The Promise Land
Narrative by Jonathan Gray.
For an increasing number of scots-irish the harshness of life in Ireland in the early 18th century had become too much. The persecution of their faith and then ruthless increases in their rents had brought many of them to breaking point.

In this atmosphere came the hope of a new life in a land of plenty. A land so big that it seemed it could accommodate the beliefs, hopes and aspirations of everyone who went there. Like there forefathers had done before them they began a new exodus, this time, to America.

In the early 18th century the scots-irish would increasingly board ships for America from all over Ulster. But before the dream of a new life could be realised many would endure unspeakable hardship in the voyages they undertook and many again would perish.

Long before the huge emigration of irish peasants in the 1840s and 50s, scots-irish crossed the Atlantic in ships totally unsuitable for carrying passengers. Many would die of starvation, cholera, typhoid and even thirst. The voyages would sometimes see entire families wiped out and with them dreams of what might have been. But like some act of nature it was survival of the fittest and those who survived did so with a determination that would form the bed-rock of a new nation.

The scots-irish that settled in modern New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts had not left behind their memories of Ulster. They called their new settlements names like Antrim and Belfast. They brought with them their Presbyterian faith and the democratic principles which it practiced and soon meeting houses began to spring up throughout their settlements.

These early scots-irish settlers were a rugged lot, often fearless and above all determined that they would never again bow down to persecution and oppression. America was to be their promised land and they would form the advance of the pioneers westwards, ever searching for land that was pure and untouched.

By the 1750s the scots-irish formed a significant part of the white American population and before long they would provide a significant input to its formation as a new nation.

Towards the end of the 18th century a new liberalism was growing in the western world, one which questioned the principals of monarchy and spoke of the rights of ordinary men and women. In America the colonists revolted against British rule and won independence in 1776. Many of the key figures involved in the revolution were scots-irish and their success had been keenly followed by many in Ulster.

In Ulster the lives of the ordinary scots-irish were not much better than their Irish neighbours. High rents and an oppressive system of government had led to the formation of the 'Hearts of Steel', the 18th century equivalent of a Protestant terrorist group. Their aim was to terrorise landlords and their agents who imposed high rents and fines. Support for the 'Steel Boys' was not total but their leaders won the respect of many amongst the mainly Presbyterian scots-irish. The combination of a new political thinking and oppression would soon give rise to yet another bloody chapter in the history of the scots-irish.

British rule was weakened by the American war of independence and this produced an opportunity for the Irish Parliament to seek a degree of independence, which it achieved under Grattan in 1782. However a growing number of figures in scots-irish society felt that true independence was now necessary. Ireland was still very much in the control of the established (Anglican) church and the aristocracy.

In 1791 Dr William Drennan outlined a plan for founding a secret society dedicated to political reform in Ireland. He wrote - 'It should be a benevolent conspiracy - a plot for the people the Brotherhood its name - the Rights of Men and the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number its end - its general end Real Independence to Ireland, and Republicanism its particular purpose'. On the 14 October 1791 the 'Society of the United Irishmen' was founded in Belfast.

As the Society began to grow in Ireland revolution raged in France. Together these developments put the British authorities on a defensive footing and Westminster was in no mood to tolerate revolutionary thinking from any quarter. From 1792 Ireland was subjected to continual unrest. Growth in the Society was checked by the efforts of the authorities through informants. The government skilfully played on the age old fears of many Protestants by saying that the United Irishmen would restore Catholic Irish rule in Ireland. As the Society tried to spread their philosophy the twin evils of bigotry and mistrust continued to reign in counties such as Armagh and Tyrone. Indeed as the Society spread a sectarian incident in Co. Armagh between the Catholic Irish 'Defenders' and the Protestant 'Peep O'Day Boys' would lead to the founding of the 'Orange Order', an instrument of their forthcoming downfall under the direction of the Protestant aristocracy.

For too many Protestants the ideals of the United Irishmen where a step too far. In 1793 the Society experienced success when Catholics were given the vote. However success was short-lived as their acts became treasonous with the onset of war with France. For the next three years the society would be beset by informants and near the brink of failure. Then in 1796 with the execution of William Orr the Society received new impetus. In December of the same year one of the Society's leaders Wolf Tone attempted to lead a French invasion force to start an uprising in Ireland. However severe weather turned them back. This was a severe setback for the United Irishmen but the true day of revolution was soon approaching.

In the summer of 1798 the Society mustered its forces in counties such as Antrim, Down and Wexford. The major battles with the crown forces and local Yeomanry were fierce and bloody affairs and names such as Vinegar Hill, Donegore Hill and Ballynahinch soon entered the annals of Irish history. With a mixture of political naivety and poor military experience the efforts of the uprising were soon suppressed and the authorities began a ruthless campaign of apprehending and executing anyone involved. In a short time the Society's leaders would be rounded up and executed.

The revolution wished for by the United Irishmen had failed. Their cause had been rallied to by many but sadly many more had actively challenged it through bigotry and mistrust. Saddest of all some of those fighting under the banners of the Society had fell into age-old sectarian hatred. This event in the history of the scots-irish would now set the basis of Protestant thinking in Ulster for the next two hundred years. Any thoughts of embracing Irish culture or independence for Ireland would be seen to consider failure and more importantly the downfall of Protestantism in Ireland. However for a brief period the United Irishmen had shown a rare glimpse of the possibilities in Ireland and in their aspirations at least they were amongst the most democratic and non-sectarian political leaders Ireland had ever seen.

United Irishmen
"Battle of Ballynahinch" circa 1798.  In the center, Captain Henry Evatt of Ireland's Col. Charles Leslie's Monaghan Militia lies mortally wounded.