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…That images of the Volunteers like this one, produced by Thomas Harpur in Leixlip, were desirable consumer goods for the well-to-do is a mark of the political ferment of the decade…
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In November 1783 Edward Clarke, proprietor of the Irish Furniture, Cotton and Linen Warehouse on Werburgh Street in Dublin, advertised for sale:
a Volunteer furniture, with an exact representation of the Last Provincial Review in Phoenix Park, with a striking likeness of Lord Charlemont as reviewing General.
That images of the Volunteers, like this one, produced by Thomas Harpur in Leixlip, were desirable consumer goods for the well-to-do is vivid evidence of the political ferment of the decade.
Volunteering took off in 1778, as a response to the American War of Independence. France joined the war on the side of the colonists, and there were fears it might attempt to invade Ireland. Regiments of regular troops were sent to fight in America, leaving the administration with little choice but to accommodate the formation of Volunteer corps. As Lord Charlemont, the commander-in-chief depicted on the panel, put it: ‘They feared and consequently hated the Volunteers, yet to them alone they looked for… safety’. By late 1779, 40,000 men were under arms, half of them in Ulster.
Charlemont was also the leader of the socalled Patriot Connexion in the Irish House of Lords, and an ally of opposition leaders Henry Flood and Henry Grattan. This faction was not innately revolutionary, taking Ireland’s connection to Britain for granted. Nevertheless, it wanted more local control over Irish affairs, and the removal of Westminster’s restrictions on Irish trade. It especially opposed two pieces of legislation. Poynings’ Law (1494) allowed the privy council in London to veto or alter legislation passed by the (entirely Protestant) Irish parliament. The Declaratory Act (1720) gave Westminster the right (rarely used) to legislate for Irish affairs.
In 1779, after demonstrations by the armed Volunteers outside the parliament on College Green, London lifted restrictions on the export of wool, glass and other goods from Ireland. Success bred larger demands: in February 1782, the Volunteer convention in Dungannon approved resolutions demanding legislative and judicial independence for Ireland and further relaxation of the Penal Laws. In May the dismantling of the Penal Laws was intensified, and in June the Declaratory Act was repealed and Poynings’ Law amended. The Volunteers, and their liberal Protestant supporters, then faced the hardest question of all: what about middle-class Protestants and the Catholic majority? Belfast and Dublin radicals pushed for an extensive widening of the franchise, for Catholics as well as Protestants; conservatives in parliament and the Volunteers took fright. Reform was rejected and the Volunteers began to decline.
The French Revolution of 1789 upped the stakes. The Belfast Volunteers hailed it as ‘the Hope of this World’. Establishment liberals drew back from the cause of ‘liberty’. The gulf between radicalism and reaction became even wider, and for both sides the stakes seemed even higher.