The most formidable insurrection, indeed the only really formidable one, broke out in the county of Wexford, a county in which it was stated there were not 200 sworn United Irishmen, and which Lord Edward Fitzgerald had altogether omitted from his official list of counties organized in the month of February. In that brief interval, the Government policy of provocation had the desired effect, though the explosion was of a nature to startle those who occasioned it.
Wexford, geographically, is a peculiar county, and its people are a peculiar people. The county fills up the south-eastern corner of the island, with the sea south-east, the river Barrow to the west, and the woods and mountains of Carlow and Wicklow to the north. It is about forty miles long by twenty-four broad; the surface undulating and rising into numerous groups of detached hills, two or more of which are generally visible from each conspicuous summit. Almost in the midst flows the river Slaney, springing from a lofty Wicklow peak, which sends down on its northern slope the better known river Liffey. On the estuary of the Slaney, some seventy miles south of Dublin, stands the county town, the traveller journeying to which by the usual route then taken, passed in succession through Arklow, Gorey, Ferns, Enniscorthy, and other places of less consequence, though familiar enough in the fiery records of 1798. North-westward, the only road in those days from Carlow and Kilkenny, crossed the Blackstairs at Scollagh-gap, entering the county at Newtownbarry, the ancient Bunclody; westward, some twenty miles, on the river Barrow, stands New Ross, often mentioned in this history, the road from which to the county town passes through Scullabogue and Taghmon (Ta'mun), the former at the foot of Carrickbyrne rock, the latter at the base of what is rather hyperbolically called "the mountain of Forth." South and west of the town, towards the estuary of Waterford, lie the baronies of Forth and Bargy, a great part of the population of which, even within our own time, spoke the language Chaucer and Spenser wrote, and retained many of the characteristics of their Saxon, Flemish, and Cambrian ancestors. Through this singular district lay the road towards Duncannon fort, on Waterford harbour, with branches running off to Bannow, Ballyhack, and Dunbrody. We shall, therefore, speak of all the localities we may have occasion to mention as on or near one of the four main roads of the county, the Dublin, Carlow, Boss, and Waterford roads.
The population of this territory was variously estimated in 1798, at 150,000, 180,000, and 200,000. They were, generally speaking, a comfortable and contented peasantry, for the Wexford landlords were seldom absentees, and the farmers held under them by long leases and reasonable rents. There were in the country few great lords, but there was little poverty and no pauperism. In such a soil, the secret societies were almost certain to fail, and if it had not been for the diabolical experiments of Lord Kingsborough's North Cork Militia, it is very probable that that orderly and thrifty population would have seen the eventful year we are describing pass over their homes without experiencing any of the terrible trials which accompanied it. But it was impossible for human nature to endure the provocations inflicted upon this patient and prosperous people. The pitch-cap and the triangle were resorted to on the slightest and most frivolous pretexts. "A sergeant of the North Cork Militia," says Mr. Hay, the county historian, "nicknamed, Tom the Devil, was most ingenious in devising new modes of torture. Moistened gunpowder was frequently rubbed into the hair cut close and then set on fire; some, while shearing for this purpose, had the tips of their ears snipt off; sometimes an entire ear, and often both ears were completely cut off; and many lost part of their noses during the like preparation. But, strange to tell," adds Mr. Hay, "these atrocities were publicly practised without the least reserve in open day, and no magistrate or officer ever interfered, but shamefully connived at this extraordinary mode of quieting the people! Some of the miserable sufferers on these shocking occasions, or some of their relations or friends, actuated by a principle of retaliation, if not of revenge, cut short the hair of several persons whom they either considered as enemies or suspected of having pointed them out as objects for such desperate treatment. This was done with a view that those active citizens should fall in for a little experience of the like discipline, or to make the fashion of short hair so general that it might no longer be a mark of party distinction." This was the origin of the nickname "Croppy," by which, during the remainder of the insurrection, it was customary to designate all who were suspected or proved to be hostile to, the government.
Among the magistracy of the county were several persons who, whatever might have been their conduct in ordinary times, now showed themselves utterly unfit to be entrusted with those large discretionary powers which Parliament had recently conferred upon all justices of the peace. One of these magistrates, surrounded by his troops, perambulated the county with an executioner, armed with all the equipments of his office; another carried away the lopped hands and fingers of his victims, with which he stirred his punch in the carousals that followed every expedition. At Carnew, midway between the Dublin and Carlow roads, on the second day of the insurrection, twenty-eight prisoners were brought out to be shot at as targets in the public ball alley; on the same day Enniscorthy witnessed its first execution for treason, and the neighbourhood of Ballaghkeen was harried by Mr. Jacob, one of the magistrates whose method of preserving the peace of the county has been just referred to. The majority of the bench, either weakly or willingly, sanctioned these atrocities, but some others, among them a few of the first men in the county, did not hesitate to resist and condemn them. Among these were Mr. Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey of Bargy Castle, Mr. Fitzgerald of Newpark, and Mr. John Henry Colclough of Tintern Abbey; but all these gentlemen were arrested on Saturday, the 26th of May--the same day, or more strictly speaking, the eve of the day on which the Wexford outbreak occurred.
On the day succeeding these arrests, being Whitsunday, Father John Murphy, parish priest of Kilcormick, the son of a small farmer of the neighbourhood, educated in Spain, on coming to his little wayside chapel, found it laid in ashes. To his flock, as they surrounded him in the open air, he boldly preached that it would be much better for them to die in a fair field than to await the tortures inflicted by such magistrates as Archibald Jacob, Hunter Gowan, and Hawtrey White. He declared his readiness to share their fate, whatever it might be, and in response, about 2,000 of the country people gathered in a few hours upon Oulart Hill, situated about half-way between Enniscorthy and the sea, and eleven miles north of Wexford. Here they were attacked on the afternoon of the same day by the North Cork Militia, Colonel Foote, the Shilmalier Yeoman cavalry, Colonel Le Hunte, and the Wexford cavalry. The rebels, strong in their position, and more generally accustomed to the use of arms than persons in their condition in other parts of the country, made a brave and successful stand. Major Lambert, the Hon. Captain De Courcy (brother of Lord Kinsale), and some other officers, fell before the long-shore guns of the Shilmalier fowlers; of the North Cork detachment, only the colonel, a sergeant, and two or three privates escaped; the cavalry, at the top of their speed, galloped back to the county town.
The people were soon thoroughly aroused. Another popular priest of the diocese, Michael Murphy, on reaching Gorey, finding his chapel also rifled, and the altar desecrated, turned his horse's head and joined the insurgents, who had gathered on Kilthomas hill, near Carnew. Signal fires burned that night on all the eminences of the county, which seemed as if they had been designed for so many watch-towers; horns resounded; horsemen galloped far and near; on the morrow of Whitsunday all Wexford arose, animated with the passions and purposes of civil war.
On the 28th, Ferns, Camolin, and Enniscorthy were taken by the insurgents; the latter, after an action of four hours, in which a captain, two lieutenants, and eighty of the local yeomanry fell. The survivors fled to Wexford, which was as rapidly as possible placed in a state of defence. The old walls and gates were still in good repair, and 300 North Cork, 200 Donegal, and 700 local militia ought to have formed a strong garrison within such ramparts, against a mere tumultuous peasantry. The yeomen, however, thought otherwise, and two of the three imprisoned popular magistrates were sent to Enniscorthy to exhort and endeavour to disperse the insurgents. One of them only returned, the other, Mr. Fitzgerald, joined the rebels, who, continuing their march, were allowed to take possession of the county town without striking a blow. Mr. Bagenal Harvey, the magistrate still in prison, they insisted on making their Commander-in-Chief; a gentleman of considerable property, by no means destitute of courage, but in every other respect quite unequal to the task imposed upon him. After a trial of his generalship at the battle of Ross, he was transferred to the more pacific office of President of the Council, which continued to sit and direct operations from Wexford, with the co-operation of a sub-committee at Enniscorthy. Captain Matthew Keogh, a retired officer of the regular army, aged but active, was made governor of the town, in which a couple of hundred armed men were left as his guards. An attempt to relieve the place from Duncannon had utterly failed. General Fawcett, commanding that important fortress, set out on his march with this object on the 30th of May--his advanced guard of 70 Meathian yeomanry, having in charge three howitzers, whose slower movements it was expected the main force would overtake long before reaching the neighbourhood of danger. At Taghmon this force was joined by Captain Adams with his command, and thus reinforced they continued their march to Wexford. Within three miles of the town the road wound round the base of the "three rock" mountain; evening fell as the royalists approached this neighbourhood, where the victors of Oulart, Enniscorthy, and Wexford had just improvised a new camp. A sharp volley from the long-shore-men's guns, and a furious onslaught of pikes threw the royal detachment into the utmost disorder. Three officers of the Meathian cavalry, and nearly one hundred men were placed hors de combat; the three howitzers, eleven gunners, and several prisoners taken; making the third considerable success of the insurgents within a week.
Wexford county now became the theatre of operations, on which all eyes were fixed. The populace gathered as if by instinct into three great encampments, on Vinegar Hill, above Enniscorthy; on Carrickbyrne, on the road leading to Ross, and on the hill of Corrigrua, seven miles from Gorey. The principal leaders of the first division were Fathers Kearns and Clinch, and Messrs. Fitzgerald, Doyle, and Redmond; of the second, Bagenal Harvey, and Father Philip Roche; of the last, Anthony Perry of Inch, Esmond Kyan, and the two Fathers Murphy, Michael, and John. The general plan of operations was that the third division should move by way of Arklow and Wicklow on the Capital; the second to open communication with Carlow, Kilkenny, and Kildare by Newtownbarry and Scollagh-gap; while the first was to attack New Ross, and endeavour to hasten the rising in Munster.
On the 1st of June, the advance of the northern division marching upon Gorey, then occupied in force by General Loftus, were encountered four miles from the town, and driven back with the loss of about a hundred killed and wounded. On the 4th of June, Loftus, at the instance of Colonel Walpole, aid-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant, who had lately joined him with considerable reinforcements, resolved to beat up the rebel quarters at Corrigrua. It was to be a combined movement; Lord Ancram, posted with his militia and dragoons at the bridge of Scaramalsh, where the poetic Banna joins the Slaney, was to prevent the arrival of succours from Vinegar Hill; Captain McManus, with a couple of companies of yeomanry, stationed at another exposed point from which intelligence could be obtained and communicated; while the General and Colonel Walpole, marched to the attack by roads some distance apart, which ran into one within two miles of Corrigrua camp. The main body of the King's troops were committed to the lead of Walpole, who had also two six-pounders and a howitzer. After an hour-and-a-half's march he found the country changed its character near the village of Clogh (clo'), where the road descending from the level arable land, dips suddenly into the narrow and winding pass of Tubberneering. The sides of the pass were lined with a bushy shrubbery, and the roadway at the bottom embanked with ditch and dike. On came the confident Walpole, never dreaming that these silent thickets were so soon to re-echo the cries of the onslaught. The 4th dragoon guards, the Ancient Britons, under Sir Watkyn Wynne, the Antrim militia, under Colonel Cope, had all entered the defile before the ambuscade was discovered. Then, at the first volley, Walpole fell, with several of those immediately about Ms person; out from the shrubbery rushed the pikemen, clearing ditch and dike at a bound; dragoons and fencibles went down like the sward before the scythe of the mower; the three guns were captured, and turned on the flying survivors; the regimental flags taken, with all the other spoils pertaining to such a retreat. It was, in truth, an immense victory for a mob of peasants, marshalled by men who that day saw their first, or, at most, their second action. Before forty-eight hours they were masters of Gorey, and talked of nothing less than the capture of Dublin within another week or fortnight!
From Vinegar Hill the concerted movement was made against Newtonbarry, on the 2nd of June, the rebels advancing by both banks of the Slaney, under cover of a six-pounder-- the only gun they had with them. The detachment in command of the beautiful little town, half hidden in its leafy valley, was from 600 to 800 strong, with a troop of dragoons, and two battalion guns, under command of Colonel L'Estrange; these, after a sharp fusilade on both sides, were driven out, but the assailants, instead of following up the blow, dispersed for plunder or refreshment, were attacked in turn, and compelled to retreat, with a reported loss of 400 killed. Three days later, however, a still more important action, and a yet more disastrous repulse from the self-same cause, took place at New Ross, on the Barrow.
The garrison of Ross, on the morning of the 5th of June, when General Harvey appeared before it, consisted of 1,400 men--Dublin, Meath, Donegal, and Clare militia, Mid-Lothian fencibles, and English artillery. General Johnson, a veteran soldier, was in command, and the place, strong in its well preserved old walls, had not heard a shot fired in anger since the time of Cromwell. Harvey was reported to have with him 20,000 men; but if we allow for the exaggeration of numbers common to all such movements, we may, perhaps, deduct one-half, and still leave him at the head of a formidable force--10,000 men, with three field-pieces. Mr. Furlong, a favourite officer, being sent forward to summon the town, was shot down by a sentinel, and the attack began. The main point of assault was the gate known as "three bullet gate," and the hour, five o'clock of the lovely summer's morning. The obstinacy with which the town was contested, may be judged from the fact, that the fighting continued for nearly ten hours, with the interruption of an hour or two at noon. This was the fatal interruption for the rebels. They had, at a heavy cost, driven out the royalists, with the loss of a colonel (Lord Mountjoy), three captains, and above 200 men killed: but of their friends and comrades treble the number had fallen. Still the town, an object of the first importance, was theirs, when worn out with heat, fatigue, and fasting since sunrise, they indulged themselves in the luxury of a deep unmeasured carouse. The fugitive garrison finding themselves unpursued, halted to breathe on the Kilkenny bank of the river, were rallied by the veteran Johnson, and led back again across the bridge, taking the surprised revellers completely unprepared. A cry was raised that this was a fresh force from Waterford; the disorganised multitude endeavoured to rally in turn, but before the leaders could collect their men, the town was once more in possession of the Bang's troops. The rebels, in their turn, unpursued by their exhausted enemies, fell back upon their camping ground of the night before, at Corbet hill and Slieve-kielter. At the latter, Father Philip Roche, dissatisfied with Harvey's management, established a separate command, which he transferred to a layman of his own name, Edward Roche, with whom he continued to act and advise during the remainder of this memorable month.
The summer of 1798 was, for an Irish summer, remarkably dry and warm. The heavy Atlantic rains which at all seasons are poured out upon that soil, seemed suspended in favour of the insurgent multitudes, amounting to 30,000, or 40,000 at the highest, who, on the different hill summits, posted their nightly sentinels, and threw themselves down on turf and heather to snatch a short repose. The kindling of a beacon, the lowing of cattle, or the hurried arrival of scout or messenger, hardly interfered with slumbers which the fatigues of the day, and, unhappily also, the potations of the night rendered doubly deep. An early morning mass mustered all the Catholics, unless the very depraved, to the chaplain's tent--for several of the officers, and the chaplains always were supplied with tents; and then a hasty meal was snatched before the sun was fairly above the horizon, and the day's work commenced. The endurance exhibited by the rebels, their personal strength, swiftness and agility; their tenacity of life, and the ease with which their worst wounds were healed, excited the astonishment of the surgeons and officers of the regular army. The truth is, that the virtuous lives led by that peaceful peasantry before the outbreak, enabled them to withstand privations and hardships under which the better fed and better clad Irish yeomen and English guardsmen would have sunk prostrate in a week.
Several signs now marked the turning of the tide against the men of Wexford. Waterford did not rise after the battle of Ross; while Munster, generally, was left to undecided councils, or held back in hopes of another French expedition. The first week of June had passed over, and neither northward nor westward was there any movement formidable enough to draw off from the devoted county the combined armies which were now directed against its camps. A gunboat fleet lined the coast from Bannow round to Wicklow, which soon after appeared off Wexford bar, and forced an entrance into the harbour. A few days earlier, General Needham marched from Dublin, and took up his position at Arklow, at the head of a force variously stated at 1,500 to 2,000 men, composed of 120 cavalry under Sir Watkyn Wynne, two brigades of militia under Colonels Cope and Maxwell, and a brigade of English and Scotch fencibles under Colonel Skerrett. There were also at Arklow about 300 of the Wexford and Wicklow mounted yeomanry raised by Lord Wicklow, Lord Mountnorris, and other gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Early on the morning of the 9th of June the northern division of the rebels left Gorey in two columns, in order if possible to drive this force from Arklow. One body proceeding by the coast road hoped to turn the English position by way of the strand, the other taking the inner line of the Dublin road, was to assail the town at its upper or inland suburb. But General Needham had made the most of his two days' possession; barricades were erected across the road, and at the entrance to the main street; the graveyard and bridge commanding the approach by the shore road were mounted with ordnance; the cavalry were posted where they could best operate, near the strand; the barrack wall was lined with a banquette or stage, from which the musketeers could pour their fire with the greatest advantage, and every other precaution taken to give the rebels a warm reception. The action commenced early in the afternoon, and lasted till eight in the evening--five or six hours. The inland column suffered most severely from the marksmen on the banquette, and the gallant Father Michael Murphy, whom his followers believed to be invulnerable, fell leading them on to the charge for the third time. On the side of the sea, Esmond Kyan was badly wounded in the arm, which he was subsequently obliged to have amputated, and though the fearless Shilmaliers drove the cavalry into and over the Avoca, discipline and ordnance prevailed once again over numbers and courage. As night fell, the assailants retired slowly towards Coolgreney, carrying off nine carloads of their wounded, and leaving, perhaps, as many more on the field; their loss was variously reported from 700 to 1,000, and even 1,500. The opposite force returned less than 100 killed, including Captain Knox, and about as many wounded. The repulse was even more than that at Ross, dispiriting to the rebels, who, as a last resort, now decided to concentrate all their strength on the favourite position at Vinegar Hill.
Against this encampment, therefore, the entire available force of regulars and militia within fifty miles of the spot were concentrated by orders of Lord Lake, the Commander-in-Chief. General Dundas from Wicklow was to join General Loftus at Carnew on the 18th; General Needham was to advance simultaneously to Gorey; General Sir Henry Johnson to unite at Old Ross with Sir James Duff from Carlow; Sir Charles Asgill was to occupy Gore's bridge and Borris; Sir John Moore was to land at Ballyhack ferry, march to Foulke's Mill, and united with Johnson and Duff, to assail the rebel camp on Carrickbyrne. These various movements ordered on the 16th, were to be completed by the 20th, on which day, from their various new positions, the entire force, led by these six general officers, was to surround Vinegar Hill, and make a simultaneous attack upon the last stronghold of the Wexford rebellion.
This elaborate plan failed of complete execution in two points. First, the camp on Carrickbyrne, instead of waiting the attack, sent down its fighting men to Foulke's Mill, where, in the afternoon of the 20th they beat up Sir John Moore's quarters, and maintained from 3 o'clock till dark, what that officer calls "a pretty sharp action." Several tunes they were repulsed and again formed behind the ditches and renewed the conflict; but the arrival of two fresh regiments, under Lord Dalhousie, taught them that there was no farther chance of victory. By this affair, however, though at a heavy cost, they had prevented the junction of all the troops, and, not without satisfaction, they now followed the two Roches, the priest and the layman, to the original position of the mountain of Forth; Sir John Moore, on his part, taking the same direction, until he halted within sight of the walls of Wexford. The other departure from Lord Lake's plan was on the side of General Needham, who was ordered to approach the point of attack by the circuitous route of Oulart, but who did not come up in time to complete the investment of the hill.
On the morning of the appointed day, about 13,000 royal troops were in movement against the 20,000 rebels whom they intended to dislodge. Sir James Duff obtained possession of an eminence which commanded the lower line of the rebel encampment, and from this point a brisk cannonade was opened against the opposite force; at the same time the columns of Lake, Wilford, Dundas, and Johnson, pushed up the south-eastern, northern and western sides of the eminence, partially covered by the fire of these guns, so advantageously placed. After an hour and a half's desperate fighting, the rebels broke and fled by the unguarded side of the hill. Their rout was complete, and many were cut down by the cavalry, as they pressed in dense masses on each other, over the level fields and out on the open highways. Still this action was far from being one of the most fatal as to loss of life, fought in that county; the rebel dead were numbered only at 400, and the royalists killed and wounded at less than half that number.
It was the last considerable action of the Wexford rising, and all the consequences which followed being attributed arbitrarily to this cause, helped to invest it with a disproportionate importance. The only leader lost on the rebel side was Father Clinch of Enniscorthy, who encountered Lord Roden hand to hand in the retreat, but who, while engaged with his lordship whom he wounded, was shot down by a trooper. The disorganization, however, which followed on the dispersion, was irreparable. One column had taken the road by Gorey to the mountains of Wicklow--another to Wexford, where they split into two parts, a portion crossing the Slaney into the sea-coast parishes, and facing northward by the shore road, the other falling back on "the three rocks" encampment, where the Messrs. Roche held together a fragment of their former command. Wexford town, on the 22nd, was abandoned to Lord Lake, who established himself in the house of Governor Keogh, the owner being lodged in the common jail. Within the week, Bagenal Harvey, Father Philip Roche, and Kelly of Killane, had surrendered in despair, while Messrs. Grogan and Colclough, who had secreted themselves in a cave in the great Saltee Island, were discovered, and conducted to the same prison. Notwithstanding the capitulation agreed to by Lord Kingsborough, the execution and decapitation of all these gentlemen speedily followed, and their ghastly faces looked down for many a day from the iron spikes above the entrance of Wexford Court House. Mr. Esmond Kyan, the popular hero of the district, as merciful as brave, was discovered some time subsequently paying a stealthy visit to his family; he was put to death on the spot, and his body, weighted with heavy stones, thrown into the harbour. A few mornings afterwards the incoming tide deposited it close by the dwelling of his father-in-law, and the rites of Christian burial, so dear to all his race, were hurriedly rendered to the beloved remains.
The insurrection in this county, while it abounded in instances of individual and general heroism, was stained also, on both sides, by many acts of diabolical cruelty. The aggressors, both in time and in crime were the yeomanry and military; but the popular movement dragged wretches to the surface who delighted in repaying torture with torture, and death with death. The butcheries of Dunlavin and Carnew were repaid by the massacres at Scullabogue and Wexford bridge, in the former of which 110, and in the latter 35 or 40 persons were put to death in cold blood, by the monsters who absented themselves from the battles of Ross and Vinegar Hill. The executions at Wexford bridge would probably have been swelled to double the number, had not Father Corrin, one of the priests of the town, rushing in between his Protestant neighbours and the ferocious Captain Dixon, and summoning all present to pray, invoked the Almighty "to show them the same mercy" they showed their prisoners. This awful supplication calmed even that savage rabble, and no further execution took place. Nearly forty years afterwards, Captain Kellet, of Clonard, ancestor of the Arctic discoverer, and others whom he had rescued from the very grasp of the executioner, followed to the grave that revered and devoted minister of mercy!
It would be a profitless task to draw out a parallel of the crimes committed on both sides. Two facts only need be recorded: that although from 1798 to 1800, not less than sixty-five places of Catholic worship were demolished or burned in Leinster, (twenty-two of which were in Wexford county), only one Protestant Church, that of Old Ross, was destroyed in retaliation; and that although towards men, especially men in arms, the rebels acted on the fierce Mosaic maxim of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," no outrage upon women is laid to their charge, even by their most exasperated enemies.