United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland

The United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland was a failed mutiny by Irish soldiers in the British garrison in St. John's, Newfoundland on 24 April 1800. The authorities attributed it to the influence and example of the United Irishmen and their rebellion in Ireland two years prior.

United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland

Reenactors portraying the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, a unit involved in the uprising
Date24 April 1800
Result Mutiny suppressed
 United Kingdom Mutineers
Commanders and leaders
Duke of Kent
John Skerrett
James Murphy
Sergeant Kelly
British garrison in Newfoundland 19 mutineers
Casualties and losses
None 8 executed
5 transported


In 1798, a failed rebellion against British rule in Ireland occurred. A large-scale migration of Irish immigrants to Newfoundland was occurring concurrently, which increased after the rebellion; by 1800, two-thirds of the population of St. John's, and many in the British garrison, were Irish. In April 1800, rumors began to spread in St. John's that as many as 400 Irish people, including soldiers in the Newfoundland garrison (which included the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles and the Royal Artillery) inspired by the Society of United Irishmen had formed a secret society and taken oaths to organize a mutiny. More than 80 Irish soldiers were believed to have planned to rendezvous at the gunpowder magazine of Fort Townshend and murder their officers and several leading townspeople on April 20.[1][2]


Responding to these rumors, John Skerrett, the highest-ranking officer in the garrison, ordered the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles to be placed on parade on April 20. On the night of April 24, 19 Irish soldiers (consisting of 11 fencibles and twelve artillerymen led by James Murphy and Sergeant Kelly) gathered at the Fort Townshend gunpowder magazine, where they discovered that 30 fellow mutineers from Fort William were unable to join them (their commander, Thomas Skinner, had ordered them to be temporarily detained in response to the rumors). Word of the attempted mutiny quickly spread, and the 19 mutineers fled into the countryside.[1][2]

Fr. James Louis O’Donel, the Catholic Bishop of St. John’s, having got wind of what was afoot, had enjoined his missioners to "oppose with all the means in their power all plotters conspirators, and favourers of the infidel French", cautioning that "the aim of this conspiracy is to dissolve all bonds, all laws by which society is held together".[3]

Suppression and aftermath

The mutineers were quickly recaptured in a manner of weeks by soldiers from the garrison, except for Murphy and Kelly, who were never caught. Four mutineers who informed on their fellow mutineers were not court-martialled and released, while Skerrett ordered five mutineers to be executed by hanging near the gunpowder magazine. The remaining eight mutineers were sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Duke of Kent sentenced three (Garrett Fitzgerald, Edward Power and James Ivory) to be executed and the remaining five to penal transportation. According to historian John Edward FitzGerald, "The United Irish Rising in the St. John's garrison had several implications for the Irish in Newfoundland, and for British governance of its lucrative fishing colony. The Newfoundland rebellion was, as far as is known, the only one to occur which the British administration linked directly to the rebellion in Ireland. The uprising in St. John's was significant in that it was the first occasion on which the Irish in Newfoundland deliberately flouted the authority of the state, and because Britain feared that it might not be the last. It earned for Newfoundland, in the minds of British officials in the Colonial Office, a reputation as a "Transatlantic Tipperary", a far-flung but semi-Irish colony with the potential for political turbulence."[1][2]

To this date, no clear reason has been established for the mutiny. FitzGerald wrote that:

The leaders' purpose, or what they hoped to achieve by their insurrection, has never been made clear. Whether they could even be proven definitively to be sworn United Irishmen is also unclear. Bishop O'Donel, who denied allegations that the Sunday plot included assassination at church, thought plunder and escape to America were the objectives. A much more likely explanation, suggested by others, was that the St. John's rising was less of a United Irish rebellion than it was simply an act of working class desperation to escape grim economic conditions and officer tyranny, which had required many of the Irish reserve soldiers to remain on duty instead of engaging in the fishery, by which they derived support for their families in St. John's.[1] [2]

The abortive mutiny may have been less a United Irish plot, than an act of desperation in the face of brutal living conditions and officer tyranny. Many of the Irish reserve soldiers were forced to remain on duty, unable to return to the fisheries that supported their families.[4][5] Yet the Newfoundland Irish would have been aware of the agitation in the homeland for civil equality and political rights.[6] There were reports of communication with United men in Ireland from before '98 rebellion;[6] of Thomas Paine's pamphlets circulating in St. John's;[7] and, despite the war with France, of hundreds of young Waterford men still making a seasonal migration to the island for the fisheries, among them defeated rebels, said to have "added fuel to the fire" of local grievance.[8]

See also


  1. FitzGerald, John Edward (2001). "The United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland, 1800". Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. Retrieved 26 September 2022.
  2. Shortt, Seamus; Gannon, Joseph E. (18 January 2013). "United Irish Rising in Newfoundland". The Wild Geese. Retrieved 26 September 2022.
  3. MacGiollabhui, Muiris (2019). Sons of Exile: The United Irishmen in Transnational Perspective 1791-1827. UC Santa Cruz (Thesis). p. 118.
  4. Fitzgerald, John Edward (2001). "The United Irish Uprising in Newfoundland, 1800". Heritage: Newfoundland and Labrador. Archived from the original on 9 February 2021. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
  5. Mannion, John (1 January 2000). ""... Notoriously disaffected to the Government..." British allegations of Irish disloyalty in eighteenth-century Newfoundland". Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. ISSN 1715-1430. Archived from the original on 30 July 2021. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  6. ""The entire island is United..."". History Ireland. 7 February 2013. Archived from the original on 31 July 2021. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
  7. Fitzgerald (2001), p. 25
  8. Pedley, Rev. Charles (1863). The History of Newfoundland from the Earliest Times to 1860. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green. p. 210. Archived from the original on 14 August 2021. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
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