The 1798 Rebellion in Wexford

I. The rebellion in Ireland

The Rebellion of 1798 was the bloodiest conflict in modern Irish history. It broke out on the night of 23 May of that year when small crowds of men set out from the poor districts of the city of Dublin to seize the Castle and other key public buildings. The rebels were inspired largely by the example of the French Revolution and their ambition was to overthrow the British-dominated Irish government and establish an independent republic, modeled on that of France, in its place. The quick victory some of them expected was not to be. The authorities had infiltrated their revolutionary organization, the United Irishmen, and had already arrested several of their key leaders, Lord Edward FitzGerald being the most important of them. The militia mobilized before the rebels could assemble in large groups and what their leaders had hoped would be an almost bloodless coup turned into a debacle. Their followers gave up without a fight, abandoned their weapons in the streets and drifted back into the various parts of the city from which they had come.

This might have been the end of the United Irishmen and their effort could easily have amounted to no more than a footnote in history. As the Dublin rebellion was unraveling that night, however, other rebels, unaware of how badly things had gone for their comrades in the capital, gathered in rural areas of County Dublin as well as southern County Meath, northern County Kildare and northern and western County Wicklow. These groups attacked towns and villages in their respective localities and stopped and destroyed some of the mail coaches that were making their way out to the provinces. The destruction of the coaches was to be a signal to their comrades further along the coach routes that they too should rise in support of the rebellion in the capital. The rebels in the counties around Dublin temporarily gained control of a broad crescent of territory that ran from Tara, in southern Meath, through northern Kildare and on to Blackmoor Hill, near Blessington in County Wicklow. They had some early successes but lost the initiative over the next few days and retreated to several large campsites, mostly on hilltops. Government forces soon surrounded all of these camps and the last of them surrendered on 30 May.

The rebellion had expanded outside of its Meath/Kildare/Wicklow epicenter by this time however and it spread southwards at a particularly rapid pace. Rebellion broke out in southern parts of Kildare and Wicklow and northern districts of Carlow on the 25th and spread to a broad band of territory across northern and central County Wexford on the night of 26/7 May. The rebel forces in southern Kildare, southern Wicklow and Carlow met with defeat immediately. In contrast, the Wexford rebels achieved some startling victories. By 30 May, the day the last significant insurgent force in Kildare surrendered, they had already won several pitched battles against government troops and had taken possession of the towns of Enniscorthy and Wexford, effectively giving them control of the entire county; they maintained this grip for three weeks, until their defeat at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, on 21 June. Even after Vinegar Hill they continued to offer significant resistance and two large columns of Wexford rebels broke out into the Midlands in late June; one of these marched all the way to the Meath/Louth border before being finally overwhelmed by local militia forces on 14 July.

The movement which produced the rebellion was nationwide in scope and in many parts of the country thousands were prepared to rise but did not do so due to unfavorable local circumstances. Besides Leinster open rebellion broke out in two other regions, eastern Ulster and northern Connaught. The Ulster uprising primarily affected the counties of Antrim and Down. It had very strong support among the Presbyterians of those counties but Catholics joined in the rebellion in large numbers there too. Local rebel leaders initiated this part of the rising on 7 June but they were quickly overwhelmed by government forces and the Ulster rebellion effectively came to an end after the Battle of Ballynahinch, County Down on 13 June.

The rebellion in northern Connaught began in very different circumstances. On 22 August, more than a month after fighting had ended elsewhere in the country, a small French force landed in County Mayo and roused the people there. The French-led rebel army which emerged as a result of the landing was initially successful and conducted a dramatic march through Mayo and into the upper Shannon valley. Government forces surrounded and overwhelmed them at Ballinamuck in County Longford on September 15, however, and the rebellion finally came to an end as a conventional struggle at that point. Guerilla resistance continued in parts of Kildare and Wicklow for months, though, and a few rebel bands held out in Wicklow for several years. They too surrendered when Robert Emmet’s effort to renew the struggle in Dublin itself with a second open rebellion unraveled in the autumn of 1803.

II. The birth of the United Irishmen

The Society of United Irishmen, which organized the rebellion of 1798, was founded in Belfast in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Anglican from Dublin, and several other associates, most of them Presbyterians. Their original intention was that this would be a public association dedicated to reforming political life in Ireland, especially by making the parliament in Dublin more representative of the people. They also hoped to persuade the privileged Anglican minority to grant full political equality to both Presbyterians and Catholics. The United Irish Society became a secret revolutionary organization, dedicated to establishing an independent republic, after the government banned it in 1794. Its leaders worked hard from that point on to persuade the government of France to send an invasion force to aid an Irish republican revolution. A French force of ten thousand men did almost land at Bantry Bay in December 1796 but was scattered by bad weather. By that time the United Irish organization had spread across a wide area of the country, especially in Ulster and Leinster, and the failure of the French expedition did nothing to discourage its further expansion during 1797 and into 1798.

III. Origins of the rebellion in Wexford

None of the regional rebellions that broke out in Ireland in the summer of 1798 was as destructive of life and property as that which occurred in County Wexford and none has maintained such a strong grip on the popular imagination. By the same token, historians have found it harder to come to agreement on the causes and nature of the Wexford segment of the rebellion than any other. Many historians have been impressed by the fact that before the rebellion broke out in Wexford the authorities in Dublin Castle thought that there was no significant rebel conspiracy there. The authorities took this view because they had no direct evidence of a Wexford rebel movement being in place; in contrast, they had abundant evidence of such a conspiracy in several other Leinster counties, Kildare, Wicklow and Meath especially. What scholars have often ignored though is the fact that the evidence of the Wexford movement was kept out of government hands by accidental circumstances i.e. on 12 March 1798, when agents from many Leinster counties were arrested and their membership numbers seized, the Wexford delegate to that meeting escaped, and with him went vital information on the strength of the movement in his native county.

The view that the Wexford rebellion was an aberration from the national pattern also emerged because several contemporary writers who had sympathized with the Wexford rebels argued afterwards that the people of the county, unlike those in Kildare, Meath etc were simply goaded into insurrection by the actions of the government’s own military forces. Many of these writers had participated in the rebellion though and would have been anxious to downplay the extent to which they had been part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government.

The fighting in Wexford produced several tragic massacres of those assumed to be loyal to the government side, almost all of them Anglicans, and many commentators, including some modern-day scholars, have regarded these as proof that the conflict in Wexford was at heart sectarian and therefore fundamentally different from that which occurred elsewhere in Ireland that summer. Even these events, tragic though they were, can’t by themselves allow us to conclude that the conflict in Wexford was merely a local religious war.

Like any region of any country, eighteenth-century Wexford shared many features in common with the rest of Ireland. As everywhere, Anglicans completely dominated the ranks of the landlord class there, even though they were a minority of the overall population. The tenant farmers and laborers who tilled the soil were overwhelmingly Catholic and many of them were desperately poor, as were laborers in the towns. Political life was an Anglican monopoly too since parliament was open only to members of that church and until 1793 Catholics could not vote, even if they met the high property qualification. Catholic merchant and artisan classes had emerged over the course of the century though, and there were several Catholic families who had maintained a fairly high status in society as larger tenant farmers and minor gentry. Their being excluded from political life and from economic opportunities associated with it must have frustrated this element, especially in the late eighteenth century when the influence of Enlightenment thinking in Europe in general made such situations seem out of line with what was reasonable.

Wexford was quite unusual in several respects though. It was part of a larger collection of counties that included Kildare, Wicklow and Carlow that were very intensely involved in trade with Dublin, especially a subsidized grain trade; this brought such places into the orbit of the capital and affected every aspect of life there. Additionally, all four of theses counties were rapidly becoming English-speaking over the course of the last few decades of the century and all of Wexford, except its southwestern corner, was English-speaking by the time of the rebellion. Also, northern Wexford and adjacent parts of Wicklow had a large population of Anglican tenant farmers and tradesmen, something that was unusual for any part of Ireland outside of Ulster and which may have intensified feelings among their Catholic neighbours (whose farms were normally smaller than the Anglican-held farms) concerning the injustice of established churches. Finally, the Catholic population of the southeastern part of Ireland, Wexford especially, may have been more politically organized than their counterparts in many other parts of the country. The church itself was better organised here than elsewhere in the late eighteenth century and Catholics in Wexford got to observe electoral politics in action to an unusual degree since parliamentary elections, even if they involved only Anglican candidates (and only Anglican voters until 1793) were often contested and lively affairs. It is especially important that these contests were usually between liberal Anglicans, who wanted to grant more equality to Catholics (and of whom there were many in Wexford) and conservatives, who opposed this. This familiarity with political organization may explain why Wexford Catholics participated at a very high level in the election of members of the Catholic Convention which met in Dublin in 1792 to press for political equality; the ‘election’ in this instance was organized by leading Catholic laymen and involved a vote at the parish level by what amounted to universal male suffrage, a remarkable exercise for the time. Again in 1795, when Irish Catholic leaders collected signatures for a petition to have Earl Fitzwilliam reinstated after he was removed as Lord Lieutenant, Wexford was one of the most responsive counties in the country. In terms of general awareness of and involvement in political life then, both the Anglican and the Catholic populations of Wexford were very likely among the most politicised in the country. This may largely explain why, once the movement toward reform was halted by a reactionary establishment in the mid-1790s a combination of liberal Anglicans and Catholics might have been quick to move toward a more radical, even revolutionary, option in a place like Wexford.

For the rebel movement to develop in Wexford and then to produce an uprising as formidable as it did the groundwork had to be laid over a long period however. There were at least four secret societies that played a role in the coming of the rebellion and that were winning adherents in the county in the 1780s and 1790s. The United Irishmen itself, which most modern scholars conclude was well developed and had a large following by 1797, at least in the northern half of the county, was the most important of these. Its adherents were mostly Catholic but there were Anglican members too, some of them landlords like Bagenal Harvey of Bargy Castle, others more modest farmers like Anthony Perry of Inch and George Sparks of Blackwater. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty that the movement was as strong here as it was in Wicklow, Carlow and Kildare (where it was very strong indeed) but the weight of the evidence suggests that a formidable network of United Irish cells was in place in the countryside around Gorey and Enniscorthy by the spring of 1798.

As the United Irish movement crept into the county it almost certainly found itself competing with other secret societies. Agrarian agitation over the replacement of tillage with grazing lands, the enclosure of common lands and the heavy burden of both Church of Ireland tithes and fees charged by the Catholic clergy had appeared in the western fringes of the county as early as the 1770s. Such struggles, usually under the name of `Whiteboy outrages’ were an important feature of life western parts of Wexford in the 1780s. In 1793 a `riot’ of major significance broke out in the countryside to the west of Enniscorthy that was probably inspired by this old agrarian agenda. In addition, whether it took the form of an organization of any kind or not, there may have been some survival of the old Jacobite sentiments in parts of the county, most likely in the southwest where Irish was still being spoken widely and where the dream of the return of the Stuarts and the overturn of the Cromwellian land settlement may still have been alive.

The Defender movement, a secret society which began in southern Ulster in the early 1790s and moved southwards from there, had very likely filtered into northern parts of Wexford by 1797 or 1798 too—and may have been present there several years earlier. The Defenders saw themselves as a Catholic defensive organization. They were exclusively Catholic in membership and so might have been naturally unsympathetic to the United Irishmen. They were also attracted by the French Revolution’s appeal to the common man, however, and may have been able to cooperate with the United Irishmen as a result. There is evidence of Defenders and United Irishmen forming an alliance or successfully recruiting the same people in other parts of the country and this probably happened frequently in Wexford too, especially in the northern parts of the county, where the two organizations are most likely to have overlapped.

The Orange Order, also of southern Ulster origins seems to have arrived in the northern parts of Wexford in late 1797 and early 1798. This movement appealed only to reactionary Anglicans and both liberal Anglicans and Catholics regarded it with fear and loathing everywhere. The Order gave the ultra-reactionary elements in the Anglican population of southern Wicklow and northern Wexford a secret organization of their own though and its emergence is likely to have driven the United Irishmen, the Defenders and the Whiteboys into each others’ arms. This would especially have happened in the early months of 1798 as its presence in the county became widely known.

The political situation was tense throughout County Wexford in 1797 and early 1798. There is evidence that tensions were especially high in the northern half of the county and particularly in triangle of territory between Blackwater, Ballygarret and Newtownbarry (Bunclody). There is also evidence that secret societies of some kind were active along the Carlow/Wexford border through most of 1797 and in November of that year magistrates proclaimed sixteen parishes inside this triangle to be in a state of insurrection. In March 1798 Lord Mountnorris of Camolin the largest landowner in the county, conducted a frantic campaign to get people in a block of parishes, all of which also lay inside this triangle, to swear an oath of loyalty to the government. This all suggests that something important was afoot in the part of the county that lay to the north and east of the Slaney river. Significantly, this was the area where English was now the dominant language and where the links to Dublin, the center of the United Irish movement by 1798, were strongest.

The immediate circumstances of the outbreak of rebellion in Wexford were confusing and still elude the historian of today but a few likely factors can be identified. First, grain prices collapsed in 1797 and 1798, in part due to the imposition of new taxes on the malt industry, and this must have caused great hardship for the common people of many regions, but Wexford especially. This is likely to have made the message of the United Irishmen more attractive to many of them. Second, the government’s military forces had conducted a brutal campaign of disarmament in Ulster in 1797 and in parts of Munster and the Midland counties of Leinster in the spring of 1798. This campaign was moving into Wexford, especially northern Wexford in May and four especially notorious magistrates, (Hunter Gowan, Archibald Jacob, Hawtery White and James Boyd) spearheaded the effort by local conservatives to crush what they believed was a revolutionary conspiracy in the county. This campaign devastated the leadership of the United Irishmen in the Wexford/Wicklow borderland and this seems to have spread great confusion among the leadership in Wexford. At the same time though, fear of the military seems to have operated like a leaven in the countryside, causing those who had joined secret societies to turn to these organizations to defend themselves and giving the United Irishmen a special opportunity to present themselves as both defenders of the people and the one movement which had a vision of a different and better future to offer them. Critically perhaps, unlike the Defenders, the Whiteboys or those espousing old Jacobite ideas, the United Irishmen could also pull liberal Anglicans into the cause of the people. The fact that many liberal Anglicans joined the rebellion from early on suggests that they themselves assumed that the vision of an Ireland free from British control and founded on the basis of religious freedom, for Anglicans as well as Catholics and Presbyterians, was something which motivated the rebels in general

IV. The outbreak of the Wexford rebellion

News of the outbreak of rebellion in Dublin and in Kildare and Wicklow may have reached the northern parishes of Wexford as early as 24 May 24 and was known of in much of the county on the 25th but its arrival did not immediately spark an uprising. Two events that coincided seem to have been the catalyst on the 26th: the arrival from Dublin of John Hay, a man with military experience on the continent, a member of a local Catholic gentry family, and very likely a member of the United Irishmen, who brought orders that the rebellion should commence in Wexford and who spread those instructions around the village of Oulart that day. In addition, news of government atrocities committed against suspected rebels in Dunlavin and Carnew County Wicklow also filtered into the county that afternoon and these, combined with widespread fear that similar massacres might be planned for parts of county Wexford, led to a panic especially among the Catholic country people. On the evening of 26 May groups of men and women began to attack the houses of government loyalists, especially those where arms were assumed to be stored. These attacks took place over a wide swath of country but all within the Blackwater/Ballygarrett/Newtownbarry triangle. In the middle of this triangle was the parish of Boolavogue and here a small band of rebels encountered a government patrol early in the evening. What ensued was a brief skirmish in which two members of the yeomanry were killed. This incident gave the rebellion in Wexford its first holy ground, however, and its first hero, a local priest named John Murphy, who’s exact relationship to the United Irishmen at the time is difficult to determine but who behaved afterwards very much as if he was fully committed to the United Irish cause.

The following morning, 27 May, the mobilizing rebels and thousands of non-combatants collected at two points in northern Wexford: on Kilthomas Hill, a mile to the north of Ferns and near Oulart Hill, next to the village of Oulart itself, eight miles to the east of Enniscorthy. Small detachments of government troops set out later in the day to disperse these crowds and approached their task with great confidence. At Kilthomas they launched a determined attack on the crowd on the hilltop which resulted in panicked flight on the part of the rebels and their followers, followed by a massacre of over a hundred people as they fled. However, the attack on the rebels at Oulart, who took to the hill before the military approached, resulted in a spectacular defeat for the militia. Almost the entire column of over a hundred men were killed in a sudden charge by the rebels who consisted of a mixture of actual rebels, very likely many of them dedicated United Irishmen and various other elements. These included country people who were ready to fight the militia but may not have been sworn United Irishmen and camp followers and refugees of various kinds. Already though, the outlines of a leadership cadre had emerged and this suggests that the United Irish movement was a critical factor in the rebel mobilization at Oulart. Father John Murphy seems to have played an important role in the battle but so too did Edward Roche, a yeomanry deserter, George Sparks, an Anglican farmer from Blackwater and Morgan Byrne, the brother of a prominent Catholic merchant. This small group led the crowd that had defeated the militia northwards to Carrigrua Hill, four miles east of Ferns, that evening and camped there for the night. During the night and into the morning that followed large numbers of people from the surrounding countryside joined them.

On the following morning 28 May, the rebel force and its new adherents, amounting to several thousand people, marched northwards to Camolin. There Miles Byrne, a young United Irishman who later wrote a compelling memoir of the rebellion, awaited them. Like many others from the countryside of northern Wexford, he had heard the news of the outbreak and when he learned the details of Father John Murphy’s victory at Boolavogue, as he later recalled it, he “instantly resolved to march and join him without delay”. By the middle of the day the immense crowds was in Ferns and by the early afternoon they had reached the outskirts of Enniscorthy and by this time numbered up to seven thousand.

The garrison that opposed them at Enniscorthy was supplied with small arms but had no artillery and numbered only about three hundred men. The rebels were without artillery too and mostly carried pikes and homemade weapons but they stormed the town successfully and drove the garrison southwards toward Wexford Town. Once inside the town some of them immediately took to killing those they suspected of Orange sympathies or, as often happens in such situations, to settle personal scores that were much older than the rebellion. The town was mostly a charred ruin after this battle (large areas of the poorer parts had burned down during the fighting) and the rebel leadership made Vinegar Hill, just to east of the town their headquarters. Here, perhaps half-a-dozen men who had begun to take charge of affairs, debated what their next move should be and considered for a time launching an attack on New Ross. They ultimately decided to march on Wexford Town, however, largely because two members of the Catholic gentry, Edward Fitzgerald and John Henry Colclough, arrived from Wexford Town with a message from the garrison commander there that they should disperse and return to their homes. Fitzgerald and Colclough had both been arrested two days before as suspected members of the United Irishmen and the garrison commander seems to have assumed they might have enough influence with the rebels to persuade them to call off their campaign. In a dramatic moment though, the crowds in the town persuaded both men to join them and the rebel leaders decided to lead the thousands of armed men they now had under their control, southwards to attack Wexford Town. It is unclear whether the leaders made this decision on their own volition or if the crowds persuaded them to do so.

A day later, 30 May, after they had camped outside Wexford and ambushed a relief force coming to the garrison’s rescue, the rebels entered the town without a fight. The garrison, as they discovered to late to prevent it, had escaped by slipping out of the town and around the rebel lines and had fled to a government-held fort at Duncannon, on the estuary of the Barrow River. The county was now theirs although they had lost the opportunity to seize the weapons of the almost twelve hundred soldiers who had been defending the county capital.

V. Wexford under rebel control, 31 May-21 June

The rebels remained in complete control of the county over the three weeks between 30 May and 21 June and provide us with our only glimpse of the United Irish-led ‘republic’ in operation. The military strategy they adopted in this period is consistent with the overall United Irish plan whereby rebels in places like Wexford were to play a supporting role to the main uprising in Dublin and the counties immediately around it; the Wexford rebels focused initially on taking control of their own county, as they were supposed to do, and their actions subsequently match their assumption that rebellion was going on elsewhere--and later their realisation that they were alone in the fight. In spite of the secondary role they were to play, the Wexford rebels created an impressive leadership structure which consisted of what appears to have been a civilian leadership based in Wexford town and headed by a former British army officer, Matthew Keogh and that included the former mayor of the town, Ebenezer Jacob as well as several other prominent Catholic and Anglican merchants and landlords. The military leadership is more difficult to identify. Bagenal Harvey acted as commander-in-chief for at least the first week but the rebel forces in the field appear to have been led by committee rather than individual commanders. These men were a mixture of Catholic and Anglican farmers, merchants and professional men, but also included several Catholic priests, most of whom appear to have been renegades in the eyes of their bishop even before joining the rebels. The military effort itself was conducted with the help of what amounted to in informal conscription of able-bodied men and order was preserved in Wexford Town by volunteer companies of tradesmen and in the countryside by small crossroads guarding parties. Discipline broke down on several occasions however, in most cases when the rebel armies were suffering reverses and some of the atrocities committed in these circumstances bear a sectarian stamp, something the rebel movement was by definition opposed to but something that always lay not far beneath the surface in eighteenth century Ireland, or indeed in any part of eighteenth-century Europe where there was a religious divide.

The military campaigns the Wexford rebels conducted after they took possession of the county were a combination of aggressive assaults on fortified towns garrisoned by troops that were well dug in and cautious, even defensive marching and counter marching. A council of war of some kind was held on May 31 outside Wexford town when it was concluded rebels moved off in two columns, one going toward the north, the other toward the west. This division of forces suggests a clear strategy although the behaviour of these two divisions was rather different over the next several weeks, i.e. that which moved north showed more decisiveness and overall, compiled a much more impressive military record than their comrades who moved off to the west.

The northern division marched north immediately on 31 May; part of this force camped that night on Vinegar Hill and the other moved several miles further on and camped on Carrigrua Hill. On the following day the Vinegar Hill force launched an attack on Newtownbarry, on the border with Carlow and almost took the town by storm only to be driven out by a reinforced garrison. The Carrigrua force moved north toward Gorey but were surprised and forced to retreat back to their camp after meeting government forces moving south at Ballyminaun Hill. In the meantime, the southern division had halted for the night at Taghmon, seven miles to the west of Wexford Town. On 1 June they resumed their march and camped by the end of the day at Carrickbyrne Hill, another seven miles to the west and only six miles from New Ross, where they remained for the following two days. They saw no significant action in this period (the garrison in New Ross and at Duncannon were too small to threaten them) and the indications are that many of the rebels who had been assigned to this force had drifted away to their homes.

Both forces remained stationary on the 2nd and 3rd of June although it appears that the northern division began to concentrate at Carrigrua, leaving a much smaller force at Vinegar Hill. The southern division seems to have begun to swell in size at this point too although they remained at Carrickbyrne. Critically however, men who belonged to this camp began to scour the country roundabout and to force scores of men and many women they considered to be their enemies to come with them. They placed over a hundred of these captives, almost all of them Anglicans from the southwestern part of the county, under guard in a farmhouse and outbuildings in a place called Scullabogue, a mile from their camp. In the meantime rebels from the Vinegar Hill camp had been conducting sweeps of their own in the countryside around Enniscorthy for several days and they too had hauled several men, all of them Anglicans whom they considered to be loyal to the government, into the town. They subjected these men to hurried trials and several of them, being declared guilty of loyalism, had already been executed on Vinegar Hill by this stage.

The rebellion passed through one of its most dramatic phases on 4 and 5 June, a phase that was a significant turning point in the conflict. On the 4th a government force directed by General Lake in Dublin, the government’s commander-in-chief, launched a three-pronged attack on the northern rebel camp at Carrigrua. Troops moved towards the hill from Newtownbarry, to its west, and approached it in two separate columns from Gorey, to the north. The rebels were aware of what was happening, however, and went on the offensive themselves, marching straight at one of the Gorey columns, which they met at a place called Tubberneering and which they devastated in the fierce battle that followed. The other two columns fled in panic. The Newtownbarry troops retreated back to their base on the Carlow border and the other detachment that had come from Gorey fled westwards to Carnew and then moved immediately on to Tullow. At the same time, once word of what had happened at Tubberneering reached Gorey and Arklow, the troops there fled north also, not stopping until they reached Wicklow Town. This effectively left all of northern Wexford and southern Wicklow open to the rebels, and meant that the capital might now be vulnerable to them should they choose to move north. The rebels were satisfied to march as far as Gorey that day, however, and camped on high ground just to the south of the town. They remained there during the following day, the 5th, anxious, it seems to replenish their ammunition and to assess the situation to their north and west before moving again.

In the south of the county in the meantime, the rebels who had been camped at Carrickbyrne for three days moved west to the outskirts of New Ross on the evening of the 4th. Early the next morning they launched a fierce assault on the town but the garrison there had been reinforced from Waterford several days earlier and resisted stubbornly. The Battle of New Ross turned into the bloodiest single action of the entire rebellion. The rebels pushed into the heart of the town at one point and almost drove the garrison out completely but the government forces eventually counter-attacked and regained control of the entire. The rebels suffered immense losses—perhaps as many as two thousand killed. The soldiers’ conduct towards wounded and captured men was merciless and in one incident they set a large house in which seventy men were trapped afire and all but one of those inside died in the flames. At Scullabogue, in the meantime, the rebels who had been left behind to guard the people being held at the King farmhouse and outbuildings carried out a dreadful massacre of their own. They shot and thirty men dead in front of the farmhouse and burned another eighty or so to death in a barn, among them women and children. It is unlikely that the leaders of the rebel army at New Ross was responsible for this atrocity but the mere fact that it happened undermined their confidence in their followers significantly.

The northern division remained at Gorey for the next two days. On the 7th they marched west and attacked and burned Carnew. The following day they returned to Gorey and on 9 June launched an attack on Arklow that was as determined and almost as destructive of human life as their southern comrades’ attack a few days earlier on New Ross. The result here was rebel failure too and that night they retreated badly bloodied to Gorey. Over the next ten days the northern group moved camp several times, seeking to draw the garrison at Arklow out to attack them in the open country but with no success. They moved to Limerick Hill, four miles north of Gorey, on the 12th, to Mountpleasant, near Tinehely on the 15th and to Kilcavan Hill, overlooking Carnew on the 18th. Apart from a few minor skirmishes though they were unable to lure the government forces in Tullow, Hacketstown, Rathrum or Arklow out to challenge them.

The southern division of the rebels moved frequently during this period too, camping at Carrickbyrne initially after the Battle of New Ross but then moving to Slieve Coilte on 8 June and from there to Lacken Hill on the 11th. They launched no further attacks on New Ross though and did not persuade the garrison there to move out against them either. Apart from a small attack on some government gunboats on the Barrow and a small expedition sent to attack a large landlord’s house at Borris, in southern Carlow, they remained stalemated. Unlike the northerners though, the southern rebels seem to have begun to suffer from significant problems of discipline and morale. An entire detachment of them had retreated before the Battle of New Ross had even begun and their camp appears to have shrunk in size steadily over the following two weeks. By the morning of June 19, when the rebel force in the north still numbered several thousand, the encampment at Lacken Hill had dwindled to as few as four hundred men—although a sudden outbreak of rain that morning may partly account for this.

VI. Collapse of the Wexford ‘Republic’

This was the situation when General Lake launched the decisive assault on the Wexford rebels at dawn on June 19. By that time he was confident that the rebellion had been crushed or stymied elsewhere in the country, including in the Presbyterian areas of Ulster. He had received thousands of reinforcements from Britain by this stage and the forces he had in position around County Wexford totaled about ten thousand men. Lake directed these to push into the rebel county from five points at once: i.e. from Duncannon, New Ross, Newtownbarry, Carnew and Arklow. The operation was initially slowed down by heavy rain, the first that had fallen since the rebellion began, but by the end of the day on June 20 government forces had pushed the northern rebels back to Vinegar Hill and the southern rebel force, stiffened finally by reinforcements from Wexford Town had retreated back to the county seat after fighting a hard battle at Foulksmills. When they reached the town they discovered that in their absence militant elements under a man named Thomas Dixon had taken about ninety suspected government loyalists who were being held in the gaol and other buildings about town to the bridge and subjected them to hurried trials before a panel of seven judges. These strikingly resembled those that took place during the September Massacres in Paris in 1792, down to the end result: almost all the prisoners were piked to death on the bridge and their bodies tossed into the harbour.

Lake took Vinegar Hill and Enniscorthy (in an action known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill) on the following day, 21 June, and government forces in the south under Sir John Moore entered Wexford Town. The next day Lake himself pushed all the way to Wexford Town but two large groups of rebels, almost all of them from the old northern division slipped out of his grip, reformed to the north and the west of the town and began what in many ways was the most dramatic campaign of the entire summer. One of them, under the leadership of Father John Murphy, made its way over the next week through the Blackstairs Mountains, across County Carlow, into County Kilkenny and finally only turned around and headed back to their own county after they had reached inside Queen’s County (Laois). They were finally scattered after being trapped in fog in Scollogue Gap in the Blackstairs on 26 June. Father Murphy was captured several days afterwards near Tullow and executed.

The second column had an even more dramatic experience. They slipped past the government cordon and camped for several days in the mountainous country along he Wexford/Wicklow border. They conducted several small attacks on government outposts during this time and on 5 July they pushed northwards through the heart of the Wicklow mountains and then, on the 9th, they marched across County Kildare in the direction of Timahoe bog, where some Kildare rebels were holding out. They reached Timahoe the next day and on the 11th launched an attack on Clonard, in the southwest corner of County Meath. From there they headed towards the northeast, in the general direction of the Presbyterian heartland of eastern Ulster. They were detected and followed by government forces from nearby garrisons over the next two days, however and on 14 July were forced to do battle at a place called Knightstown, near the Meath/Louth border. They were badly defeated but a remnant of a few hundred men escaped and headed south on horseback, riding two to horse, and made a last stand when they found themselves again surrounded at a small crossroads village in County Dublin called Ballyboghill. It was here that the struggle finally ended and the Wexford rebellion came to a close.

VII. Legacy and meaning of the Wexford rebellion

The Wexford rebellion had a long afterglow. Several small rebel bands held out in the woods and hills for years afterwards and the county was beset by brutal counter-revolutionary violence until at least 1804. This violence included a large number of executions of former rebel leaders and former rebels accused of involvement in atrocities. Bagenal Harvey, the one-time rebel commander-in-chief was executed on Wexford Bridge and many of his associates suffered the same fate, there or elsewhere. These included Matthew Keogh, the rebel governor of Wexford Town and many of those who led the rebel forces in the field, among them several of the priests who had also joined the leadership. Many ordinary rebels or suspected rebels suffered similar fates over the next months and even years.

Much of the violence which followed the rebellion was blatantly sectarian and this drove a much deeper wedge between the Anglican and Catholic communities of the county than the rebellion itself had done. Sectarian tensions became endemic in Wexford and sectarian violence was still part of life there as late as the 1840s. Both Anglicans and Catholics emigrated in large numbers from the 1820s on, going to the United States and Canada primarily, and this may have eased tensions somewhat.

Wexford never again produced the kind of radical revolutionary movement that had appeared in the 1790s. The O’Connell campaign brought several old rebels into constitutional politics in the 1820s and the Fenian movement had less impact in Wexford than in many other southern counties. In the 1890s however, as the centennial of the rebellion approached, nationalists of the day refocused attention on it, making use of it to further their cause. In so doing they built up an image of Wexford in 1798 that persisted through the twentieth century i.e. as a rebellion that was essentially a furious defensive action conducted by a people goaded into rising. In the last few decades most historians have shifted away from this explanation and have pointed to the efforts of the United Irishmen as the critical factor in preparing Wexford for rebellion and in initiating and leading the uprising when it did begin. This is not to deny the importance of other factors such as the persistence of the old Jacobite dream, the agrarian grievances and sectarian rivalries that were related to the persistence of that dream, and such ‘accidental’ factors as the sudden collapse of the grain trade in 1797. The United Irishmen were key to what happened though. Without them there might have been a rebellion in Ireland (and in Wexford) in the late 1790s just the same, but it would have been a very different affair. Without them, in fact, there may have been a more straightforward struggle between the Orange Order and its followers and the Defenders and theirs. This would have produced a real sectarian bloodbath in which, for example, Anglican churches would have been destroyed en masse when the rebels gained control of County Wexford and in which no Anglican (or Protestant of any kind) could possibly have been even allowed into the rebel army, let alone lead it.

Two deaths which occurred at the end of the rebellion may illustrate more powerfully than anything else the nature of the Wexford rebellion and suggest what 1798 in general was all about. After the rebel force that was trying to reach their Presbyterian allies were defeated at Knightstown on 14 July, two of their leaders, Anthony Perry and Mogue Kearns, escaped together as the entire force scattered. They made their way across country towards the west in an effort to deceive their pursuers but were captured in county Kildare and taken to gaol in Edenderry, King’s County (Offaly). Anthony Perry was an Anglican and a farmer from near the village of Inch, near the Wicklow/Wexford. Border and Mogue Kearns was a Catholic priest who was native of Kiltealy, on the Wexford/Carlow border. Two more opposite backgrounds would have been difficult to find in the Ireland of that time. They had fought together nonetheless. They attempted to escape together, they were imprisoned together, and they were hanged together. The story of the comradeship between these two alone tells us that something extra-ordinary in the history of Ireland happened in Wexford in the summer of 1798 and it is likely to fascinate us for generations to come.

 

Professor Daniel Gahan