The mood in Belfast on April 14th, 1797 was tense. Only a few years had passed since Catholics and Presbyterians had joined together, inspired by the American and French revolutions, in order to form a united and independent Irish republic. England was preparing for war against this perceived act of secession, while at the same time goading on sectarian violence in the hope of disrupting the united Irish cause. It was into this context that the people of Ulster made their appeal.
The Appeal of the People of Ulster to their Countrymen and to the Empire at Large” is without doubt a political document. Within its short four pages, this treatise attempts to defend the actions of the United Irishmen against the charge of rebellion while at the same time calling for unity and support among Irishmen, condemning British aggression and calling for governmental reform. The document begins with a list of the crimes that had been committed against the residents of Ulster and attempts to minimize the responsibility of the insurgency.
As the introductory lines note, “Our best citizens are entombed in Bastiles or hurried on board tenders; our wives and our children are become the daily victims of an uncontrolled and licentious foreign soldiery! (Plowden, p. 79 in appendix). However, the document also notes that the tyranny has extended throughout all forms of British government to all areas of Ireland against “those who are suspected to love liberty” (p. 80). Under such oppression, the treatise defends the few instances of violent retribution committed by the United Irishmen: Can you then wonder, if men, who have made themselves peculiarly obnoxious by their cruelties should sometimes fall victims to individual vengeance? … [C]an you be surprised, if men thus situated, determined not to be forced into insurrection, should seek to assuage their revenge, and vainly hope to stop the current of general calamity by the assassination of the most atrocious of their persecutors? ” (p. 80). As the treatise claims, the violent reaction of a few of the citizens should be expected under such horrible conditions.
However, in addition to being a defense of the actions of the dissenters, the document appeals for harmony, dialogue and reform under the sovereignty of the Almighty God. First and foremost, the citizens of Ulster claim to seek brotherhood and affection among all religious groups towards the end of peace. As a means they suggest using temperance and rational measure so that all people, despite their backgrounds may share in same Irish patriotism. Within this ideal there should be no sectarianism insofar as such internal violence is nothing more than turning “arms against [one’s] fellow citizens” (p. 1).
Likewise, instead of using violence, Ulster desires to engage Britain so as to initiate proper reforms that will lead to greater Irish representation and a more united Britain. Although the intentions of the people of Ulster may have been good, the document they produced is unfairly biased as well as riddled with contradictions, and therefore proves less than reasonable. With respect to bias, it is clear that Ulster does not place equal worth on all lives, but is willing to privilege their own people’s lives over those of the aggressors.
Such a bias is the root of several crucial contradictions within their argument. On the one hand, the people of Ulster desire to have reasonable discourse and Christian ideas; however, on the other hand, their bias against the aggressors has compromised their Enlightenment ideals of universal value as well as undermined any form of Christianity that should ground its foundation on neighbor love, love of enemies and turning the other cheek. In the end, their document cuts both ways: not only as a critique of the aggressors, but also of themselves.