An Educational Charity | Charity Reg. No. NIC100280
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Charitable Objectives


The Army

The civil use of the army is considered under 'Law and order' and 'Local government' above. It was the country's chief security under normal circumstances. Abnormal circumstances, when the army was most needed, tended to see a reduction of its strength in Ireland. Ireland had a separate military establishment consisting of British regiments stationed in Ireland and paid for out of the Irish Revenue. In addition there were some regiments on the Irish establishment serving abroad. The Irish parliament certainly did not share the ambivalence of the eighteenth-century imperial parliament towards the army, and the Irish army was comparatively large, with a much higher ratio of officers to men than was usual in British regiments. After peace was signed at Ryswick  in 1697, the British parliament, always fearful of a standing army in time of peace, insisted on a reduction in the size of the army to 7,000 men, while 12,000 were placed on the Irish establishment. This remained the official size of the Irish army in peacetime until 1769, when, after a major constitutional crisis, it was raised to 15,236, with 12,000 always to remain in Ireland.

The army was stationed throughout the country in units of varying size. The erection (see 10 Will. III, c. 4) and maintenance (see 11 Geo. II, c. 13) of these barracks was an important consideration and also an important source of jobs. A number of statutes attempted to provide a framework for the movement of troops throughout the country (e.g. 3 Geo. II, c. 10; 4 Geo. II, c. 7) or to reconcile military and civil demands (e.g. 28 Geo. III, c. 19).

The Militia, Volunteers and Fencibles

Various forms of non-professional soldier appeared from time to time, either the militia or an equivalent. A fencible regiment could be raised and equipped in time of emergency by a local magnate with government support. Militia arrays were held in 1708, 1715, 1719, 1727, 1745 and 1756. Officially all men from 16 to 60 were liable for militia service, but substitutes could be provided. In 1793 under a new militia bill, 33 Geo. III, c. 28, all men from 18 to 45 regardless of religion and chosen by lot were to serve a four-year enlistment period within Ireland but outside their home county. Apart from those who, like Arthur Wellesley (2210), later Duke of Wellington, made the army their career, many Irish gentlemen spent a few years in the army, either before embarking on public life or early in their parliamentary career. This experience contributed to the success of the Volunteer movement during the American war. It gave added value to the patronage of small jobs suitable for civilians with some military experience, although it also made the Barrack Board a source of sometimes rather dubious patronage. It was also a source of much sought-after military titles.

In 1778 the American war denuded the country of troops, and the government of money. Originally the Volunteers were a patriotic response to a national emergency that had left the country defenceless and threatened to undermine law and order. At this time the Volunteers, an independent, unofficial protestant militia, were formed to carry out the functions of the regular troops. This was neither the first nor the only appearance of Volunteers, who from time to time - for instance during the Seven Years' War - had undertaken some of the duties of the depleted military establishment, but it was the most widespread manifestation of this type of civilian support. However, troops outside the control of the government had their dangers. The Volunteers of the American war soon realised their independence and their potential power, and began to exert extra-parliamentary pressure on the British government to grant commercial and legislative concessions. By 1784 the most pressing concessions were granted and the emergency was over. Consequently, the Volunteer movement gradually declined, only to stage a brief revival at the beginning of the French revolution. In Belfast in the early 1790s it took a distinctly revolutionary turn, commemorating the fall of the Bastille and passing resolutions on the rights of man and similar topics. In other parts of Ulster it took on a sectarian aspect against the Defenders: one man stated as his reason for volunteering 'that he would never allow Ireland to become a popish country'. On this occasion the British government pressed for a militia as a safer, if more expensive, alternative to the independent Volunteers.

Westmorland urged a protestant militia on the grounds that it would quieten Protestant fears, which had been aroused over British pressure for Catholic enfranchisement and other concessions. However, Pitt and Dundas, lobbied by the merchant-dominated Catholic Committee, refused to believe the fears of the protestants and were anxious to conciliate the Catholics in what they rightly felt to be an internationally explosive situation. Dundas's letters took on a hectoring, even a bullying tone, and the majority of Irish politicians were convinced that Britain either had forsaken them or was exacting vengeance for their constitutional and commercial demands coupled with their behaviour at the time of the Regency Crisis. The fears of 1641 and 1689-90 were burnt on the protestants' minds in a way that the British government could never grasp.

The Militia Bill, 33 Geo. III, c. 22, made service by ballot selection compulsory, with the potential threat of service overseas. It was now the turn of the Catholics to be upset, as they considered that in making them eligible for the militia, the government was exacting its price for the concessions that they had just received. The country, already subject to agrarian unrest in a number of areas, became further alienated as serious disturbances broke out in the three Catholic provinces - Leinster, Munster and Connacht - and to a lesser degree in Ulster. The self-confidence of the Protestant ascendancy had been broken and they turned more and more to the army for protection, while rural violence intensified among the Catholic peasantry. At home and abroad the crisis deepened. Repression was increasingly and indiscriminately used to control the country, to the point where it has been estimated that following the 1798 rebellion and immediately before the Union there were between 30,000 and 50,000 regular troops in Ireland in addition to 21,000 militia.

Dual Command of the Army

As the king's personal representative, the Lord Lieutenant combined the supreme civil and military authority. He was appointed 'captain general and commander-in-chief of the forces of Ireland'. This designation reflected the inextricably intertwined nature of Ireland's civil and military affairs. However, the Irish army had on its establishment a professional military commander-in-chief and many, but not all, viceroys lacked military experience. In 1783 Lord Temple declared that 'the business of Ireland cannot exist under two masters.'425  The inherent conflict of authority remained dormant until the last quarter of the century, when two factors exposed the administrative contradiction: the magnitude of the crises provoked by the American and French wars and the continual presence of an administrative viceroy, whose office was no longer a 'mere pageant of state' as it had been for most of the century. Both quarrels were over the control, distribution and employment of the army, and - leaving aside personalities, which inevitably played a part - the fundamental conflict lay in the incompatibility of political expediency and military efficiency. William III and all the Hanoverian sovereigns were extremely interested in the organisation and efficiency of the army, and throughout the eighteenth century the royal scrutiny of all commissions and promotions was the chief brake on the political use of military appointments.

In 1769, following a considerable political struggle, the number of soldiers on the Irish military establishment was augmented to 15,000 with the assurance that, unless the Irish parliament so decreed, 12,000 soldiers would always remain in Ireland except during an extreme emergency. This not only was an attempt on the part of the Irish parliament to exert some control over the army, but also showed the British government's desire to spread the burden of imperial defence. After the Peace of Paris in 1763 confirmed Britain's expanded empire, successive British administrations became concerned over the burden of defending their far-flung possessions. Before 1769, 2,000 of the troops of the Irish establishment could be stationed overseas for imperial defence, and in 1769 this was increased to 3,000. Nevertheless, the king could, and did, use the forces on his Irish establishment in precisely the same way as he used other regiments of the British army. Because of its implications for defence and the maintenance of law and order, the Irish parliament was always very nervous of any large-scale withdrawal of forces from the country for service overseas.

Throughout the eighteenth century the attention of the Irish army was equally divided between the maintenance of civil order and the defence of the country against possible foreign invasion. The civil aspect of the army's duties was clearly shown during the American war for when it was largely withdrawn the government could not replace it with mercenaries, as these would know neither the language nor the laws and customs of the country. Instead it was forced to rely on the unpaid assistance of the Volunteers, whose knowledge of both language and country made them very effective peace-keepers, although they eventually demanded a high political price for their services. But under normal conditions many of the duties now undertaken by the police were done by the army, which was largely responsible for public tranquillity, tax collection and law enforcement; because of these duties it was stationed in barracks throughout the country, much to the detriment of professional military discipline. This dichotomy between the army's civil and military function came to a head in 1774 and again in 1797.

In 1774 General Elliot was appointed commander-in-chief of the army in Ireland. Elliot was horrified at the position of the Chief Secretary, the Lord Lieutenant's executive officer, and 'in all departments whatever the only efficient minister'. Elliot resigned in 1775, declaring that 'it cannot be supposed but that the man entrusted with the command of the army is more qualified for that employment, from his long experience in military duties, than most gentlemen in civil capacities.' His military skill was later (1779-81) demonstrated in his brilliant and heroic defence of Gibraltar. Lord Lieutenant Harcourt, on the other hand, knew that it was 'absolutely impracticable to carry on government in a country where all the favours of the crown are scarcely sufficient to gratify the importunities of those who apply for them'.

Tranquillity was temporarily restored by a paper compromise: the roots of the quarrel were too deeply embedded in the nature of government for anything else. The commander-in-chief was given various marks of prestige and power, but the ultimate authority remained with the Lord Lieutenant, who was expected henceforth to defer to the military opinion of the commander-in-chief whenever possible, and in any case to transmit his views to the British ministers concerned. Military business continued to be transacted through the Chief Secretary's office, but the office was reorganised so as to separate the civil and military business as far as practicable.

In 1797 the arrival of General Sir Ralph Abercromby led to what was essentially another instalment of the power struggle between the Lord Lieutenant and the commander-in-chief. Abercromby had been stationed in Ireland before and during the American war. He was horrified at both the professional condition of the army and at the defenceless state of a country already torn by civil disorder. He immediately endeavoured to rectify the situation by tightening the discipline of the army and regularising its participation in civil affairs. In this he acted with more haste than caution, and some of his orders ran directly contrary to those already given by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Camden.

Abercromby wished to confine the use made of the army in quelling civil disturbances to situations similar to those envisaged in the British Riot Act of 1715. Although there were various acts concerned with armed risings and specific types of riot, Ireland did not have an equivalent of this famous act until 1787, when an act (27 Geo. III, c. 16) was passed that included the provisions of the British act and expanded them to the administration and acceptance of illegal oaths and the various concomitants of agrarian crime, such as force and intimidation. Both Abercromby and the Irish Lord Chancellor, Lord Clare (0749), considered with some justification that 'The country gentlemen and magistrates do not do their duty; they are timid and distrustful, and ruin the troops by calling on them upon every occasion to execute the law and to afford them personal protection.' But the nerve of the country gentlemen, who were prominently represented in parliament, had snapped under the pressures of the 1790s; the viceroy, Lord Camden, had already bowed to their agitation and authorised the immediate interference of the army in any civil disturbance.

Abercromby, by the haste of his action on one side and the content of it on the other, had managed to anger both the Castle administration led by Lord Clare and the Irish gentry led by the equally formidable Speaker, John Foster (0805). His remarks on the state of the army, which Abercromby declared to be 'in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to anyone but the enemy', played straight into the hands of the parliamentary opposition headed by Lord Moira (1766). Abercromby, whose reorganisation of the British army was to make a big contribution to the ultimate defeat of Napoleon, was left to apologise to the viceroy: 'I beg leave to assure your Excellency,' he wrote, 'that I never was a political man.' Realising the impossibility of reconciling duty and expediency, he resigned.

This quarrel lacked the bitterness of the earlier disagreement between Harcourt and Elliot,although it was similar in content. Both Camden and his Chief Secretary, Thomas Pelham (1650), were anxious to avoid a disruption of the administration in view of the recent Fitzwilliam débâcle and the unsettled state of the country; nevertheless, this dispute predictably ended, as the former one had done, in the resignation of both the principals. Camden wrote to Pitt advising his recall, on the grounds that 'this government has now become so intermixed with military Measures, which military measures are so connected with the politics of the Country that the Lord Lieutenant ought to be a Military Man & really to command that army of which he is nominally at the Head.' Abercromby concurred with this view, commenting after his resignation that 'the struggle had been in the first place whether I was to have the command of the army really or nominally.' The Pitt administration accepted the realities of the situation and appointed Lord Cornwallis.

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