The Wexford Republic's Mighty Wave
Fionntán O Súilleabháin looks at the 1798 Rebellion in
Wexford which led the way in that revolutionary year
1998 sees a `mighty wave' of activity `sweeping o'er
the land' of County Wexford. Over 400 commemorative
events have been planned across the county which was
most involved in the rebellion of 1798. And it was
there that the short lived `Wexford Republic' was
established in the summer of that year.
Wexford was one of many counties in a broad crescent
outside Dublin where, as part of a nationwide plan of
campaign, government reinforcements were to have been
prevented from reaching the capital - which was in
effect the nerve centre of the rebellion.
Contrary to many revisionist interpretations it was not
a `sectarian', `spontaneous', `agrarian', `peasant', or
`disorganised' affair. Rather it was the result of a
highly politicised, disciplined and well organised
revolutionary movement in the South East in the 1790s
based on the Republican principles of the `Rights of
Man', the American Declaration of Independence and the
Throughout County Wexford, many had cropped their hair
in solidarity with their comrades in France, leading to
the term `croppies'. Such people were easy targets for
the North Cork Militias' notorious policy of
`pitchcapping' in the Gorey and Ferns area in the
spring of `98.
Orange Lodges were very active and numerous in the
North of the County, but there were sharp divisions
between the Conservative wing of Protestanism led by
Ely and Ogle and the liberal wing, led by men such as
Bagenal Harvey, John Colclough and Cornelius Grogan.
The latter would later join their Catholic neighbours
in the insurrection which would see up to 20
Protestants in leadership roles in the Wexford United
Martial law had been declared nationwide on 30 March
and during the week preceding the rising over 30
Catholic Yeomen, whose loyalty was questioned, were
shot on Dunlavin Green, County Wicklow on 24 May. The
following day, 28 prisoners were executed in the ball
alley at Carnew on the Wexford border.
The arrival of the notorious North Cork Militia in the
county finally goaded the people to such a point that
the priests could no longer pull back their
congregations. (Approximately 77 of the 88 Catholic
priests were pro-loyalist and rebel priests such as Fr
John Murphy or Fr Mogue Kearns were described as the
`faeces of the church' by Bishop Caulfield.)
On the eve of the rising, the command structure of the
United Irishmen had been thrown into disarray with the
arrest of Protestant leader Anthony Perry. Breaking
under two days of torture at Gorey, he revealed the
names of the leaders. The government could now see how
broad-based the movement was and was extremely worried.
On 26 May, John Hay arrived with a despatch from the
United Irishmen in Dublin, giving the signal to begin.
Around the same time, the Camolin Cavalry had burned
170 homes as well as Fr John Murphy's chapel at
Boolavogue. In the raids for arms on loyalist homes
which now became a priority, a government magistrate
named Bookey was killed by a group led by the
previously reluctant Fr Murphy. That evening, 26 May,
the heather was set ablaze around the Harrow as a
signal for rebellion. The Wexford rising had begun.
The rebellion met with a string of early successes. On
Whit Sunday, 27 May, 106 members of the North Cork
Militia were annihilated on Oulart Hill - a stunning
achievement for non-professional fighting men. Led by
Edward Roche of Shelmalier, this ignited a series of
rapid victories which gave the rebels control of almost
the entire county. On 28 May, Enniscorthy was captured
by a 6000 strong group of rebels under the leadership
of Fr Michael Murphy and 18 year old Miles Byrne of
Monaseed. Two days later, Wexford town fell, which led
to the establishment of Ireland's first republic.
This experiment in representative government, which was
almost obliterated from historical record, expressed
the democratic dimension and the modernity of the
United Irish project. Lasting over three weeks under a
leadership council of four Catholics and four
Protestants, it had a senate of 500 people including
two from each parish. This was to represent the broad
public support for the republic and administer the
county under existing war time conditions. With its
committee of public safety, passwords, printing press
for proclamations. rationing arrangements for food,
district committee and even a rebel navy, it was a
substantial achievement amidst the hurly burly of a
After taking control of Wexford town, the rebels then
held a Council of War on Windmill Hill, splitting the
army into three divisions, under the overall command of
Bagenal Harvey with the plan to advance on Dublin and
However, casualties began to mount with 250 rebels lost
trying to take Bunclody and many others at the Battle
of Tubberneering as the pikemen prepared to take Gorey.
5 June saw the most tragic losses when an army of
10-15,000 under the command of Bagenal Harvey and John
Kelly from Kilanne tried to take New Ross. With few
weapons or experienced leaders, between 6-7000 rebels
were killed and in one of the government's worst war
crimes a makeshift hospital full of wounded rebels was
burned by government forces. After the battle, Colonel
Robert Crawford praised the valour of the United
Ireland saying ``he had never seen troops attack with
more enthusiasm than the rebels did''.
7 June saw a change to a more militant leadership.
Edward Roche's proclamation on that day exhorted Irish
people to `not let a difference in religious sentiments
cause difference among the people' and in a rousing
speech asked the question, `what power can resist men
fighting for their liberty?'.
Following the capture of Gorey, the rebels met with
strong resistance at Arklow. Lacking leadership, and
with government forces well dug in, they were forced to
retreat south, with over 500 casualties.
Having failed to spread rebellion beyond the County
borders, they prepared for a last major stand as
government forces under General Lake had encircled the
county. The spot chosen was Vinegar Hill overlooking
the town of Enniscorthy. Here, between 10-20,000 men,
women and children gathered. Poorly armed with pikes
they were no match for an equivalent number of
government forces who had almost surrounded the hill
and who possessed 400 coachloads of ammunition and 20
pieces of artillery.
General Lake spurned the idea of negotiation.
Annihiliation was his sole aim. In a rousing and
emotional speech, Fr John Murphy reflected on the
previous month's display of `valour, faith and
patriotism', of the `God-given right to be free' and
insisted that `the road we have taken is the road we
must follow'. 500 died in the ensuing battle. However,
most rebels managed to escape through `Needham's Gap'
after which a massacre of civilians took place, as well
as the now familiar policy of rape of women camp
followers by the Dunbartonshire Regiment - policy
decisions which were sanctioned at the highest level.
In all, the Wexford Republic had fought 21 battles and
nationwide casualties numbered between 20-30,000 with a
maximum of 3,000 inflicted by the rebels.
In the North of the county, the more militant
leadership proposed to embark on a strategy of
guerrilla warfare to continue the struggle and hold out
in the mountains of North Wexford/South Wicklow in the
hope of an anticipated landing by the French. In the
`war of the flea' approach, they went on to attack the
Ancient Britons at Ballyellis on 29 June and Hunblys
Highlanders at Ballyvillen[????] on 2 July. The
strategy taken on Croghin mountain also involved
crossing Ireland and linking up with their comrades in
Ulster. By Bastille Day (14 July), they had managed to
reach County Louth. Other units had reached the
midlands. On this day a last stand was made at
Ballyboghill in North County Dublin which resulted in
After 50 days, the rebels were finally beaten as Lake's
forces tracked them down. Leaders such as Garrett
Byrne, Kyan, Roche and Fitzgerald managed to reach the
sanctuary of the Wicklow mountains. Fr John Murphy
reached the midlands with a force of 2000, only to be
captured and hanged at Tullow. In the `White terror'
which followed the rising the `Black mob' terrorised
Wexford in a hunt for suspected sympathies.
Many leaders such as Bagenal Harvey, John Colclough,
John Kelly and Anthony Perry were executed. Fitzgerald,
Garrett Byrne and Wicklow's Michael Dwyer were exiled
and Miles Byrne the 18 year old rebel leader from
Monaseed escaped to France where he played a prominent
role in the Napolenoic wars of Europe and wrote his
memoirs of `98 in the 1850s. With the experience of a
veteran field commander and a sense of objectivity over
time and distance, he noted the `bravery', `loyalty',
`discipline', `cohesion' and `non-sectarian' approach
of his former comrades but was critical of the
`gentlemanly nature' of the rebel approach, believing
them to have been `too willing to negotiate', accept
government `protections' and `non existent government
good faith'. He also lamented the failure of the
leaders to largely move from a conventional to
guerrilla warfare strategy.
According to acclaimed Wexford `98 historian, Daniel
Gahan, `in the end, this failure may well have been
However, as poet Seamus Heaney put it in `Requiem for
the Croppies' - `the barley grew up from the graves'
and the spirit of `98 lived on, with many Wexford
people giving their lives for Irish freedom over the
past 200 years right up to the tragic deaths of
Volunteers George Keegan and Patrick Parle at
Edentubber during the border campaign and Gorey man,
Volunteer Ed O'Brien in London, in 1996.
Coinciding with Volunteer Ed O'Brien's 2nd anniversary
and in commemoration of `98 Republicans will again be
addressed on Vinegar Hill - this time by Sinn Féin
President, Gerry Adams MP on Sunday 22 February.