1798 - and why it still matters

Paddy Cullivan to examine the United Irishmen rebellion in new show

IN 1798 something remarkable happened in Ireland. Irish Catholics and Presbyterians put aside religious differences to unite in common cause over their grievances against British rule and its discriminations against them. Between May and October that year, they fought to establish an Irish Republic.

The rebellion was driven by the society of the United Irishmen, mostly Dublin and Ulster Protestants, inspired by the radical ideas of unleashed by the American and French revolutions - freedom, egalitarianism, and rule by the people, not monarchs. Their leader was the Dublin born Theobald Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism, whose guiding vision was: “To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter - these were my means.”

This year marks the 220th anniversary of the rebellion - which began on May 24 1798. However, given it was widely marked for its bicentennial in 1998 and that the State is currently in the middle of the 'decade of centenaries’ charting the events of 1912 to 1922, 1798 is likely to be overshadowed. Yet, Paddy Cullivan - satirist, commentator, performer, and leader of The Late Late Show house band The Camembert Quartet - believes 1798 and the United Irishmen's ideals must not be forgotten, but instead need fresh examination, precisely because they are more relevant now than ever.

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Paddy will present his new show, The 10 Dark Secrets Of 1798, in the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday May 15 at 8pm. He describes it as “a live documentary with four songs topping and tailing both halves" and "300 images" telling the story chronologically. "It is a bit like The Late Late Show in that it starts out hopefully, goes on way too long, and in the end you feel depressed," he says, "but at least you'll be informed!"

Paddy, who was born in Galway, credits his passion for history, and for 1798, to his father, the classical composer and pianist, Tom Cullivan. "In 1982 we moved into a Georgian house on North Great Georges Street, dating from the boom period before the 1798 Rebellion," he says. "Luke Gardiner, who developed Dublin's northside was killed in New Ross in 1798, and my dad also did a show on 1798 called 'Myles Byrne Remembers'."

'1798 is reduced, by documentaries and establishment historians, to the 'suicide' of Tone, and a few anti-Republican talking points'

The 10 Dark Secrets Of 1798 follows Paddy's successful and provocative The 10 Dark Secrets Of 1916, which challenged official and traditional narratives and analyses of Ireland’s path to Independence. Audiences can expect the same passion for history, and historical rigour and investigation, as was on display there.

“The reaction to the 1916 show was amazing,” Paddy tells me, “in part I think because there is so little history discussed in Ireland, and it unfolded like a thriller. People were astounded at some of the facts beyond the official narrative as I think they will be with the new show. The Dark Secrets format fits because there is so much that is unknown to the populace in general about these seismic events.

“As with 1916-23, 1798 is reduced, by documentaries and establishment historians, to the 'suicide' of Tone, and a few anti-Republican talking points - the Scullabogue Barn and Wexford Bridge massacres - while ignoring the 25,000 people massacred after they lay down their arms. Sectarianism is ramped up using the condescension of hindsight, when the truth is far more interesting, such as Presbyterians also being subject to the Penal Laws.”

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So what are audiences likely to learn from this show? The first is that Wolfe Tone’s suicide may have been no such thing. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that, after the rebellion’s failure and Tone’s capture, he slit his throat while in prison to deprive the British of the pleasure of executing him themselves.

“There are so many holes in the story,” Paddy points out, “from the illegality of his prosecution to the many attempts by Lord Kilwarden to save Tone - who knew he had a case - to the French doctor who operated on him mysteriously, and subsequently published a description of disguising a gunshot wound as a knife wound. But the surrounding evidence is the most obvious - leaders dying mysteriously in prison was par for the course throughout 1798 - and there was no way Tone could be allowed to escape with his life or die with dignity. The stigma of suicide, especially among Catholics, could be used to besmirch him and divide his following over the next two centuries.”

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One of the most astounding things of 1798 is that Irish Republicanism was birthed by Irish Protestants and that Ulster Protestants were so prominently involved. Yet, within a few years, this radicalism was extinguished, and replaced by loyalty to the British crown.

“It's fascinating,” says Paddy. “The Orange Order was founded in 1795 amid the clamouring for a republic from modern thinkers from all backgrounds, but it was later in the 1880s when they really kicked off with the anti-Home Rule movement with support from the preacher ‘Roaring’ Hugh Hanna and Winston Churchill's father Randolph. I also think the bloodshed, overblown sectarianism, and economic fallout from 1798 would have turned off a lot of people. In 1898 Betsy Gray's memorial was vandalised rather than let nationalists commemorate her, even though she was a folk hero to Protestants too. A tragic turnaround.”

'We are on the cusp of a United Ireland, bizarrely sooner than we imagined because of the Brexit debacle'

Yet despite the “bloodshed, overblown sectarianism, and economic fallout”, Paddy argues passionately that the rebellion’s ideals, and Wolfe Tone in particular (“Tone confounds every expectation - he's supposed to be a loyal Protestant yet travels the world trying to end his own kind's ascendancy. He should protect his own interests but wants equality for everyone.” ), remain relevant, inspiring, and deeply challenging to contemporary political attitudes and structures, not to mention the oncoming impact of Brexit.

“We now live as citizens, not subjects, in a flawed and incomplete Republic because of the ideas of the men and women of 1798,” says Paddy. “The viciousness of the British government’s response is the greatest legacy though - and often why in these times of diplomatic relations with Britain, we tend to forget the horribly creative levels of violence used on over 30,000 people. It led to the Act of Union, a union that is now shattered because of Brexit, and makes one wonder if the United Irishmen had it right all along, because Unionists now have a hard choice - a new future or a hard border.

"We are on the cusp of a United Ireland, bizarrely sooner than we imagined because of the Brexit debacle. We are closer to the dream of the United Irishmen coming true than ever before, yet this amazing story of republicans of all backgrounds coming together is being ignored, as expected. As with 1916, the story of a collective effort by people of all creeds and classes needs to be told.

"Establishments are, by their nature, hierarchies, something a republic should seek to abolish. The church, academic, and political classes cannot bear these egalitarian rebellions because it threatens their very existence. That's why there is a constant attempt to reduce these things to immoral violent outbursts when the everyday violence of these hierarchies on the people is far more insidious and controlling. World War I took far more lives than the 1798 and 1916 rebellions combined - but it is an official and therefore 'just' blood sacrifice. People are getting sick of it though and can see through the crass attempts to belittle the sacrifices made through our history.

Tickets are available via the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).

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