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Loyalty or Rebellion? The Shifting Allegiances of 1798

At the end of the 18th century, after years of apparent peace in Ireland, the country erupted into a violent and bloody struggle. The 1798 rebellion, at the time frequently portrayed as an attempt by Catholics to uproot the Protestant authority, was a far more complex affair.

 

Introduction

Introduction

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The Irish Volunteers (1178 – 1782): Defending the Country

The Irish Volunteers (1178 – 1782): Defending the Country

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The Irish Volunteers: Political Action

The Irish Volunteers: Political Action

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‘Liberty and Union among the people’: The Society of the United Irishmen

‘Liberty and Union among the people’: The Society of the United Irishmen

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James Hope (1764 – 1847)

James Hope (1764 – 1847)

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William Drennan, MD (1754 – 1820)

William Drennan, MD (1754 – 1820)

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‘A Policy of Counter-Terror’: the Government Response

‘A Policy of Counter-Terror’: the Government Response

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The Militia

The Militia

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The Orange Order

The Orange Order

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The Yeomanry: ‘an arm’d constabulary compos’d of the better orders of the people’

The Yeomanry: ‘an arm’d constabulary compos’d of the better orders of the people’

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The Yeomanry

The Yeomanry

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The Voice of Women

The Voice of Women

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Commemoration and Legacy

Commemoration and Legacy

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Commemoration & Legacy: Military Volunteering

Commemoration & Legacy: Military Volunteering

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Introduction

The Volunteer Coat of James Hope, 1780s, BELUM.O383.1927.
The Volunteer Coat of James Hope, 1780s, BELUM.O383.1927.
Jacket of the 16th Finwater Donegal Yeomanry, c. 1800, BELUM.O249.1932
Jacket of the 16th Finwater Donegal Yeomanry, c. 1800, BELUM.O249.1932

In the 18th century, Ireland was ruled by a wealthy Protestant aristocracy, called ‘the Ascendancy’. Politically, Ireland had its own parliament and was a sister kingdom of the British crown. The arrangement was not a stable one.

The Church of Ireland was the established church. Catholics and to a lesser extent Presbyterians were seen as a threat to the establishment and subject to discriminatory penal laws.

Inspired by the American and French revolutions an emerging middle class of businessmen and industrialists began to protest against the economic restrictions placed on Ireland by the British crown as well as demanding the right to participate in the ruling of the country.

After the demise of the Irish Volunteers, who had almost achieved the full parliamentary independence hoped for by many, the situation intensified. In 1791, the radical Society of the United Irishmen formed in Belfast aiming to achieve radical reform of the system. At war with France and constantly fearing an invasion, the government raised first an Irish Militia and later a local Yeomanry to protect the country. As the security situation worsened, the government adopted increasingly ruthless measures to quash insurgents and in 1798 open rebellion finally broke out.

These two coats, one worn by a United Irishmen and the other a member of a Donegal Yeomanry, could be seen as representing opposite sides in the struggle. However, 1798 was not the result of a simple choice for either Loyalty or Rebellion. As William Drennan, the prominent United Irish literate, wrote at the time: ‘These, indeed, are trying times, and the right path becomes complex.’

 

The Irish Volunteers (1178 – 1782): Defending the Country

Image: Minute Book of the Men of Mourne Volunteers, 1778 – 1783 - The first entry describing the purpose of the formation of the Men of Mourne Volunteers, BELUM.Zg3662
Minute Book of the Men of Mourne Volunteers, 1778 – 1783 - The first entry describing the purpose of the formation of the Men of Mourne Volunteers, BELUM.Zg3662

The American Revolution had led to troops being drawn out of the country, leaving it vulnerable to the ‘French threat’. Described as the ‘backdoor to England’, Ireland was often seen as a weak spot in the defences of Great Britain and an ideal foothold for invasion. The Irish Volunteers were formed to address this problem.

As this Minute Book of the Men of Mourne Volunteers describes, it was this ‘perilous situation of [the Irish] Kingdom’ that inspired the ‘publick spirited throughout the kingdom to associate for its internal defence.’ Although largely composed of the Protestant middle class, who acted within their right to bear arms, the Volunteer movement also included Presbyterians, members of the landed gentry and even some Catholics. Following an invasion scare in 1779, the movement rapidly expanded and numerous corps sprung up all over the country.

Not receiving any pay for their efforts, the Volunteers were men who could afford the uniforms, equipment and leisure to drill and parade as citizen soldiers. Similar to the later Militia and Yeomanry the corps functioned more as a local police force rather than a national army, keeping peace and order.

However, it appears that sometimes Volunteers may have been the cause for some disorder. The Minute book includes an account of a certain J. Windon, a tax collector, complaining about the conduct of Volunteer James Beaty, who obstructed him in carrying out his duty: ‘He pursued me from Soldiers Point to my own house and there gave me a kick.’

 

The Irish Volunteers: Political Action

Image: The Muster of the Irish Volunteers in College Green Dublin, 1779, printed copy of engraving, ARMCM.1.1941.
The Muster of the Irish Volunteers in College Green Dublin, 1779, printed copy of engraving, ARMCM.1.1941.

A major attraction of volunteering was the ostentatious ceremonies and pomp it involved. To unite the numerous geographically scattered corps large reviews were organised. This engraving shows the Irish Volunteers displaying their strength at a review in College Green, Dublin in 1779. These gatherings involved joint drills, training and parades but they went far beyond mere military occasions. The camps were a welcomed break from the everyday and volunteering was in fashion.

More importantly, however, they allowed the individual corps to feel part of a greater society turning the movement into a political pressure group and a serious threat to the Dublin government.

The motives of the Volunteers soon turned from defending Ireland towards more political goals. Inhibited in their business success and frustrated, the Volunteers campaigned to rid Irish trade of the strict restrictions placed on it by Westminster. The Volunteer uniforms, such as the 1st Tyrone Regiment coat pictured here, were a visible outcome of this. Fashioned from Irish wool the uniforms served to support and flaunt local trade.

1st Tyrone Regiment Coat, 1780s, BELUM.O248.1932
1st Tyrone Regiment Coat, 1780s, BELUM.O248.1932
1st Tyrone Regiment Coat - back view, BELUM.O248.1932
1st Tyrone Regiment Coat - back view, BELUM.O248.1932
Image: Cocked Volunteer Hat, late 18th century, BELUM.O388.1927.
Cocked Volunteer Hat, late 18th century, BELUM.O388.1927.

Despite its public displays of unity, the Volunteer movement contained within it a variety of different agendas. While some Volunteers simply wanted to end the subordinate position of the Irish parliament others called for radical reform and Catholic emancipation. After it has lost its initial momentum, the movement soon dwindled. The Volunteers were officially suppressed by government in 1793.

 

Liberty and Union among the people’: The Society of the United Irishmen

A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country written by Thomas Russell (1767-1803), 1796,  BELUM.Zg3669.
A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country written by Thomas Russell (1767-1803), 1796, BELUM.Zg3669.
The last edition of the Northern Star newspaper, May 1797, BELUM.Zg6488
The last edition of the Northern Star newspaper, May 1797, BELUM.Zg6488

The outbreak of the French Revolution sparked the revival of radical sentiment in Ireland. In 1791, the secret, oath-bound Society of the United Irishmen was formed in Belfast. It was joined in high numbers by Presbyterian members of the middle class, who were disappointed by the failure of the Volunteers to achieve economic freedom for Ireland and the perceived corruption of the Irish Parliament.

In its first years, the society was mainly a propagandist organisation campaigning for reform, advocating a union of all Irishmen and celebrating the French Revolution through pamphlets, ballads and newspapers, such as Russell’s Letter to the People of Ireland or the Belfast Northern Star. The radical press significantly contributed to the survival of the movement despite increasing repression. This edition of the Northern Star was the last to be published before the Monaghan Militia stormed the offices destroying the paper’s printing press.

After the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793 the situation intensified. An attempted landing by a French fleet later in the year to aid the Irish rebels boosted the numbers of the society but also worked to further aggravate government measures to quash the rebel groups.

Image: Portrait of Henry Joy McCracken (1767-1798), 1926, BELUM.U49.
Portrait of Henry Joy McCracken (1767-1798), 1926, BELUM.U49.

As a result, the society took on a more militant structure, turning into an underground army. Many of the middle-class leaders, however, were not keen on open rebellion and stepped back. Henry Joy McCracken was one of the few who supported revolution and on the 7th of June 1798, he led the United Irishmen in the battle of Antrim.

 

James Hope (1764 – 1847)

Image: Portrait of James Hope, Roughfort Volunteers, 18th century, BELUM.P324.1927.
Portrait of James Hope, Roughfort Volunteers, 18th century, BELUM.P324.1927.

James ‘Jemmy’ Hope was one of the few working-class men known to have played a leading role in the United Irish movement. Born in Templepatrick, he trained as a linen weaver’s apprentice but attended night school in his spare time. He first joined the Belfast Volunteers and later the Society of the United Irishmen.

As a working-class man, the bourgeois character of the movement did not escape him. Looking back at the age of 81, Hope writes in his autobiography that ‘so long as men of rank and fortune lead a people, they will modify abuses, reform to a certain extent, but they never will remove any real grievances that press down on the people.’

Image: James Hope’s Volunteer coat, 1780s, BELUM.O383.1927.
James Hope’s Volunteer coat, 1780s, BELUM.O383.1927.

During the summer of the 1798 Rebellion, Hope was one of the men who took up arms. He fought in the battle of Antrim, where he was reputed to have worn this coat of his former Belfast Volunteer corps. The colour of the coat is important. As highlighted by historian Allan Blackstock, some of the volunteer groups that followed the initial Volunteers of the 1780s changed the colour of their coats from red to green as a sign of their increasingly radical, nationalist sentiment.

Image: Portrait of James Hope, c. 1830-35, BELUM.P362.1927
Portrait of James Hope, c. 1830-35, BELUM.P362.1927

After the 1798 rebellion Hope, unlike most other leaders of the United Irishmen, managed to avoid captivity and the death penalty by living under-cover for several years. The portrait above shows him as an older man, time and experience having left their traces on his face. Hope’s original death mask is pictured below - a common practice at the time, death masks served as a memento of the deceased.

Image: The death mask of James Hope, 1847, BELUM.O496.1927.
The death mask of James Hope, 1847, BELUM.O496.1927.

 

William Drennan, MD (1754 – 1820)

Image: William Drennan’s Frock Coat, c.1790, BELUM.O671.1963
William Drennan’s Frock Coat, c.1790, BELUM.O671.1963

Having studied medicine in Glasgow, Drennan was part of the prosperous middle class that dominated the Volunteer movement. He practiced in Belfast, Newry and eventually Dublin, which put him at the heart of Irish politics. Highly educated and from a liberal Presbyterian background, he supported politically radical ideas and was critical of ‘Whig’ politicians such as Grattan. In his work Orellana or An Irish Helot (1785), for which he became well-known, he preaches the unity of all Irishmen separate from Britain. He became secretary and later chairman of the Dublin society of the United Irishmen and regarded himself as the father of the movement although his suggestion to call it ‘the Irish Brotherhood’ was never heeded.

In 1794 Drennan was tried on charge of seditious libel. Despite being acquitted, the experience deeply frightened him. Writing to his mother after the trial, he assures her that he will no longer ‘dabble in these fugitive and now dangerous papers.’ He subsequently withdrew from direct political activism and adopted a more moderate position. The khaki frock coat worn by Drennan is not a military garment, but such as would have been worn by any gentleman at the time. Drennan did not fight during the 1798 rebellion.

Image: Portrait of William Drennan, c.1790, BELUM.P3.1986
Portrait of William Drennan, c.1790, BELUM.P3.1986

In his later years he returned to Belfast and devoted himself to education, radical journalism and literature. This portrait, the only known likeness of Drennan, depicts him in a deliberately contemplative pose.

 

A Policy of Counter-Terror’: the Government Response

Image: Publican’s Licence, 1798, BELUM.Zg3665.
Publican’s Licence, 1798, BELUM.Zg3665.

The movement of the Irish Volunteers had left the Dublin administration wary of unofficial groups. It feared the radical United Irishmen just as much as the secret oath-bound societies of the Protestant Peep Of Day Boys and the Catholic Defenders that were causing unrest in rural parts of the country.

During the 1790s the measures adopted by the government to quash the insurgents became more and more brutal. The 1796 Insurrection Act introduced the death penalty for administering illegal oaths and transportation for taking one. Powers were granted to local magistrates to impose curfews, search for arms and send ‘suspects’ to serve in the navy. During the rebellion authorities used terror measures; mass arrests were made, houses burnt and offenders tortured and frequently executed.

Anticipating rebellion Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, officially instituted martial law.

The two documents shown here serve to illustrate the restrictive nature of the times. The licence is a guarantee of good conduct, permitting Denis Hagan to carry out his business as a publican, as he ‘has never been implicated […] in the late wicked Practices of harbouring or encouraging illegal meetings.

Image: Pass, 1798, BELUM.Zg3678.
Pass, 1798, BELUM.Zg3678.

The pass was issued to a certain Gavin Orr and William Auchinleek and allowed them to visit James Hammilton at the Donegall arms

 

The Militia

Image: Militia Coatee, county Tyrone, c.1800, showing detail of the ‘wing-type’ chain epaulettes common between 1790 and 1815, BELUM.O220.41.
Militia Coatee, county Tyrone, c.1800, showing detail of the ‘wing-type’ chain epaulettes common between 1790 and 1815, BELUM.O220.41.

The war with France commanded an unprecedented amount of resources. Once again high numbers of men were drawn out of Ireland to fight in the British army and the Dublin authorities acknowledged the need to harness the large population of Catholics for a force to defend the country.

The establishment of the Irish Militia in 1793, which in Southern county regiments was largely Catholic in rank and file, effectively meant the removal of one of the penal laws which forbid Catholics to bear arms. Enrolment was made compulsory and men were selected by ballot. Any man refusing to serve was fined £10 and those unwilling to pay were treated as mutineers. The expense of the war had resulted in inflation and high tax increases and these were hard times for the working classes. Serving in the militia meant an income, food and shelter. Nevertheless, the establishment of the Militia sparked two months of violent riots which were met by a government response equal in harshness.

This unwillingness to enlist, as well as the belief that the Militia was largely infiltrated by the United Irishmen and the Catholic Defenders, led many to regard it as an unreliable force. However, despite high numbers of desertion, the militia remained surprisingly loyal during the 1798 rebellion.

 

Image: Coat of an Officer of the Londonderry Militia, c.1800, showing detail of the coat tail, © National Museums Northern Ireland, BELUM.O102.1943.
Coat of an Officer of the Londonderry Militia, c.1800, showing detail of the coat tail, © National Museums Northern Ireland, BELUM.O102.1943.

Overall the militia was badly trained and equipped. Conditions in the barracks were cramped resulting in sickness and ill-health. Very little of the average soldier remains. Splendid uniforms such as these were worn by officers and the higher ranks.

 

The Orange Order

Image: Demit from Loyal Orange Association No. 161 to Sergeant Andrew Ross, 1798, ARMCM.90.1987.
Demit from Loyal Orange Association No. 161 to Sergeant Andrew Ross, 1798, ARMCM.90.1987.

During the 1790s, sectarian tensions and economic rivalry were particularly strong in County Armagh, where the number of Catholics roughly matched that of Protestants.

The violent struggles between the secret, oath-bound societies of the Protestant Peep of Day Boys and the Catholic Defenders ultimately culminated in the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ in 1795. It is within this context of simmering community tensions and as a direct result of the skirmish at the Diamond that the Orange Institution was established. Pledged to defend the king and uphold the Protestant ascendancy, the order was organised in lodges, its rituals and communications marked by a mason-like symbolism.

Orange order demits were letters of good standing provided to local Orangemen who were leaving the area, recommending them to other lodges. The demit given to Sergeant Andrew Ross describes him as a ‘true Brother Orangemen’ who has ‘behaved himself to the Intire satisfaction of all our Brethen’.

Image: Williamite ‘mammoth’ goblet, c.1743, BELUM.V2309.
Williamite ‘mammoth’ goblet, c.1743, BELUM.V2309.

The establishment of the organisation was embedded in a long-lasting, wide-spread tradition of celebrating Protestant liberty and commemorating William III and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, which would have also been practiced by the Volunteers. The drinking glass shown here is inscribed with a toast to ‘the immortal memory of king William’ and the ‘perpetual disappointment of the pope the pretender’. Too large for personal use, it would have been used for communal toasting at ceremonies and meetings.

 

The Yeomanry: ‘an arm’d constabulary compos’d of the better orders of the people’

Image: Armagh Yeomanry Coat, c.1796 showing detail of epaulette, BELUM.O317.1929
Armagh Yeomanry Coat, c.1796 showing detail of epaulette, BELUM.O317.1929

The government postponed the establishment of an Irish Yeomanry for as long as possible for fear of creating another Volunteer movement, but as the security situation deteriorated and the fear of the evasive Defender and United Irish movements increased, the force was finally established in August 1796.

Unlike the Militia, the yeomanry was a voluntary police force, paid and controlled by the government but raised locally by landed gentry in rural areas and professional bodies in towns. This local aspect, as well as the fact that it was raised at a time when the United Irishmen were uniting with the Catholic Defenders, resulted in the strong Protestant character of the organisation.

Image: Jacket of the 16th Finwater Donegal Yeomanry, c.1800 front and back, BELUM.O249.1932.
Jacket of the 16th Finwater Donegal Yeomanry, c.1800 front and back, BELUM.O249.1932.

The government tried desperately to make the Yeomanry as different from the Volunteers as possible. The authorities were particularly keen to prevent the election of officers, which had been one of the main democratic characteristics of the Volunteers. However, as can be seen from the Yeomanry uniforms shown here, in appearance at least the two organisations were very similar.

Many former Volunteers enrolled in the force and were quite possibly fighting their old comrades in 1798. By the time of the rising, there is evidence of strong connections between the Yeomanry and the Orange Order.

 

The Yeomanry

Image: Dunluce Infantry Yeomanry Drum, BELUM.W2013.57.
Dunluce Infantry Yeomanry Drum, BELUM.W2013.57.

Although once envisaged as a force composed of the ‘higher classes’ of society, the yeomanry included men from a wide social spectrum. The upper classes generally served in the cavalry while the lower classes made up the infantry.

As a stay-at-home force, the yeomen were meant to be trained by permanent sergeants on a part-time basis. It is not hard to imagine that men serving as police in their immediate neighbourhood could be a cause for tension. The Yeomanry assisted the local magistrates in ‘peacekeeping duties’, such as suppressing riots, making arrests, and carrying out disarmings.

As a visual reminder of strength, drills and parades in their local area were an important feature. The drum shown here belonged to a drummer of the Dunluce Infantry Yeomanry and shows the motif of a crown and shield.

Attempts were made to maintain order and discipline: yeomen were fined or refused their pay for talking in the ranks, not wearing their uniform, appearing disorderly or ‘in liquor’.

Image: General Order of Thanks to the Yeomanry, BELUM.Zg3664
General Order of Thanks to the Yeomanry, BELUM.Zg3664

Yet despite all efforts, discipline and the level of training remained poor. The reputation of the Yeomanry suffered for their participation in brutal disarmings leading up to 1798. It was not improved by their involvement in the slaughter that followed battles during the rebellion, when the force carried out full-time duties.

The order of thanks sent out by the government, however, praises the Yeomen for their ‘various and great Exertions, the Alertness, the Bravery, Steadiness, Zeal and Loyalty’.

The Yeomanry was never intended as a permanent force and it was finally disbanded in 1834.

 

The Voice of Women

Image: Photograph of Mary Anne McCracken (1770-1866), c. 1860, BELUM.P475.1932.
Photograph of Mary Anne McCracken (1770-1866), c. 1860, BELUM.P475.1932.

The role women played in these turbulent times is less obviously represented in the writings and material culture left to us from history. However, this does not mean that women were not involved in the politics of the time. In the 1770s large groups of women were actively supporting the Volunteers. Women from a diverse social spectrum attended outdoor rallies by the Volunteers wearing their colours. During the rebellion, eye-witnesses inform us that the rebels were frequently accompanied by wives and sweethearts.

Mary Anne McCracken, the younger sister of Henry Joy, was strongly involved in the United Irish movement and openly opposed the Act of Union. She ran her own business with her sister, devoted herself to philanthropic causes associated with education and the role of women, and was an active advocate for the abolition of slave trade.

Image: Subscription List Saintfield Yeomanry, early 19th century, BELUM.Zg5326
Subscription List Saintfield Yeomanry, early 19th century, BELUM.Zg5326

Women also gave financial support to political and military movements. The subscription list from the Saintfield Yeomanry records a Miss Eliot who, as the only one on the list, paid a full two pounds.

 

Commemoration and Legacy

Image: Photograph of the Michael Dwyer ’98 Club, 1902, BELUM.Y8257
Photograph of the Michael Dwyer ’98 Club, 1902, BELUM.Y8257

Over the years the politics and events of late 18th century Ulster have been woven into a diverse tapestry of public memory and culture. In the late 19th century a number of ’98 clubs sprung up to commemorate the centenary of the rebellion. This photograph shows members of the Michael Dwyer ’98 club in 1902. The heroes of 1798 have lent their names to GAA clubs, bars and pubs all over the country and the events of 1798 became mythologised in fictional works, such as W. G. Lyttle’s Betsy Gray.

Republican mural off the Falls road
Republican mural off the Falls road
Loyalist mural depicting William III in Sandy Row
Loyalist mural depicting William III in Sandy Row

Present-day war murals show that the events, achievements and legends of this era are still a focus of public memory. The republican mural near the Falls Road in Belfast shows the revolutionary Wolfe Tone, one of the prominent leaders of the United Irishmen, alongside other republican heroes. The loyalist mural on Sandy Row continues the tradition of remembering King William III and the Battle of the Boyne within the context of Orange culture.

 

Commemoration & Legacy: Military Volunteering

Image: Young Citizens Volunteer full dress uniform, c.1913, detail showing shoulder and collar badges BELUM.O164.1929
Young Citizens Volunteer full dress uniform, c.1913, detail showing shoulder and collar badges BELUM.O164.1929

Although the volunteer armies of the 18th century cannot be seen as direct forerunners of later voluntary militias and police forces, the tradition of military volunteering continued into the 19th and 20th century. Such volunteer armies are often ‘resurrected’ in times of (perceived) crisis.

In 1913, as the Irish Home Rule Bill continued its passage through parliament, tensions once again escalated to boiling point; Unionists and Nationalists each formed volunteer armies, ready to fight for their contrasting visions of Ireland’s future.

The uniform shown here is of the Young Citizens Volunteers, a Belfast-based youth militia established in 1912, which became closely associated to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The UVF was created in 1913 out of the growing ranks of local Unionists Clubs. In response, the Irish Volunteers (IV) were organised to safeguard the Nationalist cause. The two badges display the symbols and slogans of each private army.

Terms such as ‘Volunteer’ have continued to be used by present-day organisations. However, it is important to appreciate that volunteer armies can only be properly understood in the context of their time.

For God and Ulster UVF badge, c.1913, BELUM.X45515.
For God and Ulster UVF badge, c.1913, BELUM.X45515.
National Volunteers badge, c.1914, BELUM.X45658
National Volunteers badge, c.1914, BELUM.X45658