The Last County - The 1798 Rebellion

Any examination of the 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow must necessarily begin by looking at the neighbouring county of Wexford, since it was here that the local rebels first took a stand. As the two most successful Protestant settlements outside Ulster, Wicklow and Wexford were closely linked. The Byrne family were very prominent in Wexford during the years leading up to the Rebellion and close family ties existed across the two counties. One of the most important Catholic families to have maintained its social standing in county Wicklow during the eighteenth century was the Byrnes of Ballymanus.

Pre 1790’s Wicklow

Wicklow in the 1790s had a higher percentage of Protestants than any other county in Ireland, excluding Ulster, while Wexford had the next highest. The Protestant community in Wexford were mainly found in the northern regions of the county and Gorey rivalled Carnew in south Wicklow as the most Protestant region in both counties. In such communities, sectarian disturbances in other counties could quickly lead to increased tension, fear and hatred. Both south west Wicklow and Wexford had few towns and few industries, with the result that the rural population, both Protestant and Catholic, were almost totally engaged in agriculture, with many strong Protestant farming settlements on the western slopes of the Wicklow hills. There were few intermarriages between the two communities and very few conversions to Protestantism.

The contrast between the Rebellion in Wicklow and Wexford and that in other regions has perplexed many historians. It was most violent in an area which, at that time, was relatively calm and prosperous. Agrarian unrest is not an acceptable theory given such a successful farming community and sectarian fears amongst Catholics is not a strong enough argument alone to account for the ferocity of the uprising. Military attempts at suppression had been more violent against Catholics in other counties.

‘Harsh Methods’

So why did the Rebellion take such strong hold in Wicklow and Wexford? To determine this, it is first necessary to give a brief overview of the events leading up to the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland as a whole.

After the leading United Irishmen were arrested in March of 1798, punishments meted out to anyone suspected of rebel activity by the military in the Leinster area became increasingly severe. The government had grasped the full extent of the conspiracy and were determined to crush it totally, using harsh methods if necessary. The army’s definition of ‘harsh methods’ was severe in the extreme. Militiamen and dragoons in Cork who were discovered to have taken a local Defender oath were given sentences ranging from 500 to 999 lashes. Not all of these floggings were carried out fully – often between 200 and 425 lashes were administered, with the rest remitted if the culprit agreed to service overseas for the remainder of his life. Such floggings were extremely inhumane, resulting in flesh being torn in lumps from the body, exposing bones and internal organs.


On 30th March, 1798 a number of districts in Leinster were proclaimed areas in which the military could live at ‘free quarters’ and search for arms. In effect, this meant that the military were let loose and were “encouraged in acts of great violence against all who were supposed to be disaffected” (1). There were virtually no restraints at all on these troops – their only task was to obtain the surrender of arms and to uncover local United Irishmen officers.

Aside from flogging, other forms of torture were used; ‘half-hanging’, where a rope was pulled tightly around the victim’s neck and then slackened when he became unconscious and the pitch-cap, where a brown paper cap was filled with molten pitch, placed on the victim’s head, allowed to set slightly and then set alight, resulting in burning pitch falling onto the victim’s face and eyes. It could usually only be removed together with much of the victim’s hair and scalp.

All forms of torture were applied indiscriminately to innocent and guilty suspects, since it was felt that torture would quickly distinguish between the two. However, it was the floggings that inspired most fear and were most effective in obtaining information quickly, together with a surrender of arms. After the proclamation on 30th March, the wooden triangle, upon which those to be flogged were spreadeagled, appears to have been first erected in Athy, county Kildare.

“They were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy and though some men stood the torture to the last gasp sooner than become informers, others did not, and…one single informer in the town was sufficient to destroy all the United Irishmen in it” (2).

This system of torture was being carried out largely by Irish soldiers, most of them Catholics in the lowest class of the militia. Prior to and during the 1798 Rebellion, over four-fifths of government troops were Irish (3). Soon the population of Leinster was so terrified by the floggings, house burning, pitch-capping, half-hanging and indiscriminate shooting, that many slept outside in the fields for safety.

Sheares Brothers

Although the leading United Irishmen had been arrested on 12th March, the organisation claimed that the positions left vacant by them on the Leinster Provincial Committee were quickly filled and that the organisation of the capital was “perfect” (4). In fact a new National Directory had been established under the leadership of a young Protestant barrister called John Sheares. He and his brother were arrested only five weeks after the arrest of the previous United Irishmen leaders, due to the evidence of the informer Armstrong. The brothers were subsequently sentenced to death for high treason.

The Sheares brothers were in gaol by 21st March. Their replacements had no choice but to go ahead with the Rebellion, planned for 23rd May, as events had progressed too far to be stopped. Tension was high among the peasantry, exacerbated by the military terror. A dozen or more ‘risings’ of badly-organised groups of peasants, armed with pikes and some firearms, occurred in the counties surrounding Dublin between 23rd and 25th May, often amounting to little more than demonstrations. The rebels were defeated with great slaughter, although they did succeed in inflicting some casualties. Their own losses were said to be enormous, as high as several hundred after each battle. Many of these deaths probably took place after the battles themselves were over – anyone caught a few miles within the vicinity of a skirmish was likely to be shot on the spot. Houses were burnt, people were flogged and executed in greater numbers than ever before.

Fears of an Orange Plot

During the period of unrest Dublin remained firmly under government control, but the rebel activities in the south were achieving a greater degree of success. From 1797 onwards, the United Irishmen pursued a policy of heightening fears amongst the Catholic peasantry with regard to a plot by Orangemen to rise and murder all Catholics, which served to increase the existing sense of Catholic solidarity. Wicklow had three Orange Order lodges at this time, with a predominantly Protestant membership. Wexford was probably one of the counties which appeared least likely to cause trouble, since the number of sworn United Irishmen only numbered approximately 300. A strong Defender organisation had been in existence in the county for many years, but had not been very active. However, Wexford proved to be the county in which the Rebellion took the strongest hold.

 Rebellion in Wexford

The reason for this is due to several factors local to the county and also partly to accident. One of the important local factors was the lack of serious organisation on the part of rebel groups, which resulted in a lack of concern by the government until almost the last minute. Only a small garrison existed in the county and the task of searching for arms was left to the local, largely Protestant, yeomanry who were amateur and undisciplined. Another important local factor was that the Wexford Protestants were much more sectarian than in most other counties and when they began their searches for arms around the county they were particularly vicious in outlook and action.

Vinegar Hill

To make matters worse, the government troops sent to Wexford were the North Cork militia, who were credited with inventing the pitch-cap method of torture, even though they were largely composed of Catholics. A man called Heppenstal, one of the sergeants in the militia, was nicknamed ‘the walking gallows’ due to his skill at half-hanging men over his shoulder. Therefore, during the last days of May 1798 fear gripped the population of Wexford and surrounding regions. Once the Rebellion broke out in other parts of the country, followed by news of the sadistic reprisals, the terror rose.

At Dunlavin in west Wicklow, twenty eight prisoners were taken from the local gaol by the government garrison and executed without trial, although they had played no part in the Rebellion. In Carnew, a further twenty eight people suspected of rebel activities were shot without trial by a squad of local yeomen and militia. News of these shootings quickly spread and confirmed the local peasants’ worst fears with regard to the treatment they could expect at the hands of government forces.

The Rebellion in Wexford began on 26th May at Boolavogue and Oulart and quickly spread throughout the north of the county. Father John Murphy, parish priest at Boolavogue, had played a prominent part in persuading the local population to surrender their arms in exchange for ‘protections’ and had made a declaration of allegiance to the government which was signed by 757 of his parishioners. However, the terms of the Arms Proclamation in Wexford were ignored by the local magistrates and troops, who had begun to carry out floggings and other tortures. Fr. Murphy was becoming more and more desperate. On the evening of 26th May he was returning from a visit to a neighbouring farmer in the company of some men, a number of whom were carrying arms. They met a cavalry troop who either fired a volley and demanded their weapons, or merely demanded the weapons. The men responded with shots and stones. The lieutenant in command was stabbed in the side of the neck with a pike and was killed. As an eyewitness stated, “The firstblow of the insurrection in Wexford was now struck” (5).

As reprisal the next day, houses all over the county were set alight and a group of people on Kilthomas Hill were killed on suspicion of being rebels. Fr. Murphy and his group, now numbering about 1,000, camped on Oulart Hill. When attacked by the North Cork militia, who numbered about 110 men, the rebels held their ground, despite having only forty or fifty firearms between them. They succeeded in driving the troops from the hill and killing many, with the loss of only six men.

Now equipped with a valuable addition to their arms taken from the defeated militia, the rebels marched on Enniscorthy and took it after a three hour battle, almost burning it to the ground. They then established what was to become their most permanent base, on Vinegar Hill beside the town. On top of the hill were the remains of a windmill, where some thirty-five Protestants from Enniscorthy, under suspicion of being Orangemen, were executed by the rebels. Hill camps such as that at Vinegar Hill were to become a feature of the rebels’ movements during the following weeks. They had almost no tents, but lay in the open at night as the weather was unusually fine. This they took to be a good omen and they claimed it would not rain again until victory was won.

However, the rebels were burdened with several weaknesses. The greatest of these were the lack of a strategic plan of action and lack of effective leadership. While often brave and determined, they lacked discipline in battle and tended to act spontaneously, rather than on the commands of their senior officers. Retreat from action was usually fast and sudden and consequently they feared being left behind by their companions and watched each other closely. They were also reluctant to fight at night for the same reason, as it was then more difficult to tell what was going on.

Thomas Cloney, a young Catholic farmer who had emerged as one of the rebel leaders, described them as ‘ungovernable’. Those who succeeded in obtaining arms often had little or no experience of them and this fact, coupled with frequent drunkenness, resulted in guns constantly being fired off, thus exposing the rebels to danger. Most of the rebel forces were armed only with a long pike, which could be made by the local blacksmith and easily hidden in the thatch of a house. While a formidable weapon in charge it was necessary, to achieve maxium effect, for a large body of men to mass together and charge the enemy at point blank range. This tactic not only called for great courage but cost many lives, since the closely-packed rebels were then ideal targets for cannon firing grapeshot, or for trained musketmen.

After the battle of Enniscorthy, the rebels began to move towards Wexford in order to attempt the capture of the town. They set up camp on Three Rocks Hill, just outside the town, where they defeated, killed or captured around seventy men from the Meath militia before entering Wexford, the garrison having been withdrawn from the town. Approximately 250 Protestant man, women and children were taken prisoner from all over the surrounding area and held in a barn at Scullabouge.

Upon entering the town the rebels released Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, a Protestant landowner and United Irishman, who had been imprisoned as a precautionary measure by the Wexford authorities. He was appointed as Commander-in-Chief, in the hope that he might be able to impose some discipline, although he had no military experience. Matthew Keogh, a Protestant and former Captain in the British Army, was placed in charge of Wexford town. The rebels numbered approximately 16,000 at this time and began to show some signs of developing a strategy. They split into three colums; one moved towards New Ross, one towards Bunclody in an effort to penetrate into Wicklow and the third towards Gorey and Arklow, on the Dublin road.

On 5th June a decisive battle took place at New Ross, where a rebel army of 3,000 men under Bagenal Harvey attacked in force. As had been common centuries before in Ireland, they drove herds of cattle before them which overran the outposts and allowed the rebels to penerate the town centre. After fighting for thirteen hours, the rebels withdrew with heavy losses. On the same day, the Protestant prisoners held in Scullabogue barn were massacred. The barn was set on fire, burning many to death, while others were excuted with pikes on the lawn. It is thought that those rebels coming from the battle of New Ross with news of defeat helped to build up a hysterical frenzy against them.

Attack on Arklow

The other two columns also met with little or no success. The Arklow column, heading in the direction of Dublin, was turned back by loyalist forces at Tuberneering but gave the government troops a tough battle. Making good use of hedges and natural cover, they defeated a body of the King’s troops, killing or taking prisoner over a hundred. However, after the victory they were delayed for several days, looting and drinking, before attacking the key town of Arklow.

The attack on Arklow took place on 9th June, led by Fr. Michael Murphy amongst others. Here “they not only disposed themselves skilfully but fought with almost absurd dash and bravado” (6). Armed largely with pikes, they attacked the town from the south, charging into the path of five pieces of artillery firing grapeshot, sustaining heavy losses. The commander of the Arklow garrison, General Needham, had received reinforcements prior to the battle and, despite repeated attacks to the English line, held firm. The rebels’ tactics were not good enough for victory, their marksmanship was bad and their weapons inferior. While they had some cannon, they were not familiar with them and had to force prisoners captured with the guns to fire them, with negligible results. By eight o’clock they were running short of ammunition and withdrew, leaving between 2,000 and 3,000 dead. Fr. Murphy was killed within thirty yards of the loyalist lines.

The strategic consequence of this failure to take Arklow was that the rebels remained contained in the south east corner of the county. For the rebellion to succeed it had to spread from the south east and connect up with the Rebellion in Ulster, hopefully gathering support along the way. The failure of the rebels to take Arklow and open a path to Dublin averted the threat of a general uprising throughout Ireland.

The third column, made up of around 2,500 men, set out towards Bunclody (Newtownbarry), commanded by Fr. Kearns. They succeeded in driving the militia out but then slipped into drunkenness and plunder and were cast out of the town in a counter-attack which saw many killed. Bagenal Harvey was deposed as Commander-in-Chief and Fr. Roche, a local Catholic priest, installed in his stead. While continuing to lead the rebels from Wexford town, he was becoming increasingly desperate. A last-minute massacre took place on the wooden bridge at Wexford, where around 100 Protestants were shot or piked and cast into the Slaney river.

Vinegar Hill was attacked by government forces employing heavy cannon fire on 21st June. They attempted to encircle the hill but quite a number of rebels escaped, due to a gap in the circle. A large group of these, under Fr. John Murphy, headed for Kilkenny but failed to find support there and withdrew, establishing a camp at Kilcomney Hill which was overrun by government troops on 26th June.

A Mountain Refuge

Michael Dwyer

The rest of the Wexford rebels split into smaller bands and took refuge in the mountains of county Wicklow. They were led by Joseph Holt, a radical Protestant farmer and the Catholic Michael Dwyer. While these bands resisted capture for a considerable time and were a constant thorn in the government’s side due to their raids on government troops, they did not represent a serious threat to the stability of the country. Within six weeks of the Rebellion’s outbreak, all signs of it had virtually disappeared. “The whole mopping up procedure, in fact, was if anything an even bloodier business than anything that had taken place during or before the rebellion itself’ (7). Many rebels were butchered while unarmed and on their knees begging for mercy. Frequently, the male inhabitants of any house that gave shelter to the rebels were killed. In 1799 Billy Byrne, a former yeoman and reluctant rebel leader, was executed in Wicklow town for his part in the rising. The Protestant historian, Gordon, estimated that 50,000 people died on both sides in the whole Rebellion.

Fr. John Murphy was hanged at Tullow, his body burned in a tar barrel and his head placed on a pike. Bagenal Harvey, Matthew Keogh and Fr. Roche were all hanged on 1st July off Wexford Bridge, their heads impaled on pikes over the courthouse and their bodies thrown in the Slaney river. On 8th July 1798 six weeks after the Rebellion broke out, the only rebel forces still at large were around 5,000 armed with pikes in Wicklow, some rebels in the north of Wexford and on the Meath and Dublin county borders. Matters settled back relatively quickly into the usual peasant restlessness which had existed for half a century and would last for a century more, although both Holt and Dwyer remained at large in Wicklow fore several years.

Dwyer, born in the Glen of lmmal in 1771, became an active leader in the Rebellion. Following the crushing of the rebel forces he went ‘on the run’ in the Wicklow mountains and succeeded in avoiding capture by utilising his intimate knowledge of the area. At one point Dwyer and his companions were trapped by British troops. One of his followers, Samuel McAllister, gave his life by drawing the enemy’s fire, thus enabling Dwyer to escape and remain at large for a further four years.

The Need For A Military Road

Due to the large number of rebels who took refuge in the Wicklow mountains, the British Army were forced to construct the Military Road, running from north to south through the mountains and marked by a number of barracks where troops were stationed, in order to exert some control over the area. Dwyer eventually surrendered in 1804 at Humewood, near Baltinglass and was subsequently transported as a free man to Australia.

Wicklow Rebellion: ‘Bloody and inveterate’

The Rebellion was characterised both in Wicklow and Wexford by systematic burning of houses, churches and businesses-by both sides. There was hardly one sound house left standing in west and south Wicklow once the rising ended, although the damage around Rathdrum was less, due to the protection offered by the yeomanry of the district to the loyalists. The fact that Wicklow was less urbanised than Wexford could account for the lower number of claims lodged by loyalists for compensation. The underlying sectarian element is evidenced by the lengthy retributions which followed the crushing of the Rebellion in July. The landlords of both counties did little to help matters, being bitterly opposed to emancipation. Even as late as August 1799, Bishop Troy wrote “no priest can appear in the northeast parts of that distracted county nor in the neighbourhood of Arklow” (8). Between August 1798 and October 1800 fifteen Catholic chapels were burned in the Wicklow districts of the diocese of Dublin.

Therefore, because the Protestant community was proportionately larger in Wicklow and north Wexford than anywhere else excluding Ulster, the ability of the community to resist the rising sectarian tension was much more difficult on each side. This fact helps to explain why atrocities in other counties did not have the same outcome. Even in other counties with large Protestant communities, a relatively high percentage were economically dependant to some extent on the support or patronage of a landlord. In contrast, members of the Protestant farming community in Wicklow and Wexford were more independent of landlord patronage. There were also a large number of younger Catholic men who had succeeded to estates, such as Garret Byrne, or who were the eldest sons of prosperous farmers. Desperation of the part of these well-off Catholics drove many to their involvement in the Rebellion, allied to their long-standing opposition to the establishment Protestant families in the county.

Joseph Holt

Holt observed that “it was private wrongs and individual oppression, quite unconnected with the government, which gave the bloody and inveterate character to the rebellion in the county of Wicklow” (9).


(1) Maurice, Sir J. F. (ed.), The Diary of Sir John Moore (London, 1904), vol. 1, p.271.
(2) McHugh. Roger (ed.), Carlow in ‘98, Memoirs of William Farrell (Dublin, 1949), p.75.
(3) Maurice, op. cit., vol. ii, p.270.
(4) Gordon, Rev. J. B., History of the Rebellion in lreland 1798, (London, 1803), p.62.
(5) Cited in Charles Dickson, The Wexford Rising in 1798 (Tralee, 1955), p.55.
(6) Kee, Robert, The Most Distressful Country (London 1976), p.1 19.
(7) Ibid.,p.123.
(8) Pakenham, Thomas, The Year of Liberty (London, 1969), p.349.
(9) Holt, Joseph, Memoirs of (London, 1838), vol. 1, p.17.

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