Story of Ireland: 1798

BBC TV’s Story of Ireland series reached 1798 last week and devoted 13 of its 59 minutes to the United Irishmen and the Irish Rebellion (or Revolution, as presenter Fergal Keane refers to it).

Picture of the 1798 memorial, Carnew, Co Wicklow © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

1798 memorial, Carnew, Co Wicklow © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand

To be fair, the programme covered two centuries, from the aftermath of the Flight of the Earls to the defeat of the Rebellion and the death of Wolfe Tone.

The place of Ireland in the religious wars of the 17th Century, the plantation of Ulster under James VI and I, the arrival of the Scottish Presbyterians, the other Irish Rebellion – of 1641, the depredations of Cromwell and his successors during the Interregnum, the Williamite-Jacobite war, the Irish Ascendancy, emigration to America and Grattan’s Parliament as well. A lot to squeeze into an hour.

And the scene was set well for the story of 1798.

So – what was there to praise about the programme?

It showed the United Irishmen and the 1798 Rising in good historical context – not just the European religious wars, but the revolutionary and republican movements which had seen American independence and the Revolution in France.


Rightly it pointed out that the early high-minded political and revolutionary movement of the (originally largely Protestant) United Irishmen changed as sectarian conflict and terrible military atrocities on a largely defenceless population swept more and more people into conflict.

It leaned quite heavily on Wolfe Tone, though of course he was vital to the story. And it was balanced – although there were multiple atrocities perpetuated by the military, there were also two by the rebels against the loyalists/government supporters, in Wexford and Scullabogue.

What was missing?

But it’s puzzling that little or no mention was made of the yeomen, volunteer regiments which were responsible for many of those atrocities. Since Nicholas Delaney’s story involves yeomen, I may come back to them in another post.

And there was no mention of the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where the rebel/United Irish army was finally crushed in the south-east, and the last pitched battle there – apart from what was more of a skirmish at Ballyellis, Nicholas’s own home.

A story often told

Ever since the last man died and the last woman was raped at Vinegar Hill the story of 1798 has been retold and reinterpreted time and again – republican revolution, nationalist rising, agrarian rising, Catholic rising, early attempt at socialism, anti-English war, anti-Catholic war and much more.

I’m glad that it has now has been told in prime-time on a main BBC TV channel, even if the programme was too rushed for me and made those two surprising omissions.


For more background on the United Irishmen and 1798, try these links from Wikipedia and the BBC. There’s so much on the internet, these seem good places to start. Can anyone suggest other good overviews?


New: Here’s a link to the episode. What do you think?


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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9 Responses to Story of Ireland: 1798

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  6. John Payton says:

    Whilst I thought that Fergal Keane’s programme was overall an excellent production and was very well balanced in it’s presentation, there were, however, three areas I felt he could have given more attention to:-
    1) Did DeValera deliberately stay away from the negotiations with Lloyd George (and Winston Churchill) and send Michael Collins instead because he knew that there would have to be concessions over the 6 Protestant dominated Counties of Ulster, and also that they would have to adhere to the Oath of Loyalty to the British King, but which he, DeVlera did not want to appear to responsible for accepting?
    Wasn’t it therefore the case that he sold Collins down the river and, in the latter’s own prophetic words, forced him to sign his own death warrant? Much has been written and said about the real reasons for DeValera’s absence from the London Conference, but Keane only seemed to refer to it very briefly.
    2) Although mention was made of the many thousands of Irishmen who died fighting for the British Empire in World War 1, plus the fact that Ireland (Eire as was) remained neutral during World War 2, no reference at all was made to the hundreds, probably thousands, of men from the Republic who nevertheless joined the British armed forces to fight against Hitler. One prime examples is that of Spitfire pilot Wing Commander “Paddy” Finucane DSO, DFC, from Dublin, who although shot down and killed in 1942, had already accounted for no fewer than 26 enemy aircraft.
    3) The only other serious omission from the programme I thought was any mention of the role of the minority Protestant community in the Republic. The Church of Ireland is still an important institution to this day and I wonder, for example, how many British viewers would have known that St.Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is in fact Protestant, and not Roman Catholiic?! This fact alone should have been at least worth a mention in my opinion.

    John Payton


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  8. Bob says:

    Why the scheduling mess for the final part 5? It was moved to from Monday to previous Sunday,for what? a repeat of James Mays toy train programme which in turn is shown 3 days on the trot


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