Arthur O'Connor and the United Irish rebellion

Ruán O’Donnell reviews Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union, Ireland in the 1790s, Jim Smyth (ed.), Cambridge University Press, £35 hbk and Arthur O’Connor, United Irishman by Jane Hayter Hames, Collins Press, £16 (24.95 euros) hbk

JIM SMYTH of Notre Dame, Indiana, has brought together several leading United Irish scholars in this impressive volume.

Louis Cullen, whose work in the 1980s helped open the once neglected theme for serious evaluation, focuses on the series of political crises in the 1790s which impelled the country towards rebellion in 1798.

Tom Bartlett’s meticulous work on the post-rebellion topic of ‘suffering loyalists’ and prisoner disposal is highly original and also timely given the increasing attention being paid to the period spanning 1798 and the underrated rising of 1803.

Mary Helen Thuente continues to document and contextualize republican literature and propaganda in her chapter ‘The Belfast laugh’: the context and significance of United Irish satires’.

No Irish conspiracy had previously devoted such resources to radicalising public opinion ahead of revolutionary offensive and, while this reflects technological and infrastructural improvements favouring mass distribution, the ambitious scope of the strategy also revealed the extraordinarily high calibre of the United Irish leadership.

Regional aspects of the rebellion era are addressed by Nancy J. Curtin, Tommy Graham and Daniel Gahan in relation to Ulster, Dublin and Wexford respectively while Michael Durey, David Miller, Fintan Cullen and Luke Gibbons explore more general matters with equal efficiency.

Smith, unusually, contributes not only a thoughtful introductory chapter of historiographic importance but another on public opinion during the Act of Union controversy.

Having risked the inclusion of weak elements in a comparatively broadly-themed edition, Smyth’s Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union is a refreshingly high-quality product.

Prior to the production of Jane Hayter Hames’ book, Arthur O’Connor was probably the most important United Irishman lacking a full length biography.

A Cork parliamentarian turned revolutionary, O’Connor survived a major treason trial in England in 1798 and rose through the ranks of the Napoleonic army to a generalship.

Hames, an English descendant of the controversial exile, has tackled her unusually difficult subject with a combination of private family papers, unpublished memoirs and a small survey of secondary texts.

The result is a competent first pass at an important task which tends to flatter O’Connor in regard to his disputes with the Emmets et al without fully exploring the contested issues.

The short passage on the rising of 1803 for instance is not only inaccurate but does little credit to her ancestor owing to over-reliance on post-dated accounts.

Hames, to her credit, has added to the case for a major study of O’Connor using the comprehensive Irish, British and French government primary sources now available.

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