The Rebellion of 1798

Patrick Weston Joyce

897. The government were kept well informed of the secret proceedings of the rebels and abided their time till things were ripe for a swoop. They knew that the 23rd of May had 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 committee in Bond's house in Bridge-street, and seized all their papers. On the same day Thomas Addis Emmet, Dr. Mac Nevin, and others, were arrested in their homes. A fortnight before, Arthur O'Connor and a priest named O'Coigley or Quigley had been arrested at Margate on their way to France. O'Connor was sent to a Dublin prison but father O'Coigley was tried at Maidstone and hanged.

898. A reward of £1,000 was offered for the apprehension of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the moving spirit of the confederacy. He was arrested on the 19th of May in No. 158 Thomas-street, the house of Nicholas Murphy a feather merchant, on information supplied by Francis Higgins, “the Sham squire,” proprietor of the Freeman's Journal.

Lord Edward was lying ill in bed, when major Swan, yeomanry captain Ryan, and a soldier, entered the room. But lord Edward 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 he died of his wound on the 4th of June, at the age of thirty-two.

899. On the 21st May two brothers Henry and John Sheares, barristers, members of the Dublin directory of the United Irishmen, were arrested. They were convicted on the 12th of July, and hanged two days after. A reprieve for Henry came too late—five minutes after the execution.

900. The stoppage of the mail coaches from Dublin on the night of the 23rd of May, was to be the signal for the simultaneous rising. They were stopped about two o'clock on the morning of the 24th, and the people rose. But Dublin did not rise, for it had been placed under martial law, and almost the whole of the leaders had been arrested. The rising was only partial: confined to the counties of Kildare, Wicklow, and Wexford; and there were some slight attempts in Carlow, Meath, and Dublin. It was premature: the people were almost without arms, without discipline, plan, or leaders.

901. On the 26th of May a body of 4,000 insurgents were defeated on the hill of Tara. On the same day or rather on Whitsunday the 27th, the rising broke out in Wexford. Here the rebellion assumed a religious character which it had not elsewhere: the rebels were nearly all Roman Catholics, though many of their leaders were Protestants.

902. This Wexford rising was not the result of any concert with the Dublin directory; for the society of United Irishmen had not made much headway among the quiet industrious peasants of that county. The Wexford people were driven to rebellion simply by the terrible barbarities of the military, the yeomen, and more especially the North Cork militia; and they rose in desperation without any plan or any idea of what they were to do. In their vengeful fury they committed many terrible excesses on the Protestant loyalist inhabitants, in blind retaliation for the worse excesses of the militia.

903. Father John Murphy, parish priest of Kilcormick, finding his little chapel of Boleyvogue (five miles southeast of Ferns) burned by the yeomen, took the lead of the rebels, with another priest, father Michael Murphy, whose chapel had also been burned; and on the 27th of May they defeated and annihilated a party of the North Cork militia on the Hill of Oulart, six miles east of Enniscorthy.

904. The rebels, having captured 800 stand of arms, marched next on Enniscorthy; and by the stratagem of driving a herd of bullocks before them to break the ranks of the military, they took the town after a contest of four hours. The garrison and the Protestant inhabitants fled to Wexford. About the same time Gorey was abandoned by its garrison, who fled to Arklow.

905. About the 29th of May the rebels fixed their chief encampment on Vinegar Hill, an eminence rising over Enniscorthy, at the opposite side of the Slaney. On the 80th of May a detachment of military was attacked and destroyed at the Three Rocks, four miles from the town of Wexford. The rebels advanced towards Wexford: but the garrison did not wait to be attacked: they marched away leaving the town to the rebels. The retreating soldiers burned and pillaged and shot the peasantry on their way. The exultant rebels having taken possession, drank and feasted and plundered, and committed many outrages on those they considered enemies. A Protestant gentleman named Bagenal Harvey who had been seized by government on suspicion and imprisoned in Wexford jail, was released by the rebels and made their general.

906. Besides the principal encampment on Vinegar Hill, the rebels had now two others; one on Carrickbyrne Hill, eight miles from New Ross on the road to Wexford: the other on Carrigroe Hill, four miles east of Ferns. General Loftus with 1,500 men marched from Gorey in two divisions to attack Carrigroe. One of these divisions under colonel Walpole was surprised at Toberanierin or Tubberneering near Gorey and defeated with great loss; Walpole himself being killed and three cannons left with the insurgents. This placed Gorey in their hands.

907. From Vinegar Hill the rebels marched on Newtownbarry on the 2nd of June and took the town: but dispersing themselves to drink and plunder, they were attacked in turn by the soldiers whom they had driven out, and routed with a loss of 400.

908. The same thing 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: the soldiers returned and were twice repulsed. But still the drinking went on; and late in the evening the military returned and expelled the rebels in turn. The fighting had continued with little intermission for ten hours, the troops lost 800, among whom was lord Mountjoy colonel of the Dublin Militia (Luke Gardiner; see 793): the rebels lost more than 1,000.

909. Father Philip Roche, the moving spirit in this attack on New Ross, being dissatisfied with Bagenal Harvey, who had indeed no military skill, placed a man named Edward Roche in command, removing Harvey to another less active position.

910. In the evening of that day some fugitive rebels from New Ross broke into Scullabogue House at the foot of Carrickbyrne Hill (906), where a crowd of loyalist prisoners were confined, and pretending they had orders from Harvey, which they had not, brought forth 37 of the prisoners and murdered them. Then setting fire to a barn in which all the others were locked up—more than a hundred—they burned them all to death. This barbarous massacre was the work of an irresponsible rabble.

911. The rebels now prepared to march on Dublin. Major-general Needham with 1,600 men garrisoned Arklow on the coast, through which the rebel army would have to pass. On the 9th of June they attacked the town, and there was a desperate fight, in which the cavalry were at first driven back But the death of father Michael Murphy who was killed by a cannon ball, so disheartened the rebels that they gave way and abandoned the march to Dublin.

912. The encampment on Vinegar Hill was now the chief rebel station, and the commander in chief, general Lake, organized an attack on it with 20,000 men, who were to approach simultaneously in several divisions from several 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 rebels, 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.

913. This was the last considerable action of the Wexford rebellion: the rebels lost heart, and there was very little more fighting. Many of the leaders were now arrested, tried by court-martial, and hanged, among them Bagenal Harvey, Mr. Grogan of Johnstown, and father John Murphy. Wexford was evacuated and was occupied by general Lake. The rebellion here was to all intents and purposes at an end. The whole county 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. Straggling 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 civil war was at its height, sixty-five Catholic chapels and one Protestant church were burned or destroyed in Leinster, besides a countless number of dwelling houses.

914. During the Irish occupation of Wexford, a fellow named Dixon on the rebel side, the captain of a small coasting vessel, who had never taken any part in the real fighting, collecting a rabble and plying them with whiskey, broke open the jail where numbers of the Protestant gentry and others were confined, and in spite of the expostulations of the more respectable leaders, brought a number of them to the bridge and after a mock trial began to kill them one by one.

Thirty-six had been murdered, and another batch were brought out, when a young priest, father Corrin, rushed in at the risk of his life and commanded the executioners to their knees. Down they 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 the prisoners; which so awed and terrified them that they immediately stopped the executions. Forty years afterwards, Captain Kellett of Clonard, one of the Protestant gentlemen he had saved, followed, with sorrow and reverence, the remains of that good priest to the grave.

915. By some misunderstanding 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 of 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.

916. In Down the rebels, under Henry Munro, captured Saintfield, and encamped in Lord Moira's demesne near Ballinahinch. 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 Ballinahinch. Munro escaped, but was soon after captured, convicted in courtmartial, and hanged at his own door.

917. 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 to stop the dreadful cruelties now committed by the soldiers and militia all over the country. On the 29th of July he entered into an arrangement with some of the leaders now imprisoned in Dublin, over seventy in number, to tell all they knew of the internal arrangements of the United Irishmen, without implicating individuals, after which they were to be permitted to leave Ireland.

Accordingly Arthur O'Connor, Thomas Addis Emmet, Dr. MacNevin, Samuel Neilson, and several others, were examined on oath; but it was afterwards ascertained that they had hardly anything to tell that had not been already made known to the government by spies. After all they were not allowed to go away freely, for twenty of the principal men were sent to Fort George in Scotland, where they were kept confined till 1802.

918. After the rebellion had been crushed, a small French force of 1,060 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. General Lake proceeded against them with a large force of militia; but the militia fled in a panic on the approach of the French.

919. Humbert now marched north. Lord Cornwallis proceeded from Dublin, and came up with him at Ballinamuck in the county of Longford with an army twenty times more numerous than the French; and after some skirmishing Humbert surrendered; after which he and his men were sent back to France. Tone and Teeling were sent to Dublin, tried, and hanged: and court-martials were held and there were numerous other executions.

920. This partial expedition was followed by another under admiral Bompart:—One 74 gun ship named the “Hoche” with eight frigates and 8,000 men under general Hardi, sailed from Brest on the 20th of September: Theobald Wolfe Tone was on board the “Hoche.” 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, ironed, to Dublin. He was tried by court-martial and condemned to be hanged. He vainly begged to be shot, not hanged, on the score that he was a French officer.

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, his fearless and brilliant speeches were wonderful efforts of genius.