The United Irishmen were an organisation agitating for Irish independence from Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. They were led by the Protestant Wolfe Tone, who was also the National Secretary of the Catholic Committee.
Tone was concerned by the plight of the mass of the Irish Catholic population writing; "...they have been stripped of all land, the bulk are in the lowest degree of misery, they seldom taste bread, live in wretched hovels and labor incessantly".
He attempted to unite Catholics and Protestants and had many avid Presbyterian followers.
Wolfe Tone planned to persuade the French to send an army that would back an uprising against the aristocracy. After repeated requests, the French Directory, seeing an opportunity to weaken British power, agreed. A singe fleet was sent under the command of Hoche to land at Cork on the south coast of Ireland in December 1796. However, a freak hurricane forced the fleet to return.
The fleet had, however, been spotted and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Pelham, ordered a reign of terror. Anyone suspected of supporting the invasion or Wolfe Tone was to be flogged.
Sending a foreign force to subdue an area by force predictably backfired and much of the population of Ireland was impressed that the French had sent anyone at all. The United Irishmen grew in numbers until there were 120,000 across Ulster. At this point the Royal Navy were on the point of mutiny. A second, more half hearted French invasion failed however. In part due to the support garnered for British rule by newly set up Orange Lodges.