The rebels’ aim was to unite Protestants (Anglicans), Catholics and Dissenters (Presbyterians), reform the Irish Parliament and gain greater independence from Britain. The movement’s founder, Wolfe Tone, wanted complete separation from the country that had ruled Ireland intermittently since the 12th century.
While the Uprising in the rest of Ireland was a largely Catholic one, it was dominated by Presbyterians in Ulster, where they were concentrated. There was good reason for their resentment of the establishment. Until the last decades of the 18th century, Presbyterians suffered almost as greatly as Catholics from repressive laws. They could not, for instance, hold public office or join the army.
The Society of United Irishmen, formed in a Belfast pub in 1791, initially pursued peaceful means but as the authorities savagely clamped down on the reformers, infiltrating their ranks with spies and arresting their leaders, the calls for an armed uprising grew. In June 1798 thousands of men joined the rebel cause, gaining the towns of Newtownards, Portaferry and Saintfield. Within days the whole of North Down and Ards was in rebel hands, but armed only with pikes and muskets, they were, ultimately, no match for the cannons of the British army. The Northern Uprising ended with the rebels’ defeat at Ballynahinch on June 13th.
The suppression that followed was savage. Many leaders were executed, nearly half of whom were from Presbyterian heartlands such as Comber, Newtownards, Bangor, Donaghadee and the Ards Peninsula. Marauding packs of British soldiers hunted down fleeing insurgents and killed them where they stood. With its leaders hung or transported to America, the United Irishmen, apart from a brief reprise in 1803, were finished. Never again would an Irish political movement unite Catholic and Protestant.