The 1798 Rebellion
The 1798 Rebellion



A look at the fateful Rising of the United Irishmen, which took place 220 years ago this month.


What is that in your hand?
-- It is a branch
Of What?
-- Of the Tree of Liberty
Where did it first grow?
-- In America
Where does it bloom?
-- In France
Where did the seed fall?
-- In Ireland
When will the moon be full?
-- When the four quarters meet

A doctrine of the United Irishmen from the Cloyne are of County Cork in December 1797.


The immediate origins of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland can be traced to the setting up of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791. Inspired by the French Revolution, and with great admiration for the new democracy of the United States, the United Irishmen were led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken and William Drennan. They came together to secure a reform of the Irish parliament; and they sought to achieve this goal by uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in Ireland into a single movement.

From the beginning, Dublin Castle, the seat of British government in Ireland, viewed the new organisation with the gravest suspicion, and with the outbreak of war between Britain and France in February 1793, suspicion hardened to naked hostility. The unabashed admiration of the United Irishmen for the French seemed akin to treason. The discovery of negotiations between certain United Irishmen, notably Theobald Wolfe Tone, and the French government confirmed suspicions and led to the suppression of the society in May 1794.

Driven underground, the Society re-constituted itself as a secret, oath-bound, organisation, dedicated to the pursuit of republican government in a separate and independent Ireland. This was to be achieved primarily by direct French military intervention. The plan came closest to success following the arrival of a French invasion fleet, carrying some 14,000 soldiers, off the southern coast of Ireland in December 1796. Adverse weather conditions, however, prevented the French from landing, and the fleet was forced to make its way back to France. From this date on, Dublin Castle stepped up its war against the United Irishmen, infiltrating their ranks with spies and informers, invoking draconian legislation against ‘subversives’, turning a blind eye to military excesses, and to those of the resolutely loyalist Orange Order, and building up its defence forces lest the French should return in strength.

By the spring of 1798, it appeared that Dublin Castle had been successful in its determined efforts to destroy the Society’s capacity for insurrection: many of its leaders were in prison, its organisation was in disarray, and there seemed no possibility of French assistance. Despite these difficulties, on the night of the 23rd/24th May, as planned, the mail coaches leaving Dublin were seized - as a signal to those United Irishmen outside the capital that the time of the uprising had arrived.

However, as a result of the failure of Dublin to rise, the Rebellion when it came was distinguished everywhere by a lack of concert and by a lack of focus. The uprisings outside the capital had been intended by the United Irishmen as supporting acts to the main event in Dublin, but as Dublin did not perform as planned, rebels in outlying areas now found themselves promoted to centre-stage. The lack of co-ordination between the rebel theatres of war became key to the survival of Dublin Castle and British rule in Ireland.


The initial outbreak of the rebellion was confined to a ring of counties surrounding Dublin. The fighting in Kildare, Carlow, Wicklow and Meath had been largely suppressed by government forces, and the capital secured, when news arrived of a major rebel success in County Wexford. On 29 May 1798 a terse communique was issued from Dublin Castle confirming the rumours that had swept the city a day earlier. For the first time in the rebellion, a detachment of soldiers - in this case over 100 men of the North Cork Militia - had been killed in an open engagement at Oulart, County Wexford. Wexford was ablaze.

The eruption of Wexford was an unexpected and unwelcome development for Dublin Castle for the county had, by and large, escaped British scrutiny in the months and years before the rebellion. The Castle had had very few informers in Wexford and it had clearly considered this lack of information as pointing towards a general obedience among the people there. As a result, the garrison in that county numbered only a few hundred men.

Two developments pitched Wexford over the edge and into full-scale rebellion. The first of these was the campaign of British terror unleashed - particularly to the north of the county from mid-May 1798 onwards. Reports of half-hangings, floggings, pitch-cappings and house-burnings conducted principally by the North Cork Militia, under the direction of loyalist magistrates, inflamed that part of County Wexford that bordered on Wicklow, and induced panic everywhere. On 26th May came stunning news of the summary execution of some 34 suspected United Irishmen at Dunlavin, in south Wicklow; and there was a further report that at Carnew, across the border in Wexford, 35 prisoners had been summarily executed. There were fears of genocide. In terror, the people - United Irishmen or not - prepared to resist.

Irish breakthrough

The second precipitating factor was the rebel victory at Oulart. This victory in an open engagement, the first such for the rebels anywhere, electrified the county, tempting many to join in who might otherwise have hung back. It also had the effect of re-igniting the rebellion in those areas near Dublin which had shown every sign of petering out; and news of the rebels’ success at Oulart sparked off renewed efforts to raise the hitherto quiescent north-east of Ireland, principally counties Antrim and Down.

On 29th May, under the command of Father Murphy of Boolavogue, a priest who had been in dispute with his bishop and who had reluctantly stepped forward as leader, the Wexford insurgents, gaining strength as they advanced, stormed Enniscorthy. The defences of the town were swept aside by means of a stampede of cattle, and behind the terrified animals came the rebels. The next day the rebel army, by now possibly 15,000 strong, turned its attention to Wexford town. Plans to defend the county capital were given up on news of the destruction of the approaching relief column, and the town was abandoned by its defenders. The fall of Wexford was the highpoint of the rebellion in the south-east: thereafter, the rebels’ campaign met with defeats at New Ross, Arklow and Newtownbarry and these had the effect of corralling them within the county. Demoralised, and having suffered thousands of casualties, the rebels fell back to re-group on Vinegar Hill, outside Enniscorthy.

Ulster rising

While rebellion had been raging in the south-east, the north generally had been quiet. On receipt of news of the fighting in Leinster, there had been a stormy meeting of the Ulster Provincial Council of the United Irishmen on 29th May, at which there were loud protests at the failure to rise in support. The existing leadership was accused of having ‘completely betrayed the people both of Leinster and Ulster’ and it was promptly deposed. New men, Henry Joy McCracken among them, were now appointed and plans were hurriedly made for a rising.

On 7th June a large number of rebels assembled in different parts of County Antrim. In Ballymena, the green flag was raised over the market house, and there were attacks on Larne, Glenarm, Carrickfergus, Toomebridge and Ballymoney. The rebels, almost entirely Presbyterian, captured Antrim town for a few hours but were then driven out ‘with great slaughter’ by government artillery fire. An attempted mobilisation in County Derry had come to nothing, and by the evening of 8th June, the Antrim rebels had also lost heart and had begun drifting home. Some weeks later McCracken was captured and executed.

As the rising in County Antrim, and elsewhere was petering out, on 10th June (known thereafter as ‘Pike Sunday’) the United Irishmen in the adjacent County Down began to assemble their forces. This was under the command of Henry Monro, a shopkeeper from Newtownards and, ironically, a direct descendant of General Robert Monro who had commanded the Scottish force in Ulster in the wars of the 1640s. At Ballynahinch, some 12 miles from Belfast, the rebels were routed on 12th-13th June, suffering several hundred casualties. Military losses were three dead and some thirty wounded. ‘General’ Monro was captured and, a few days later, hanged outside his front door. The rebellion in the north-east was over.

Vinegar Hill

With the rebels scattered in the north, attention shifted once again to those still ‘out’ in Wexford, and the British Army laid plans to attack their camp at Vinegar Hill. On 21st June, General Gerard Lake attempted to surround Vinegar Hill with some 20,000 men, in four columns of soldiers, in order to prevent a rebel breakout. Battle was joined. It lasted about two hours: the rebels were mercilessly shelled, and artillery carried the day. ‘The rebels made a tolerable good fight of it’ wrote Lake, and then pronounced the ‘carnage ... dreadful’ among them; hundreds of men may have fallen on the field of battle, though numbers managed to escape. Although a ‘little war’ continued in the Wicklow mountains for some time afterwards, in effect, after Vinegar Hill, the rebellion in the south-east was over.

In defeat, rebel discipline collapsed in some places. After the defeat at New Ross, about 100 loyalists had been killed at a barn in Scullabogue; and now, following the disaster at Vinegar Hill, about 70 prisoners were piked to death on the bridge at Wexford town. The British Army repaid these atrocities with interest: the mopping-up operations after Vinegar Hill were little other than rape, plunder and murder.

Retribution for the rebel leaders was swift and uncompromising. Bagenal Harvey, Cornelius Grogan, Mathew Keogh, and Anthony Perry - all Wexford commanders - were executed; their heads were cut off and stuck on spikes outside the courthouse in Wexford town. Father John Murphy, the hero of Oulart and Enniscorthy (or a latter-day mixture of Attila, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, as loyalists viewed him), was captured in Tullow, County Carlow. He was stripped, flogged, hanged, and beheaded: his corpse was burned in a barrel. With an eye for detail, the local Yeomanry spiked his head on a building directly opposite the local Catholic church, and with great glee, they forced the Catholics of Tullow to open their windows to admit the ‘holy smoke’ from his funeral pyre.

For a brief period in late August, there appeared a prospect that the rebellion would rise up again. On 22nd August, a French force of some 1,100 men, under the command of General Humbert, came ashore at Kilcummin Strand, near Killala, County Mayo. Humbert scored a striking victory at Castlebar, but then his campaign ran out of steam. It soon became clear that the apparent signal victory at Castlebar was an empty triumph. On 8th September at Ballinamuck, County Longford, the French force, vastly outnumbered, laid down its arms. The French were treated as honoured prisoners of war, but those Irish auxiliaries who had recklessly joined them were promptly massacred. The rebellion was finally over: between 10,000 and 25,000 Irish (including a high proportion of non-combatants), and around 600 British soldiers had died, and large areas of the country had been effectively laid waste.


The 1798 rebellion, and its aftermath, evoked memories of the bloody rebellion of 1641. The very fact that a rebellion had occurred at all called into question the future of the Irish political structure. Marquis Cornwallis had been charged in June 1798 not only with crushing the rebellion, but also with seizing the opportunity the crisis offered to put through a legislative union between Ireland and England. The Union was represented as the perfect means to crush the Irish who had sought to gain their freedom.

The founding of the United Irishmen, with its aims for an international brotherhood and for the inauguration of an Irish fellowship of freedom, continues to be valuable, some 220 years on. The memory of 1798 is a proud inspiration, and the commemoration of the rebellion in historical writing, popular literature, and ballads continues to fascinate and to inspire.

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