An incredibly rare "Stepped" pattern of the Officers Gilt Gorget worn from 1778-83, finely chased with the Harp of Erin and wreaths of shamrocks this gorget represents the very early stages of the formation of the Volunteer Companies, complete with original shapped buff leather liner
Outside of Ulster, Catholics found few supporters as Protestants were a minority concerned with their privileges. In Ulster, Protestants and Catholics were almost equal in number and sectarian rivalries remained strong, exemplified by the County Armagh disturbances. In contrast, east of the River Bann in counties Antrim and Down, the Protestants were such an "overwhelming majority" that they had little to fear from Catholics, and became their biggest defenders.
According to The Volunteers Companion, printed in 1784, there were five different Volunteer companies in Belfast, the first of which was the Belfast 1st Volunteer Company formed on 17 March 1778. Delegates from this company to the national convention of 1782 were "bitterly disappointed" that their fellow Volunteers were still opposed to giving Catholics the vote. In 1783 they became the first company of Volunteers in Ireland to "defiantly" admit Catholics into their ranks, and in May 1784 attended mass at St. Mary's chapel. Indeed, the building of this chapel was largely paid for by the Belfast 1st Volunteer Company. In sharp contrast to this, no Roman Catholic was ever admitted into a County Armagh company.
In 1791, the Belfast 1st Volunteer Company passed its own resolution arguing in favour of Catholic emancipation. In October that year the Society of United Irishmen was founded, initially as an offshoot of the Volunteers. In 1792, a new radical company was created as part of the Belfast Regiment of Volunteers, the Green Company, under which guise the United Irishmen held their initial meetings. Wolfe Tone, a leading member of the United Irishmen, was elected as an honorary member of the Green Company, who he also calls the First Company, hinting that the Belfast 1st Volunteer Company reorganised itself into the Green Company.
Eventually the United Irishmen would advocate revolutionary and republican ideals inspired by the French Revolution. Ironically it was only 31 years previous when Belfast had called upon volunteer militias from counties Antrim, Armagh, and Down to defend it from the French.
The Volunteers became less influential after the end of the war in America in 1783, and rapidly declined except in Ulster. Whilst volunteering remained of interest in counties Antrim and Down, in other places such as neighbouring County Armagh, interest was in serious decline as was membership.
Internal politics too played a role in the Volunteers demise with sharp divisions of opinion regarding political affairs, possibly including "disapproval of the revolutionary and republican sentiments then being so freely expressed", especially amongst northern circles.
The ultimate demise of the Volunteers occurred during 1793 with the passing of the Gunpowder Act and Convention Act, both of which "effectively killed off Volunteering", whilst the creation of a militia, followed by the yeomanry, served to deprive the Volunteers of their justification of being a voluntary defence force.
Whilst some Volunteer members would join the United Irishmen, the majority were inclined towards the Yeomanry, which was used to help put down the United Irishmen's rebellion in 1798. Some of these United Irishmen and Yeomen had received their military training in the same Volunteer company; for example, the Ballymoney company's Alexander Gamble became a United Irishman, whilst George Hutcinson, a captain in the company, joined the Yeomanry.
It was the Volunteers of 1782 that launched a paramilitary tradition in Irish politics, a tradition, whether nationalist or unionist, has continued to shape Irish political activity with the ethos of "the force of argument had been trumped by the argument of force".
The Volunteers of the 18th century set a precedent for using the threat of armed force to influence political reform. George Washington, also a member of the landed gentry, had written about them: "Patriots of Ireland, your cause is our own". While their political aims were limited, and their legacy was ambiguous, combining future elements of both Irish nationalism and Irish unionism.
The Ulster Volunteers founded in 1912 to oppose Irish Home Rule, made frequent reference to the Irish Volunteers, and attempted to link its activities with theirs. They shared many features such as regional strength, leadership, and a Protestant recruitment base.The Irish Volunteers, formed in November 1913, were in part inspired and modeled on the Ulster Volunteers, but its founders, including Eoin MacNeill and Patrick Pearse, also drew heavily upon the legacy of the 18th-century Volunteers.
Renowned Irish historian and writer James Camlin Beckett, stated that when the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland was being debated in the Parliament of Ireland throughout 1800, that the "national spirit of 1782 was dead". Despite this, Henry Grattan, who had helped secure the Irish parliament's legislative independence in 1782, bought Wicklow borough at midnight for £1,200, and after dressing in his old Volunteer uniform, arrived at the House of Commons of the Irish parliament at 7 a.m., after which he gave a two-hour speech against the proposed union.
Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) established the Dungannon Clubs in 1905 ... "to celebrate those icons of the constitutionalist movement, the Irish Volunteers of 1782".
MacNeill stated of the original Volunteers, "the example of the former Volunteers (of 1782) is not that they did not fight but that they did not maintain their organisation till their objects had been secured".
One of the mottos used by the Volunteer's Quis Separabit, meaning "who shall separate us", which was in use by them from at least 1781, is also used by the Order of St. Patrick(founded in 1783), and is used by several Irish British Army regiments such as the Royal Dragoon Guards, Royal Ulster Rifles (previously Royal Irish Rifles), 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, 88th Regiment of Foot (Connaught Rangers) and its successor the Connaught Rangers. It was also adopted by the anti-Home Rule organisation, the Ulster Defence Union, and is also the motto of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Force.