Ireland’s Wars: May 24th

Following the attack on the Munster mail coach, Kildare was ready to rise.

The final moments of the 23rd of May 1798 melted into the early hours of the 24th. All around Kildare, that most prepared of counties, members of the United Irishmen gathered. On hills and plains, groups of varying size, armed mostly with pikes and a few muskets, assembled. But throughout the county, a chronic lack of leadership and coordination would spell disaster.

The military plan in Kildare was all but non-existent. Various companies would target the urban centres, the villages and towns dotted throughout the county, but beyond seizing them through night raids, sheer brute force and numerical superiority, next to nothing had been set down in stone. A victorious march on Dublin after Kildare had been secured was certainly on the minds of some, but the requirements for such a process – a clear chain of command, properly reconnoitred marching routes, and a plan of attack for an assembled United Irishmen army – did not exist. The government fightback, disarmament policy and arrests of leading figures had left the organisation of the United Irishmen wrecked, to the extent that much that was about to take place was more on the initiative of local commanders than it was on any higher strategy. When things went wrong – as they inevitably would in such circumstances – the lack of command structure and communication would lead to unit paralysis.

Indeed, at the same time as all of the below was happening, the grand operation to attack Dublin fizzled out spectacularly. To the north, an undisciplined mob of rebels went on a rampage that got nowhere near its established objective of the Magazine Fort. In the centre, a United camp at Dunboyne got as far as a brief engagement with a police post. And in the south, the assembled rebels lost their nerve in the face of the local garrison and dispersed, with several of them killed after an ill-advised attack on a Dragoon unit near a pub, The Fox and Geese. Dublin would not be “liberated” that way, but there were possibilities of greater success to the west.

Certainly, the urban areas of Kildare were there to be taken. The army policy of “free quarters”, where the regular military, militia and yeomanry units were living off the land as a punitive measure, had left the British military forces in the country scattered from north to south, with small mixed garrisons in most towns and villages, heavily outnumbered by the peasant soldiers that were now bent on attacking them. Further, plenty of the yeomanry, Catholics and only part-time supplementary soldiers, were going to desert to the United side at the earlier opportunity. General Ralph Dundas, the military leader of the Kildare district, had little realisation of the storm that was about to engulf him and his command.

What followed that day is a good microcosm for much of the 1798 rebellion, as the largely lower class peasant soldiery of the United Irishmen, little trained and poorly armed, identifiable as an organised force only by the wearing of green cockades, faced off against the better armed and better trained opponent in British military colours. May 24th, with fighting taking place across almost the entirety of Kildare, is as good a case study in the way that such contests usually went on a tactical level, and so deserves some close scrutiny then I might give to such encounters going forward.

We begin in Ballymore-Eustace, a small town just west of the Kildare/Wicklow border, straddling the upper course of the River Liffey. It was around 0100 when approximately 800 United Irishmen attacked the tiny garrison in the town, which consisted of no more than 50 men under a Captain Beevor, a mix of militia and Dragoons who were staying the night in several houses. Though surprised by the sudden night attack, Beevor was able to rally his men in the home he was staying in, and led a charge on the rebels, a charge which scattered the attacking force back into the night. 13 of his men had become casualties, seven of them killed in their beds, but they accounted for over a hundred rebels in the process. A pattern was immediately established that would repeat itself many times over: a madcap attack on a beleaguered garrison without much oversight or organisation, a defence based on overwhelming firepower and shock charges, and a government victory when inexperienced rebels were unable to sustain their assaults.

An hour later, in the relatively young industrial town of Prosperous in the middle of the county, the first significant rebel victory of the rising was won. 35 militia and 22 regular soldiers garrisoned the town that night, under a Captain Swayne, when it was attacked by a force of around 500 rebels, commanded by yeoman lieutenant named Dr John Esmonde, a moderate Protestant gentlemen. Attacking from the woods by the nearby canal, they focused primarily on the towns militia barracks, whose inhabitants were killed by the pike before the building itself was set ablaze, then moving to the cotton factory where the regulars were billeted. Having won a much greater element of surprise than the slightly earlier attack at Ballymore-Eustace, the rebels here gained control of the town, killing nearly 40 soldiers in the process, the remainder either allowed to surrender or fleeing. Swayne, a hated figure who had carried out the disarmament campaign in the area with sectarian gusto, was killed in his room and later burned in a tar barrel.

A very short time later, it was Naas’ turn. Michael Reynolds, the man who had burned the Munster mail coach, was on hand to lead the rebels here. Reynolds was a respected land-owner, and Catholic, who had only recently been propelled up the ladder of the United Irishman due to the arrests in Dublin. Of all the scattered leaders in Kildare that night, Reynolds was probably the most formidable in terms of command ability. He had a large force of rebels, at least a thousand, to take charge of, and faced a garrison of 150 militia and 70 or so Dragoons. But more importantly, the Naas garrison had access to artillery, something the rebels could only dream of.

Reynolds lead the largest part of his force straight into the middle of the town, targeting the gaol, while a smaller second column focused on the barracks and its supply of arms. But Reynolds would not have the surprise that Esmonde enjoyed, his own column raked by artillery fire just as it reached the gaol, the garrison forewarned of the rebels approach by a dragoon outpost. The rebels charged, the defending defenders counter-charged, and for an hour a bitter street fight raged back and forth. The rebels didn’t lack for courage in the moment of assault, but no untrained peasant army could sustain such endeavour, and eventually, despite inflicting a few casualties, they broke and fled backwards. The cavalry was fully released to cut down the retreating United Irishmen, many of whom threw away their arms as they routed. 22 soldiers of the British military fell, but so did 300 rebels. Reynolds lost his horse, but escaped to the Wicklow Mountains to continue the fight.

Not far to the north, Clane was also seeing its fair share of action around the same time. 300 rebels attacked a small militia/yeomanry posting there, and were beaten off with a brisk display of musketry: concentrated firing would ever prove a reliable deterrent to an inexperienced enemy. The leader of the local yeoman cavalry, Richard Griffith, took command of the situation shortly after, and routed the rebels across the fields outside the village. Those that took refuge in huts found little respite, as the buildings were simply burned. A few survived to be prisoners, but Griffith was soon hanging them, disgusted that some of his former tenants were now actively working against the government (and the Ascendency). Griffith heard the news from Prosperous shortly after, and was stunned to learn that Esmonde, his own lieutenant of the yeomanry, was leading them.

Griffith barely had time to take a roll call of his forces, discovering several men were missing and presumably with the enemy, when a company of rebels swept down upon him from the road to Prosperous. The government forces made a brief retreat to enact a better defence on the commons outside Clane where concentrated musket fire, and better trained men, inflicted far more casualties than the rebels, who were now using captured guns themselves. After a short time, the rebels broke and fled back towards Prosperous, whereupon Griffith led his second cavalry slaughter of the early hours. Despite his successes, Griffith reined his men in and did not advance towards Prosperous, feeling isolated and under strength.

The most significant fighting of the day probably took place further south, at Kilcullen. Dundas was situated there, and first heard the news of the rebellion at breakfast that morning: all of the above took place before 0600. Told that 300 rebel pikemen has assembled at Old Kilcullen, only a couple of miles away from his home, Dundas assembled the scant number of troops he had nearby, little more than 20 infantry and 40 cavalry, and marched towards them.

The rebels were well situated, on a hill, inside a churchyard. The village itself was largely a ruin at the time, hurt badly during the disarmament campaign, but the churchyard remained a formidable obstacle to any attacking force. Incredibly, the horse commander, Captain Erskine, ordered his cavalry to charge the position without the support of the infantry. Armed with only short swords, and facing dug in pikemen whose weapons could reach lengths of ten feet, the result was not surprising: after three charges, 23 of the 40 had fallen dead, and ten more were wounded. Erskine himself was among the dead, allegedly killed by a beggar-women when he was thrown from his horse.

Dundas, presumably horrified, retreated with his infantry northwards to Kilcullen Bridge, over the Liffey. The rebels should have been satisfied with a fairly surprising and important victory in vanquishing the cavalry, but instead advanced after Dundas, fording the Liffey and swinging around so they were in his line of retreat. Unbeknownst to them though, Dundas had been reinforced by local yeomanry. The rebels advanced to close by and took position on the road and on its flanks, hoping that Dundas would attack again. Dundas, no fool, appeared to take the bait, but was himself only feinting when he sent out two small parties to lure the rebels from their positions. The lure worked, and when the rebels suddenly advanced without order, they walked straight into vicious musket volleys and then a rapid cavalry attack, that cut them to pieces. Dundas’ much quoted report is blunt and to the point: “The slaughter was considerable for such an action – about 150 lay dead. No prisoners”. In this second engagement, the British suffered no casualties.

Across Kildare, attacks occurred in other places. In Narraghmore, nine militia members briefly withstood an attack on the courthouse but were forced to retreat when it was set on fire. At Ballitore, an attempted rebel ambush on a small militia force was repelled. Castledermot was assaulted but successfully defended. Monasterevin and Eagle Hill were targets of failed rebel attacks also. At Red Gap Hill, 3’000 rebels were repulsed by a small force of regular infantry and yeoman cavalry.

I write briefly on those more minor encounters to give an indication of the widespread fighting in Kildare, and to offer a possible explanation for what happened next. With the noticeable exception of Prosperous, nearly everywhere the rebels had attacked they had been beaten, and always by numerically inferior enemy troops. Despite the disaster at Old Kilcullen, Dundas could have been well-pleased with the way that the day had gone, considering how suddenly the rebellion had sprung up.

But we must fully realise that Dundas would not have had a full grasp on the situation. Today, I can get in my car and drive from my home in Maynooth, in north Kildare near the border of Meath, to Castledermot, near Carlow, in little less than an hour. In 1798, the journey could take a full day or more, and so reliable, verified information on what was happening in every corner of the county would not have been available. What he knew was that all around him rebels of indeterminate size were attacking towns, and rumour of success and failure would have spread like wildfire. Had the rebels all been defeated as he had defeated them at Kilcullen Bridge? Or was a scenario like the French Revolution, that dreaded possibility that had so gripped the upper classes since 1789, coming to pass? The government forces were stretched desperately thin, and it would not have been hard to imagine them being overwhelmed if the rebels were commanded with any kind of skill. Fearful of such an outcome, and with no clear strategic picture, Dundas, a cautious General bordering on timid, ordered a general retreat to Naas.

He has been criticised much for this move, which essentially handed control of large parts of Kildare to the rebels in a stroke, including towns they had already been driven from. But Dundas felt that a concentrated military force would be better than a scattered one, and feared a renewed rebel assault on Naas. And so, the garrisons that had won their victories in Clane, Ballitore and Monasterevin packed up shop and headed the Grand Canal town. In a few places the local yeomanry refused the order, not wanting to leave loyalist civilians unprotected from United Irishmen, while in Athy, on the border of Carlow, the order was never received because the messenger was killed by the rebels.

Nearly everywhere else, the various infantry, cavalry and militia elements began a dangerous and fear-filled march through dicey territory to Naas. A grim ending to the days fighting in Clane and Prosperous played out as Richard Griffith led his men towards Naas, only to be joined by Dr Esmonde, wearing his yeoman uniform. Esmonde, his role in the Prosperous attack already known to Griffith through the testimony of a private, was imprisoned in Naas. Why he re-joined his yeoman regiment after the Prosperous success is not clear: perhaps it was from a lack of nerve or an attempted subterfuge. Either way, he was later hanged in Dublin, with his yeomanry coat turned inside out, a mark of desertion.

The rebels gratefully and gleefully took control of where they could, with Kildare Town itself among those to fall into their hands. It was a surprising end to a day that could have seen the rebellion stillborn before it had much of a chance to get started. Instead, it now had ample opportunity to grow out of all control.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: May 24th

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