Zembo on Patterson, 'In the Wake of the Great Rebellion: Republicanism, Agrarianism and Banditry in Ireland after 1798'

James G. Patterson
Matt Zembo

James G. Patterson. In the Wake of the Great Rebellion: Republicanism, Agrarianism and Banditry in Ireland after 1798. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008. vi + 202 pp. $84.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-7693-0

Reviewed by Matt Zembo (Hudson Valley Community College) Published on H-War (December, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=39285

In the Wake of the Great Rebellion, James G. Patterson sets out to present to the historian “not a political narrative of events in Ireland between 1798 and 1803” but a “view [of] politicization and political action in as broad a context as possible, beyond formal organizations” (pp. 9, 11). Patterson’s intention is to discuss how United Irishmen republicanism persisted on a local level and how a general unease and agitation continued to persist in the Irish countryside after The Great Rebellion of 1798. He builds on the excellent work of previous historians, such as Marianne Elliott and Ruan O’Donnell, and others who focused on where Ireland and its rebels fit into the international picture; on the larger-than-life figures, such as Robert Emmett and Wolfe Tone; or on military histories of the rising. Patterson does an excellent job of discussing the previous work of his colleagues, all the while making the case that he has indeed found gaps in the narrative in need of better research and understanding. He argues that there is a need for a more complete picture of the continued politicization and activity of the United Irishmen in the period 1798-1803, years often overlooked by Irish historians. Patterson points out that his “focus is on the grassroots politicization in the form of paramilitarism and secret society activity” (p. 8). He argues that the years between 1798 and 1803 were not years of total republican decline but a period of retrenchment and continued low-level localized activity throughout Ireland. He puts forth a well-researched and convincing argument that Emmitt’s Rising of 1803 was not an isolated fiasco solely based on the prospect of a French invasion of Ireland but that Emmett fits into a much broader picture of continued republican activity, political dissent, and low-level political violence throughout Ireland that never completely disappeared and may have been less sectarian in nature than previous historians have argued. This low-level violence was not coordinated in any meaningful way at a national level, nor was all of it in the name of the United Irishmen, as some violence was the industrial or agrarian action typical of eighteenth-century Ireland. A much more general unease existed, along with it, enough of a republican infrastructure to act as a meaningful catalyst for men like Emmett and his compatriots to act in 1803.

Patterson organizes his study based on the following regions: Antrim, Down, South Munster, Galway, Mayo, and South Leinster. Each region is the subject of a brief, but detailed, background history, which concludes with an in-depth regional post-rebellion analysis. Patterson does an admirable job of weaving through the social, political, and economic complexities of eighteenth-century Ireland in a manner that is both informative and easy for the reader to digest. His easy-to-follow and engaging style is perfect for students and the layperson. Each chapter brings to life the locality’s political and social atmosphere to an impressive level of depth and understanding. He recreates local character from his extensive research and understanding of official records, correspondence, and newspapers, which he weaves together to give the reader a seamless narrative of the period. He breaks down the complexity of groups of individuals from region to region and delves into the diverse and varied reasons that motivated them toward a spirit of active, continued resistance against the establishment. What appears to be sectarian violence in one area is, on closer inspection, simply anger at local landlords. In other regions, agrarian unrest was tinged with republican leanings and not sectarian hatred. What was perceived as an overwhelmingly Catholics-only movement (The Defenders) is surprisingly full of Presbyterians in some areas. Violence traditionally thought to be sectarian in nature over the winter of 1799-1800 on closer inspection is found to be motivated by the hope of French intervention and lingering republicanism. Irish rebellions throughout history failed due to their inability to bring a bewildering plethora of motivations and desires to focus on a single goal that all could agree on. This pattern was on display in the Anglo-Irish War and the subsequent civil war in the twentieth century.

The most interesting aspect of In The Wake of the Great Rebellion is how Patterson manages to bring to life long-forgotten Irish revolutionaries, such as Daniel Cullinan, alias General Clark, a man who crisscrossed Ireland spreading republican ideals while evading authorities until 1804. His study of Joseph Cody and James Corcoran point to the idea that what seems to be simple banditry on the surface may have had more profound political importance (see chapter 8). This makes sense as the weak only have so many ways to resist the overwhelming powers that be; if those powers are seen as illegitimate, then what better way to challenge that illegitimacy than through the disrupting behavior of bandits and rogues. Patterson acknowledges throughout the book that the period between 1798 and 1803 was the beginning of much sectarian violence but there was still much traditional agricultural unrest along with more republican agitation than previously thought. So much so that government authorities still considered the United Irishmen a threat to be worried about. Patterson proves that Ireland was by no means at peace from 1798 to 1803 and the United Irishmen were still evident throughout Ireland and responsible for some of the violence in the countryside.

While Patterson proves the continued existence of the United Irishmen in the period, his argument that they were not a completely spent force does not stand up to scrutiny. There was little coordination on the national level after 1798 that could have had any possibility of success without French intervention—especially after a government crackdown in 1799 scattered what was left of the republican leadership. As a matter of fact, Patterson and others have pointed to a lull in republican activity after the Peace of Amiens with France. While republicans and their organizations could be found everywhere in some form, they lacked the leadership and wherewithal to be effective. Even as agrarian violence racked the countryside, it is debatable as to how much was actual republican activity or simply defined as such by the government or claimed as such by the perpetrators. Emmett’s hope to turn agrarian violence toward revolutionary ends seems like desperate wishful thinking. If the United Irishmen were not a spent force, then their dream should not have died with Emmett on Dublin’s streets and a Royal Court in 1803. The Irish had little to unite them as they were ripped apart by political, religious, and economic forces beyond any one group’s control at a point of great change throughout the world. Patterson’s conclusion that sectarianism was not the motivation for all the violence of the period and that the United Irishmen did not die in the ashes of 1798 is supported by his research. But it is questionable as to how effective a force they still were in 1803 and it does seem apparent that the sectarian divide was inflamed in the period. While one may disagree with some of Patterson’s conclusions, he does an excellent job of recreating the Ireland of the late eighteenth century for us.

My only negative criticism with Patterson’s work is that he geographically limits himself based on other scholars’ previous work. While he is respectful and deferential to those scholars, by focusing solely on regions that he feels have not been covered by others, he expects his readers to be intimately knowledgeable, and accepting, of other scholars’ work in those regions. The book would have been stronger if he looked at all of Ireland, especially given that his style and analysis are very engaging. Thus, his work does not stand-alone but is better read in conjunction with other works. After reading In the Wake of the Great Rebellion, the reader is left to wonder what Patterson thinks about events in these other regions. One hopes that he is in the process of writing a more comprehensive book as we speak.

Overall, I recommend the book to both experts in Irish history and those with a passing interest in the subject. It is perfect as a text for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. It would work well in war studies and conflict studies classes as Patterson does an excellent job of recreating the unstable and violent atmosphere of a nation in the throes of civil war and its aftermath with all the conflicting forces at play when a government is struggling to maintain legitimacy.

Citation: Matt Zembo. Review of Patterson, James G., In the Wake of the Great Rebellion: Republicanism, Agrarianism and Banditry in Ireland after 1798. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=39285

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