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The Summer Soldiers: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down Amazon Co UK

A T Q Stewart.  Blackstaff Press, Belfast; 1996.  ISBN 0-85640-558-2.  £12.99

 Professor Tony Stewart is an historian who lectured until 1990 at Queen’s University of Belfast.  He is already well known for his definitive account of The Ulster Crisis of 1912-14 which has recently been re-issued by Blackstaff.    His style is very readable, somewhat reminiscent of the late A J P Taylor.  He gives a brief explanation of the Society of United Irishmen's origins in the Presbyterian-dominated Volunteer movement which, under Henry Grattan, had seemed to succeed in gaining independence for the Irish parliament in 1872.

The Society was set up in 1791 by a group of well-to-do merchants, tradesmen and skilled artisans, many of whom were Presbyterians who as ‘Dissenters’ could not be represented in the Irish parliament and were forced to pay tithes to the Anglican church.  Its members, like most Belfast Presbyterians, sympathised with the rebellious American colonists.  They felt similar grievances against the injustices of English episcopalian rule.  Many of the American revolutionaries had emigrated from Ulster to escape this tyranny.  Those who remained backed their American cousins.  The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave fresh hope to the radicals who founded the Society.    It appeared to them at the time that ordinary French people were establishing a new and just society.  They, in turn, drew up a programme for an independent republic based on Thomas Paine’s book, The Rights of Man.   War with France broke out in 1793 and the Societies of United Irishmen began to be suppressed by the authorities.  A French invasion was feared by the English authorities and hoped for by many of their unwilling subjects.  Senior United Irishmen were prosecuted for seditious libel.  The Societies began to go underground.  By 1796 they had become a secret army.

 Severe repression began to be used against known or suspected members of the Societies.  An Insurrection Act allowed the death penalty for administering an unlawful oath.  Arrests were frequent.  In one notorious case, a young Presbyterian named William Orr was hanged outside Carrickfergus on October 14th 1797.  Before he was hanged he witnessed to the crowd that ‘I am no traitor.  I die for a persecuted country.  Great Jehovah receive my soul.  I die in the true faith of a Presbyterian.’  The simple slogan REMEMBER ORR! Drew many recruits to the banners of the United Irishmen.

This was the background to the rebellion which broke out the following year.  Stewart gives gripping hour-by-hour accounts of the battles in Antrim, Ballymena, Saintfield and Ballynahinch and the grim aftermath when many towns, villages and farms were fired and many of the leading insurrectionists were hanged.

This was an account of a revolt led in the main by Dissenters.  Stewart, however, does also examine the role of the Catholic Defenders - who were in a shaky alliance with the United men - and the newly-formed Orange society whose members played a part in the rebellion’s suppression.

 The odds were against the rebellion succeeding.  The French were not going to come as liberating allies.   Nevertheless, these ordinary folk picked up their pikes to strike a blow for liberty an justice against tyranny and arbitrary power.  If you must read one book about the ‘98 in Antrim and Down this inspirational work should be it.  If you want to know more then read Dickson’s much more detained Revolt in the North.  It’s currently out of print but I’d be very surprised if some publisher doesn’t reissue it soon.  

David Kerr

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