The United Irishmen and Freemasonry
The Irish Rebellion (1798) was an uprising started by the Society of United Irishmen, or United Irishmen (UIM) for short, against discrimination by the Protestant Anglican elite class who held power in Ireland with the British and ruled Ireland from their parliament in Dublin. Protestant Dissenters (Presbyterians) and Catholics in Ireland were excluded and discriminated against in all walks of life. Like the American Revolution that inspired it, many of the United Irishmen were Freemasons.
Background: The Irish conflict
Between the early 1790’s and 1803 Ireland and particularly the nine counties of the then province of Ulster suffered one of the most serious terror and blood-letting of rebellions against the Crown. These exceeded even the bloodiest sectarian conflicts of the previous few hundred years. Unlike the more recent violence in Northern Ireland which had stemmed from the 1960s and ended extensively in 1998 and which was more sectarian in nature, this revolt in 1798 against British rule was led by a broad coalition of mainly Presbyterian Dissenters, some Anglicans and some Catholics. Hence their name ‘The Unitedirishmen.’
The Williamite wars and Protestant rule
Let’s go back in history to 1688 and 1691 Ireland, when the Williamite wars took place. King William III of Orange and his armies had arrived on Irish soil from the Netherlands and defeated the deposed King James and his army.
King William of Orange and his followers were Protestant, while King James and his followers were Catholic, and the wars were fought along approximately along these divides.
Following the defeat of King James, Ireland would be dominated by a predominately male and Protestant Anglican elite class, known as the Protestant Ascendancy, which ruled Ireland and had its parliament in Dublin. This would eventually lead to the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Repression of the Catholic majority
In the time following the defeat of King James and his Catholic supporters by King William of Orange, a series of laws were passed, called the Penal Laws, which sought to ensure dominance of the ruling Protestant Anglican Ascendancy in Ireland.
These restrictive laws were designed to ensure that non, but this Anglican elite could ever have positions of any real power in the country and effectively barred Catholics and indeed Presbyterian Protestant dissenters from taking part in any meaningful political and economic activities.
The Presbyterians would however manage to establish a powerful economic force mainly centred around the Linen manufacturing and shipping industries. This was particularly evident around Belfast and Counties Antrim and Down.
The United Irishmen and Freemasonry
Spurred by the lack of political expression and the suppression of Ireland’s Catholics and Presbyterians and by the complete control of Ireland’s parliament by the Protestant Anglican elite class a group of liberal thinkers virtually all initially being Presbyterian Dissenters and Freemasons formed the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast.
They were inspired by the American Revolution, and latter French Revolution. Like the American Revolutionaries, the leaders and many of the United Irishmen’s members were Freemasons.
Formation of the United Irishmen
The 1st Society of United Irishmen was formed in 1791 by a small group of liberal Protestants, in Belfast (currently in Northern Ireland). This would quickly be joined by many other branches which included Dublin. The Society was non-sectarian and crossed religious divides, with membership including Catholics, Protestant dissenters and even a number of Anglicans.
Goals of the United Irishmen
The United Irishmen sought for a proper representation in parliament for all, equality for the majority Catholic population, known as Catholic Emancipation, as well as for the suppressed Presbyterians.
The Irish Rebellion
The United Irishmen had sought help from the French who had promised to send military help to aid their cause. History would however prove that all these attempts were but mere Forlorn hopes such as when in December 1796 Wolfe Tone would accompany 43 French ships carrying an army of some 13,795 men to Ireland only to find the Irish weather defeat them with the loss of many ships and the whole fleet being dispersed in an abysmal failure. Only 35 ships would return to Brest with the loss of 1,500 men drowned and 2,000 prisoners. The later attempts by the French to come to the aid of the UIM would fare no better.
By 1798, armed conflict broke out between the United Irishmen and their supporters and the British Crown and their supporters.
The United Irishmen were non-sectarian, Freemasonry is non-sectarian.
With the recent troubles in Northern Ireland, Freemasonry is often seen as a sectarian, Protestant-only organization. It is not a religion. Freemasonry is not sectarian; in fact, the opposite is true. Freemasonry doesn’t discriminate by religion, colour or creed.
In order to produce harmony between members, it has been a long standing Masonic rule that you must not discuss religion or politics during Masonic meetings, at all.
Proof of this can be seen in the United Irishmen, who comprised of Protestants and Catholics and who fought for independence from Britain and for equal rights for Catholics and Presbyterians.
The Freemason leaders of the United Irishmen brought these Masonic values of freedom and the equality of men to their organization. Their very oath was a testament to it.
The Freemasons of the United Irishmen
Freemasonry promotes the freedom and equality of men regardless or religion or creed. This is perhaps why, like the American Revolution, the leaders of the United Irishmen happen to have been Freemasons as indeed were many of the French leaders. It is speculated that over 90% of the United Irishmen leadership were Freemasons. Here are but a few:
- Dr William Drennan
Dr. Drennan was born in Belfast and later moved to Newry where he practised medicine. It was him who first raised the idea of forming the UIM’s Society as early as May 1791 and later became the first Secretary and President of the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen. Drennan is believed to have joined Freemasonry in 1784 in Newry County Down. In his writings, it is clear to see that he wished the United Irishmen to be founded based on aspects of Freemasonry.
- Henry Joy McCracken
Henry Joy McCracken, from Belfast, was one of the founding members of the United Irishmen. McCracken came from one of Belfast’s prominent shipping and industrial families.
After the Irish Rebellion had been suppressed, McCracken was offered clemency if he testified against the other United Irishmen leaders. He refused and was executed for doing so, by hanging.
McCracken was a Freemason in a Masonic Lodge called “Brown’s Square 763”.
- William Orr
William Orr is said to have been the first martyr of the United Irishmen in Ireland. He came from a Presbyterian family in county Antrim. Orr was tried and executed by the British Crown for breaking 1796 Insurrection Act.
Orr was a Freemason and belonged to a Masonic Lodge in Antrim.
The United Irishmen were a non-sectarian group that sought freedom and equality. Its leaders were Freemasons, and like the United Irishmen, Freemasonry is also non-sectarian. It’s the very ideals of liberty and justice that Freemasonry espouses, that influenced these leaders.
If you’d like to read in greater detail about some of the matters in this article and more about Freemasonry and the United Irishmen, visit the following site. The site is maintained by Wor. Bro. John Lyttle, Provincial Grand Lodge Inspector for the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim.