Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland
curated-collections-iconCurated Collection

The Calendars of the Rebellion Papers

Exploring Dublin Castle’s Secret Archive (1790-1808), in partnership with National Archives, Ireland. Curated by Dr Timothy Murtagh.

About this Collection

This curated collection comprises a searchable database of the Rebellion Papers, a key collection preserved in the National Archives of Ireland. What is provided here is a digital version of the existing calendars of the Rebellion Papers, giving item level descriptions of the collection’s contents.

The Rebellion Papers are a unique collection of letters, mostly relating to the years surrounding the 1798 Rebellion. The collection consists of letters sent to the Chief Secretary’s Office in Dublin Castle, written by a range of correspondents: from postmasters and magistrates, to military generals and police constables. The papers mostly date from 1790 to 1808, capturing a period marked by dramatic political upheaval in Ireland. They provide a unique window into events such as the birth of Irish republicanism, the  creation of the Orange Order; attempted invasions by revolutionary France; uprisings against British rule in 1798 and 1803, and the extinction of the Irish Parliament via the Act of Union in 1801. Contained within the Rebellion Papers are the secret histories of all these events, told through the letters of informers and spies, through intercepted letters of revolutionaries, and in the confessions of imprisoned and condemned rebels.

This curated collection gives a comprehensive overview of this vast and complex set of documents, frequently providing useful descriptions of the content of the papers themselves.

The Rebellion Papers capture the workings of the Irish Chief Secretary’s Office (CSO), the central agency that oversaw all various government departments within Dublin Castle, acting as the executive government for Ireland. The vast majority of the Chief Secretary’s Office records were destroyed in the Four Courts in 1922. What was lost in the fire included some of the key collections for understanding the workings of the government in Dublin Castle. Two crucial series were: ‘Correspondence (Miscellaneous Civil), 1685-1799’ and ‘Country Letters, 1701-1827’. Both of these series contained  a wealth of material about the ‘state of the country’, drawn from sources such as military personnel, county governors, sheriffs and private individuals..The Rebellion Papers are so important because they serve as a partial substitute for these lost collections. In fact, it seems that certain materials from the aforementioned CSO series were extracted and assembled into what became the Rebellion Papers, partly out of political sensitivity. There was a recognition of the delicate nature of the records held by the Chief Secretary’s Office, which included the names of paid informants to government, as well as detailing the drastic  measures that Dublin Castle would go to in order to route out subversion in the years around the 1798 Rebellion. The calendars of the Rebellion Papers provide a useful overview of the extent and range of the collection, as well as frequently providing useful extracts and information from the letters.

Historical Context 

The period covered by the Rebellion Papers, 1790 to 1808, was one of profound political upheaval in Ireland. The influence of the French Revolution had a significant impact on Irish political thought, inspiring the spread of Republicanism and the development of Irish separatism. These revolutionary ideas challenged the traditional political order and led to increased demands for democratic reforms, spearheaded by the Society of United Irishmen. This, in turn, inspired a conservative backlash, with the authorities applying draconian measures to route out subversion, often aided by institutional sectarianism in the form of the Orange Order. The outbreak of war between Britain and revolutionary France in 1793 further heightened concerns about security, both against external enemies and internal subversion. Following a failed French invasion in late 1796, the subsequent years saw a steady deterioration of the security situation within the country. The United Irishmen, reinvented as a secret revolutionary movement, vastly expanded their membership in hopes of enacting a revolution that would create an independent Irish republic. The result was the outbreak of a rebellion in 1798, an event that spanned nearly the entire island and which resulted in more than 20,000 deaths.  Following the rebellion, a political union was enacted in 1801 which dissolved the Irish parliament, a fact which did not prevent another attempted insurrection in 1803 under the leadership of Robert Emmet.

The Rebellion Papers provide a unique window onto Irish society during these turbulent events because they are mostly written by ‘non official’ correspondents to Dublin Castle: local gentry, postmasters, clergymen, magistrates, paid informants, and, occasionally, concerned citizens, some of whom might charitably be described as ‘cranks’. These letters were intended to inform government officials of local events and developments. The letters cover a wide range of topics but have a significant focus on issues of law and order.  As a result, much of the correspondence addresses the perceived threats posed by seditious activities and offers recommendations for countering these threats.

For those who have studied this period of Irish history, the Rebellion Papers have proved a crucial, if sometimes challenging collection. One of the first historians to ever consult the collection, the Victorian historian W.E.H. Lecky, described the Rebellion Papers in evocative terms: 

amid this great mass of serious, formal and depressing documents, there may be found others of a very different character, which were seized among the papers of the conspirators, and which have sometimes a strangely pathetic interest. There are love-letters and rude poems; passionate expressions of youthful friendships; note-books in which eager scholars described their studies or recorded their passing thoughts; day-dreams of young and ardent natures, too often destined to end in exile or the gallows.

W.E.H. Lecky A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1892)  Vol.1, pp.vii-viii.

What can I find here? 

What is provided here is a digital version of the calendars of the Rebellion Papers, providing item level descriptions of the collection’s contents. These calendars were produced by the Irish State Paper Office (SPO)  at some point in the early 1940s. They are, however, based on indices and finding aids created in earlier decades by the SPO.  The majority of these calendars were handwritten, and while every effort has been made to ensure an accurate description of the content, errors in transcribing the calendars are inevitable. Similarly, while we have attempted to verify any discrepancy between the calendars and the actual content of the papers themselves, any mistakes made by the creators of these calendars are, for the moment, reproduced here. 

The Rebellion Papers are a  large and varied collection of papers, which is reflected in these calendars. The collection consists of just over 8,000 items which, when the collection was arranged in the nineteenth century, were divided into 67 archival cartons. These items vary immensely in size, with some items being a single letter, while others are multiple pieces of correspondence, or in some cases entire volumes of material. The type of material also varies. The first section of the archive (cartons 1-22) is composed of multiple categories of documents, including records of courts martial, lists of prisoners, petitions from condemned rebels, and ‘miscellaneous’ groupings of papers, loosely organized around either a correspondent or topic.  However, the larger section of the archive (cartons 23-67) is composed of letters, arranged in a rough chronological order. 

While the content of the collection as a whole spans from 1790 up until 1808, the bulk of the items relate to the years 1796 to 1803. These are the years covered by the latter section of the collection which is arranged chronologically. In some cases, where the date is uncertain, this is indicated by ‘No Date’.

The calendars provide the reference number of each item. These reference numbers consist of: the collection code  of the Rebellion Papers (620), the carton number, and the item (and sometimes a sub-item) number.  For example: 620/29/286 is the Rebellion Papers (620), carton 29, item 286. 

Each item is accompanied by a description which includes :

  • Names of correspondents (who is writing to whom)     
  • The date of the correspondence, or in some cases a ‘date range’ indicating the possible dates where there is not an exact date provided. 
  • A short description of what the letter is about or, in some cases, a brief excerpt from the letter.

Records within the Rebellion Papers may be consulted on microfilm in the National Archives of Ireland reading room.

Collection Name: 1798 Rebellion Papers