Background to the French Revolution

France was ruled by a traditional European feudal system where people were divided into classes according to their birth. At the top was the King who was an absolute monarch. This meant that he had complete control over the country and did not have to consult with a parliament and could pass any law he wanted. He even had the power to have people arrested (lettre de Cachet) without trial or even killed. The King ruled over a system called the Ancien Régime.


Background to the Revolution (2)


This was made up of:

The First Estate: This was the Clergy of the Catholic Church. They were very powerful and controlled a lot of land, wealth and power.

The Second Estate: This was the nobles (counts, dukes, barons etc.). They were very wealthy and held many positions in the French government.

The Third Estate: This was the people who were not born into privilege. The vast majority of people in France were in this category. Some were educated professionals (doctors, lawyers etc.)  and successful business people  called the bourgeoisie while most were poor and uneducated labourers. They had very little influence or power.

One big issue was that virtually all the tax was paid by the Third Estate – the ones who could afford it the least. This meant that the third estate continued to struggle while the First and Second Estates remained in their privileged positions.

There were many taxes for the Third Estate to pay including:

Taille: Land tax paid to the state.

Tithe: Tax paid to the church.

Gabelle: A salt tax paid to the state.

Background to the Revolution (3)


Causes of the Revolution

  • The Royal family of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette lived a lavish lifestyle – living in a massive palace in Versailles with hundreds of servants; and spending their days hunting, gambling and feasting. This caused huge bitterness as the poor people of France struggled to make enough to eat. The people particularly despised Marie Antoinette for her heavy spending on clothes and jewelery. It didn’t help that she was the sister of the king of Austria – a country that was considered an enemy of France.

Marie Antoinette

  • This anger grew after two years of bad harvest between 1787 and 1789. The price of wheat doubled and the most important food for the poor people of France – bread – became scarcer.
  • A new movement called the Enlightenment started to become very popular in France. Writers in the movement like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau encouraged people to question the world that they lived in. This included the divine right of kings, the king himself and the Ancien Régime; and their role in an unfair and unjust society where the lives of most people was a daily struggle.  Rousseau said: ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.’


  • French soldiers returning from helping the colonists win independence in the American Revolution had been very impressed by the new country that was being born there. The ideas included in the American Bill of Rights where ‘all men are created equal’ had been heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. The soldiers brought home from America the belief that a better society was possible.

  • The downside of being involved in the American Revolution was that it cost the French so much money that it nearly bankrupted the country. The American War of Independence was only one of several wars that the French had been involved in during the previous decades and by 1789 Louis XVI was out of money.
  • This led to Louis calling together the Estates General (French Parliament) so that he could raise taxes. It was the first time in over a century that it had met. The Estates General had representatives from all three estates. Louis knew however that he would have no problem getting the meeting to agree to him raising taxes on the Third Estate. This was because each estate only received one vote, regardless of how many representatives it had at the meeting. This meant that the First and Second Estate would always be able to outvote the Third Estate. The blatant unfairness of this system caused huge bitterness and eventually led them to break away to form their own meeting called the National Assembly.

Estates General


History@Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna.

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 8:26 pm Comments (0)
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Theobald Wolfe Tone

This content was created/compiled by Barry Egan

“From my earliest youth, I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain, as the curse of the Irish nation; felt convinced that, whilst it lasted, this country could never be free or happy.I determined to apply all the powers, which my individual efforts could move, in order to separate the two countries. That Ireland was not able, of herself, to throw off the yoke. I knew. I therefore sought for aid, wherever it was to be found. Under the flag of the French Republic, I sought to save and liberate my  own country.”

Wolfe Tone 1798


In Brief:

Some of the main points of the life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, revolutionary leader (useful for those preparing for the People in History question).

  • Born in Dublin on 20 June 1763
  • Studied law in Trinity College
  • Qualified as barrister from king’s Inn aged 26 and attended Inn’s of court in London.
  • While there he met Martha Witherington. Tone later made her change her name to Matilda.
  • In 1790 he sent out a pamphlet attacking the administration of the Marquess of Buckingham.
  • This brought him attention from the Whig club.
  • He then wrote an essay named “The Northern Whig”.10,000 copies were said to be sold.
  • He then wrote is most famous pamphlet ‘An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland‘ demanding that Catholics be admitted to parliament.
  • The ideas from this essay lead him to setting up the Society of The United Irishmen along with Thomas Russell, Napper Tandy and some others.
  • In 1794 he was introduced to the French Agent William Jackson. Jackson had tried to help the Irish but he was betrayed and arrested.
  • After this Tone thought it would be unsafe in Ireland so he fled to France.
  • While in France we tried to get the French Government to send an army to Ireland in order to lead a revolution that would defeat the British. The French sent 14,000 soldiers led by General Lazare Hoche.
  • They never made it to land in Ireland because storms wrecked their ships off the coast of Bantry Bay in South Cork.

    Statue of Wolfe Tone in Bantry

  • They tried again but weather opposed them; and when some did land the British were waiting for them. They were easily defeated and Tone was captured.
  • Tone was sentenced to be executed but it is believed that he committed suicide in his cell the night before his execution.
  • He died on the 19 November 1798 and is buried in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare.




Extra Information:

Early Life

Theobald Wolfe Tone, the principal political and theoretical leader of the United Irishmen and of the 1798 Rising, was born in Dublin into a middle-class Protestant family in 1763.Tone studied law at Trinity College, Dublin. He qualified as a barrister from King’s Inns at the age of 26 and attended the Inns of Court in London. As a student, he eloped with Martha Witherington. She would go on to change her name to Matilda, on Wolfe Tone’s request.

Wolfe Tone as a child (on the right)

Early Political Interests

Tone became very interested in Irish politics and a 1790 pamphlet attacking the administration of the Marquess of Buckingham brought him to the notice of the Whig club. In September 1791 he wrote an essay called “A Northern Whig,” 10,000 copies of which were said to have been sold. In October of 1971 Tone put his ideas from “A Northern Whig” into practice by setting up the Society of the United Irishmen along with Thomas Russell, Napper Tandy and a few other men. The group was founded in order to work on parliamentary reform.

United Irishmen

The aims of the United Irishmen were:

·       That the weight of the English influence in the government of Ireland was to require a friendly atmosphere between all people so as to maintain a balance which was to be essential to the preservation of freedom.

·       To change the people in Parliament in order to keep the sole constitutional mode by which an influence can be opposed.

·       That no reforms were to be made which would judge people according to their religion.

Tone’s involvement in the United Irishmen became strained as he was also dedicating his time to the Catholic Committee (As assistant secretary, even though he was Protestant). During the French Revolution influences from France, and of the French in America, the United Irishmen changed from a reformist movement into a republican and revolutionary one. Tone however was not in sympathy with this change and eventually faded out of United Irish activities.

Tone and William Jackson

In 1794 Tone was introduced to William Jackson, an agent of the French, who first suggested the idea of French involvement. Tone was not easily convinced of the correctness of this policy, despite getting guarantees that the French would come as liberators and not as conquerors. Jackson was betrayed and arrested; and after his trial had implicated Tone it was clear that it was no longer safe to remain in Ireland and that Tone would have to leave the country.  With his wife and children and his brother, Tone set sail in August 1795 for America, where he quickly formed a “most unqualified dislike” for the country. While there, he established contact with agents of the French government, and a year later he sailed for France.

His work from France

From the beginning the French were reluctant allies, already more concerned with the building of a post-revolutionary empire than with helping aspiring republicans in other countries. Tone’s task became one of simultaneously encouraging the revolutionary movement in Ireland and restraining it until he received a promise of French help on a scale that would ensure success. Despite countless setbacks, he persisted with his typical determination and eventually succeeded in having a fleet sent to Ireland, with himself on board, which would be the signal for revolt; but violent storms prevented its landing at Bantry Bay, and the battered fleet returned to France, to Tone’s unspeakable frustration.

Bantry Bay

With no sign of help from France, with the betrayal and arrest of many of the leaders, and with daily provocations by the Militia and Yeomanry likely to lead to a spontaneous and leaderless uprising, the United Irishmen decided to act. But the initiative had been lost; there was no coherent leadership; and Orange sectarianism and military outrages were unleashed on revolutionaries and civilians alike.
The uprising in Ireland was already all but over when the French made a second attempt at a landing in Ireland. Again the weather opposed them; and this time the English were waiting. The French fleet was defeated; Tone was captured and brought to Dublin in chains, and before he could be hanged he cut his own throat.

The site of Wolfe Tone's grave


It is not for nothing that Theobald Wolfe Tone has been called the Father of Irish Democracy. Despite the limitations of his background and upbringing, despite all his own self-criticism, Tone’s commitment to democracy was genuine and profound. At every political crisis, Tone’s instinct was for the most democratic option.
Tone and his comrades were not socialists. The ideas of socialism had not been worked out at that time, nor could they have been, as the working class (as we understand the term) had scarcely come into existence. Nor—despite the role played by a number of women in 1798—were the United Irishmen feminists. These were ideas whose time had not yet come.
The United Irishmen were democrats, and they were republicans. They were the first mass movement in Irish history whose aim was not to restore some ancient society or to invite a foreign monarch to lead the Catholic Irish against the Protestant English. Their aim was an independent and non-sectarian Irish republic—an aim that has not yet been achieved and one that is still in advance of much of what passes for political thinking in Ireland two hundred years later.


A song by Irish band ‘The Wolf Tones’ inspired by this period in Irish history



History@Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna.

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James Napper Tandy

This content was created/compiled by Philip Moran.

In Brief:

James Napper Tandy was one of the founding members of the Dublin branch of the United Irishmen. Inspired by the French Revolution, he had been involved in several groups who argued that strong action was needed to create a fairer society in Ireland. In 1793, he was accused by the British of sedition (trying to start a rebellion) and fled to America and then France where he later became a general. The French gave him a ship and a small number of men and he arrived in Donegal in September 1978 hoping to restart the rebellion that had ended two months before. Unfortunately he soon discovered that the French and Irish force led by General Humbert, having had a big success at ‘the Races of Castlebar‘, had then been forced to surrender to the British General Cornwallis, after 9,000 French Reinforcements failed to arrive.  Napper Tandy retreated around Scotland and headed towards France but was captured at Hamburg. He remained in prison in Ireland until April 1801 when he was tried, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. After pressure from France where he remained popular – and from Napoleon in particular – he was reprieved and returned to France where he continued to be highly respected, up to his well attended funeral following his death on August 24th, 1803.


The life of James Napper Tandy to the music of ‘The Wearing of the Green.’



More Information:

Early life

A Dublin Protestant and the son of an ironmonger, Tandy went to the famous Quaker boarding school in Ballitore, south
He started life as a small tradesman. Turning to politics, he became a member of Dublin Corporation.He became a member of the Whig club founded by Henry Grattan; and he actively co-operated with Theobald Wolfe Tone in founding the Society of the United Irishmen in 1791, of which he became the first secretary.

Planning A Revolution

Tandy also, with the purpose of bringing about a union between the Defenders and the United Irishmen, took the oath of the Defenders, a Roman Catholic society whose agrarian and political violence had been increasing for several years. But being threatened with prosecution for this step, and also for libel. One way he used to avoid prosecution was to change his Dublin address often – including at Dorset Street, Abbey Street and Bride Street. In 1795, he  fled to the United States, where he remained till 1798. In February 1798 he went to Paris, where at this time a number of Irish refugees, the most prominent of whom was Wolfe Tone, were assembled, planning rebellion in Ireland to be supported by a French invasion, and quarrelling among themselves.

Return to Ireland

Tandy accepted the offer of a corvette, the Anacreon, from the French government and sailed from Dunkirk accompanied by a few United Irishmen, a small force of men and a considerable quantity of arms and ammunition for distribution in Ireland. He arrived at the isle of Arran more, off the coast of County Donegal, on September 16, 1798.
The locality however, was sparsely populated and showed little enthusiasm in joining with the expedition. Tandy took possession of the village of Rutland, where he hoisted an Irish flag and issued a proclamation; but learning the defeat of Humbert’s expedition, and that Connaught was now subdued, the futility (uselessness) of the enterprise was soon clear to him. Tandy sailed his vessel around the north of Scotland to avoid the British fleet. He reached Bergen in safety having brought with him a British ship captured along the way. Tandy then made his way with three or four companions to the free port of Hamburg but a peremptory demand (arrest warrant) from the British government to detain the fugitives was agreed to despite a counter-threat from the French Directory warning that he should not be detained (stopped).

Last Years

Tandy remained in prison till April 1801, when he was tried, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to death; he was reprieved and allowed to go to France. This leniency may have been partly due to doubts as to the legality of the demand for his surrender by the Hamburg authorities. Moreover, Napoleon vigorously intervened on his behalf, and is even said to have made Tandy’s release a condition of signing the Treaty of Amiens. The way in which his name was introduced in the well-known ballad, “The Wearing of the Green”, proves that he succeeded in capturing the popular imagination of many future rebels in Ireland. In France, where his release was regarded as a French diplomatic victory, he was received, in March 1802, as a person of distinction; and when he died his funeral was attended by the military and a large number of the general public.

Useful links:

Article on Napper Tandy entry on Napper Tandy


History@Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna.

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The United Irishmen

The emblem of the United Irishmen

In Brief:

A number of people across Ireland had been hugely impressed by the achievements of both the American and French Revolutions. Both had revolted against unfair systems of monarchy and attempted to replace them with the principles of fairness and equality. With the promise of French help to any nation that sought to create a republican system of government, some Irish people felt that now was the time to take action action against the unfair and oppressive British rule. Some of these men met in Belfast on 18 October 1791. Present at this meeting were:

  • Theobald Wolfe Tone
  • Henry Joy McCracken
  • Samuel Nielson
  • Thomas Russell
  • William Sinclair
  • Henry Haslett
  • Gilbert McIlveen
  • William Simms
  • Robert Simms
  • Thomas McCabe
  • Thomas Pearce

These men swore ‘that I will use all my abilities and influence in the attainment of an impartial and adequate representation of the Irish people in parliament… forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interests, a communion of rights, and a union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions.”

Henry Joy McCracken


Thomas Russell


Samuel Neilson


United Irishmen


The immediate origins of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland can be traced to the setting up of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791. Inspired by the French Revolution, and with great admiration for the new democracy of the United States, the United Irishmen were led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken and William Drennan. They came together to secure a reform of the Irish parliament; and they sought to achieve this goal by uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in Ireland into a single movement.

From the beginning, Dublin Castle, the seat of government in Ireland, viewed the new organisation with the gravest suspicion, and with the outbreak of war between Britain (and Ireland) and France in February 1793, suspicion hardened to naked hostility. The unabashed admiration of the United Irishmen for the French seemed akin to treason. The discovery of negotiations between certain United Irishmen, notably Theobald Wolfe Tone, and the French government confirmed suspicions and led to the suppression of the society in May 1794.

Driven underground, the Society re-constituted itself as a secret, oath-bound, organisation, dedicated to the pursuit of a republican form of government in a separate and independent Ireland. This was to be achieved primarily by direct French military intervention. The plan came closest to success following the arrival of a French invasion fleet, carrying some 14,000 soldiers, off the southern coast of Ireland in December 1796. Adverse weather conditions, however, prevented the French from landing, and the fleet was forced to make its way back to France. From this date on, Dublin Castle stepped up its war against the United Irishmen, infiltrating their ranks with spies and informers, invoking draconian legislation against subversives, turning a blind eye to military excesses, and to those of the resolutely loyalist Orange Order, and building up its defence forces lest the French should return in strength.

By the spring of 1798, it appeared that Dublin Castle had been successful in its determined efforts to destroy the Society’s capacity for insurrection: many of its leaders were in prison, its organisation was in disarray, and there seemed no possibility of French assistance. Despite these difficulties, on the night of the 23rd/24th May, as planned, the mail coaches leaving Dublin were seized – as a signal to those United Irishmen outside the capital that the time of the uprising had arrived.

However, as a result of the failure of Dublin to rise, the Rebellion when it came was distinguished everywhere by a lack of concert and by a lack of focus. The uprisings outside the capital had been intended by the United Irishmen as supporting acts – sideshows – to the main event in Dublin, but as Dublin did not perform as planned, rebels in outlying areas now found themselves promoted to centre-stage. In the lack of co-ordination between the rebel theatres of war lay the salvation of Dublin Castle and British rule in Ireland.

(Thomas Bartlett, Professor of Modern Irish History, UCD )




History@Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna.


This section was created by the 2C History class at Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna, as a project for, with the aim of assisting those wanting to learn more about this area for their Second Year History studies. We have also included an exam centre where those preparing for the Junior Cert exam will find past questions on the Revolutionary period.


The American Revolution


The French Revolution


–                                            Revolution in Ireland


History@Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 9:31 pm Comments (1)
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