The Young Ireland Rising
The 1848 Rising, background and aftermath
By Aengus O Snodaigh
In the early 1840s young republicans within Daniel O'Connell's
Repeal movement were growing impatient and formed a nucleus which
were to be known as Young Irelanders. In 1842 three of the
leaders, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon
founded the Nation newspaper to promote nationalism and to give
an outlet to the many revolutionary and radical social thinkers
and nationalist intellectuals of the time.
The Young Irelanders broke away from the Repeal Association when
O'Connell demanded an announcement that the Association would
never use force to attain its ends. The new group believed that
force could be justified in ridding Ireland of the yoke of
British rule, but hoped its goals could be attained peacefully.
Thomas Davis died in 1845 before the Irish Confederation was
founded in 1847 but his writings in the Nation and that of his
replacement, John Mitchel, formed the basis for much of its
philosophy. Confedation Clubs sprang up throughout Ireland and in
England and Scotland.
Famine in Ireland was by now taking on holocaust proportions and
the demand was no longer merely repeal, but that ``the land of
Ireland belongs to the people of Ireland''. Mitchel supported this
call from James Fintan Lalor saying ``the Irish people should
fight to set up a republic, completely cut off from Britian''.
Because of this he was arrested and sentenced to transportation
in July 1848. His arrest convinced the remaining Confederate
leaders of the need to organise a rising.
In July the government took pre-emptive action in anticipation of
that rising, suspending the Habeas Corpus Act and issuing arrest
warrants for the remaining leaders.
With much of their plans still in their infancy, the leaders went
on the run and tried to regroup. Terence Bellew MacManus was in
Liverpool with orders to burn the docks, capture munitions and
convey them to Wexford; Thomas D'Arcy McGee was in Glasgow to
take Stirling and send the captured arms and ammunitions to
Killala; Martin McDermott was in France drilling soldiers; Martin
O'Flaherty was travelling to the United States to purchase
weapons and to assemble volunteers for an immediate expeditionary
The initial military plans were for Michael Doheny to take
Cashel; Thomas Francis Meagher to lead the assault on Waterford
and Carrick, John Blake Dillon on Athlone; Richard O'Gorman,
backed by Doheny, was to take Limerick, while William Smith
O'Brien was to be Commander-in-Chief. Following the issuing of a
proclamation the rebels would then turn and concentrate on
Forced to abandon these plans they attempted to oranise the
rising from Tipperary and Kilkenny. They failed abysmally,
capitulating in the face of the constabulary at Ballingarry,
One of its participants, Patrick O'Donohoe, stated that the
rising failed due ``to the interposition of the Catholic clergy
who denounced'' them, and that William Smith O'Brien's
``conscientious behaviour respecting the rights of
property''alienated the impoverished, famished, who were
``thirsting for food and revenge on those whom they conceive have
so long oppressed them'' from the Confederation who were dependent
on them for success.
The collapse of the rising, the flight or the arrest and
transportation to Australia of the leaders saw the mantle of
Irish republicanism being passed to a new generation with the
founding by former Young Irelanders of the Irish Republican
Brotherhood and the Fenians on St Patrick's Day 1858.
The Ballingarry skirmish
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Irish Confederation
Rising of 1848 An Phoblacht reprints Donagh MacDonagh's account
in the Thomas Davis commemorative brochure of 1945 (Thomas Davis
and Young Ireland, 1845-1945) of the events at Ballingarry on 29
July 1848 which became known as the Young Ireland Rising.
Had the children of Widow MacCormack of Boulagh Commons,
Ballingarry, not been locked into a house full of police on 29
July 1848, all Ireland might have risen in rebellion.
It was a year of revolution. Early in January 1848, there was a
revolution at Leghorn; on 12 January one at Palermo against King
Ferdinand; on 13 January Austria was in revolt and on the 29th
Naples; the 30th saw the Duke of Medina in flight from his
capital, while in February the King of Sardinia was forced to do
the same on the 12th. Martial Law was proclaimed in Lombardy on
the 22nd and on the same day Messina was bombarded by Neopolitan
troops. Louis Philippe fled from Paris on the 23rd and soon every
country in Europe was in ferment.
In Ireland Europe's new spirit did not go unobserved, and in the
United Irishman John Mitchel urged the people, desperate with
famine and misery, towards revolt. He and the other leaders of
Young Ireland were gambling on a Rising in the autumn when there
would be some food in the country, and the government, terrified
by events in Europe, was determined to anticipate them. Mitchel
was tried and convicted under the new Treason Felony Act, and
country supporters of the Young Ireland movement were shocked to
see his fellow advocates of physical force let him go to
transportation without a struggle, but hoped they were merely
biding their time.
Smith O'Brien, Meagher and the others thought they had ample time
to complete their preparations, since in the then state of the
law they did not see how government could bring them to trial in
less than two months but they were stampeded into premature
action when on 25 July Government incontinently suspended Habeas
Corpus, issued proclamations for their arrest and offered rewards
for their apprehension.
They immediately appointed a War Council: John Blake Dillon and
Thomas Francis Meagher joined William Smith O'Brien at
Ballinkeale, in Wexford, and there the three decided to organise
a Rising. Kilkenny, they agreed, would be their headquarters,
there they would set up their Provisional Government and issue
their first manifesto.
They then made a tour of the countryside urging the people to be
ready to rise, passed through Kilkenny where they were told that
reinforcements would be necessary, and then into Tipperary where
they held enthusiastic meetings, which became rather less
enthusiastic as time passed and the people, hungry and thirsty,
found nothing to eat or drink. At Mullinahone O'Brien bought them
some bread himself, but told them that in future they would have
to provide for themselves and that he would requisition nothing
from any man. They returned home faint with hunger.
Gradually, the crowds which had been so great and which had
cheered so loudly began to fade away, and when the Catholic
clergy came among them begging them to return home, pointing out
their utter unpreparedness, their lack of weapons, the ignorance
of military tactics of their leaders, the utter lack of food,
most of them forgot their warlike spirit.
To the majority Smith O'Brien's name was completely unknown, but
his danger of immediate arrest without cause shown, the old
tradition of revolt, and the appeal to them to risk an honourable
death in action rather than one by starvation in a corner of
their cabins, appealed strongly to them, and those who remained
were willing to risk everything under the leadership of the Young
Irelanders. At Boulagh Commons, where he gathered the miners from
the local coal mines about him, Smith O'Brien found many eager
volunteers, some of them already armed, others prepared to fight
with their mining tools, or to use their technical skill in
trenching the roads against the police and military.
While the meeting was still going forward the police and military
were approaching Ballingarry. The Government had been frightened
into sending out of the country every Irish regiment, and
replacing them with English and Scottish units; they had expected
a general rising throughout the country in answer to the
propaganda which the Nation and the United Irishman had been so
long disseminating, and as news came to them from Kilkenny and
Wexford and Tipperary of the passage of the men on whose heads
they had put a price they uneasily expected another `98. Now they
ordered the RIC of Thurles, Kilkenny, Cashel and Callan to
advance on Boulagh Commons.
The police from Callan were first to arrive, long before their
time, and when the miners saw them riding forward in the distance
they hastily threw up a barricade expecting a sudden assault. The
police, on the other hand, when they saw a hundred or so miners
gathered on the spoil-banks being harangued by a number of
strange gentlemen, were not at all anxious to provoke an
engagement, and made for a substantial farmhouse which they saw
some distance away. This was the Widow MacCormack's farm.
In they went, tumbling over one another in their haste, for the
miners, when they saw their change of direction had made a rush
to reach the farmhouse before them. However, the police just
managed get inside in time, but so hurriedly had they entered
that the grey charger of their sub-inspector, complete with two
pistols in a saddle-holster, was left outside for the rebels.
Immediately they began to put the house in a state of defence.
The miners, seeing the police safely cornered, came to O'Brien
and pointed out how simple an operation it would be for them to
undermine the house, place a charge of explosive under it and
blow it over the countryside, and O'Brien was about to assent to
their masterly grasp of siege-tactics when Mrs MacCormack, who
had been out watching the crowds, rushed up to him and began to
abuse him for his thoughtlessness in frightening the police into
taking refuge in her house where her five children were at this
moment being frightened into hysterics.
``Glory be to God, sir,'' she said, going down on her knees, ``You
can't risk the lives of those little innocent children for the
sake of a couple of constabulary men!'' The miners in the meantime
were standing anxiously by, waiting impatiently to go ahead with
the blowing-up of the house. They watched O'Brien's face as he
nodded to Mrs MacCormack and then gave them the signal to wait,
sending Mrs MacCormack to the house to arrange a guarantee of his
safety from the police. Then he went to the parlour window to
discuss the evacuation of the children.
The police, seeing what a sure shield against aggression had been
provided by chance, refused to give the children up, and the
parley was still going forward when some impatient miner threw a
rock through a kitchen window, to be greeted immediately by a
burst of firing from every window in the house. The police killed
several with this burst while they themselves suffered no
casualties then or later.
O'Brien, his negotiations suddenly broken down, found himself
trapped between two fires, and with some difficulty made his way
through a small gateway into a cabbage garden behind the house,
and from there he crept on all fours behind a low wall until he
was able to rejoin his companions.
Meanwhile, Terence Bellew MacManus had gathered a number of
miners to organise a new form of siege-work. He had noticed a
load of hay some distance away, and this he now got them to push
close to the kitchen door, being themselves safe from the police
fire behind its shelter. Once in position he hoped to set it on
fire and so burn or smoke the police out of their fortress, but,
though he fired several shots from his pistol into it, the
incessant rain of the previous days had so soaked it as to make
it impossible to set it alight. In addition, O'Brien returned at
this moment and insisted that nothing should be done towards
wrecking the house while the children were still inside.
Smith O'Brien's opportunity was rapidly running through his
fingers; his few followers were ill-armed, ill-fed, scarcely
drilled at all and led by men who had no experience of warfare.
Opposed to them were the armed, disciplined and well-fed police
and military, ably led by experienced officers and backed by the
British Empire. Yet, had he been able to grasp the opportunity
there might have been a Rising in Ireland fit to stand with any
in that revolutionary year.
The people were desperate; they were brave and had been filled
for years by the able propaganda of the Young Irelanders; they
were hungry, but a militant spirit might have taught them less
respect for the stores of food which abounded in the dying
country. One savage assault on the farmhouse of Mrs MacCormack,
one decisive defeat for the government and the news, spread
through the country, might have shaken the British occupation.
Had Mrs MacCormack taken her little children with her to see the
strange men from Dublin the history of Ireland might have been
Soon troops and police were poured into the neighbourhood, the
police were relieved, the children restored to their mother, and
O'Brien and the others were fugitives in the hills....
``The Cabbage-Garden Revolution'' the affair was sneeringly
christened by MacDonald of the Times, and both the English and
Irish papers hailed it as a great victory of a few members of the
RIC over thousands of armed men, though the Illustrated London
News added this explanatory note....''The Irish constabulary are
not a police; they are the most formidable troops in arms and
equipment, drill, physique, ability, experience and self-reliance
in Her Majesty's service.''