The bitter lesson of the last conquest, however, long sufficed to check all dreams of revolt among the natives, and the outbreaks which sprang from time to time out of the general misery and discontent were purely social in their character, and were roughly repressed by the ruling class. When political revolt threatened at last, the threat came from the ruling class itself. At the very outset of the reign of George the Third, the Irish Parliament insisted on its claim to the exclusive control of money bills, and a cry was raised for the removal of the checks imposed on its independence. But it was not till the American war that this cry became a political danger, a danger so real that England was forced to give way. From the close of the war, when the Irish Volunteers wrung legislative independence from the Rockingham Ministry, England and Ireland were simply held together by the fact that the sovereign of the one island was also the sovereign of the other. During the next eighteen years Ireland was "independent; " but its independence was a mere name for the uncontrolled rule of a few noble families and of the Irish Executive backed by the support of the English Government. To such a length had the whole system of monopoly and patronage been carried, that at the time of the Union more than sixty seats were in the hands of three families alone, those of the Hills, the Ponsonbys, and the Beresfords; while the dominant influence in the Parliament now lay with the Treasury boroughs at the disposal of the Government. The victory of the Volunteers immediately produced measures in favour of the Catholics and Presbyterians. The Volunteers had already in 1780 won for the Presbyterians, who formed a good half of their force, full political liberty by the abolition of the Sacramental Test; and the Irish Parliament of 1782 removed at once the last grievances of the Protestant Dissenters. The Catholics were rewarded for their aid by the repeal of the more grossly oppressive enactments of the penal laws.
But when Grattan, supported by the bulk of the Irish party, pleaded for Parliamentary reform, and for the grant of equal rights to the Catholics, he was utterly foiled by the small group of borough owners, who chiefly controlled the Government and the Parliament. The ruling class found government too profitable to share it with other possessors. It was only by hard bribery that the English Viceroys could secure their co-operation in the simplest measures of administration. "If ever there was a country unfit to govern itself," said Lord Hutchinson," it is Ireland. A corrupt aristocracy, a ferocious commonalty, a distracted Government, a divided people!" In Pitt's eyes the danger of Ireland lay above all in the misery of its people. Although the Irish Catholics were held down by the brute force of their Protestant rulers, he saw that their discontent was growing fast into rebellion, and that one secret of their discontent at any rate lay in Irish poverty, a poverty increased if not originally brought about by the jealous exclusion of Irish products from their natural markets in England itself.
In 1779 Ireland had won from Lord "North large measures of free-trade abroad; but the heavy duties laid by the English Parliament on all Irish manufactures save linen and woollen yarn still shut them out of England. One of Pitt's first commercial measures aimed at putting an end to this exclusion by a bill which established freedom of trade between the two islands. His first proposals were accepted in the Irish Parliament; but the fears and jealousies of the English farmers and manufacturers forced into the Bill amendments which gave to the British Parliament powers over Irish navigation and commerce, thus over-riding their newly-won independence, and the measure in its new form was rejected in Ireland. The outbreak of the revolutionary struggle, and the efforts which the French revolutionists at once made to excite rebellion amongst the Irish, roused Pitt to fresh measures of conciliation and good government. In 1793 he forced the Irish Administration to abandon a resistance which had wrecked his projects the previous year; and the Irish Parliament passed without opposition measures for the admission of Catholics to the electoral franchise, and to civil and military office within the island, which promised to open a new era of religious liberty. But the promise came too late.
The hope of conciliation was lost in the fast rising tide of religious and social passion. The Society of "United Irishmen," which was founded in 1791 at Belfast by Wolfe Tone with a view of forming a union between Protestants and Catholics to win Parliamentary reform, drifted into a correspondence with France and projects of insurrection. The peasantry, brooding over their misery and their wrongs, were equally stirred by the news from France; and their discontent broke out in outrages of secret societies which spread panic among the ruling classes. The misery was increased by faction fights between the Protestants and Catholics, which had already broken out before the French Revolution. The Catholics banded themselves together as "Defenders " against the outrages of the "Peep-o'-day Boys," who were mainly drawn from the more violent Presbyterians; and these factions became later merged in the larger associations of the "United Irishmen" and the "Orange-men".
At last the smouldering discontent and disaffection burst into flame. The panic roused in 1796 by an attempted French invasion under Hoche woke passions of cruelty and tyranny which turned Ireland into a hell. Soldiers and yeomanry marched over the country torturing and scourging the "croppies," as the Irish peasantry were called in derision from their short-cut hair, robbing, ravishing, and murdering. Their outrages were sanctioned by the landowners who formed the Irish Parliament in a Bill of Indemnity, and protected for the future by an Insurrection Act. Meanwhile the United Irishmen prepared for an insurrection, which was delayed by the failure of the French expeditions, on which they counted for support, and above all by the victory of Camperdown. Atrocities were answered by atrocities when the revolt at last broke out in 1798. Loyalists were lashed and tortured in their turn, and every soldier taken was butchered without mercy. The rebels however no sooner mustered fourteen thousand men strong in a camp on Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, than the camp was stormed by the English troops, and the revolt utterly suppressed. The suppression came only just in time to prevent greater disasters.