Excerpt from Frederik Willem de Klerk’s “Crossing the Bench: A History of Commonwealth Politics”, University of Witwatersrand Press, 1989
Chapter 5: The Irish Question
“From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish nation, and felt convinced, that while it lasted this country would never be free or happy.”
~ Theobald Wolfe Tone
Unlike Scotland or the pockets of Catholics around England, Ireland featured a far larger Catholic population, was more geographically isolated, featured a far more recent rebellious streak than any population under London’s rule, and a far more oppressed general society.
The first English incursion into Ireland occurred in 1171 when Henry II took an army there to counter increasing Norman incursions (the Normans were supporting a deposed king) and end the threat of a possible Norman heir to a powerful Irish kingdom. From this point on the “Lordship of Ireland” became an English title and England remained involved in Irish affairs. However, the realities of domestic and foreign politics, economics, warfare, transportation and even the role of the Black Death ensured that English ambitions in Ireland waxed and waned for nearly 400 years. In the late 14th century, English authority in Ireland was largely confined to the Pale (and environs of Dublin) thanks to massive English deaths from the plague. In the late 15th century, Poyning’s Law passed placing the Irish Parliament under the English Parliament and London slowly began to reel the de facto independence of Ireland back in (including reeling in their own stewards the Kildare Dynasty that had established a de facto kingdom in their own right).
Once again Henry VIII is largely responsible for sending history down its modern path. Seeing the Kildare’s as unreliable allies of the Tudors, Henry sought to reconquer Ireland to prevent its use as a base from which to conquer England or support rebellions. Already we can see a pattern emerging (similar to what we saw with Catholicism) whereby England justifies the expense and effort of interfering in Ireland so as to prevent its use as a base for French ambitions or the ambitions of royal usurpers and pretenders. Since royal pretendership often equated to Catholicism, the Anglican English public often associated the Irish and the Catholic cause as one and viewed them as unpatriotic enemies (in fact the Irish were considered a lesser race for centuries but that is putting the cart before the horse). In 1541, Henry upgraded Ireland from a Lordship to a Kingdom and was crowned King of Ireland by the subordinate Irish Parliament in Dublin. Conquest took much of the 16th century and extended into the 17th at which point the English began consolidating their authority with direct internal interventions. English Protestants created new boroughs to stack the formerly catholic Irish Parliament with Protestants and numerous land seizures and colonization efforts established plantations throughout the island . Needless to say, these measures generated intense resentment creating a cycle of Irish rebellion followed by English crackdowns and so on and so forth. The 17th century saw several bloody revolts across Ireland resulting in the loss of most of the Irish Catholic landowning class as well as Cromwell’s infamous reconquest of Ireland from 1649 to 1653. It should be no surprise then that when William and Mary deposed the catholic James II during the 1688 Glorious Revolution that James found a power base in Ireland leading to another bloody revolt in the Williamite War. William eventually won this conflict forcing the Jacobite cause into exile in France but the public relations damage was done as Parliament and the protestant English associated the Catholic Irish with Jacobitism. Throughout the 18th century Ireland remained a hotbed of rebellious activity while a minority colonizer class of protestant landowners (five percent of the total population) held a stranglehold on agriculture, the economy, the practice of law, and both houses of the Irish Parliament.
Interestingly, similar to British North America, by the 18th century the settler class saw themselves as something different than English. This began a politically hypocritical era where the protestant overlords sought a more equal trade policy between Britain and Ireland and more independence for the Irish Parliament while also balking at the concept of enfranchising Irish Catholics. This led to a complex political situation in the late 18th century where the British Parliament was divided into four factions: 1) those who supported Catholic emancipation and greater freedoms for the Irish Parliament; 2) those who refused Catholic emancipation and supported greater freedoms from Ireland; 3) those who supported emancipation but still opposed loosening London’s grip on Dublin; and 4) those who refused emancipation and more independence for Ireland. Across the Irish Sea, the Parliament in Dublin stood divided on the issue of Catholic emancipation. It is important to remember that this was not purely an issue of protestant oppressors versus catholic oppressed but rather something more complicated. The sizeable protestant minority was itself divided between Anglicans who the British Parliament and Monarchy usually favored, Presbyterians and other protestant denominations, and Catholics. This was also a very British debate in that the leadership of the various factions typically had English roots, a professional trade, or landed interests and the poor Irish Catholic peasantry was almost always caught in the middle with few advocates fighting on their behalf. We should also note that enlightenment principles of religious freedom had seeped into the debates by this time but also the lessons of the American Revolution were fresh on everyone’s mind. Furthermore, all MPs in both London and Dublin read the latest headlines from Revolutionary Paris with anxiety.
Similar to the colonial United States, this era is fascinating for the personalities involved and Ireland had no lack of orators, statesmen, firebrands, revolutionaries, lawyers and publishers prepared to thoroughly debate the cause. Arguably the two biggest champions of Irish parliamentary freedom in the 1780’s and 1790’s were Henry Grattan, an Irish MP from Charlemont, and William Fitzwilliam, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Grattan entered the Irish Parliament in 1775 and quickly became the leader of the reformist “Irish Patriot Party”. As the champion of the reformers he played a key role in the “Constitution of 1782”, a series of legislative changes that freed the Irish Parliament from the many constraints imposed by the English over the preceding centuries including neutering the hated Ponying’s Law. Upon securing the independence of the Irish Parliament Grattan exclaimed:
“I found Ireland on her knees. I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms, and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift, spirit of [William] Molyneux, your genius has prevailed! Ireland is now a nation!”
Grattan’s reference to the 17th century Irish philosopher William Molyneux, a controversial advocate for greater freedoms for Ireland at the time, shows just how far the patriot cause had come. The subsequent Irish Parliaments were rather moderate, attempting to show loyalty to the Crown for their trust while advocating for the rights of Irishmen. With considerable autonomy achieved for the Irish Parliament the next logical step was to pursue electoral and parliamentary reform so that the Irish MPs could actually do something with their newly won independence. Like the Parliament in London, the electorate for the Irish Parliament was limited. Corruption was rife via the ancient system of British and Irish borough owners, known as the “undertakers”, as well as through the various executive offices . Seats and votes were openly bought through the distribution of peerages and pensions and many seats were allocated to “rotten boroughs” beholden to select families rather than competitive elections. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland remained a purely British appointed office and continued to wield great power in Ireland. Perhaps the biggest issue of all was the reality that all religious minorities, namely Catholics and Presbyterians, were not enfranchised leaving power in the hands of Anglicans.
Grattan’s Parliament achieved some success with reform but as the French Revolution became bloodier throughout the 1790’s many British MPs (and not a few conservative Irish MPs) began equating reform with Jacobinism. This slowed the pace of reform for almost twenty years with the last major legislative act in a generation coming in the form of the 1791 Roman Catholic Relief Act (passed by Ireland in 1793) that allowed Catholics to practice law, allowed the existence of their schools, hold certain civil and military offices (up to colonel in the military) and, most importantly, allowed them the right to vote if they were otherwise qualified to do so. While still unable to actually hold office, it was a major victory.
Parliamentary reform, however, proved difficult. Grattan introduced a moderate reform package in 1794 to eliminate some of the rotten boroughs in Ireland, bring the onerous pension list under control and largely shore up the institutions but it was too weak to find favor with either the majority or minority parties. While Grattan was a champion for the Irish cause he was still an MP from an elite Anglo-Irish family and believed that legislation was best handled by educated men with property interests. He feared radical reform would bring about a crackdown by Britain, anarchy by Irish mobs, or both. The defeat of the reform bill emboldened some of the more revolutionary segments of the Irish population (pressed on by French spies hoping to stoke a rebellion as part of the wider War of the First Coalition).
In 1794 William Pitt appointed William Fitzwilliam as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Sympathetic to the Irish cause, many anticipated that Fitzwilliam, Grattan and Pitt would finally pass comprehensive catholic emancipation. Instead the peace with France, George III’s intransigence on the matter, and political scandal around Fitzwilliam’s actions as Lord Lieutenant which led to his removal in 1795 combined to break the cause. By 1796 the corrupt Anglican “Protestant Ascendancy” thoroughly controlled Ireland while the Catholic-Presbyterian population united in support of Grattan’s opposition. It was around this time, thanks to the failings of the established political system, that revolutionary talk began to come to the forefront. Grattan summed up the mood in May 1797 when he published his “Letter to the Citizens of Dublin” announcing his resignation from the Irish Parliament:
“The ministry, however, thought proper to persist in hostility to the Catholic body, on a false supposition of its bigotry. The consequence of such an attempt was, that the great body of the Catholics, I mean that part the most popular and energetic, disappointed, suspected, reviled, and wearied, united with that other great body of the reformers, and formed a Catholic, Presbyterian, and Protestant league, for the freedom of the religion, and the free and full representation of the people. Out of this league a new political religion arose, superseding, in political matter, all influence of priest and parson, and bury for ever theological discord in the love of civil and political liberty. This is at present, in all political matters, the Irish religion. What is the Irish religion? Unanimity against despotism.”
The hope for political unity between Irish Presbyterians (mainly located in the north) and Irish Catholics (mainly located in the south) against the ruling Anglican elite found a home amongst the liberal organization, the Society of United Irishmen.
Found in 1791, the Society of United Irishmen was arguably the most important of the various Irish liberty/republican/revolutionary organizations founded in the turbulent 1780’s and 1790’s. Comprised of Irish liberals and founded on the belief that Ireland should pursue a liberal constitution that promoted religious freedom for Anglicans, Catholics, and other religions; its membership blossomed after the reformist movement failed. It drew significant inspiration from the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Ultimately, this new group came under the leadership of Theobald Wolfe Tone who put forth three resolutions. Firstly, the Society denounced British interference in Irish affairs. Second, they sought the full reform of the Irish Parliament and its representation. Lastly, the Society called for a union of faiths to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen”. As we can see, even by the early-1790’s the Society did not seek a full revolutionary independence movement like the North Americans had. However, the movement continued to grow and the policy positions ebbed and flowed as the Society worked to unite the various Irish factions.
The problem was there were now a multitude of factions in play. Grattan’s Irish Patriot Party opposed the Protestant Ascendancy in the Irish Parliament but the wider public had their own parties and factions, often in the form of secret societies. For example, a conflict occurred between the agrarian protestant society known as the “Peep O’Day Boys” and the agrarian Catholic society known as “The Defenders” in County Armagh in Ulster. The Peep O’Day Boys essentially formed from what was a protestant gang in Ulster and took to raiding Catholic households early in the morning (hence the name) where they would wreck weaving equipment, loot, seize weapons and caused general havoc. The Defenders arose as local defensive organizations to oppose the Peep O’Day Boys but by 1790 had turned their vigilante groups into an organized secret society complete with oaths and rituals. In 1795 the Battle of the Diamond saw the two societies clash resulting in 30 Defender deaths. In the aftermath, a contingent of protestants broke away from the Peep O’Day Boys and formed a new society, the Orange Order. Named for the protestant William of Orange who had defeated the Catholic James II during the Williamite War, Mirroring the steps taken by the Defenders, the Orange Order adopted its own system of oaths and rituals and began establishing protestant lodges swearing to defend “the King and his heirs so long as he or they support the Protestant Ascendancy”. Not long after a coordinated campaign against the Catholic population of the region began resulting in 7,000 Catholics being driven from Ulster.
The problem was not limited to these gangs turned secret societies. The Irish Catholic population looked at Irish Freemasonry with deep suspicion at the time, equating masonry with Protestantism and the Orange Order (Masons and Orangists insist there is no connection between their organizations). It didn’t help that for internal political reasons many lodges within the Royal Army were chartered through the Grand Lodge of Ireland simply because the Irish Grand Lodge did not look down on soldiery the same way the English Grand Lodge did at the time and was far more willing to charter traveling lodges. To an Irish layperson suspicious of the Crown having a dozen Royal Army lodges chartered by the Irish Grand Lodge seemed fishy if nothing else. Ironically the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland at the time was Richard Hely-Hutchinson, the 1st Earl of Donoughmore, a powerful Irish MP and advocate for catholic emancipation (though not revolution). Perhaps even more ironically, Irish Freemasonry had a long history of supporting Jacobitism and there is evidence that Irish soldiers brought masonry to France in the late 17th century, hardly actions that Parliament would support .
Also like the United States in the lead up to its own revolution, Ireland was a hotbed of partisan publications and social debate. Coffeehouses and pubs filled the same public forum role that they did in America and France. Newspapers like the Belfast Newsletter, the Northern Star, Dublin Evening Press, Dublin Journal, and Freeman’s Journal all circulated editorials, letters and debates on all matter of reformist, and republican, issues. The debates, publications and switches were so furious that is was difficult to keep up. For insistence, the Freeman’s Journal, founded in 1763 acted as an Irish Patriot Party mouthpiece for many years before its purchase in 1785 by Francis Higgins at which point it became suspiciously pro-British.
Needless to say by 1800 Ireland was deeply divided by polarized politics as well as various sectarian societies engaging in low-level warfare with each other, primarily in Ulster.
The divide concerned many leaders of the United Irishmen who believed independence from Britain would be impossible if Ireland’s population was not united. While the various gangs quarreled and the Protestant Ascendancy consolidated their grip on Ireland, Tone encountered opposition from Ulster to his third proposal that the faiths of Ireland should be united. This confirmed his fears yet firmed his resolve. In response, Tone published his famous pamphlet “An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” in which he famously drew parallels to the growing Irish movement and how the American movement came to include, and fully embrace, the French Catholics of Quebec . Tone argued that if the United States could find a way to make a large Catholic population with its own heritage and even its own language (at the time high Irish society spoke English even though Gaelic was still widespread amongst the peasantry) an integral part of its union, then Irish protestants and Catholics could find a way to do the same. To ensure the support of some of the disparate factions, the Society amended the proposals in October 1791 to call for a full separation of political powers between Ireland and Britain. The wording is key since even at this juncture the Society was still willing to remain under the sovereignty of George III, only as a constitutionally limited monarchy separate from the machinations of parliament (similar to how George’s sovereignty in Hanover was separate from Britain).
Of course the United Irishmen had their detractors. James Wilson, one of the founders of the Orange Order, rebutted Tone with his own anonymous letter published in a Belfast newspaper. In his arguments he claimed that Tone’s reasoning was flawed since Ireland’s history was far longer and more complex than the United States. In North America the catholic French and protestant English had only warred twice before with limited casualties (Wilson naturally overlooked the expulsion of the Acadians) and contained a shared heritage working in their spheres to settle and tame the wilderness. He also called out Tone’s geographical argument stating that in the United States the Catholic French lived separated by “hundreds of leagues” from the protestant regions whereas the protestants and Catholics of Ireland lived practically on top of each other. This argument again overlooks the reality that Quebec featured a significant protestant minority while Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Maryland and multiple Caribbean states featured significant protestant/catholic minorities compared to the majority. With the Orange Order dug in to defend the Protestant Ascendancy it only made sense that many Defenders (scattered across Ireland now after the Order’s expulsion of the 7,000 Catholics from Ulster) found their way into the United Irishmen’s ranks and further pressed the Society towards independence and away from a union of crowns. Outside factors also came into play. As the French Revolution dived into the depths of the Reign of Terror and the corruption of the Directory, the Irish increasingly looked to the United States as a potential patron. The French efforts to destroy the power of the church in France especially shocked and revolted many of the Irish leaders further pressing the cause towards a more Americanist outlook. When the United States and France went to war in the late 1790’s a dozen Irish volunteers departed Cork to the Caribbean where they arrived in time to assist in the capture of St. Martin. The effort inspired Americans and Irish towards friendship but offended the French who shelved a proposed invasion of Ireland to help the Irish revolutionaries in 1800 .
In 1793 the British authorities banned the Society though that hardly stopped their efforts. If anything the ban actually began strengthening the calls for Irish independence rather than the continuation of the union. Remarkably the Society and the bubbling cause of independence in Ireland remained patient well into the 19th century, likely due to the general understanding that any revolution would fail without foreign assistance. Still from 1797 to 1804 the situation in Ireland was exceedingly tense. In 1799 the Northern Star, the newspaper utilized by the United Irishmen was shut down in a series of raids by the Royal Army. On May 9, 1800 two riflemen attacked the carriage carrying John Jeffreys Pratt, the Earl of Camden, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Camden escaped with his life but one of his guardsmen and the two attackers were killed on the street. Also in 1800 the United Irishmen started to become less united and frays in the leadership could be seen. Tone and his supporters insisted that an Irish Revolution would be quickly crushed without foreign support. Napper Tandy, a co-founder of the United Irishmen along with Tone, had grown alarmed at the British raids on weapons stores and the Northern Star, and wanted to act immediately before the British flooded Ireland with troops. Tone did all he could to stall Tandy and found a reprieve in 1801 when he sent Tandy to Paris to meet with the new Consulate and Robert Emmet to the United States on joint missions to solicit foreign aid. As neither country was at war with Britain the two envoys couldn’t even achieve vague promises. Rejected, the United Irishmen publicly urged calm while secretly preparing to seize any opportunity that presented itself.
That opportunity appeared imminent in 1803 when it seemed France would ally with Russia against Britain. A French spy gave Tone promises of support, at least in the form of weapons and ammunition, only to be turned on his head when word arrived that Napoleon opted to side with the British. Internal calls for a rebellion while Britain stood distracted were politely brushed aside as Tone and his allies held firm to the desire for outside support. It took everything for Tone to hold the ship together. On July 9, 1804 the Battle of Enniskillen took place, the largest clash between the Defenders and the Orange Order during the era. Over the course of a day over 1,000 people brawled to defend a weapons depot near the battle’s namesake town resulting in 80 deaths and 200 injuries. While the Defenders won the brawl, three weeks later a Royal brigade marched into town and seized the weapons stock. The British launched a full inquiry and it seemed a rebellion would break out that fall. Unexpectedly, the imminent rebellion never broke out. In desperate stall tactic, Tone dispatched several secret envoys to Scotland and Wales to judge the possibility of stoking a rebellion in those regions. The scouts returned with little to report except James Hope, a Presbyterian leader from County Antrim. Hope had gone to Glasgow and found little more than passive support for Ireland but did discover a series of abuses occurring across the Hebrides Islands and Scottish Highlands with longtime Scottish clans being cleared off their land via a number of property law reforms sending the ancient middle class (tackmen) packing to the cities of the United States and using the cleared land to promote sheep rearing. The clans wouldn’t guarantee much but if an Irish rebellion gained traction, or if a foreign ally could be won…
The hope of expanding the proposed rebellion into Scotland bought Tone and the United Irishmen leadership the time they needed to continue pursuing a foreign ally. Surely after this coalition war ended France and Britain would go back to butchering each other. Tone was correct that France and Britain would return to their former enmity and the Portlandite ministry collapsed in 1806 leading to the Liverpool coalition. What happened next surprised everyone.
With its hawkish foreign policy but domestic reformist spirit, the Liverpool Coalition seemed to have a better tactical understanding of the changed world map than the former Portlandites. Part of their larger strategy to counter Napoleon included bending over backwards to make sure Ireland did not become an unnecessary theater of war that could siphon critical monies and soldiers who could otherwise prove useful on the continent, the colonies, or (in the worst case scenario) the fields of England herself.
Liverpool recalled the Earl of Camden, by this point the despised Lord Lieutenant of Ireland back to Britain and replaced him with the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry usually known as Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh did all he could to help the floundering Camden maintain the peace but Camden never stood a chance as he inherited the position from the popular Lord Fitzwilliam. Liverpool hoped that Castlereagh’s Irish birth and his extensive work in trying to calm the simmering political situation could translate into results, especially if Liverpool could handle the British Parliament. Tone and many United Irishmen members, but also the former Irish Parliamentary reformists (who didn’t necessarily agree with the independence calls), were flabbergasted in 1806 to find parliamentary reform back on the table at the insistence of the British.
The interwar years polarized Irish society back into reformist and independence camps. The independence camp itself divided into those who were tired of dithering (the movement being over a decade old by this point) and desired an uprising and those who understood that a successful independence movement required coordinated assistance from America, France, or both. The reformist movement took advantage of the independence movement’s divisions and the British overtures to pursue practical legislation. They too found roadblocks that frustrated their hopes, primarily Liverpool’s and George III’s continued insistence that full Catholic Emancipation was a nonstarter. However, the Liverpool ministry did follow up on the 1780’s reforms that gave considerable legislative autonomy to the Irish Parliament by providing significant executive reforms. The 1808 Irish Appointments Act gave the Irish Parliament the sole ability to appoint a vast number of positions that London previously retained. The 1809 Irish Lord Lieutenancy Act even provided the Irish Parliament the ability to veto a British Prime Minister’s nominee to the Lord Lieutenancy. These were remarkable turns of events and Irish MPs like Grattan crowed their successful reforms and believed a new day was coming for Ireland. Hope abounded that within ten or twenty years the Kingdom of Ireland would have the same independence and nominal connection to London that the Electorate of Hanover enjoyed.
The efforts were for naught however. Despite the efforts of reformists like Tone or Grattan, the Irish population still remained a powder keg. Parliament’s attempts at reform were too little too late for many, including leaders like Napper Tandy, and in 1809 the Holy Roman Revolution sent Europe down the path to war. In December 1809, Napoleon made the fateful decision to promise the Irish rebels direct military assistance if they would rise up against Britain. The moment literally thousands of disgruntled Irish rebels had been waiting for had finally presented itself as a powerful foreign ally backed their cause. As the wider War of the Fourth Coalition began in earnest in 1810 one of its key theaters would be none other than Ireland.
———– Author’s Notes —————
: It is important to note that Irish Plantations are not equivalent to the plantation system seen in the Americas (i.e. a large agricultural estate owned by a wealthy white family employing a few white overseers and tradesmen and utilizing dozens/hundreds of black slaves as the bulk labor force). Rather the Irish Plantations are more akin to small colonies of protestant England within Ireland. Land would be confiscated from its original Irish Catholic possessors and given to a protestant Englishman (typically someone wealthy or given as a token of military service) who in turn imported dozens of Protestant English tenants. In this way 99 percent Irish Catholic Ireland grew, over time, to have a substantial protestant minority in many places of the country and even a protestant majority in Ulster (northeast Ireland or today’s “Northern Ireland” which is still within the UK).
: Undertakers being those wealthy colonists who “undertook” to import tenants from England to work their new lands.
: There is no historical evidence that James II and his Irish soldiers brought freemasonry to France but it’s a very old tradition in French, English, Scottish, and Irish Freemasonry dating back to the 18th century. Allegedly the first lodge in France was founded by Englishmen in Dunkirk but the first historically proven lodge was founded in 1725 Paris, also by Englishmen.
: This is a fairly large divergence from our timeline and we can see the impact of the practical example of America combining with enlightenment ideals to united disparate groups.
: In our timeline the ongoing war between Britain and France led the United Irishmen leadership to begin conspiring with France to support an invasion. A tip to the British government scattered the leadership (Tone lived in Philadelphia for a bit where he grew to hate Americans) before they went to Paris and convinced the French to send an expedition. In 1798 the expedition got underway but largely failed due to bad weather. The uprising never received the foreign support it desired but the British government cracked down nonetheless resulting in a rebellion that they crushed. This directly led to the 1801 Acts of Union that merged the Kingdom of Ireland into Great Britain creating the United Kingdom (and allowing the British Parliament to directly control Ireland without dealing with the quasi-independent Irish Parliament). None of this happens in our timeline since France and Britain are at peace around this time and when they do go back to war the relations are bad and the French don’t have a fleet to spare given their focus on the Mediterranean.
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