THE DEFEAT at Bunclody did not deter or dim the spirit of the rebels; they would fight another day; they returned to Vinegar Hill. Meanwhile, Fr Murphy was marching on Gorey. However, his path was not easy, as you will see, with the battle as described below one of the most decisive in the rebels’ favour.
It is worth mentioning that as the rebellion drew near, the yeomen were given the option of taking an oath of allegiance to the king (George III). Those who did not were dismissed, with many joining the United Irishmen.
It was on 4 June 1798, with Fr John Murphy, Fr Michael Murphy from Ballycanew and Anthony Perry in command, that the Gorey group (which included Myles Byrne) set up their ambush of an approaching English column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Walpole. Laurence Butler, born in Ferns in 1750, was 48 when he carried the rebel colours at Tubberneering; he was transported to New South Wales in 1802. He was a cabinet maker and would become Australia’s first such tradesman of note
Most of the rebels had been camped at Carrigrew hill and had been allowed home to check on their families. The time spent at Carrigrew was useful in gathering information from the poor who were fleeing in front of the English advance. It was learned that the enemy planned to attack the rebel camp.
By early 4 June, it was known that four divisions with artillery were approaching and were accompanied by yeomen cavalry. Two divisions were using two different roads out of Gorey; one division was travelling from Bunclody, and one from Carnew. All were to arrive and attack at the same time.
This group had the future of the rebellion in their hands; they were aware that neither Gorey, Arklow or Wicklow town were well defended and success would see thousands more rally to the cause. Communications with Dublin were good and the rebels were also aware that if they made it that far, there were numerous well-armed groups who were ready to rise on their arrival.
The rebel force numbered around 12,000, but had no artillery and very few weapons, although there were a small number of farmers whose horses had not been confiscated by the English. Father Murphy and the other leaders held a meeting where it was decided to attack one of the columns coming from Gorey and then to take the town before the prisoners held there were executed.
At 9am, the rebels were lined up in military order. The line was then broken and an advance party of 300, including some cavalry, and surrounded by what we would call marksmen in today’s military jargon, set off, and were allowed to gain a mile. This party contained Laurence Butler and many of his family.
Lieutenant Colonel Walpole, who had marched from Dublin, collecting troops from Naas, Kilcullen and Baltinglass, was in command of the division targeted by the United Irishmen. The rebels marched to an elbow near Tubberneering, where they saw the English marching forward, lined up for battle and with their artillery at the ready.
While a messenger on horseback was sent back to the main column, the advance party took to the fields where there was plenty of protection provided by the high, thick ditches. When the advancing English were passing through them, the rebels suddenly rose and opened fire; large numbers fell, including Walpole, who was caught in the first volley. Soon the rest of the Irish arrived and took what was left of the English in the left flank. Meanwhile, the advance guard charged the men trying to hitch the artillery to the horses and overran them, capturing three six pounders.
Soon the English were running away. Despite the valiant efforts of some officers to make a fight of it, they were outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by the rebels. The last semblance of resistance ended as the rebels turned the captured artillery on the English, who fled ignominiously. Many more would die in the fields as they ran from the battlefield only to be caught and killed at the hands of chasing pikemen. Still more were captured but well treated as prisoners.
General Loftus, who thought Walpole would hold until he arrived with his main force, dispatched Captain McManus and his Armagh Militia to aid Walpole but they were too late and most were killed or captured. It was left to Lt Col Cope and his Armagh Militia to impede the advancing rebels and allow what was left of Walpole’s force to escape.
The Irish now rushed towards Gorey so that the prisoners there would not suffer retribution for what had happened at Tubberneering. They were just in time as the English and yeomen started to fire through the windows where the prisoners were held. The Irish arrived right behind them and put them to flight.
Esmond Kane, the leader of the prisoners, ordered his colleagues to lie down and in the end there were no rebel casualties. Meanwhile, all the houses were full of rebels, who fired on the English as they made their way through the town, killing many of both Walpole’s and Cope’s militias. The defeat at Tubberneering had left General Loftus with less than 250 men,
Kane took charge of the artillery, and when Loftus and his men arrived one salvo was enough to send Loftus running, afraid he would lose his own artillery. A group of rebels sent to chase them reported back that they were not marching towards Carnew but running. That day, 4 June, proved that the pike was a worthy weapon.
Realising the strength of the rebels in Gorey, Loftus had decided to retreat to Carnew and join up with Lord Ancram. This was achieved at Slieveboy Mountain. He had Captain Scott to thank for this as he had provided a rearguard of 50 men which held the attention of the rebels long enough to allow the connection with Ancram. This led to the occupation of Carnew.
The following morning, Loftus was informed that the light infantry sent to assist Walpole had retreated to Bunclody on hearing of his defeat.
General Eustace had been retained in New Ross to assist General Johnston. This left Loftus with his remaining 250 plus Ancram’s men, 250 of the King’s County Regiment and 50 Mid-Lothian Dragoons. He also learned that a detachment from the Donegal and Meath regiments had arrived in Bunclody the previous day as an escort to General Johnston’s ammunition. He ordered that detachment to join him, which allowed him to send detachments to Arklow and Hacketstown, whilst leaving Bunclody well defended.
However, this would not have been the case if the United Irishmen had pushed on from their victory in Gorey as both Arklow and Wicklow were practically undefended and there would have been every possibility of reaching Dublin. But five days elapsed in which wanton destruction and cruelty took place in Gorey; the protestant church was one of the targets, even though some of that religion marched with them. Other houses and their occupants were not spared either; even a 12-year-old drummer from the Antrim regiment, captured in the Tubberneering battle and taken with other prisoners to the town, defied the rebels when they ordered him to beat his drum as they thought of making him serve with them. The boy declared this was the king’s drum and no rebel would beat it. He then jumped on it, shattering both sides, and he was immediately piked to death
I want to complete the actions of this group as they eventually left Gorey and proceeded towards Arklow. Meanwhile, General Needham had left Dublin with the Cavan Militia to reinforce the remains of Walpole’s men, who were now just outside Arklow. Reaching Wicklow town on 5 June, facing no opposition, he marched on towards Arklow. He was met and joined by the Arklow yeomanry. A party of dragoons was sent forward into the town and reached its centre unopposed; whatever rebels had been there fled back towards Gorey on seeing the soldiers approach.
Needham and the remainder soon followed. They had marched though a countryside which was deserted and made his destination on 6 June without encountering any opposition. Needham and his officers quickly started preparations to defend the town from the oncoming rebels, which was reported to be in the region of 10,000, (although at his trial later, Billy Byrne, one of the rebel leaders, would say they had left Gorey with 31,000 men).
Needham had 1,700 men under his command, which included 300 from the Durham Regiment, who arrived at 1pm, two hours after a group of cavalry had sighted a group of rebels on the Coolgreany Road.
By this time, Needham had positioned his artillery on the approach roads into the town. As the rebels closed in, they had a wide spread, with those who had skirted the town approaching from the Avoca and Rock road. The main force was commanded by Fr Michael Murphy (who would be killed during the battle), Billy Byrne, Conor McEvoy, Edward Fitzgerald and Anthony Perry, known as ‘the screeching general’. It was the death of Father Murphy which dampened the spirits of the rebels who attacked the top of the town and saw them withdraw chased by English cavalry, which took its toll on the rebels as they fled.
The battle, which had begun at 4pm, began to peter out as Needham’s defensive qualities were superior to the rebels’ attacking ones, although had they known it the rebels were close to victory despite all their setbacks as the English were practically out of ammunition, with only a few rounds each left. A cavalry charge at the bottom of the town was repulsed by rebel pikemen and sharpshooters as the Avoca River ran red with English blood.
As night fell, the rebels withdrew, taking their wounded with them, and were surprised when the English failed to give chase. Rebel casualties were estimated around 1,000; while there was no count on the English side, it is put down at 100, which, considering the full detail of the battle, even though it lasted only five or six hours, would be hard to believe.
This was the end of the rebel advance to Dublin. Had the rebel force left Gorey on 3 or 4 June, they would have reached the outskirts of the city in the same time it took them to eventually reach Arklow.
Concluded next week.