Yeomanry of 1798 in Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXVI

I shall now give the account of another historian. Plowden writes thus: "These military savages [the yeomanry corps—it will be remembered what Lord Moira said of them in Parliament] were permitted, both by magistrates and officers, in open day, to seize every man they wished or chose to suspect as a Croppy, and drag him to the guardhouse, where they constantly kept a supply of coarse linen caps, besmeared inside with pitch; and when the pitch was well heated, they forced the cap on his head; and sometimes the melted pitch, running into the eyes of the unfortunate victim, superadded blindness to his other tortures. They generally detained him till the pitch had so cooled, that the cap could not be detached from the head without carrying with it the hair and blistered skin; they then turned him adrift, disfigured, often blind, and writhing with pain. They enjoyed with loud bursts of laughter the fiendlike sport—the agonies of their victim. At other times, they rubbed moistened gunpowder into the hair, in the form of a cross, and set fire to it; and not unfrequently sheared off the ears and nose of the unfortunate Croppy." Plowden then details the atrocities of a sergeant of the Cork Militia, who was called Tom the Devil. He concludes: "It would be uncandid to detail only instances of the brutality of the lower orders, whilst evidence is forthcoming of persons of fortune and education being still more brutalized by its deleterious spirit."

He then mentions an instance, on the authority of both an eyewitness and the victim, in which Lord Kingsborough, Mr. Beresford, and an officer whose name he did not know, tortured two respectable Dublin tradesmen, one named John Fleming, a ferryman, the other Francis Gough, a coachmaker. The nobleman superintended the flagellation of Gough, and at every stroke insulted him with taunts and inquiries how he liked it. The unfortunate man was confined to his bed in consequence, for six months after the infliction. On Whit-Sunday, 1798, these men were again tortured with pitchcaps by the gentlemen. Other instances might be added, but these will suffice to show the feeling which actuated the rulers who permitted, and the men who perpetrated, these deeds of blood. "With difficulty," says Mr. Plowden, "does the mind yield reluctant consent to such debasement of the human species. The spirit which degrades it to that abandonment is of no ordinary depravity. The same spirit of Orangeism moved the colonel in Dublin, and his sergeant at Wexford. The effect of that spirit can only be faintly illustrated by facts. Those have been verified to the author by the spectator and the sufferer."[2]

From a letter of Lady Napier's, never intended for publication, and above all suspicion of any sympathy with the lower order of Irish, it will be seen how the tenantry of the Duke of Leinster were driven to revolt. It is dated Castletown, 27th June, 1798, and addressed to the Duke of Richmond. "The cruel hardships put on his tenants preferably to all others, has driven them to despair, and they join the insurgents, saying: 'It is better to die with a pike in my hand, than be shot like a dog at my work, or to see my children faint for want of food before my eyes.' "

Sir Ralph Abercrombie was appointed to command the army in Ireland, in 1797; but he threw up his charge, disgusted with atrocities which he could not control, and which he was too humane even to appear to sanction.[3] He declared the army to be in a state of licentiousness, which made it formidable to every one but the enemy. General Lake, a fitting instrument for any cruelty, was appointed to take his place; and Lord Castlereagh informs us that "measures were taken by Government to cause a premature explosion." It would have been more Christian in the first place, and more politic in the second place, if Government had taken measures to prevent any explosion at all.[4]


[2] Sufferer.—Plowden, Hist. p. 102.

[3] Sanction.—His son says: "His estimate of the people led him to appreciate justly the liveliness of their parts. But while he knew their vices, and the origin of them, he knew that there was in their character much of the generosity and warmth of feeling which made them acutely sensitive when they were treated considerately and kindly. His judgment of the upper classes of society, and of the purity and wisdom of the government, was less favorable. He saw that the gentry were imperfectly educated; that they were devoted to the pursuits of pleasure and political intrigue; and that they were ignorant or neglectful of the duties imposed on them as landlords, and as the friends and protectors of those who depended on them for their existence."—Memoir of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, p. 72.

[4] All.—Lord Holland says, in his Memoirs of the Whig Party : "The fact is incontestable that the people of Ireland were driven to resistance, which, possibly, they meditated before, by the free quarters and excesses of the soldiery, which are not permitted in civilized warfare, even in an enemy's country." The state prisoners declared the immediate cause of the rising was "the free quarters, the house-burnings, the tortures, and the military executions."