with Britain to create an independent Irish Republic by any means necessary, including violence.

The landscape of historical Irish politics is complex and complicated. It sometimes makes my head spin trying to keep it all straight. But at this time there were other religio-political groups such as The Defenders (Catholic), The Peep O-Days (Protestants), and the Orange Order (Protestants)—all raiding and attacking each other.

The now radicalized SUI allied with The Defenders—in spite of religious beliefs. This unification was necessary because The Defenders had the largest membership and gave the SUI a greater national reach. Unfortunately for the rebels, the alliance didn’t necessarily negate the tensions and fighting among the religious sects. But I don’t want to get into those weeds!

There’s an old adage: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This was the tactic the SUI hoped to leverage against the British by forming an alliance with the French in hopes of gaining military support for an uprising.

In December 1796, Wolfe Tone negotiated an alliance with the French. As a result, the French launched an expedition to bring 14,000 troops to Ireland. The fleet succeeded in eluding the Royal Navy, but was set back by violent winter storms. Some of the ships were lost off the southwest coast of Ireland and the rest were forced to return to France.

This, however, caused a counter-insurgency within the borders of Ireland. The government decided it was going to destroy its internal enemies and behaved ruthlessly with torture, execution, mass arrests, and house burnings.

The army and militia were supported by the newly raised Yeomanry (the gentleman farmer, land-owning people) who were largely Loyalist Protestants. All this served to deepen the religious divide already festering in Ireland. The definition of Loyalist is also complex and complicated, with a whole history of its own. So, for the purposes of this blog, I will say, in a nutshell, the Loyalists were those Protestants who were loyal to the British Crown.

Further, as part of their counter-measures, the government established a network of spies, which succeeded in penetrating and undermining the SUI. As a result, many of the leaders were arrested and executed.

The counter-insurgency put pressure on the rebels to strike before all was lost. So, on May 23, the mail coaches leaving Dublin halted, signaling the rebels. Unfortunately for the rebels, they were ill-equipped on every level to successfully defeat the government. The rebels were poorly armed, trained, and led, which caused them to quickly descend into isolated and uncoordinated outbreaks in the counties surrounding Dublin. Dublin itself was placed under a strict military lockdown and never faced serious threat from the rebels.

Within this movement there were several locations where the rebellion gained ground or were crucial turning points. Each battle has a history of its own that I won’t go into here, otherwise I’ll be writing another book! But the key places to remember are Wexford, Ulster, Vinegar Hill, Castlebar and Ballinamuck. Needless to say, in all of these places, there was a great deal of brutal fighting, torture, rapes, injury, suffering, burning down villages, and death. That’s the nature of war.

In Castlebar, there was a brief moment of hope for the rebels when they won a notable victory on August 27. But when the victory failed to spark the mass revolt they needed to carry the rebellion forward, they were forced to surrender to the British at Ballinamuck on September 8. This effectively ended the Irish rebellion.

Wolf Tone, who had accompanied a small group of French reinforcements, was captured at sea a month later. He was condemned to death by hanging, but he requested to die by gun fire. His request was denied so, he cut his own throat and died in prison.

In all, the rebellion failed. The SUI forces had been vanquished and brutal retaliation delivered upon both the rebels and the civilian Catholic populations. Most of the rebel leadership had been killed and estimates of the total death toll have been put in the tens of thousands. Any hope of resolving sectarian hatred had been destroyed. Instead, the division grew only deeper.

Worse, not only had the SUI failed, but the British pulled Ireland under tighter control, abolishing the Irish parliament, and making Ireland an official part of United Kingdom in 1801.

But that doesn't mean everything became peaceful. There are still groups in Ireland fighting for separation from the British Crown, with varying degrees of violence, while others in Ireland seem content to remain part of the kingdom.

In Widow’s Blush, I don’t go into the details of the Franco-Irish collusion or the rebellion, but it is a background catalyst for the behavior of my protagonist Ravenna. I am considering, though, if this book does well, perhaps I’ll tell the story of Ravenna's time in Ireland before she lands in London. The events that unfolded in Ireland were so complex and fascinating, it would certainly make for a great adventure for Lady Ravenna Birchfield.

Further Reading:

Wilkes, Susan. Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries. Pen and Sword History: 2016.



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