A Little Bit of Ireland


Joyce, P.W. A Concise History of Ireland. 1916

CHAPTER LXVI
THE REBELLION OF 1798
A.D. 1798 - George III

    Believing it impossible to bring about reform of any kind by peaceable means, the United Irish leaders, in an evil hour, determined on open rebellion; but the government were kept well informed by spies of their secret proceedings and bided their time till things were ripe for a swoop. They knew that the 23rd of May had been been fixed as the day of rising. On the 12th of March 1798, major Swan, a magistrate, acting on the information of Thomas Reynolds, arrested Oliver Bond and fourteen other delegates assembled in Bond's house in Bridge-street, Dublin, arranging the plan of rebellion, and seized all their papers. On the same day several other leaders were arrested in their homes.
    A reward of 1000 was offered for the apprehension of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the moving spirit of the confederacy. After some time the authorities received information from Francis Higgins - commonly known as the "Sham Squire" - that he was concealed in the house of Nicholas Murphy, a feather merchant of Thomas-street, Dublin. Lord Edward was lying ill in bed, when major Swan, yeomanry captain Ryan and a soldier entered the room; but he drew a dagger and struggled desperately, wounding Swan and Ryan. Major Sirr, who had accompanied the party now rushed in with half-a-dozen soldiers, and taking aim, shot Lord Edward in the shoulder, who was then overpowered and taken prisoner. But on the 4th of June he died of his wound while in prison, at the age of thirty-two. On the 21st of May two brothers, Henry and John Sheares, barristers, members of the Dublin directory of the United Irishmen, were arrested. They were convicted and hanged two days afterwards. A reprieve for Henry came too late-five minutes after the execution.
    The rising took place on the 24th of May. It was only partial; confined chiefly to the counties of Kildare, Wicklow and Wexford; and there were some slight attempts in Carlow, Queen's Co., Meath and county Dublin. But Dublin city did not rise, for it had been placed under martial law, and almost the whole of the leaders had been arrested. The insurrection was quite premature; and the people were almost without arms, without discipline, plan or leaders. On the 26th of May a body of 4000 insurgents were defeated on the hill of Tara. On Whitsunday the 27th, the rising broke out in Wexford. There, as well as in some of the neighbouring counties, the rebellion assumed a sectarian character which it had not elsewhere; the rebels were nearly all Roman Catholics, though many of their leaders were Protestants. This Wexford rising was not the result of premeditation or of any concert with the Dublin directory of the United Irishmen; for the society had not made much headway among the quiet industrious peasants of that county, who were chiefly descendants of the English colonists. Though there was a good deal of disaffection among them, chiefly caused by alarming rumours of intended massacres, they did not want to rise. They were drive to rebellion simply by the terrible barbarities of the military, the yeomen and more especially by the North Cork Militia; they rose in desperation without any plan or any idea of what they were to do; and in their vengeful fury they committed many terrible outrages on the Protestant loyalist inhabitants, in blind retaliation for the far worse excesses of the militia.
    Father John Murphy, parish priest of Kilcormick near Ferns, finding his little chapel of Boleyvogue burned by the yeomen, took the lead of the rebels, with another priest, Father Michael Murphy, whose chapel had also been burned; but although these and one or two other priests were among the insurgents of Ninety-eight, the Catholic ecclesiastical authorities were entirely opposed to the rebellion. On the 27th of May the peasantry, led by Father John Murphy, defeated and annihilated a large party of the North Cork militia on the Hill of Oulart, near Enniscorthy. Having captured 800 stand of arms, they marched next on Enniscorthy; and by the stratagem of driving a herd of bollocks before them to break the ranks of the military, they took the town after a struggle of four hours; on which the garrison and the Protestant inhabitants fled to Wexford -fifteen miles off. About the same time Gorey was abandoned by its garrison, who retreated to Arklow.
    At the end of May the insurgents fixed their chief encampment on Vinegar Hill, an eminence rising over Enniscorthy, at the opposite side of the Slaney. While the camp lay here, a number of Protestants, brought in from the surrounding country, were confined in an old windmill on the summit of the hill, many of whom, after being subjected day by day to some sort of trial were put to death. On the 30th of May a detachment of military was attacked and destroyed at the Three Rocks, four miles from the town of Wexford. The insurgents now advanced towards Wexford; but the garrison, consisting chiefly of the North Cork militia, did not wait to be attacked; they marched away; and while retreating they burned and pillaged the houses and shot the peasantry wherever they met them. The exultant rebels having taken possession of Wexford, drank and feasted and plundered; but beyond this there was little outrage; with one notable exception. While they occupied the town, a fellow named Dixon on the rebel side, the captain of a small coasting vessel, who had never taken part in any of the real fighting - one of those cruel cowardly natures sure to turn up on such occasions - collected a rabble, not of the townspeople, but of others who were there from the surrounding districts, and plying them with whiskey, broke open the jail where many of the Protestant gentry and others were confined. In spite of the expostulations of the more respectable leaders, the mob brought a number of the prisoners to the bridge, and after  a mock trial began to kill them one by one. A number, variously stated from forty to ninety, had been murdered, and another batch were brought out, when, according to contemporary accounts, a young priest, Father Corrin, returning to some parochial duties, and seeing how things stood, rushed in at the risk of his life and commanded the executioners to their knees. Down the knelt instinctively, when in a loud voice he dictated a prayer which they repeated after him - that God might show to them the same mercy that they were about to show to the prisoners; which so awed and terrified them that they immediately stopped the executions. Forty years afterwards, Captain Kellett of Clonard, near Wexford, one of the Protestant gentlemen he had saved, followed, with sorrow and reverence, the remains of that good priest to the grave. Dixon probably escaped arrest, for he is not heard of again. All this time the Protestants of the town were in terror of their lives, and a great many of them sought and obtained the protection of the Catholic priests, who everywhere exerted themselves, and with success, to prevent outrage. A Protestant gentleman named Bagenal Harvey who had been seized by government on suspicion and imprisoned in Wexford jail, was released by the insurgent peasantry and made their general.
    Besides the principal encampment on Vinegar Hill, the rebels had two others; one on Carrickbyrne Hill, between New Ross and Wexford; the other on Carrigroe Hill, near Ferns. From Carriggoe, on the 1st of June, a large body of them marched on Gorey; but they were routed just as they approached the town, by a party of yeomen under lieutenant Elliott. They fared better however in the next encounter. General Loftus with 1500 men marched from Gorey in two divisions to attack Garrigoe. One of these under colonel Walpole was surprised on the 4th June at Tobernierin near Gorey and defeated with great loss; Walpole himself being killed and three cannons left with insurgents. This placed Gorey in their hands.
    From Vinegar Hill they marched on Newtownbarry, on the 2nd of June and took the town; but dispersing to drink and to plunder, they were attacked in turn by the soldiers they had driven out, and routed with a loss of 400. The same thin, but on a much larger scale, happened at New Ross, on the 5th of June. The rebels marched from Carrickbyrne, and attacking the town with great bravery in the early morning, drove the military under general Johnson from the streets, out over the bridge. But there was no discipline; they fell to drink; and the soldiers returned twice and twice they were repulsed. But still the drinking went on; and late in the evening the military returned once more, and this time succeeded in expelling the rebels. The fighting had continued with little intermission for ten hours, during which the troops lost 300 killed, among whom was Lord Mountjoy, colonel of the Dublin militia, better known in this book as Luke Gardiner (p. 419); while the loss of the peasantry was two or three thousand. Although the rebels ultimately lost the day at New Ross, through drink and disorder, the conspicuous bravery and determination they had shown caused great apprehension among the authorities in Dublin and produced a feeling of grave doubt as to the ultimate result in case the rebellion should spread.
     In the evening of the day of the battle of New Ross, some fugitive rebels from the town broke into Scullabogue House at the foot of Carrickbyrne Hill, where a crowd of loyalist prisoners, nearly all Protestants, but with some few Catholics, were confined, and pretending they had orders from Harvey, which they had not, brought forth thirty-seven of the prisoners and murdered them. Then setting fire to a barn in which the others were locked up- between one and two hundred - they burned them all to death. No recognised leader was present at this barbarous massacre; it was the work of an irresponsible rabble.
     The rebels now prepared to march on Dublin; but major-general Needham with 1600 men garrisoned Arklow on the coast, through which the insurgent army would have to pass. On the 9th of June they attacked the town with great determination, and there was a desperate fight, in which the cavalry were at first driven back; so that Needham would have retreated but for the bravery and firmness of one of his officers, colonel Skerrett. Late in the evening, the death of Father Michael Murphy, who was killed by a cannon ball, so disheartened his men that they gave way and abandoned the march to Dublin.
     The encampment on Vinegar Hill was no the chief rebel station, and general Lake, the commander in chief of the military, organised an attack on it with 20,000 men, who were to approach simultaneously in several divisions from different points. All the divisions arrived in proper time on the morning of the 21st of June, except that of general Needham, which for some reason did not come up till the fighting was all over. A heavy fire of grape and musketry did great execution on the insurgent army, who though almost without ammunition, maintained the fight for an hour and a-half, when they had to give way. The space intended for general Needham's division lay open to the south, and through this opening - "Needham's Gap" as they called it - they  escaped with comparatively trifling loss, and made their way to Wexford.
     This was the last considerable action of the Wexford rebellion; in face of the overwhelming odds against them the rebels lost heart and there was very little more fighting. Wexford had evacuated and was at once occupied by general Lake. Many of the leaders were now arrested, tried by court-martial and hanged, among them Bagenal Harvey, Mr. Grogan of Johnstown, Matthew Keogh, and Father John Murphy, though Lake had been made aware that several of them had successfully exerted themselves to prevent outrage. The rebellion here was practically at an end; and the whole country was now at the mercy of the yeomanry and the militia, who, without any attempt being made to stop them by their leaders, perpetrated dreadful atrocities on the peasantry. They made hardly any distinction, killing every one they met; guilty and innocent, rebel and loyalist, men and women, all alike were consigned to the same fate; while on the other side, struggling bands of rebels traversed the country free of all restraint, and committed many outrages in retaliation for those of the yeomanry. Within about two years, while the disturbances continued, sixty-five Catholic chapels and one Protestant church were burned or destroyed in Leinster, besides the countless dwelling-houses.
     By some misunderstanding the outbreak of the rebellion in the north was delayed. The Antrim insurgents under Henry Joy M'Cracken attacked and took the town of Antrim on the 7th June; but the military returning with reinforcements, recovered the town after a stubborn fight. M'Cracken was taken and hanged on the 17th of the same month. In Down, the rebels, under Henry Munro, captured Saintfield and encamped in Lord Moira's demesne near Ballynahinch; but on the 14th of June they were attacked by generals Nugent and Barber, and defeated after a very obstinate fight - commonly known as the battle of Ballynahinch. Munro escaped, but was soon after captured, convicted in a court-martial, and hanged at his own door.
    Lord Cornwallis, a humane and distinguished man, was appointed lord lieutenant on the 21st of June, with supreme military command. He endeavoured to restore quiet; and his first step was an attempt to stop the dreadful cruelties now committed by the soldiers and militia all over the country; but in spite of everything he could do these outrages continued for several months. Had he been in command from the beginning, instead of the harsh and injudicious general Lake, it is probable that the rebellion would have been suppressed with not a tithe of the bloodshed on either side.
   After the rebellion had been crushed, a small French force of about a thousand men under general Humbert landed at Killala in Mayo on the 22nd of August 1798, and took possession of the town. Two Irishmen accompanied Humbert, Bartholomew Teeling and Matthew Tone, brother of Theobald Wolfe Tone. But as there was no sign of a popular rising, this little force, having first defeated the militia, and after some further skirmishing against vastly superior numbers, surrendered to Lord Cornwallis, and were sent back to France, all except Tone and Teeling who were tried and hanged. This partial expedition was followed by another under admiral Bompart: - One 74 gun ship named "Hoche" with eight frigates and 300 men under general Hardi, among whom was Theobald Wolfe Tone, sailed from Brest on the 20th of September. The "Hoche" and three others arrived off Lough Swilly, where they were encountered by a British squadron under Sir John Borlase Warren. There was a terrible fight of six hours, during which the "Hoche" sustained the chief force of the attack till she became a helpless wreck and had to surrender. Tone fought with desperation; courting but escaping death. After the surrender, he was recognised and sent in irons to Dublin, where he was tried by courtmartial and condemned to be hanged. He earnestly begged to be shot, not hanged, on the plea that he was a French officer; but his petition was rejected. On the morning fixed for the execution he cut his throat with a penknife. Meantime Curran in a masterly speech, succeeded on legal grounds in staying the execution for further argument; but Tone died from his self-inflicted wound on the 19th of November, 1798. In the numerous trials during and after the rebellion, Curran was always engaged on the side of the prisoners; and though he did not often succeed in having them released, his brilliant and fearless speeches were wonderful efforts of genius.
   


 

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