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A Revolutionary Atlantic? Irish Volunteers and American Patriots

A Revolutionary Atlantic? Irish Volunteers and American Patriots

Annie Tock Morrisette, Ph.D. Candidate

Francis Wheatley, The Muster of the Irish Volunteers in College Green on the 4th of November, 1779.

Francis Wheatley, The Muster of the Irish Volunteers in College Green on the 4th of November, 1779.

On November 4, 1779, Irish men and women gathered at College Green in Dublin to celebrate the birthday of King William III.  The event was traditionally commemorated with parades, illuminations, speeches, and toasts; this year, the celebration featured a demonstration by the newly formed Irish Volunteer militia. The Volunteers, raised to take the place of British forces engaged with colonial rebels in North America, marched, fired weapons, and hung signs expressing radical political demands on William’s statue at College Green.  The demonstrations of November fourth represented the beginning of the Irish Volunteers’ significant role in the struggle for Irish political rights within the British Empire between 1779 and 1785. During this period, Volunteers supported radical Irish politicians to win trade concessions, as well as a degree of legislative independence, from the British Parliament and King George III. The Irish revolutionary struggle must be understood within the context of the American Revolution. As many historians have documented, the Irish revolutionaries were certainly influenced by the example of the Americans, and the interest was not one-sided. The portrayal of the Irish Volunteer movement in Massachusetts newspapers from 1780 to 1785 illuminates the unity of purpose revolutionaries across the Atlantic felt as free citizens of the world.

By combining studies of the Irish Volunteer Movement with accounts of American perceptions of the Irish Volunteers in contemporary Massachusetts newspapers, a picture emerges of how these concurrent movements, one for greater autonomy within the British Empire, the other for independence from it, informed and encouraged each other. In a larger sense, this study points to the validity of the concept of the revolutionary Atlantic and the ways in which common people on both sides of the ocean were politicized. Neil Longley York argues, “The American Revolution—not just the War of Independence—had an important impact on Irish affairs. . . . What was most important for Ireland in the last quarter of the eighteenth century is that the American crisis served as a rallying cry among disgruntled Irishmen.”[1] The connection was felt across the Atlantic, too. According Owen Dudley Edwards, Ireland was important to American patriots for three reasons: as co-sufferers under British tyranny and an example of how autonomy could be lost if not jealously guarded; as a potential distraction for British attention and resources during the war; and as “a mission field for future activity.”[2]

The American papers frequently noted the trans-Atlantic links between their own struggle and that of Ireland. They pointed out that their French and Spanish allies kept the British military busy, allowing revolutionary action to gain momentum in Ireland, and noted specifically that the distraction of the American Revolution gave the Volunteers, also referred to as “associators,” the opportunity to flourish. The American editor wrote, “[The distraction] gave plausible occasion and a fair opportunity to the associators to be formed and disciplined, and to ripen other matters necessary to this important revolution. Thus the independence of these States, and the efforts of our allies, have prepared the way for the freedom of Ireland.”[3] On March 16, 1780, the New England Chronicle contained a brief story on the events of November 4, 1779, under the heading “Dublin, November 10” (indicating this story was lifted from another publication). The paper was careful to include the author’s observation that “The spirit which is to be found in those inscriptions, is not less than that which the Americans showed in the beginning of their Revolution; and the Irish papers abound with that firmness, which the Americans did on the same occasion.”[4] These publications illustrate the interest American patriots showed in the Irish Volunteer Movement as well as their perception of common cause with the Irish and their excitement at successes across the Atlantic.

The Massachusetts Spy masthead.

The Massachusetts Spy masthead.

The Massachusetts press was not content to simply reprint Irish and English articles about the Volunteers’ activity. They frequently prefaced the reports with editorial comments that made clear the connection they perceived between the two revolutionary movements. For example, in response to the Volunteers’ involvement in organizing a national meeting the Hampshire Herald reprinted a New Yorker’s observation, “They are using similar methods for the redress of their grievances that we did, and are now forming a National Congress.”[5] Shortly after the first reports of Volunteer activity on William III’s birthday, the radical printer of the Massachusetts Spy, Isaiah Thomas, published an account of Irish affairs originally printed in a Philadelphia paper. He was careful to retain a Philadelphia editor’s comment, “It is impossible not to admire the spirit which animates the speakers in the Irish Parliament; so daringly pointed, and so expressive of liberty and independence, or not to wish Ireland a similar station among nations as what we enjoy.”[6] Thomas also prefaced a lengthy relation of the Second Dungannon Resolutions with an explanation uniting the American and Irish struggles. He wrote, “The following most important resolutions have been entered into by the delegates of the volunteers in Ireland; and as they bear so near a resemblance to what first called forth the spirit of America, we hold it indispensably requisite to give them to the publick. The Hibernian womb of patriotism appears to teem with some great event, which perhaps is not at a very distant day of delivery.”[7]

Click here to read a contemporary compilation of the Dungannon Resolutions.

Volunteer jug and mug.

Volunteer jug and mug.

The international scope of the revolutionary movement of which the Irish Volunteers were a part was also expressed through the ritual of toasting. Toasts were often drunk at celebratory events as well as public meetings and in less formal context of the tavern. In spite of their association with celebration, toasts could, and often did, serve an important function as a communal expression of political sentiments; evidence of their seriousness can be found in the fact that they were often composed in advance to avoid misrepresentation.[8] The significance of the loyalties declared in toasts was accentuated by their publication in newspapers. The practice of reprinting toasts carried across the Atlantic, where Massachusetts newspapers reported Irishmen toasting the Irish Volunteers, George Washington, the United States of American, and Ben Franklin.[9] Further, the papers reported that the King of Prussia toasted the Irish Volunteers. By reporting these local celebrations and linking their revolution to activities in Ireland, Massachusetts newspapers show and emerging a picture of a larger revolutionary Atlantic world.

Annie Tock Morrisette,”A Revolutionary Atlantic? Irish Volunteers and American Patriots,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), March 20, 2013, http://khronikos.com/2013/03/20/a-revolutionary-atlantic-irish-volunteers-and-american-patriots/.


[1] Neil Longley York, Neither Kingdom Nor Nation: The Irish Quest for Constitutional Rights, 1698–1800 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 105, 106.

[2] Edwards, “The American Image of Ireland: A Study of Its Early Phases,” Perspectives in American History IV (1970): 200–201.

[3] Boston, March 2, Continental Journal March 2, 1780.

[4] Dublin, November 10, New England Chronicle, March 16, 1780.

[5] New-York, Dec. 6, Hampshire Herald, December 14, 1784.

[6] “For the better information of the public,” Massachusetts Spy, March 23, 1780.

[7] “At a meeting of delegates of the volunteer corps, held at Dungannon, 8th September 1783, Massachusetts Spy, December 10, 1783.

[8] Padhraig Higgins, A Nation of Politicians: Gender, Patriotism, and Political Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), 61.

[9] See, for example, Dublin, Dec. 13, 1779, New England Chronicle, April 20, 1780; Public Auction, Salem Gazette, April 27, 1784; and Extract of a letter from Roscommon, Massachusetts Spy, December 30, 1784.

Image Credits:

Francis Wheatley, The Muster of the Irish Volunteers in College Green on the 4th of November, 1779. National Library of Ireland. http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000041664

The Massachusetts Spy masthead. http://teachhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/massspymastfinal.jpg

Volunteer jug and mug. Ballymoney Museum. http://www.visitballymoney.com/volunteer-jug-and-mug.aspx

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