The Age of George III

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The Irish Volunteers, 1778

The Irish Volunteers was a part-time military force raised by local initiative during 1778-9. Their original purpose was to guard against invasion and to preserve law and order at a time when regular troops had been sent to America during the War of Independence. One such organisation was the Wicklow Volunteers. Lord North's government lacked the money to replace these troops. Numbers rose from an estimated 12,000 in spring 1799 to 40,000 by September and to over 60,000 by May 1782. Members were drawn mainly from the Protestant urban and rural middle classes; officers were elected by the rank and file but generally came from the gentry and aristocracy The movement soon took on a political importance, both as the expression of an emerging middle class consciousness and as the basis of a new kind of organized extra-parliamentary support for popular causes.

The Duke of Leinster and other patriots took leading positions in the Volunteers, and under their leadership the movement played a central part in the campaign during 1779 for free trade. During 1780-2 the Volunteers gave continued support to the more militant patriots, their Convention at Dungannon in February 1782 providing the starting point for the final, successful drive for legislative independence.

The Volunteers, under the leadership of Henry Flood and Bishop Hervey, took up the issue of parliamentary reform. A Volunteer National Convention took place in Dublin between 10 November and 2 December 1783. It drew up a detailed reform plan, but the House of Commons rejected Bills based on its principles on 29 November and again on 21 March 1784. By this time the landed and parliamentary elite had become overtly hostile towards the sort of opinion represented by the Volunteers. During 1784 some Dublin radicals tried to broaden the base of the movement, recruiting growing numbers of working class Protestants, and also of Catholics, who had up to this point been largely excluded from the movement because of the legal prohibition on their bearing arms. However, this attempt to create a mass movement proved ineffective. Meanwhile Charlemont, alarmed by signs that government might suppress Volunteering, successfully used his influence as commander-in-chief to damp down political agitation within the movement.

Enthusiasm for Volunteering recovered after 1789, as part of the general radical revival following the French Revolution. The early United Irishmen looked to the movement as the instrument of reform. During 1793, however, the Gunpowder Act, prohibiting the import of arms, and the Convention Act killed off Volunteering, while the raising of a new militia, followed by the yeomanry removed its ostensible justification as a voluntary defence force.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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