In September 1791, Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone published “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” which maintained that “religious division was a tool of the elite to balance the one party by the other, plunder and laugh at the defeat of both”. Tone’s pamphlet was hugely influential. Tone and friend, Thomas Russell, became passionate fighters for Catholic rights. A group of nine Belfast Presbyterians interested in reforming Irish Parliament liked his ideas and invited Tone and Russell to Belfast where the group met on October 14, 1791. At this first meeting, the group, that became known as the United Irishmen passed three resolutions. The movement became supporters of the Catholic Committee, which had been working to get Catholic Emancipation bills through Parliament, repeal the remaining Penal Laws and abolish the Tithe laws. However, the ultimate goal for the United Irishmen was to separate religion from politics.
Dublin soon followed Belfast’s example by founding its own branch of the United Irishmen on November 9, 1791. Inspired by the American and French revolutions of the late 18th Century, their aims were to work together with the Catholic majority to gain social democratic reforms and independence from England. By 1797, the society had at least 100,000 members throughout Ireland, but despite this strength the leadership did not have the confidence to rebel without the aid of French troops.
The spread of the society was watched with growing alarm by the authorities and it was banned in 1793 following the declaration of war by France on Britain. At that stage, the Church and the French republic were enemies. The formation of the Orange Order in 1795 was to prove particularly useful as it provided the Government with allies who had detailed local knowledge of the activities of their enemies. Also in 1795 the Dublin administration funded the new St. Patrick’s College, the first seminary for Roman Catholic priests which ensured the support of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.
In December 1797, a fleet of French vessels accompanied by Theobald Wolfe Tone (leader of the United Irishmen) were prevented from landing in Ireland due to poor weather conditions and poor decision making on the part of the leadership. In retaliation the authorities attempted to undermine the society, which forced the United Irishmen to act whilst they still had a strong membership and fix a date for the uprising. On 23rd May 1798 the rebellion began without French support and was followed by three months of sustained and bloody violence. The rising ultimately failed, and by 1803 the Society of United Irishmen was no more.
The decision to abolish the Irish Parliament resulting in the ‘Act of Union’ in 1800 that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland played on sectarian hopes and fears and was to gradually erode the United Irishmen by playing Catholic against Protestant. The failure of Robert Emmet’s rebellion in 1803 triggered the effective collapse of the United Irishmen and the first half of the 19th century saw sectarianism replace separatism as the touchstone for political unrest in Ireland.