Illustrated London News, May 11, 1844, after a painting by Captain E.P. Brenton
St. John's, 1798. By this time, two-thirds of the population of St. John's was Irish, as were most of the soldiers in the British garrison stationed at Fort Townshend, seen overlooking the city, top left.

By Seamus Shortt and Joseph E. Gannon

On April 24, 1800, Bishop James O'Donel, a Tipperary man, no less, betrays a rising by hundreds of his fellow exiles in Newfoundland.

This week marks the 221st anniversary of an Irish uprising in North America, one little known outside -- and even inside -- Newfoundland, where it took place. Undoubtedly, its obscurity is the fruit of its failure.

But for its betrayal by the local bishop, also an Irishman, the rising might well have caused considerable bloodshed, and a larger place in both Canadian and Irish history.

The rising was set for April 20th, 1800, organized by the island's 400-strong United Irish conspiracy. The group took its name and inspiration from the movement in Ireland, which had rebelled with French aid in 1798. (Visit WGT's 1798 page for more on the rising in Ireland.) British authorities brutally crushed them, but their immense losses and courageous resistance became an inspiration for generations of Irish nationalists.

Newfoundland's Irish had no doubt been inflamed by the rising in Ireland, but, in addition, they too lived in poverty. They were employed as fishermen, and locally as laborers, but by keeping them in debt their employers made virtual slaves of them. Thus, their plan probably took equal parts inspiration from the '98 Rising and their economic exploitation.

The history of the Irish in Newfoundland, a massive island off Canada's eastern shore, dates to 1622, when an Irishman was reportedly found hunting beaver with Native Americans. This was an isolated incident, but, by 1675, Irishmen became frequent visitors and inhabitants of the place they called "Talamh an Éisc," the island of fish. Though many came with the idea of working the fishing boats there and then returning to Ireland, in the end many remained. So many did so that by 1731, states one historian, the majority of the male population were Irish Roman Catholics.

Bishop James Louis O'Donel
Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, Newfoundland)
James Louis O'Donel (1737-1811), n.d. Artist unknown.

JAMES Louis O'Donel, the cleric who single-handedly brought down the United Irish rising in Newfoundland, was born in Knocklofty, County Tipperary, in 1737. With the Penal Laws in effect in Ireland, intelligent young Catholic men had limited opportunities to make their way in the world, and most of those required leaving. James followed one of the more well-traveled Irish Catholic career paths: the priesthood. Educated at St. Isidore's in Rome, O'Donel was ordained there in 1770.

Father O'Donel taught in Eastern Europe and then returned to Ireland, rapidly rising to become the provincial of the Irish Franciscans. When the British relaxed laws against Catholicism in the New World, Father O'Donel was sent to St. John's, Newfoundland, to help organize the Church there. His knowledge of the Irish language, the primary language of many of the Irish settlers there, was probably a factor in this decision.

He performed his duties very well in St. John's, building churches and establishing congregations around the island. When the time came to appoint a bishop in St. John's, in 1796, O'Donel was the logical choice. Like many Catholic clergy before and since, O'Donel was a very conservative man. He spent much of his time working to maintain good relations between the Irish settlers and the British authorities.

When unrest came to Newfoundland in the form of United Irish agitation, it is not surprising that O'Donel came down firmly on the side of the British. How he came by the knowledge of the planned rising of the United Irishmen in April 1800, which he then passed on the British, is unknown. It will likely remain so. Some have claimed he came by the information in the confessional, a very serious charge, if true. The sanctity of the confessional is one of the major tenets of the Catholic faith. Still, there must have been little that could go on in St. John's among the Irish population that could be long hidden from the bishop.

Armed with knowledge of the rebels' plans, the British had little trouble crushing the attempted insurrection. After the upheaval, Bishop O'Donel redoubled his efforts to reconcile the Irish population to British rule. Prayers in Masses on the island were regularly offered to the British royal family, and the French, though fellow Catholics, were reviled from the pulpit.

That the British considered him of value to them is demonstrated by the 75 pounds a year pension he was granted after the aborted revolt.

Failing health forced O'Donel to yield his position in St. John's in 1807. He returned to his native Ireland and died in Waterford on April 1, 1811. — J.E.G.

By 1796, the Irish Catholics comprised nearly two-thirds of Newfoundland's population, and Father James Louis O'Donel, of Knocklofty, County Tipperary, was appointed the first Bishop of St. John's, the island's largest town. Most of the Irish in Newfoundland had come from Ireland's southeastern counties, especially Waterford, and many apparently didn't speak English. When O'Donel asked for a priest to be sent to a local parish, he said, "It is absolutely necessary that he should speak Irish."

It would probably be fair to say that in 1798, as the United Irishmen erupted in rebellion in Ireland, Newfoundland was the second most Irish place in the world. It is not surprising then that the tremendous upheaval of 1798 in Ireland would have transferred its unrest across the ocean.

Much of the fighting in Ireland had occurred in Wexford, the birthplace of many of the Newfoundland Irish. By 1799, Johnathan Ogden, chief justice of Newfoundland, estimated that as many as 400 Irishmen in Newfoundland had taken the United Irish oath. The population of St. John's was about 3,500 at this point, so 400 was a significant number. Notably, as many as 80 of the oath takers may have been soldiers in the local militia, the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles.

The Fencibles regiment became the epicenter of the proposed rising, but, before the plot could gain momentum, Bishop O'Donel learned of it. He immediately betrayed the United Irishmen to the English. Nineteenth-century historian Charles Pedley would later allege that O'Donel violated the seal of the confessional in exposing the plot, but no one will ever know with certainty. What is clear is that his passing of information to the authorities destroyed the planned rising before it ever got started.

General John Skerrett commanded the British army in the area. Coincidentally, he had commanded the Durham Fencibles at the Battle of Arklow on June 9th, 1798, during the rising in Ireland. He is on record as saying that in 1800, two-thirds of the Newfoundland Regiment were Irish. This seems likely, given the many Irish on the island, and shows how great a danger to British authority this proposed uprising could have been if early success had spread it over the island.

Thanks to O'Donel, the British authorities were well prepared, and the rising in Newfoundland never materialized. Skerrett put the entire regiment on parade on April 20th, a Sunday, the planned date of the rising. The revolt was then reset for the 24th, but only 19 Irish soldiers deserted their posts before their British army commanders intervened. Two of the leaders, Sergeant Kelly and James Murphy, managed to escape. In the end, all the rebels but they would be captured. What became of Kelly and Murphy is lost to history. Skerrett had all the prisoners court-martialed and hanged five of them.

As they awaited their executions, O'Donel administered to all five. Another 11 prisoners were sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, at that time the headquarters of the British army in Canada. The Commander, the Duke of Kent (and son of King George III), ordered the immediate execution of prisoners Garrett Fitzgerald, Edward Power and Pierce Ivory. In the following weeks, the Duke moved the Newfoundland regiment to Halifax. So ended the United Irishmen's rising in North America.

Given the way events unfolded, the abortive rising, in and of itself, was not a significant event. But it was a strong indication that Irish emigrants often carried their resentment to British rule with them. More than a century later, that anger would become a key factor in Ireland's ultimate overthrow of British rule.

Related Site:

"Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage," at

Selected Bibliography:

Lahey, Raymond J. James Louis O'Donel in Newfoundland, Newfoundland Historical Society, 1984.

O'Driscoll, Rogert, ed.Untold Story : The Irish in Canada , Vol. 1, pp. 171-201. Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988.

O'Hara, Aidan. "The Entire Island is United?," History Ireland, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 18-21.

Pedley, C.The History of Newfoundland: From the Earliest Times to the Year 1860 , 1863.

Tillyard, Stella. Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary . Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Copyright © 1997,GAR Media. 
All rights reserved.

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