Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

25 September 1997 Edition

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New in print

1798 in black and white

The Wexford Rising in 1798: Its Causes and Course
Revolt in the North: Antrim and Down in 1798
Both by Charles Dickson
Published by Constable
Price £15.95 each (hardback)

``The object of this institution is to make a United Society of the Irish nation; to make all Irishmen Citizens - all Citizens Irishmen.

``In thus associating, we have thought little about our ancestors, much of our posterity. Are we forever to walk like beasts of prey, over the fields which these ancestors stained with blood? In looking back, we see nothing ... but savage force, ... savage policy ... an unfortunate nation, 'scattered and peeled, meted out, and trodden down! ... But we gladly look forward to brighter prospects; to a people united in the fellowship of freedom; to a parliament the express image of the people; to a prosperity established on civil, political and religious liberty; to a peace - not the gloomy and precarious stillness of men brooding over their wrongs; but the stable tranquility which rests on the rights of human nature ...''

The republication of Charles Dickson's The Wexford Rising in 1798 (1955) and Revolt in the North (1960) is long overdue, and these handsome editions - although quite expensive in hardback - will certainly find a place on many republicans' bookshelves.

When first published, The Wexford Rising marked a welcome change from the interpretation of the 1798 rebellion as a sectarian jacquerie. Similarly, Revolt in the North was the first attempt to write a history of the rising in Antrim and Down from primary sources.

The Wexford Rising is by far the better researched of the two books. Concerned exclusively with the events of the rising - it gives too little background information - it traces developments in the southeast from the preparations of spring 1798 to the final scattering of the croppies in late June.

Revolt in the North gives a similar account of the risings in Antrim and Down. However, while The Wexford Rising suffers from an absence of background information, half of it is devoted to a lugubrious survey of Irish history from the Norman invasion. Still, the account of '98 is quite sound and includes biographical notes on key participants which local historians will find useful.

Before rushing out to buy a copy, remember that these books are old and a bit jaded in style and substance. Reading them now is a bit like watching some old black-and-white movies. A simple story pitched at the heart more than the head. More engaging than engaged.

Of course, there's nothing like an old movie on a wet weekend and these books have their good points. There is something elegantly heroic about the men of property and no property facing British cannon with pikes and fowling pieces.

Still, physical courage was not what made the late eighteenth century a period of profound importance in Irish history. Rather, it was political courage, a willingness to debate, discuss and develop new ideas and work out a new future.

The men and women of diverse social, cultural and political backgrounds who pushed the political programme of the United Irishmen were leaving behind the dead-end certainties of settler-native conflict. Some croppies were forgetting all they had heard about confiscations and plantations in the 1600s. They were forgetting the priests and raparees hunted down in the early 1700s and the petty insults heaped on themselves in their own day. Others were forgetting the pamphlets, sermons and stories about the bloody massacre of 1641. They were forgetting the tory and raparee raids in the early 1700s and their own fears of being overwhelmed by the majority religious group.

Unfortunately, Dickson conveys little sense of the courage and political skill required to build an inclusive national identity and a radical republican agenda in a colonial society where all had suffered and inflicted suffering. Most historians do. Pity. That would be a good read.

By Micheál O Riain

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1