A History of the Co. Wicklow Regt. of Militia Part 1

Towards the end of the 18th century Great Britain was faced with the prospect of a major con?ict with Napoleon’s France in Europe. Looking to her defences, she found that after a long period of relative security, her armed forces were woefully inadequate for the job that lay ahead.

Although Britain maintained a large standing army, it was at that time fully employed providing garrisons in the remote colonies of her far flung Empire. To provide an army to fight Napoleon in Europe would mean stripping her defences at home. The result of these deliberations was the Militia Act of 1786 (26 Geo. III, c, 107) which was followed later in Ireland by the Militia Act (33 Geo. lll(l), c, 22) which was passed by the Irish Parliament in 1793.

The effect of this Act in Ireland was the creation of 38 Regts. of Infantry Militia. Each of the Regts. was organised on a County or City basis, and the County in question had the responsibility of raising, maintaining and financing its own Regt. The quota of men in any one Regt. was set by a census of parish, and men to be provided by any parish were drawn by lot. Men could also volunteer to join and a substantial bounty was paid by the County to each recruit as he enlisted.

The ‘Wicklow Regt. was numbered 37 in the Irish Militia List and its initial quota was set at 366. As the establishment was always higher than this figure the Regt. was organised into 6 companies of 70 men each.

The real history of the Wicklow Militia begins in April 1793 when Lord Viscount Wicklow was commissioned Lt. Col. and appointed CoI. Commanding the Regt. Over the next few months other officers were appointed, and when the Regt. was first embodied on the 10th June 1793, a full complement of 21 officers were listed in its rolls.

The uniform of the Regt. was red with yellow facings, and the officers dress coat had a double row of silver buttons with the initials “W.M.” surrounded by a laurel wreath. On the base of each of the coat tails was a star of the Order of St. Patrick with the inscription “Wicklow Militia” (p. 17).

The Regt. marched out of the County in 1793 and were based in Tyrone from April 1794 until July 1795, when they received an Address from the people of Strabane thanking them for their conduct while stationed there. From here they moved to Sligo and on to Portarlington in 1796. A muster roll of Capt. Ormsby’s company which was based in Kinnegad at this time shows a strength of 2 Offs, 4 Sgts, 5 Cpls, 2 Drummers, and 50 Ptes. While based in Offaly part of the Regt. under Capt’s Walsh, Richardson and Ormsby and Ensign Bell marched to Mitchelstown in Cork to assist in repelling a threatened French invasion at Bantry Bay. As the invasion proved to be a false alarm the detachment marched back to Porlarlington where they arrived on the 27th Jan. 1797.

Up to this point, things had been easy for the Regt. but in 1797 all that was to change. In the early part of the year the H.O. of the Regt. moved to Mullingar and detachments were placed around the County of Westmeath. Rebellion was in the air and the Un’ d Irishmen were at their peak. Civil disturbances were common, murders and robberies, particularly of weapons, were the order of the day. Over the next few months a war of attrition was carried out between the Regt. and the United Irish men of Westmeath. The eventual success of the Wicklowmen was in no small part due to the ruthless methods that they employed, and which to this day has earned them a terrible reputation in the Midlands.

A typical example of the tactics employed was an incident which took place when a detachment was sent into the town of Multyfarnham on the 11th of June. Over the next 4 days the Det. burnt 5 houses, shot dead 2 men, arrested 3 others, and finished on Thursday the 15th by publishing a notice stating that unless all arms were handed in beforehand, the town would be burnt on the following Sunday. The threat worked, and 28 stand of arms, 2 pistols, 2 bayonets, 1 sword and 1 blunderbuss were handed in, thereby saving the town.

Another good example occurred in the village of Moyvore on the 19th of June, when a party of the Regt. Under the command of Lt. Hempenstall went to search for some weapons which they had been informed were hidden there. The subsequent report of Capt. Ormsby says that 3 stand of arms were found and 6 men shot dead while trying to escape. Afterwards by way of a reprisal and warning, 36 houses in the village were burned. The “Annals of Westmeath” gives a very different account of the killings, although admitting that the unfortunates involved were all United Irishmen. The Lt. Hempenstall involved was the famous “Walking Gallows”, so called because of his having reputedly hanged a man over his shoulder.

Earlier, on the 8th of May, a detachment of the Regt. under Capt Hughes and Lt. Hempenstall were attacked at Carbury near Edenderiy by a band of over 200 rebels. In the ensuing skirmish, 6 of the rebels were killed and a number wounded. 2 of the rebels were captured, one of whom later turned informer.

Whatever its methods the success of the Regt. was such that the Grand Jury of Westmeath presented the Officers of the Regt. with a large silver cup while each of the enlisted men were presented with a medal, gold for the NCO’s and silver for the Pte’s (Fig.1). The inscription read “A reward of loyalty, from the Westmeath Grand Jury to the Wicklow Regt.” Three of these medals are now in the possession of the National Museum.

Fig. 1 – Medal presented to members of the Wicklow Militia Regiment by the Westmeath Grand Jury on 20th August 1797. The Medals were presented in gold to NCO’s and silver to privates. Three of the latter are now in the possession of the National Museum in Dublin. In the example shown above, the letters “I.M.” have been superimposed later, presumably by the owner.

Fig. 2 – Silver medal presented to Capt. Heatley of the Wicklow Militia, by General Sir Charles Asgill in 1798. The medal is now in the National Museum. Since Capt. Heatley received public thanks from Gen. Asgill on the occasion of the fite at the Rower, it can be assumed that this medal was resented in respect of that engagement

Later on that year the Regt. moved to Kilkenny, where the bulk of it was to remain for the duration of the ’98 Rebellion. Little of note occurred during the first part of ’98, and it was not until June that the Regt. fought its first battle. On the 10th June a party of 300 soldiers, including a Det. of the Wicklow Regt., the entire under the command of Gen. Charles Asgill, defeated a rebel force at Rower near Ross, killing 50 of them.

Fig. 3 – Route of the rebel army through Carlow/Kilkenny……………from 22nd – 26th June 1798

The next day, the Wicklow Det., under the command of Capt. Heatley, was returning to Gowran when they fell in with a party of rebels. Capt Heatley immediately ordered an attack and in the ensuing fight 40 of the rebels were killed. Capt. Heatley was later presented with a silver medal (Fig. 2) by Gen. Asgill for his part in the action. This medal is now in the national Museum.

Following reports that large numbers of Wexford rebels were in the region of the Blackstairs Mountains, Gen. Asgill left Kilkenny on the 21st of June to attack them. His force consisted of two columns totalling 250 men. One column of Wicklow’s under Col. Howard, and the other of Wexford Militia under Lord Loftus. The two columns took separate routes to their objective, and attacked the rebels killing 100 of them. The remainder of the rebels dispersed into the mountains.

Later, following their defeat at Vinegar Hill, a large rebel army under Fr. John Murphy of Boulavogue, crossed the Scullagh Gap into Kilkenny and proceeded towards Castlecomer, burning the village of Killedmond on the way. On the 23rd of June they attacked and defeated the garrison of Gores Bridge, taking a number of prisoners, including 24 of the Wexford Militia, 9 of whom were subsequently executed as protestants. Having burnt the village they continued on to Castlecomer which they attacked the following morning.

At this point Gen. Asgill arrived from Kilkenny with a column of 900 men. The force comprised the Wicklow & Wexford Militias, some Yeomanry, and detachments of the 9th Dragoons and Romney Fencible Cavalry. When they were attacked from the rear, the rebel army, which consisted of about 5000 men, withdrew towards Gurteen. At this point in the battle 2 of the Wicklow Regt. were wounded on the bridge at Castlecomer. Having relieved the seige of the town, Gen. Asgill then proceeded to abandon it, and withdrew to Kilkenny with his army and the inhabitants of Castlecomer. The rebels upon seeing this, promptly returned and burnt the town.

Two day later, on the 26th of June, the final battle of the campaign was fought at Kilcomney Hill near Gores Bridge when 1200 men under Gen. Asgill and some 500 under Maj. Matthews attacked the Rebel army from 3 sides, defeating them decisively. The rebels are said to have lost 1000 men, most of whom were killed in a rout which lasted 6 miles. A Fr. Murphy was killed in the battle, and in addition they lost their colours, 10 cannon, 4 swivel guns, a number of guns and pikes, 170 cattle, 100 sheep and 700 horses, together with 15 car loads of provisions.

The main infantry force, under Gen. Asgill, consisted of the Wicklow & Wexford Militias, while the bulk of Maj. Matthews force were made up of Royal Downshire Militia.

Shortly after the battle, Fr. John Murphy was arrested in an alehouse by 3 Yeomen and taken to Tullow where he was tried and executed. This effectively ended organised resistance in South Leinster.

While these engagements had been going on, the Light Company of the Regt. under Capt. Richardson had been detached on duty in Wicklow, where they assisted in the defence of Dunlavin. They were present during the infamous executions at Dunlavin on the 24th of May 1798. The incident occurred when the garrison were about to be attacked by a rebel army, and it is said that the prisoners in the gaol outnumbered the garrison. Following a conference of Officers it was decided to take the extraordinary decision to reduce the number of prisoners by shooting some. As a result 19 men of the Saunders Grove Yeomanry, and 9 men of the Narromore Yeomanry, who were awaiting trial for treason, were taken out and shot.

The Adjutants Muster Roll for this period shows a total strength of 24 officers and 487 men, which is well above the establishment. Looking through the list of names you can see all the common Wicklow names represented, and not unnaturally, the most common names present are Byrne, Doyle, Brien and Kelly.

The Wicklow Regt. remained in the Kilkenny area until 1799 when they were transferred to Birr, and from there to Boyle.

ln 1800 the regular army called for volunteers from the Militia to augment the army in Europe and offered a hefty bounty as an inducement. As a result 107 men ofthe Regt. enlisted in the 54th and 68th Regts.

ln 1802, following the Treaty of Amiens, all Militia Regts. were stood down. As a result the Regt. marched back into Wicklow on the 23rd of May and were disembodied. The peace did not last long however, and by the following January orders had been given to re-assemble Regt. Following some preliminary preparations, the Regt. were embodied on March 25th and marched out of the County for Cork on the 26th of June. Here they were based in various stations until the end of 1804. From there they went to Clonmel and over the next few years were stationed in Ballinrobe, Castlebar and Athlone.

Another Muster Roll dated 1805 shows an increase in strength to 25 officers and 589 men, with the same spread of Wicklow surnames. This increase came despite the amount of men volunteering for the Line as a result of the incredible bounty of 10 guineas offered to Militiamen to enlist at the time.

ln 1812 the Regt. found itself back in County Cork, having travelled through stations in Limerick, Drogheda, Dublin and Killarney to get there.

At this point it is interesting to contrast the bounty mentioned above with the price of everyday equipment for the soldier. ln 1812 in Cork, Pte. Arthur Corbet of Capt. Archer’s Company was issued with a uniform and equipment to the value of £3-9-0½. The price of some of the individual items of equipment were: Pack 12s-5d, shirt 9s-7d, stockings 2s-2d, Shoes 9s-2½d, Comb 5d, and Shaving brush 2s-0d. A hair brush at the time cost 10d, while a razor cost 1s-5d.

The Regt. stayed in the Cork region at various posts until 1813 when it returned to Clonmel, from there they went to Birr and back to Wicklow on July 26th 1814, where they were disembodied on August 2nd.

The following year the Regt. was again embodied and marched out of the County for the last time on the 4th of October 1815 for Londonderry, where they were stationed until March 1816. The unit then marched back to Wicklow where they were disembodied for the last time on 29th March 1816. The Permanent staff of the Regt., which at that time consisted of Paymaster, Adjutant, Surgeon, Quartermaster, Sgt. Maj., O.M. Sgt., 24 Sgts., 30 Cpls., 12 drummers and 2 fifers, moved to Arklow a year later on the 28th March 1817.

The history of the 37th Wicklow Infantry Militia more or less ends here, because although the Regt. survived on paper until 1855, it was never again called out for training or service. This of course applies to all Militia Regts., not just the Wicklowmen. During the peace following the Napoleanic Wars, the Militia was run down until it reached the stage in 1855 where the only member of the Permanent Staff still attached to the Wicklow Regt. was the Adjutant. Most of the Officers had retired, and the general body of men no longer existed.

History repeated itself when the Crimean War broke out in 1855 and an examination of the Militia showed that it existed on paper alone. The resulting review revamped the Irish Militia and many Regts. were converted into Rifle Regts.

So it came about that when the Wicklow Militia were next embodied on Jan. 25th 1855, they did so as the “92nd Wicklow Rifles”. The new unit had only 4 companies, and its uniform was rifle green with black facings.

On November 28th the new Regt. marched out of Arklow bound for Cork, where they were to spend the next 6 months. A Monthly Return of Jan. 1956 from Cork shows the strength of the Regt. to be 17 Officers and 530 men, which was well above the establishment of the Regt.

Fig. 3 – Route of the rebel army through Carlow/Kilkenny……………from 22nd – 26th June 1798

From Cork they moved to Wexford, where they remained until their return to Arklow on July 5th 1956. The Regt. was disembodied on the 11th August 1956.

Star of the Order of St. Patrick, from the tails of an Officer’s dress coat, circa 1793


The Regt. assembled for the first annual training in its history on the 15th July 1858 at Arklow. Later that year the H.O. was moved from Arklow to Wicklow, where it was to remain until the Militia were disbanded in 1908. The H.O. was initially located on the Main Street in a premises hired by the County.

Following trainings in 1859 and 1860, the Regt. was permitted by Circular No. 17774 dated Dublin Castle 14th August 1860, to wear a distinctive cap badge which was to be in the shape of a “Harp”. This I presume is the usual “Maid of Erin”, or “Angle Harp” that was common to a lot of Irish Regiments. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a specimen, so that I cannot be certain as to its exact design.

A Quarterly Return for January 1860 shows the strength of the Regt. to be 19 Officers and 419 men, which is 47 less than their establishment. The same return is full of nonsensical. statistics, the relevance of which are hard to see, although two interesting facts that emerge from it are: that the Regt. were still equipped with smooth bore weapons in 1860 (7 years after the new pattern rifles came on general issue) and that most of the men were very small. It appears that of the 438 men listed only 12 were 5ft 10ins or over, while 328 of the men were 5ft 6ins or less. lt seems that we are growing Wicklowmen bigger these days.

Annual training took place every year until 1865, when a break of 5 years occurred owing to the Fenian conspiracies at that time. For the same reason the Constabulary of Wicklow were sent to the North of Ireland during August of 1865, and the Permanent Staff of the Regt. were called upon to do their duties during the assizes of the 18th and 19th August.

One notable addition to the Office Corps of the Unit was Charles Stuart Parnell, who held a Commission as a Lt. in the Regt. from 25th February 1865 until he resigned in 1870.

The Annual Trainings resumed in 1871 and continued annually until 1876.

On the 1st April 1877, prior to that year’s training, the 92nd Wicklow Militia Rifles were disbanded, and the Regt. converted into Artillery.

The title of the new Regt. was the “Wicklow Artillery Militia”. So after 84 years of service as lnfantrymen, the Wicklow Militia became Gunners. The Regt. would continue in service for another 31 years, but that is another story. . . . .

St. Patrick’s Church, Wicklow circa 1905

St. Patrick’s Church, Wicklow 1990

Comments about this page

  • This article mentions a list of names for those in the Wicklow Regiment of Militia. I’m trying to trace the history of Davis Vanston whom I believe was in this regiment, discharged from hospital on 28/02/1800. Can this list of names be viewed? Are there any other sources which might provide me with details on Davis Vanston?

    By Paul Vanston (07/06/2021)

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