‘Calculated to excite the minds of the public’: South Ulster and the Young Ireland Rebellion 1848

A depiction of the Young Irelanders’ failed rebellion in 1848.

July 2018 marks the 170th anniversary of the 1848 Young Ireland Rising. This article explores Irish Confederate activism in south Ulster, 1848, by Kerron O Luain.

In July 1848, the Young Ireland movement attempted an insurrection aimed at toppling British rule in Ireland. It was, in military terms, an utter failure, but the political and social influence of the movement had long term consequences.

The Young Irelanders were a group of, mostly youthful, nationalist activists who began their political careers in the early 1840s as a vocal and sometimes radical cadre who developed theories – particularly in their organ The Nation – of cultural nationalism and civic republicanism within the broader movement to repeal the Act of Union of 1800 which was headed by Daniel O’Connell.

The common perception of the Young Irelanders and their July 1848 rebellion is that of a bungled attempt to lead the peasantry by an inexperienced group of high-minded intellectuals in the midst of the social chaos caused by the Great Famine and British laissez-faire economic policy.

The common perception of the Young Irelanders and their July 1848 rebellion is that of a bungled attempt to lead the peasantry by an inexperienced group of high-minded intellectuals.

However, what is less well known is that the Irish Confederation, founded by the Young Irelanders in mid-January 1847 after they seceded from Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association, made serious attempts to arm and drill its members throughout the country in the months preceding the eventual rising in Tipperary on 28 July 1848.

This held true in Ulster as it did elsewhere. Belfast was to the fore in the province and the city’s Repeal and Irish Confederate history has been addressed already in a number of works, both published and forthcoming.[1]

But the commercialised market towns of south Ulster, including Ballybay, Carrickmacross, Castleblayney and Newry especially, were also places where important attempts were made by the Irish Confederates to move towards physical force republicanism in 1848, particularly in the aftermath of the February Revolution in France that had overthrown the monarchy there and founded the Second French Republic. The collective action of Parisians inspired republicans and democrats across the continent and, equally, struck fear into the aristocracy and the governments of various states.

Additionally, and perhaps as important as the reasons for an upsurge in urban physical force republicanism, the factors which mitigated against the Irish Confederates gaining serious traction out in the countryside are also worthy of consideration.

Rousing the rural masses?


From the spring of 1848 different parts of rural south Ulster and its adjoining districts appeared to be in a state of agitation and preparation for rebellion, while other areas seemed to remain docile. In general, the rural proletariat and peasantry were in a state of ferment and starvation but were without strong leadership at the local level. Nevertheless, rebellious activity was detected on the radars of the authorities in some places.

The police in Ulster were sure that the Irish Confederation, the military wing of Young Ireland, posed little threat in the north.

Sources such as police and magistrates reports are, by their nature, top-down. But they offer one of the few available contemporary snapshots in assessing the sentiment of rural dwellers during 1848 when literacy levels were low and record keeping by the lower class almost non-existent due to the oral Irish language culture which predominated.

Some references to the Young Irelanders can, however, be found in the folklore through the School’s Collection taken in the 1930s. One account found in both Donegal and Mayo was entitled the ‘Land League Alphabet’ and noted, in reference to their educational and propaganda endeavours, that ‘Y is for Young Ireland that is spreading the light’.[2]

Government reports are, nonetheless, clearer in their chronology. One resident magistrate reported that, travelling between Dundalk and Drogheda, County Louth, towards the end of April 1848, he ‘observed in each village along the road groups of men in earnest conference verging in number I should say from 25 downwards’, and ‘between Dunleer and Castlebellingham I saw three men armed with muskets and marching in single file towards Dublin … the men were dressed in great coats … and wore hats and knee breeches’.[3]

Also in April, Lord Shirley, a Protestant loyalist landlord who owned a vast and congested estate in the largely Catholic barony of Farney in south County Monaghan, received information that pikes in ‘great numbers are being, and have been made in this Barony’.[4]

In May, in central Armagh, a report from Archibald Acheson, second earl of Gosford who resided at Markethill, also stated that pikes were being made at Meigh in the county.[5] In another report from the majority Protestant Banbridge, County Down, on 25 July, several days before the eventual rising in the south, John Welsh, a local justice of the peace, declared the area around the town to have been in ‘perfect preparation for an outbreak’.

Welsh went on to state ‘that on a search warrant being granted to search for embezzled yarn, there were found in a miserable cottage with every appearance of abject want no less than three guns’.[6] Later, in July, crown forces were deployed to Castlewellan, County Down, ‘a locality greatly requiring the presence of a military detachment’.[7]

John Nugent of Portaferry, County Down, was one of the few circumspect commentators when writing about the threat of rebellion in rural Ulster during 1848 even if he displayed his class biases:

I myself do not apprehend any disturbance, and am doing my best to remove any apprehension on the part of others …  I think the badly disposed are too outnumbered and are of so low a class that they would never think to stir.[8]

Even Nugent, however, would later recant his cool and measured analysis after conversing with his brother towards the end of July. Nugent had only received sketchy information from his sibling, yet it was sufficient to startle him into making statements about the very real threat of an uprising in his neighbourhood, thus providing an example of how rumour and fear could overcome the more rational commentators when the possibility of insurrection loomed.[9]

Around the same time a private letter from County Cavan to the Armagh Guardian noted that ‘all is peace and quiet here – everybody anxious to know have we a rebellion in Dublin. They think we are in a frightful state. Statements are, of course, greatly magnified but the people here are not disposed to join the rebel ranks’.[10]

Rural (non) appeal


John Martin

Why, then, were many of the peasantry not ‘disposed’ to march under the Young Ireland-led Irish Confederate banner? For one, secret societies – whether the formalised networks of the Catholic, fraternal and mutual-aid focused Ribbonism or the looser, ad hoc agrarian combinations – were widespread in Ulster and, importantly, were viewed as having legitimacy by many of the province’s Catholic lower class.

Counterproductively, in early 1848 the Young Ireland leader Charles Gavan Duffy, when writing an organisational report of the Confederate Clubs, had insisted that one of the duties of the rural clubs ought to be to endeavour ‘to discourage secret societies of all kinds whatsoever’.[11]

Second, the Repeal Association had never taken the issue closest to the peasant’s heart – that of the land – seriously. It was largely left to James Fintan Lalor, the Laois Young Irelander and land agitator, to weld together the land and national questions, when he wrote in The Nation throughout 1847 that the former was the ‘locomotive’ that would drive the latter. As O’Neill has remarked, Lalor ‘understood the power of the tenants, if only they were organised’ and he advocated for a form of dual-ownership where the tenant held ultimate power.[12]

Even during the Great Famine, the Young Irelanders did not have a strong message of land reform.

But with landlord and aristocratic figures such as William Smith O’Brien also at the highest echelons of Young Ireland, no consensus emerged on the land question and, consequently, no sustained effort was made to appeal to the peasantry with a coherent programme on land ownership.

In Ulster, only late in the day in August of 1847 during the worst year of the Great Famine did the Belfast Vindicator, a pro-Catholic and pro-Repeal organ, call on the Repeal movement to make tenant right (fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale) a ‘leading question’ alongside the question of Ireland’s constitutional status.[13]

Similarly, the Irish Confederates made attempts to win support on the issue of the land by agitating among the burgeoning tenant right movement. In May 1848 tenant righters held a meeting at Shane Hill, County Down, with the aim of achieving a reduction in rents and a new valuation of land in light of the agricultural depression. Placards advertising the meeting – showing Chartist influence and references to the ‘working classes’ – were posted widely around counties Down and Armagh.[14]

The United Irishman reported that many of those present at the meeting were Protestants or members of the Orange Order. The Irish Confederate Michael Doheny, a Catholic, addressed the meeting. He spoke in republican, anti-sectarian terms and demanded that the tenant farmer, without mounting an assault on the system of landlordism, have security and ‘an equal right to the fruits of his industry’, which was met with great applause.

Doheny also referred to John Mitchel having been ‘thrust into a felon’s cell’, which elicited disgruntlement directed at the Attorney General from the audience. The Northern Whig counted 500 in attendance and described Doheny’s speech as a call to arms.[15]

Despite the promising signs of denominational solidarity, the Young Irelanders, like the Vindicator, again only came late to the growing demand for tenant right in Ulster. Moreover, their main objective in speaking at tenant right rallies remained the promotion of Repeal rather than a genuine desire to marry the land and national questions as Lalor envisaged.

Their participation in the tenant right campaign at this point (leaders such as Charles Gavan Duffy and others took part in a genuine fashion later on after the failed 1848 rising) can therefore be viewed as opportunistic and doomed from the outset.

The Catholic Clergy


One of Daniel O’Connell’s ‘Monster Meetings’. The Young Irelanders failed to match his mass appeal.

Having no clear programme on the land and having rejected the conspiratorial impulses of the Ulster peasantry, the only remaining force that the Young Irelanders could turn to in the hopes of mobilising rural dwellers in the approach to rebellion were the priests.

The Irish Confederates could have been forgiven for placing a level of trust in the clergy as in the early summer many priests in the south had entered local Confederate Clubs and attained high ranking positions.

However, when leading Irish Confederate William Smith O’Brien attempted to mobilise the peasantry in south Leinster and Munster in July, many of these same clerics warned their flocks not to follow him.[16]

The Catholic clergy warned their flocks not join the rebellion.

At least one tangible instance of clerical and rural Confederate mobilisation in Ulster survives in the sources. In mid-May 1848, at Swanlinbar, County Cavan, Father Philip Maguire informed his congregation ‘of the necessity of enrolling themselves’ in Confederate Clubs.

The instructions for doing so had been contained in a declaration sent by Father James Bermingham of Borrisokane, County Tipperary. Bermingham had been among several clergy in Tipperary who had aligned with the Confederates in 1848 and he would later champion tenant right in the county.[17]

Bermingham’s instructions urged every man between the age of eighteen and 60 to become members of a ‘national guard’ and to ‘furnish themselves with weapons’. The declaration, along with a speech by Smith O’Brien, were hung on the walls of the chapel and circulated among the churchgoers.

Following the service, Hugh Maguire set up a table and chair in the yard and men began to enrol themselves in the newly formed club. Maguire was subsequently arrested, and papers found in his house ‘shewing the capacity he had long been acting in as Repeal Warden’.[18]

Though this appears to have been an isolated incident, the ease with which the mass goers signed up to the Confederate cause suggests that had there been similar local leaders elsewhere they could have capitalised on the positive nationalist sentiment on display.

Later, during the July rebellion it was reported that ‘Repeal Clubs’ (confused in this instance with Confederate Clubs) had been formed in Maguire’s house, and that around forty young men marched in military formation nearby. They were led by a piper as they proceeded to a wake. The house the wake was held in was inhabited by ‘a better class of person’ and they did not go inside, but instead went to a barn nearby where they awaited riders from Dublin.[19]

It is significant that Maguire had received direction from the south before he attempted to mobilise his flock. The Catholic clergy of Ulster had always been more conservative due to a cautious tendency which had developed among them from living in close proximity to loyalist elements.

Many priests in the north were more forthright in preaching obedience to the law to their flocks as they had witnessed the effects of Catholics groups (often led by Ribbonmen) clashing with the better armed Orange musters and usually coming off worse.

Indeed, following the split between Young Ireland and O’Connell in 1846, most Ulster Catholic clerics appear to have remained faithful to O’Connell, including future Bishop of Down and Connor Patrick Dorrian,[20] later a thorn in the side of Belfast Fenians during the 1860s.

The number of priests who entered the ranks of the Irish Confederation in Ulster in 1848 appears to have been very small. Instead, a good deal – including Father Devlin of Donoughmore, County Down and Father Magill of Saintfield in the same county – registered their support in the Irish Felon for the attempted reunification of Old and Young Ireland as represented by the Irish League project, which ultimately collapsed in June 1848.[21]  

Urban Confederate activism


Urban dwellers were generally less in thrall to the whims of the clergy and it is in the towns of the north that the Irish Confederates gained most traction. The composition of the Newry Confederate Club is likely illustrative of the class backgrounds from which the organisation drew support in the wider south Ulster region.

A police report by Head Constable William Madden regarding a Confederate meeting held in Newry in the days leading up to the rising indicated a working-class rank and file of the Irish Confederation there.

Urban dwellers were generally less in thrall to the whims of the clergy and it is in the towns of the north that the Irish Confederates gained most traction.

According to Madden, who also recorded the attendance of a local baker, shopkeeper and clerk, about 100 people were present at the meeting, ‘most of whom had the appearance of the labouring class’. The leadership, meanwhile, was dominated by the middle classes, with merchants, professionals and shopkeepers to the fore.[22]

In the urban centres of mid and west Ulster Confederate efforts were limited to the work of determined individual emissaries such as William Ward. In early March Ward was arrested in Dungannon after he had been agitating in the town. He had carried a placard depicting a French revolutionary image and ‘harangued the persons assembled in the market square, on the late revolution in Paris’.[23] Ward was arrested again only a month later in Belturbet, County Cavan, for selling newspapers ‘calculated to excite the minds of the public’ and having in his possession a similar placard.[24]

The furthest west in the province the Confederate Clubs seem to have reached is Enniskillen, and only very late and with no remarkable effect.[25] In Derry, apart from several uncorroborated reports of arms being stored in various houses around the city in the week leading up to the rebellion and a meeting being held on 30 June, the Confederates appear to have had minimal impact.[26]

But news of more serious activity and arms discoveries reached Dublin Castle from the towns of the south Ulster borderlands such as Dundalk, Ballybay and Carrickmacross.[27] Not coincidentally, these commercialised towns had been areas of impressive United Irish organisation during the 1790s.

The rebels of Ballybay, for instance, kept up activity after the 1798 Rebellion and into the year 1800, and in 1803 organisers from Dublin were sent to coordinate Emmet’s attempted rising of that year in the south Ulster area, which, according to Brian MacDonald, ‘was still considered to have strong revolutionary potential’.[28]

In June 1848, in Ballybay, a plot to blow up the local gunpowder magazine was thwarted when a hole bored in its wall along with various markings out on the street were discovered.[29] Previously, in April, John French, resident magistrate in Dundalk, reported that ‘pikes were being made to order’ by a blacksmith in the area and that he had pikes of different descriptions brought to him by the police in the town.[30]

The same month a number of pikes were seized in Carrickmacross with the blacksmith in whose possession they were found admitting he had made more.[31] In Castleblayney, meanwhile, in the days leading up to the rebellion a number of pikes and handles were found by the constabulary in the house of a man named Finnigan in the town.[32]

The Foster Confederate Club, Newry


The aforementioned town of Newry, which straddles the southern portions of the counties of Armagh and Down, had borne witness to frequent Repeal activity and debate from 1846,[33] and it is there that Irish Confederate efforts in south Ulster were focused.

In May 1846 the town’s Repealers had engaged in debate over the policy of abstention from Westminster, which had been adopted by William Smith O’Brien as a tactic to push for Repeal. The Newry Repealers eventually passed a vote of confidence in Smith O’Brien during his term of imprisonment for abstention.[34]

Newry, which straddles the southern portions of the counties of Armagh and Down was where Irish Confederate efforts in south Ulster were focused.

However, other issues, not least among them the theoretical use of physical force, eventually ruptured the Repeal Association both nationally and locally in July 1846 into rival Young and Old Ireland groupings. Following the split the O’Connellite loyalist grouping in Newry’s Repeal Association went into decline and was superseded in terms of activity by the Irish Confederates who held meetings through 1847 and into the first half of 1848.[35]

Yet, in the wake of the fissure of mid-1846 and throughout 1847 the political affiliation and ideology of both camps remained in a state of flux. The O’Connellite rejection of physical force in Newry, for instance, was shown to be somewhat ambiguous when the Repeal organ in the town, the Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, offered condolences to United Irishman James ‘Jemmy’ Hope when he was on his deathbed in January 1847.[36]

In spite of the rift, Confederate fortunes fared well in Newry where, on 22 November 1847, a meeting was held that passed off peacefully. At the gathering John Mitchel, a native of Newry himself, argued for independence from the ‘fangs of England’ citing economic reasons such as poor rates, low agricultural prices, ‘pauperism’ and ‘imperial taxes’.

Mitchel highlighted the autocratic nature of the Repeal Association and promised the audience that the Confederation, which he claimed ‘was not a party’ in the traditional sense, would allow for free thinking and not bind its members to the expressions of other members, to resolutions passed or to articles in Confederate journals. The relative success of the assembly caused the Examiner (who despite the split still wrote favourably of those who seceded) to state that the Irish Confederates had ‘won the frontier town of the north to Repeal’.[37]

But tidings of success had been premature on the part of the Examiner. By the spring of 1848 the ‘Old Ireland’ or O’Connellite contingent had rallied and managed to disrupt a Confederate meeting in Newry. On 18 February 1848, the Belfast Newsletter reported on one such assembly held in the town:

It was evident, from the confusion and interruption which prevailed during the whole of the proceedings, that a great portion, if not the majority, of the persons present, accounting to four or five hundred, were hostile to the principles of the Young Irelanders.[38]

Ultimately, for the Vindicator, the turbulence and factionalism surrounding the meeting was counterproductive and assisted in ‘confirming the prejudices which exist in Ulster against Repeal of the Union’.[39]

The Examiner had reported on same assembly in more favourable terms, however. It noted that a ‘Great Confederate Meeting’ was held in a store room belonging to James Ferguson, a merchant tanner and currier, at 38 Merchant’s Quay.[40]

Merchants and others from the better off classes who led the Irish Confederation were numerous in Newry. Henderson’s Directory of 1854 described the town as ‘an important sea-port, an extensive market town, and Parliamentary borough’. Along the quays there were large and well-built warehouses, while the streets were regular and compact and the shops neat and lighted with gas. There were printers, drapers, publicans and a substantial cohort of large traders and provisions suppliers.[41]

Other attendees at the meeting included several Young Irelander figures: David Ross, president of the Newry Club; Michael Doheny, who made a speech appealing to the landlord class; John Martin, a Newry Presbyterian, and Belfast man John Rea. A solicitor, Rea later defended John Mitchel after his arrest for treason.[42]

The crowd was estimated at between five and 800, including some of the town’s upper classes. The Examiner reported that:

On the platform and in its immediate vicinity, as well as in the lower part of the room, we observed several of the most respectable merchants, professional men, and shopkeepers of Newry … on a side gallery were several of the respectable ladies of Newry.[43]

Despite the discord between Young and Old Ireland in the town and the problems at the meetings, in June 1848 both factions backed the moves towards reconciliation in the form of the Irish League. The Old Irelanders put their trust in ‘whatever our inestimable leader, John O’Connell considers most suitable to the welfare of his native land’.

And at a meeting held in the John Mitchell Confederate Club rooms in the town on 19 June it was also resolved to support the fledgling Irish League.[44] However, the attempt fell apart on a national level when John O’Connell withdrew his support citing the Confederates’ continued support for the theoretical use of physical force.

Protestant responses


An Orange Order crest from 1832

The response among Ulster Protestants to this rise in physical force republican activity and the move towards rebellion by the Irish Confederates was not uniform. Since the early 1840s the Young Irelanders, many of whom were Protestants, had made genuine appeals to their co-religionists for support.

Such attempts were still being made in the period 1847-48 following the establishment of the Irish Confederation.

The Confederation sent delegates to Ulster in 1847 and again in 1848 to canvas Protestant support for Repeal and their efforts probably played a part in the founding of an autonomously operated Protestant Repeal Association in Belfast during May 1848.

However, the Confederates, like the Repealers before them, failed to win mass support among Protestants and many Orange Lodges rallied in reaction to the perceived nationalist threat. The Great Famine had quelled ‘party demonstrations’ such as the Twelfth, with a particularly low figure for 1847. But with the lapse of the Party Processions Act in 1845 and the rise of the Irish Confederation in 1848 hostilities redoubled, with loyalist mobilisation increasing significantly during the course of the year.[45]

Although many Young Ireland leaders were Protestants, the Confederates failed to win mass support among Protestants and many Orange Lodges rallied in reaction to the perceived nationalist threat.

In some places the magistracy assisted in mobilising sections of Orangeism on an independent basis. In County Monaghan, Lord Shirley and others met and resolved to call on local loyalists to ‘enrol their names for the purpose of associating for mutual defence.’[46] Nonetheless, the ever-vigilant Orange Order took the lead. As Allan Blackstock has documented, across Ulster ‘many Protestant gentry re-joined the Orange Order, often renewing familial continuity with the 1790s’.[47]

In March 1848, in Campbell’s Hotel in Armagh City, the Order passed a resolution in response to the February Revolution in France, that had overthrown the monarchy there and founded the Second French Republic. The Armagh Guardian reported that the Order resolved that it viewed with ‘abhorrence and detestation the sympathy expressed by the disaffected and revolutionary party of Ireland with the anarchists of France.’ [48] 

Such resolutions were made within the context of events in Paris and large meetings in favour of revolution that had been held in Ulster towns such as Cookstown, Dungannon, Omagh, Beragh and Belfast.[49]

The remobilisation of some Orange Lodges was accelerated by government connivance in attempting to utilise its networks as a mechanism for counter-revolution, as had been the order of the day in the late 1790s too. Lord Lieutenant Clarendon made overtures to the Orange Order and turned a blind eye to the provision of arms and funding to loyalists. A report carried in the Banner of Ulster in May 1848, noted how ‘arms, accoutrements, and ammunition were forwarded … under military escorts, from this town [Belfast], to Derry, Armagh, and Newry, for the loyalists of those districts if their services be required’.[50]


Rebellion on the horizon?


By the end of May, and in the wake of Young Ireland leader John Mitchell’s arrest under the Treason Felony Act, the Newry Club had moved to a more radical position. The former President David Ross was ousted by the more militant Patrick Byrne. At a meeting held on the 22 May, Mitchell’s The United Irishman reported that Byrne, on the platform, ‘exhibited two very beautiful specimens of pike-heads, manufactured in Newry’.

Signalling the increased radicalism of the club, Byrne went on to accuse the former president of being an opportunist who would not speak out against Mitchell’s incarceration or support the rebellion that seemed to be approaching.[51] By June, further evidence of this shift had been noted by the police when it was reported that the Foster Club had recently changed its name to the Mitchel Confederate Club in solidarity with their recently convicted leader.

As the summer of 1848 progressed, the Confederates at a local level felt their hand being forced by government with their national leaders before the courts. As a result, a surge in their organisational endeavours was put in motion, including in Newry. Now local magistrates and police forces followed the lead of their superiors in Dublin in attempting to suppress the Confederate Clubs. By June, Head-Constable William Madden of Newry had been dispatched by resident magistrate Singleton to monitor the proceedings of the John Mitchel Confederate Club more closely.[52]

In July, the Newry Old Irelanders petitioned the administration to profess their loyalty to the crown and request that they be allowed the opportunity to act as special constables to put down any planned rebellion.[53] To the delight of the Tory Belfast Newsletter, who cried out that ‘the Repeal agitation was the fons et origo – the nursing mother – of the present widespread and dangerous disaffection’, the Newry magistrates rejected their request.[54]

As the rebellion approached towards the end of July the merchant James Ferguson (who was by now vice-president of the Mitchel Club) held military drilling sessions on his property in the town at the large commons by the quay. On 24 July a meeting of the club was held in the house of Christopher White in the Mall area of Newry. James Martin, brother of prominent Newry Young Irelander John Martin, chaired the meeting.

According to Head-Constable Madden, ‘many others whose names at present I do not know’ were in attendance. The meeting gave ‘three cheers for Repeal’ and ‘three cheers for all the Irish felons’. An article by Charles Gavan Duffy which commented on the ‘spirit of the people’ in 1848 in comparison to 1843 (the ‘Repeal Year’) was read by a baker named James Fearon.[55]

An informant by the name of John Boyd wrote to the Castle regarding the meeting to state that it ‘was not large nor were the speeches of a very violent nature’. However, he also reported that ‘the sale of firearms is carrying on to a very great extent here, this day a number of rifles of a very handy kind were sold with bayonets attached’.[56] On 26 July, two days before the rising, resident magistrate Singleton conducted a search in Newry and found a number of newly fashioned pikes in the attic of club president Patrick Byrne at his residence in Corn Market.[57]

Hopes dashed


When the rising eventually occurred on 28 July, it remained confined to the south, and, as already mentioned, ended unsuccessfully. Ulster did not rise at all. John Mitchel had been exiled and the other leaders, chief among them William Smith O’Brien, were preoccupied with precipitating rebellion among the peasantry in Leinster and Munster.

In the north, government repression in the form of arrests, the deployment of military detachments to districts where rebellion was anticipated, the equipping of constabulary with additional weaponry and the remobilisation of Orange Lodges also quelled any hopes the Confederate Clubs in Ulster might have had of rising up.

In the north, government repression in the form of arrests, the deployment of military detachments to rebellious districts, prevented any insurrection breaking put.

In Newry, in the weeks after the rising in the south the house of William McGuinness, described by the police as a ‘leading officer’ of the Mitchel Club, was searched on 15 August and rifles, bayonets, bullet moulds and three pounds of gunpowder were found.[58]

Confederate activity in the town gradually fizzled out. One of the last reports concerning the movement there came in September 1848 when two Confederate activists were arrested for dispensing cards marked ‘L’ and ‘G’, standing for ‘liberty’ and ‘glory’, and exclaiming that William Smith O’Brien ‘would be along shortly’.[59]

But if hopes for a rising were dashed and activism among the Confederates eventually faded, then what was the legacy of the Young Irelanders in south Ulster?

Despite their shortcomings and opportunism on the question of the land, their misguided expectation that an essentially counter-revolutionary body such as the Catholic priesthood would assist them, and their failure to win mass support among Protestants, the Irish Confederates played a major role in democratising Irish nationalism.

The Foster/Mitchel Club in Newry, in particular, had created a lively culture of debate, activism, and, later, military preparation among a section of the town’s middle and working classes. Hitherto, these nationalists had been relegated to the role of onlookers and financial contributors to O’Connell’s élite controlled mass campaigns.

In the revolutionary climate of 1848 they redefined themselves as independent-minded political participants. Or, to use Mitchel’s words, they had become ‘free thinking’ republican revolutionaries.




[1] Catherine Hirst, Religion, politics and violence in nineteenth-century Belfast: the Pound and Sandy Row (Dublin, 2002), pp 51-67; Christine Kinealy and Gerard Mac Atasney, The hidden Famine: hunger, poverty and sectarianism in Belfast (London, 2000), pp 147-58; Kerron Ó Luain, ‘Young and Old Ireland: Repeal politics in Belfast, 1846-48, in New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua: a Quarterly Review of Irish Studies (Forthcoming, 2019).

[2] ‘Land League Alphabet’, Tristia, County Mayo & Bredagh Glen, County Donegal (National Folklore Collection, Schools Collection, vol.0133, p.109 & vol.1118, p.105).

[3] Report of RM to Under-Secretary Thomas Nicholas Redington (hereafter Redington), Dundalk, 25 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 20/74).

[4] Lord Shirley to Castle, Carrickmacross, 17 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 23/93).

[5] Earl of Gosford to Redington, 14 May 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 2/112).

[6] John Welsh JP to Castle, Banbridge, 25 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/183).

[7] Armagh Guardian., 31 July 1848.

[8] John Nugent to Castle, Portaferry, July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/184).

[9] John Nugent to Castle, Portaferry, late July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/190).

[10] Armagh Guardian, 7 Aug. 1848.

[11] Charles Gavan Duffy, Report on organization and instructions for the formation and government of the Confederate Clubs (Dublin, 1847) (N.L.I., Pamphlets, P 2007, no. 3, p. 7).

[12] Thomas P. O’Neill, James Fintan Lalor (2nd edn., translated from Irish, Dublin, 2003), p. 119

[13] Belfast Vindicator, 21 Aug. 1847.

[14] The Northern Whig, 27 May 1848.

[15] United Irishman, 27 May 1848.

[16] R. V. Comerford, The Fenians in context: Irish politics and society 1848-82 (2nd edn., Dublin, 1998), pp 15-17.

[17] James O’Shea, Priests, politics and society in post-Famine Ireland (Dublin, 1983), pp 69, 143.

[18] Constable Duggan to Sub-Inspector, 18 May 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 4/204).

[19] RM Holmes to Redington, 28 July (N.A.I., OR 1848, 4/287).

[20] Belfast Vindicator, 23 Sept. 1846.

[21] Irish Felon, 24 June 1848.

[22] Constable Madden to RM Singleton, Newry, July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/181).

[23] J. L. Grahaeus to RM Coulson, Dungannon, 9 March 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, no number); Michael Phillips JP to Chief Secretary William Somerville, Belturbet, 13 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 4/149).

[24] Michael Phillips JP to Chief Secretary William Somerville, Belturbet, 13 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 4/149).

[25] Armagh Guardian, 24 July 1848.

[26] Mayor Alex Lindsay to Redington, Derry, 20 July 1848, (N.A.I., OR 1848, 18/72).

[27] RM French to Redington, Dundalk, 1 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 20/128); RM French to Redington, Dundalk, 15 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 20/147).

[28] Brian MacDonald, ‘South Ulster in the age of the United Irishmen’ in Thomas Bartlett, David Dickson, Dáire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds), 1798: a bicentenary perspective (Dublin, 2003), pp 232, 235, 242.

[29] Deputy Quarter Master General R. L. Marsden to the Military Secretary, Dublin Castle, 1 June 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 23/126); RM Ruthven to Redington, Ballybay, 27 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 23/146).

[30] RM French to Redington, Dundalk, 22 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR, 1848, 20/72).

[31] Lord Shirley to Castle, Carrickmacross, 17 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 23/93).

[32] Armagh Guardian, 31 July 1848.

[33] See for example Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 3 Oct. 1846.

[34] BV, 20 & 30 May & 13 June 1846.

[35] RM Singleton to Redington, 14 March 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 2/57).

[36] Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 16 Jan. 1847.

[37] The Nation, 27 Nov. 1847.

[38] Belfast Newsletter, 18 Feb. 1848.

[39] Belfast Vindicator, 17 Nov. 1847.

[40] Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 17 Feb. 1848.

[41] James Alexander Henderson, The Belfast and province of Ulster directory; volume ii, published at the news-letter office (Belfast, 1854), pp 681-90.

[42] Ulster Biography, (http://www.newulsterbiography.co.uk) (29/06/2012). Rea was born in West Street, Belfast, in 1822 and became a prominent figure in the city’s political landscape. Rea contested the 1874 general election for Belfast unsuccessfully. He committed suicide in 1881.

[43] The Nation, 19 Feb. 1848; NE, 17 Feb. 1848.

[44] Irish Felon, 24 June 1848.

[45] Return of outrages reported to the constabulary office during the years 1848-1867, N.A.I. [CSO/ICR 1].

[46] Lord Shirley to Castle, Carrickmacross, 17 April 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 23/93).

[47] Allan Blackstock, ‘The trajectories of loyalty and loyalism in Ireland, 1793-1849’ in Allan Blackstock and Frank O’Gorman (eds), Loyalism and the formation of the British world, 1775-1880 (Suffolk, 2014), p. 119.

[48] Armagh Guardian, 27 March 1848.

[49] The New York Freeman, 15 April 1848, cited in Kinealy, Repeal and revolution, pp 137-8.

[50] Banner of Ulster, 13 May 1848.

[51] United Irishman, 27 May 1848.

[52] Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 16 June 1848.

[53] Joseph Loughran to Castle, Newry, 31 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/209).

[54] Belfast Newsletter, 8 Aug. 1848.

[55] Constable Madden to RM Singleton, Newry, July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/181).

[56] John Boyd to Redington, Newry, 25 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 8/182).

[57] RM Singleton to Redington, 26 July 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 2/204).

[58] J. Phawfad JP to Inspector General, Newry, 20 Aug. 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 2/220).

[59] RM Singleton to Redington, Newry, Sept. 1848 (N.A.I., OR 1848, 2/264).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *