About

John Benan, « The Tree of Liberty », bronze sculpture erected in 1998 in Carlow to commemorate the Bicentenary of the « Great Rebellion ».

In a seminal article in the Irish Historical Studies in May 1985, Thomas Bartlett published a compilation of documents about the Defenders. These documents were intended for Lord Camden, the viceroy of Ireland, and reflected the Castle’s worry about the secret society, identified as the main source of troubles in the isle in the 1790s. One of these documents, an oath taken by the Defenders, read as follow:

« Now you A. B. voluntarily declare to be true to the present United States of France and Ireland and of every combined state in Christianity that is now or hereafter may be for the welfare of our United Brethern; that you aid them as far as in your power lies without hurting your soul or body as long as they to you prove loyal. »

Emanating from a society which has been characterised either as an agrarian, lower-class or as a town-centred, lower-middle-class organisation, this oath and others of its kind have not gathered sufficient attention. The combination of religiosity, of cosmopolitanism and of revolutionary fervour is so striking that it should, at least, challenge the common place and revisionist view that the Defenders were a sectarian, traditionalist, backward-looking body. The accusation that they weren’t able to fully understand the implications of their oaths without the help of their more enlightened, better educated and more moderate allies, the United Irishmen, also seem to derive from a certain disregard if not contempt toward popular classes.

In the same corpus of documents, a drawing, found on 24 February 1795 in the papers of one Friar Philipps of Killfree, near Boyle, the only informer who ever managed to infiltrate the Defenders, is described by the Castle official as follow:

« The drawings are all very meanly executed. They are, 1stly. A Tree of Liberty with branches to represent the several states of Europe. The branches all bear roses, some of them just budding, others opening and at the top of the tree is a rose full blown from France.

« 2ndly. An equilateral triangle for equality with a heart in the middle.

« 3rdly. Within a heart of a much larger size are two full blown roses upon the same item to represent France and Ireland. Lines pass through the heart having letters for the 4 points of the compass at the ends. At the north end is a large lily proceeding upwards from the point of the heart with the words ‘Fleur de luce displayed’. […] »

This unusual — and, let’s admit it, quite obscure — mix of royalist, Catholic, free-masonic and revolutionary symbols is sufficient to warrant a reconsideration of the supposed ignorance and lack of political culture of the Defenders. Indeed, if the secular and inclusive project of the United Irishmen has been celebrated, their catechisms are strongly reminiscent of the same motifs found in the documents of the Defenders. One of these catechisms, published in Cork in 1797, read as follow:

What is that in your hand? It is branch.

Of what? Of the tree of liberty.

Where did it grow? In America.

Where does it bloom? In France.

Where did the seeds fall? In Ireland.

Hence, this notebook’s theme are the revolutionary flows between France and Ireland in the Age of the Atlantic revolutions and republics. Its aims is to better identify the runners between the two countries and also in the geographical context of the three kingdoms (Ireland, Scotland and England) as well as the larger context of the Atlantic world. More specifically, my goal is to identify the circulation of political ideas that have reached the popular masses in Ireland who were not merely passive receptors but rather pro-active re-creators of an original and complex political culture. My research aims at challenging some of the accepted views concerning the United Irishmen and especially the Defenders who blur the lines between such easy-to-identify pigeon-holes as revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, superstitious, royalist Catholics and enlightened, republican Protestants (Presbyterians), Jacobites and Jacobins, and whose existence forces us to ask the difficult question of popular politicisation in Catholic Ireland after over a century of penal laws. In other words, it’s time to give these « Irish sans-culottes », the full attention they deserve, just as the « sans-culottes »– these « French Defenders », as another oath identified them — have been the subject of renewed approaches in recent years.

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