Republican News · Thursday 29 January 1998

[An Phoblacht]

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 French Revolution.

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 Irish movement.

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 fully-fledged rebellion.

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 Munster simultaneously.

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 many casualties.

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 their undoing'.

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.

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