The first known Irish political secret society, the Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young barrister and author passionately devoted to the cause of Irish independence. Originally a public political group pressing for Catholic emancipation and a reformed Irish parliament, the Society went underground in 1793 when England declared war on Revolutionary France and several leaders of the Society were jailed as subversives.

Thereafter, it concentrated on building up a military force in the Irish countryside, with local societies answering to baronial, county, and provincial committees, and a national executive directory above all. An oath of secrecy sworn on the New Testament provided the initiation ritual, and the password was “I know U,” answered by “I know N,” and so on through the letters of the words “United Irishmen.” Weapons were in short supply, and the Society’s forces drilled with pikes while its leaders negotiated with the French to supply an army with guns and cannon. Other secret societies in Ireland at the time ranged themselves for or against the United Irishmen; the Defenders, a Catholic secret society founded to counter Protestant violence in the 1780s, allied with the United Irishmen and gave them access to extensive secret networks in south and central Ireland, while the Loyal Orange Order stood against anything that might weaken the privileged position of Protestants under British rule. See Loyal Orange Order.

Attempted French landings in 1796 and 1797 fizzled out, however, while a final invasion in 1798 ended in a crushing French defeat at the hands of English troops led by the viceroy Lord Cornwallis. The Irish rising in the same year failed to coordinate with the French landing, and the rebel force of 20,000 went down fighting at their camp at Vinegar Hill. Tone, captured by the English while trying to escape aboard a French ship, committed suicide.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006


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