The cabbage plot rebels

The Young Ireland Rebellion and Limerick
Laurence Fenton
Mercier Press; €16.99

LAURENCE FENTON has written a tantalising introduction to the events leading to the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848.

The author’s goal was to “explore the manner in which the men and women of Limerick reacted to the tumultuous year of revolutions”.

Prior to the death of Daniel O’Connell at the height of the Great Famine in 1847, the vast majority of Irish people supported him, but there was a growing minority of critical intellectuals, represented by Young Irelanders. Both O’Connell and Young Ireland desired repeal of the Act of Union and thus Irish independence, but Young Ireland was not prepared to rule out the use of force unequivocally “at all times, and in every circumstance”.

Limerick was spared the worst of the famine because of the number of bacon factories. While those elsewhere in the country were more concerned with getting food, there was more interest in Young Ireland among the people of Limerick.

Prominent Young Irelanders such as Charles Gavan Duffy and William Smith O’Brien “recoiled from any precipitate move towards violence”, according to Laurence Fenton. Even John Mitchel, the most outspoken advocate of physical force, did not call for immediate revolution. He called on people to arm themselves.

The impetus for rebellion came from the continent, with the outbreak of revolutions there. “The temper of Irish nationalism was transformed by events in Paris,” according to the author. Several of the Young Irelanders went to France to see things for themselves. Thomas Francis Meagher came back with the green, white and orange tricolour, which would one day become the national flag.

“The Young Ireland rebellion occurred on the afternoon of Saturday, July 29, 1848,” the author writes. It was largely a farcical affair that took place in the garden of the widow McCormack. Younger Irelanders, under the leadership of William Smith O’Brien surrounded some 50 policemen who held McCormack’s five young children as hostages. The police were armed with guns, while the Young Irelanders were armed with pikes and pitchforks, which were useless from a distance.”

The rebels outnumbered the police, but they were hopelessly outgunned. Thus, most gradually drifted away before the arrival of police reinforcements.

Tension had been growing since the murder of the land agent Ralph Hill in Limerick. The Times of London denounced the events surrounding that murder in hysterical terms, but after the so-called rebellion the attitude “switched from morbid fears to hysterical laughter”.

The rebellion was described as “a great sham” and was likened to a play that failed to open. The whole thing was just a skirmish with a couple of casualties. It was absurd to compare it to the 1798 Rebellion in which 30,000 died.

The Irish people had proved themselves “idiots and poltroons”, according to The Times, which described the rebels as “one mass of imbecility”. Former British prime minister Robert Peel derided the “cabbage garden heroes” of Young Ireland.

Most of the Young Ireland leaders were rounded up and many were exiled to Van Diemen’s Land. But their treatment was relatively lenient.

Smith O’Brien and the other recognised leaders were treated as virtual guests. He actually described his three months of incarceration in Dublin as “one of the happiest periods of my life”.

Even in Tasmania, they were allowed to live in the community on parole, and most soon escaped to the United States. What subsequently happened to those people is a fascinating story in itself.

Although the rebellion was a farce, the romanticised version help to boost the Irish demand for independence and influenced the lead-up to the Easter Rebellion of 1916.


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