Conditions in Ireland before '98

Beginning in William's reign and continued in those of Anne and the first two Georges, forced through were a series of Acts, knowns as the Penal Laws, suppressing Irish Catholics and having the effect of maintaining the ascendancy of the Protestant class, which was only one quarter of the population.

To understand the rise of the United Irishmen and the Rebellion of 1798 one must understand the conditions at that time for a Catholic peasant in Ireland. Here is a list of some of the oppressions these people had to endure.

Things forbidden were:

The United Irishmen

After the leading United Irishmen were arrested in March of 1798, punishments meted out to anyone suspected of rebel activity by the military in the Leinster area became increasingly severe. The government had grasped the full extent of the conspiracy and were determined to crush it totally, using harsh methods if necessary. The army's definition of "harsh methods" was severe in the extreme. Militiamen and dragoons in Cork who were discovered to have taken a local Defender oath were given sentences ranging from 500 to 999 lashes. Not all of these floggings were carried out fully - often between 200 and 425 lashes were administered, with the rest remitted if the culprit agreed to service overseas for the remainder of his life. Such floggings were extremely inhumane, resulting in flesh being torn in lumps from the body, exposing bones and internal organs.

On 30th March, 1798 a number of districts in Leinster were proclaimed areas in which the military could live at "free quarters" and search for arms. In effect, this meant that the military were let loose and were "encouraged in acts of great violence against all who were supposed to be disaffected". There were virtually no restraints at all on these troops - their only task was to obtain the surrender of arms and to uncover local United Irishmen officers.

Aside from flogging, other forms of torture were used; "half-hanging", where a rope was pulled tightly around the victim's neck and then slackened when he became unconscious and the pitch-cap, where a brown paper cap was filled with molten pitch, placed on the victim's head, allowed to set slightly and then set alight, resulting in burning pitch falling onto the victim's face and eyes. It could usually only be removed together with much of the victim's hair and scalp.

All forms of torture were applied indiscriminately to innocent and guilty suspects, since it was felt that torture would quickly distinguish between the two. However, it was the floggings that inspired most fear and were most effective in obtaining information quickly, together with a surrender of arms. After the proclamation on 30th March, the wooden triangle, upon which those to be fogged were spreadeagled, appears to have been first erected in Athy, county Kildare.

"They were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy and though some men stood the torture to the last gasp sooner than become informers, others did not, single informer in the town was sufficient to destroy all the United Irishmen in it".

Research for this web page used the following sources:

The Last County
The Emergence of Wicklow as a County 1606 - 1845
County Wicklow Heritage Project

Eye -Witnesses to Ireland in Revolt

edited by James Hewitt

to the 1798 Rebellion Home Page

to RTC Carlow index page

AK 7th July 1995