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29 May 1997 Edition

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A seething mass of sedition

Summer Soldiers: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down
Published by Blackstaff Press
By A.T.Q. Stewart
Price £12.99

The title of this book is taken from the opening lines of Tom Paine's The American Crisis, a series of 13 propaganda pieces written to raise flagging spirits at a critical stage in the American War of Independence.

In November 1776 the British had taken Fort Washington, a key revolutionary stronghold, where they had captured over 2,000 men and a substantial amount of arms and ammunition. By December, they had forced the Americans back to Trenton, Philadelphia, the symbolic seat of liberty, which seemed likely to fail.

In The American Crisis Paine applied himself to rallying support in the face of almost certain defeat. Circulated in pamphlets and broadsheets, it opened with a rousing call to arms. `These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny like hell is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph'. On the eve of the battle of Trenton, officers read it to the revolutionary troops. The British lost the battle and Paine's pamphlet became a classic of radical propaganda.

ATQ Stewart's Summer Soldiers is a narrative history of events that culminated at Ballynahinch in 1798. Written in an accessible and engaging style, it describes in vivid detail how Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter turned out that June to fight for the rights of man and the rights of nations.

Th heroes of republican folklore are all here: Henry Joy McCracken, the rebel leader hanged on improvised gallows in High Street, Belfast, opposite the market-house where he had taught Sunday school; Rev James Porter, the propagandist, hanged within sight of his meeting -house at Greyabbey; Roddy McCorley, Betsy Gray, Henry Munro and, of course, the staunch and stoic figures of Jemmy Hope and Mary McCracken, living for over half a century after the bloody deluge of `98.

Perhaps most movingly of all, however, Summer Soldiers recalls the anonymous. Stewart recounts how Samuel Skelton, Lord Masereene's agent, watched yoemanry parties bury cartloads of rebels in the hot sun after the battle of Antrim. ``The bodies were shot in, a cartload at a time. `Where the devil did these rascals come from?' the officer asked the driver of one cart. A poor wretch raised a blood-streaked face from the cart and feebly answered: `I came frae Ballyboley'. He was buried along with the rest''.

By any standards, Stewart has penned an impressive narrative. However, a flawed analysis lies behind the purple prose. First, as the title suggests, Stewart regards the United Irishmen as a less than happy alliance. Disunity and division - between rich and poor and between Presbyterians and Catholics - are constant themes. Here, Stewart appears to be restating an argument in his more analytic study The Narrow Ground (1977) that republican nationalism was only adopted by a minority of Presbyterians. In Stewart's view, republican nationalism only received an enthusiastic response from Presbyterians east of the Bann and even there only from specific groups and only for a short period of time.

This opinion is utterly at variance with the correspondence of military officers and magistrates who saw a seething mass of sedition in Dissenting congregations across the north in 1796-8. Of course, this is not to deny that there were divisions within the United Irish movement. However, the sporadic guerrilla-type conflict of 1796-7 and the turnout in `98 dramatically demonstrated the commitment of a substantial cross-section of society to non-sectarian nationalism.

Second, although the book is a military history of events in Antrim and Down, Stewart's narrow focus on the `turn out' allows the rising in `98 to eclipse politicisation as the most significant contribution of the United Irishmen to Irish politics. Recent published work by Nancy Curtin, Louis Cullen and Kevin Whelan has shown that there was a lot more to republican nationalism than pikes and guns.

Careful readers will note that Stewart's flawed analysis does not rest on any comprehensive archival work. The most important primary sources for the history of the United Irishmen are the `Rebellion Papers' - magistrates' letters, military reports and captured communications packed into 67 large boxes in the National Archive. Stewart refers to only four documents in this massive collection.

Audaciously avoiding the main collection of source-material, he draws on miscellaneous documents in other archives but he relies most heavily on printed accounts, particularly post-rebellion analyses by participants from both sides, such as Jemmy Hope's autobiography and Samuel McSkimmin's memoir. These are useful sources. However, they require a very careful reading. Time changes people and their politics. Still, for all that can be gleaned from post-rebellion accounts, one expects the historian will consult the main primary sources.

For all its faults (and they are many), this is a good read. Read it. Be sure to read more.

By Mícheál O Ríain.

Getting the measure of poverty

Poverty in Rural Ireland

Poverty in the 1990s

Published by the Combat Poverty Agency

Are you deprived? Is your income inadequate? Do you suffer from a lack of resources or a subsistent standard of living? Maybe you are just excluded. But the unanswered question is, are you poor?

Confused? Don't worry, you are just another victim, the collateral damage of an unending and often dubious academic debate on poverty. At its core is the issue of not how to tackle poverty but how to define it and how to measure it.

Poverty and deprivation are the outcomes of the inequalities that characterise Irish society. Such inequalities are not peculiar to Ireland, they are a feature of capitalist societies and market economies throughout the world. Tackling poverty and its causes is supposedly the objective of successive Dublin Governments.

However, in the late 1990s it seems that the only measurable outcome is the number of reports and studies on the subject. That is not to say that academic study of the issue is not worthwhile. It is. The problem is that the arena of debate has been limited to academic circles and has rarely included the wider public and or those who are enduring deprivation.

One very public exception to this has been the Combat Poverty Agency whose publications are more readable and accessible than the work of many of their academic colleagues.

These two new publications from them are a welcome contribution to the debate on poverty for two reasons.

Firstly, Poverty in the 1990s goes a long way towards categorising and assessing the different attitudes and positions on the measurement and definition of poverty.

Secondly, Poverty in Rural Ireland puts the academic theory and studies in a practical context offering a range of policy responses to the complex issues of poverty and underdevelopment that characterise large parts of rural Ireland today.

Poverty in the 1990s is based on a major research programme being carried out at the Economic and Social Research Institute. It offers a unique study of poverty in Ireland over the last ten years. The major difficulty is that there is so much material to cover in this publication, especially when you apply the different measures of poverty.

But this is also a strength of both publications; they cover a range of analyses and so manage to convey in a readable way the complexity of poverty in Ireland today. Added to this is the crucial undercurrent of how the studies should inform action on poverty and deprivation. This is why Combat Poverty, unlike many others, do seem to have taken positive steps towards getting the measure of poverty. The question now is whether the policy makers are listening.

By Neil Forde

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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