IT IS not unusual for this column to visit Wexford’s participation in the 1798 rebellion, so much so, it may seem, that there is very little left to write. As I have retained most of our writings about Wexford separate from other items, and on reflecting on those articles I came to the conclusion that what happened there could not have done so without some sort of communication system. The more you delve in, the clearer it becomes that Wexford was ready for battle.
I also believe a lot of detail has not been published, so I am endeavouring to rectify that in this three-part article. I will refer to British troops, Irish yeomanry and militia as English to avoid confusion with the United Irishmen.
It is clear that the Society of United Irishmen, which numbered over 100,000 (some believe this figure closer to 200,000 throughout the whole island), was organised but perhaps not as prepared as Wexford. The command structure was divided into county, barony and parish. Despite the fact that they were faced with continuous harassment by the English, their numbers continued to grow.
Although Theobold Wolfe Tone is credited with the founding of the party, after many disagreements a new set of resolutions were drafted on 14 October 1791 and approved in Belfast on 18 October, then in Dublin on 9 November.
The main problem was Irish sovereignty; we had no national government, thus we were treated as servants of Englishmen whose object was the interest of another country, whose instrument was corruption, and whose strength was the weakness of Ireland. No Catholic was involved in the founding of the Belfast branch of the United Irishmen: Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell were Anglicans, while the others were Presbyterians – Henry Joy McCracken, William Sinclair, Thomas McCabe, Thomas Pierce, William and Robert Simms, Samuel Neilson, Henry Haslett and Gilbert McIlveen.
Another problem was that the United Irishmen wanted a fully independent and representative Irish parliament, free of interference from the English establishment but retaining the union of crowns. While Tone and many others would have preferred a complete separation from England, others opposed this view. Even as the society resolved this issue by going for an all-out republic and instigating the 1798 rebellion to achieve that goal, there were others who still supported the retention of the shared monarch so long as Ireland had a free parliament.
Remember that as the 18th century reached its last quarter, political revolutions and wars were rife across Europe and North America. Most significant was the American War of Independence, which ran from 1775 to 1783. The end result was that the 13 American colonies won independence from Britain.
The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 had a big influence on the thinking of how people should live and the freedoms they should have. I am not going to quote from that document here but when we return to this war in the future we will look at it in detail; meanwhile, suffice it to say that the declaration quickly became almost a bible to other nations under foreign rule and changed the course of history in many, while being a ray of hope to our own bids for self-governance.
The French Revolution, which began in 1789 and lasted ten years to 1799, was also an inspiration to the Society of United Irishmen.
When England went to war with France as part of the French revolutionary wars from 1782 to 1802, which included most European countries, many United Irishmen fought with the French, who were victorious, so ending the French monarchy and creating the First Republic.
During this period, Tone travelled to France seeking assistance with the rebellion, which was initially set for 1796. He was successful and what was known as the Expédition d’Irlande, comprised of 14,000 veteran French troops under General Hoche, sailed into Bantry Bay in December of that year, having evaded the Royal Navy in the process. However, a series of events then turned the invasion on its head: unrelenting storms, indecisiveness and bad seamanship prevented the troops from landing, and eventually they turned around and set sail back to France. This led Tone to declare: “England has had its luckiest day since the Armada.”
This led to widespread disorder, with the establishment responding by declaring martial law on 2 March 1798. House burning, torture and pitchcapping (shaving the head and sticking a cap full of boiling pitch to it, then letting it cool so that when it was removed so too was much of the victim’s scalp) were rife.
The rebellion began in the early hours of 24 May; however, the initial plan to take Dublin on 23 May was scuppered when government forces learned of the plans hours before they were to begin and large contingents of soldiers were at the gathering points as rebels arrived. This led to them turning away, leaving their weapons behind, so the Dublin rising was over before it began.
In Kildare and Meath, it did go ahead but despite some success, particularly in Kildare, with heavy fighting in Clane, Prosperous, Naas and Ballymore, where rebels held most of the county for a few days, they too were eventually defeated, while the Dunlavin massacre and that at Carnew led to a lot of anger throughout the movement, as the rising spread to Wicklow, Carlow and then Wexford by the end of the month. Defeat in Carlow town practically ended the rebellion in the county, with Sir Edward Crosbie found guilty of leading the Carlow resistance and being executed for treason – the first man to suffer this fate for such a crime in the rebellion. Evidence would suggest this was a miscarriage of justice.
General Joseph Holt led over 1,000 rebels in Wicklow and using guerrilla tactics kept the English at bay until he surrendered in October. A brilliant leader, he was transported to Australia but returned to Ireland in 1814. He and his men were part of the force that fought on Vinegar Hill.
The Wexford rebellion was the most successful and lasted longest. While it is generally accepted that the rebellion was over on 24 September 1798, some surviving groups fought on, such as those led by the likes of Michael Dwyer and most of all the last rebel leader killed, James Corcoran of Askamore, and his remaining Wexford rebels (which at times numbered up to 200), who were betrayed and ambushed along with a number of his men by yeomen after a fierce battle in woods near Enniscorthy in February 1804.
The rebels in Wexford were very mixed, with many Anglicans joining the Catholic-dominated society. They were extremely well organised and had a good communications network for that period of our history.
As grain prices fell in 1797/98, farmers and tradesmen were angry and ready to fight. The government was edgy and organised a disarmament campaign whereby English soldiers could raid houses and confiscate weapons, if found. This caused resentment against the military, with many wanting to defend themselves.
The news of the massacres and what had happened in Dublin reached Wexford quickly, and the prospect of the same happening in Wexford led to slight panic, which saw groups of both men and women attack the homes of loyalists.
The Harrow near Boolavogue was the scene of the first action in Wexford. It was 26 May 1798, when Fr John Murphy and a small band of rebels encountered the Camolin yeomen who rode past without incident, but then burned down the home of one of the rebels. Fr Murphy led an attack on the yeomanry in which their leader Lt Bookey and Private John Donovan were killed. The Wexford rebellion was underway. Confrontations on 27 May saw almost 100 from each side killed. On 28 May, the rebels, who had now grown to several thousand under the command of Father John Murphy, marched towards Wexford, first entering Camolin, where they met up with Myles Byrne, who would become another great leader of the rebels at the tender age of 18.
Byrne was born in the townland of Ballylusk, Monaseed, just a few miles from Carnew and 15km from Gorey, and took part in many battles like Oulart, Enniscorthy, Tubberneering, Vinegar Hill, Arklow, Castlecomer, Ballygullen and more. Following all this, he linked up with General Holt and his guerrilla campaign, was part of Robert Emmett’s 1803 rebellion and boxed well above his weight for a teenager
He later escaped to France, joined the army there, became a brigadier general and led Napoleon’s Irish Brigade. He married Fanny Horner, a Scottish Presbyterian, had no children and died on 24 January 1862 and is interred in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
The rebels defeated the garrison at Enniscorthy, destroyed the town and proceeded to march on Wexford town, where they arrived on 30 May. Here, the garrison of 1,200 withdrew and the town was taken without a fight. It also meant that no badly-needed weapons were taken either, and this was a drawback.
Plans were made by the leaders to split the force. Matthew Keogh (a former English soldier but now a society leader) was appointed military governor of the county); Cornelius Grogan, former high sheriff of Wexford and sitting Irish parliament member for Enniscorthy, Fr Phillip Roche and John Kelly of Killanne were among the leads, while Bagenal Harvey was commander-in-chief of the forces at that time.
Now this is where strategy comes into play. The plan was to split the force into three divisions, while leaving a garrison in the town. One division would march on New Ross, one to Vinegar Hill, where it would take Newtownbarry (now Bunclody, which for convenience we will continue to use), while the third would take Gorey and proceed to Dublin.
Wexford town and most of the county would remain in rebel hands over the period that followed. The Vinegar Hill contingent attacked Bunclody on 1 June, with Fr Mogue Kearns, Captain Doyle and Captain Redmond leading around 5,000 men. The garrison had been forewarned and mounted defensive positions but were quickly overcome. In an almost bloodless battle, the town was taken and the garrison retreated down the Carlow road.
Instead of giving chase, the rebels searched the town for yeomen in hiding. Seeing this, the yeomen began firing on the rebels, who quickly lost their discipline, while the remainder of the garrison on hearing the gunfire returned and put in an attack that drove the rebels from the town. During this rout, 400 rebels were unnecessarily killed while only a handful of the defenders died.
Next week we will continue our story.