THE 1798 REBELLION


The attack on Arklow took place on 9th June, led by Fr. Michael Murphy amongst others. Here “they not only disposed themselves skilfully but fought with almost absurd dash and bravado” (6). Armed largely with pikes, they attacked the town from the south, charging into the path of five pieces of artillery firing grapeshot, sustaining heavy losses. The commander of the Arklow garrison, General Needham, had received reinforcements prior to the battle and, despite repeated attacks to the English line, held firm. The rebels’ tactics were not good enough for victory, their marksmanship was bad and their weapons inferior. While they had some cannon, they were not familiar with them and had to force prisoners captured with the guns to fire them, with negligible results. By eight o’clock they were running short of ammunition and withdrew, leaving between 2,000 and 3,000 dead. Fr. Murphy was killed within thirty yards of the loyalist lines.

The strategic consequence of this failure to take Arklow was that the rebels remained contained in the south east corner of the county. For the Rebellion to succeed it had to spread from the south east and connect up with the Rebellion in Ulster, hopefully gathering support along the way. The failure of the rebels to take Arklow and open a path to Dublin averted the threat of a general uprising throughout Ireland.
The third column, made up of around 2,500 men, set out towards Bunclody (Newtownbarry), commanded by Fr. Kearns. They succeeded in driving the militia out but then slipped into drunkenness and plunder and were cast out of the town in a counter-attack which saw many killed. Bagenal Harvey was deposed as Commander-in-Chief and Fr. Roche, a local Catholic priest, installed in his stead. While continuing to lead the rebels from Wexford town, he was becoming increasingly desperate. A last-minute massacre took place on the wooden bridge at Wexford, where around 100 Protestants were shot or piked and cast into the Slaney river.

Vinegar Hill was attacked by government forces employing heavy cannon fire on 2lstJune. They attempted to encircle the hill but quite a number of rebels escaped, due to a gap in the circle. A large group of these, under Fr. John Murphy, headed for Kilkenny but failed to find support there and withdrew, establishing a camp at Kilcomney Hill which was overrun by government troops on 26th June.
The rest of the Wexford rebels split into smaller bands and took refuge in the mountains of county Wicklow. They were led by Joseph Holt, a radical Protestant farmer and the Catholic Michael Dwyer. While these bands resisted capture for a considerable time and were a constant thorn in the government’s side due to their raids on government troops, they did not represent a serious threat to the stability of the country. Within six weeks of the Rebellion’s outbreak, all signs of it had virtually disappeared. “The whole mopping up procedure, in fact, was if anything an even bloodier business than anything that

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had taken place during or before the rebellion itself’ (7). Many rebels were butchered while unarmed and on their knees begging for mercy. Frequently, the male inhabitants of any house that gave shelter to the rebels were killed. In 1799 Billy Byrne, a former yeoman ai)d reluctant rebel leader, was executed in Wicklow town for his part in the rising. The Protestant historian, Gordon, estimated that 50,000 people died on both sides in the whole Rebellion.
Fr. John Murphy was hanged at Tullow, his body burned in a tar barrel and his head placed on a pike. Bagenal Harvey, Matthew Keogh and Fr. Roche were all hanged on 1st July off Wexford Bridge, their heads impaled on pikes over the courthouse and their bodies thrown in the Slaney river. On 8th-July 1798 six weeks after the Rebellion broke out, the only rebel forces still at large were around 5,000 armed with pikes in Wicklow, some rebels in the north of Wexford and on the Meath and Dublin county borders. Matters settled back relatively quickly into the usual peasant restlessness which had existed for half a century and would last for a century more, although both Holt and Dwyer remained at large in Wicklow fore several years.

Dwyer, born in the Glen of lmmal in 1771, became an active leader in the Rebellion. Following the crushing of the rebel forces he went ‘on the run’ in the Wicklow mountains and succeeded in avoiding capture by utilising his intimate knowledge of the area. At one point Dwyer and his companions were trapped by British troops. One of his followers, Samuel McAllister, gave his life by drawing the enemy’s fire, thus enabling Dwyer to escape and remain at large for a further four years.
Due to the large number of rebels who took refuge in the Wicklow mountains, the British Army were forced to construct the Military Road, running from north to south through the mountains and marked by a number of barracks where troops were stationed, in order to exert some control over the area. Dwyer eventually surrendered in 1804 at Humewood, near Baltinglass and was subsequently transported as a free man to Australia.

The Rebellion was chasacterised both in Wicklow and Wexford by systematic burning of houses, churches and businesses-by both sides. There was hardly one sound house left standing in west and south Wicklow once the rising ended, although the damage around Rathdrum was less, due to the protection offered by the yeomanry of the disirict to the loyalists. The fact that Wicklow was less urbanised than Wexford could account for the lower number of claims lodged by loyalists for compensation. The underlying sectarian element is evidenced by the lengthy reiributions which followed the crushing of the Rebellion in July. The landlords of both counties did little to help matters, being bitterly opposed to emancipation. Even as late as August 1799, Bishop Troy wrote “no priest can appear in the northeast parts of that distracted county nor in the neighbourhood of Arklow” (8). Between August 1798 and October 1800 fifteen Catholic chapels were burned in the Wicklow districts of the diocese of Dublin.

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