A letter from the Isaac Hicks Papers highlights the insights that business correspondence provides onto contemporary political and social events. Writing on July 2, 1798, Dublin merchant Edward Forbes reveals his perspective on the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.
The recipient, Hicks, was a fellow Quaker merchant in New York whose successful mercantile business allowed him to retire in 1806, not yet 40 years old. The letter forms a small part of their ongoing transatlantic business relationship.
In this case, Forbes begins by discussing his attempts to minimize losses in the face of a rebellion on home soil while French ships menace the high seas. He then switches to the rebellion itself, revealing his partisanship by denouncing the perpetrators as “deluded wretches.” Forbes’ frames the insurrection in religious terms, pitting Irish Catholics and the looming “Enemy” (i.e., Catholic France) against Irish Protestants though few would now argue that the rebellion should be defined so starkly. In fact, many now highlight not only the republican ideals of the United Irishmen, but the fact that it drew support from both ranks. His perspective remains instructive; we might consider that this take troubled him less than recognizing that deeper societal fissures lay at the heart of the conflict. Though he acknowledges the role of “severals calling themselves Protestants,” he quickly dismisses them as “destitute of any religion” and “acting only upon the Principles of Robespierre and other French Tyrants.” As reductionist as it now looks, his characterization probably calmed some of his uneasiness. After all, he writes that he and his fellow Protestants “were to have been murdered” were it not for the “Vigilance of our Government under the Divine Providence.” The prospect of such violence even motivated him to send the women of his family to England, out of harm’s way.
Among Forbes’ arch-villains are the “Popish Priests,” a familiar theme in Irish history, who Forbes seems to insinuate had played a more fundamental role in organizing and leading the insurrection than history itself would suggest. But that is not to say priests didn’t take up arms. In raising the issue, Forbes references two priests who took part in fighting in County Wexford. As he puts it “One of them was killed in an Engagement with our Army, + the other was taken + Hang’d.” These clergymen are easily identified as Michael Murphy and John Murphy. In his dying for the cause, John became a particularly heroic figure perhaps best-remembered in the late 19th century Irish ballad Boolavogue.
There is also something interesting about the date of Forbes’ letter, July 2, 1798, the very day of John Murphy’s trial and summary execution. Sources seem to agree that Murphy’s execution took place in the Market Square of Tullow, County Carlow. This is relatively close to Dublin in today’s terms but comparatively farther in the 18th century. Since Forbes dates his letter “Dublin” it suggests a remarkable efficiency in the lines of communication that news had traveled the distance so swiftly.
It’s worth pointing out that while this letters documents an event in Ireland, the aftermath of the failed rebellion would have a discernible impact on American politics. Much to the chagrin of Federalists, a number of exiled leaders would later make their way to the United States and actively support Jefferson and his party. It’s also worth noting that Michael Murphy carried a banner reading “Liberty or Death” when he fell on the battlefield at Arklow–sounds a little familiar, isn’t it?