As large swaths of Kildare were, essentially, ceded to the United Irishmen and their peasant armies, things remained remarkably calm in the capital, only a short while to the east. The botched plans to attack Dublin from three directions had come to nought, with the bodies of those unfortunate rebels caught and killed near Rathfarnham displayed for all to see in Dublin Castle, a grim reminder that the British authorities had the power to resist such piecemeal and ineffective attacks. Militia caught deserting were tried at the drumhead and hanged as an example. Searches for arms and floggings continued. Across the city, there was a rush of volunteers to join the local yeomanry, and both Protestant and Catholic figures of significance raced each other to condemn the growing violence as anathema to their faith and to the order of law. No kind of serious disturbance occurred.
In the Castle, Camden remained surprisingly calm in the face of a disaster he had long feared, even if he had not really done as much as he could have to prevent it from happening. He, and his cabinet, spoke with full expectation of victory. His first reports to London on what was happening have little ring of panic, but did urgently request that reinforcements be sent to bolster the existing units in Ireland as soon as possible. Aside from the obvious worry that the uprising was a prelude to a French invasion – at the time, Napoleon’s imminent departure from France was raising many eyebrows amongst British authorities, who had little idea the future Emperor was actually heading to Egypt on an ill-fated adventure – Camden was also worried about the possibilities that military figures like Lake would be responsible for a sectarian bloodbath in their moves to quash the United Irishmen, a pushback against the Catholic population that would sate vengeful members of the Protestant Ascendency, but ultimately leave Ireland in a more broken state than ever before.
The state of affairs was not helped by rumours of rebel atrocities that were sweeping Dublin. The indiscriminate killing of Protestant civilians at the hands of rebels certainly did occur at times throughout the 1798 rebellion, with killings in Prosperous at this point the most notable example, but widescale slaughter of the kind that some Protestant sources liked to imagine – and to imagine revenging – largely did not. 1641 was in the minds of many, but the reality was less blood-soaked.
In terms of British military strategy at this point, as directed from Dublin, Camden was content for a defensive stance, and for the capital’s forces of regulars and yeomanry to be purely reactive. A very brief foray was made in the direction of Meath but then retreated back into Dublin without making kind of contact with the enemy. Camden insisted that until major reinforcements arrived from Britain, or from garrisons in the south of Ireland, then what forces he had must be earmarked to defend the capital from assault. It was not the worst idea, but came from an over-estimation of what the United Irishmen were offering in terms of soldiery. As we have seen, when faced with even small amounts of well-drilled and competently led opposition, the United troops tended to fall to pieces rapidly. A quick, decisive thrust into Kildare by Dublin’s units might have ended the rebellion then and there. But Camden, cautious to the point of hesitancy, ordered no such efforts to be made.
By the 26th of May, the United Irishmen in Kildare, in arms, could number themselves at about 30’000 or so, spread all around the county but centred particularly in the towns of Kildare, Prosperous and Kilcullen. There was still precious little in terms of higher command or strategy. To the west, on the borders of Laois, rebel forces launched several attacks on the town of Monasterevin, which was defended by around 80 yeomanry who had refused Dundas’s call for retreat. They were able to beat off the attacks, but could not prevent rebel forces moving into Laois. It mattered little: an attack on the better garrisoned town of Portarlington was easily defeated.
On the border of Offaly too, fighting was now occurring. The town of Rathangan came under attack by several thousand rebels, who successfully overwhelmed the small garrison of semi-professional troops by sheer force of numbers. Many of the yeoman who were not killed joined the rebels. Here a massacre certainly did occur, as leading members of the militia and local Protestant Ascendency were piked and shot, some after surrendering peacefully. Protestant tradesmen were soon also being targeted. A sectarian flavour to the proceedings was obvious, as Catholic loyalists to the government were not selected for such punishment.
The rebels were also expanding their operations northward, to the band of towns and villages on the border with Meath. Kilcock, Leixlip and Lucan were all subjected to attack, Maynooth and Celbridge were directly threatened and while the local yeomanry and militia survived, they were soon sending pleading messages to their own commanders, desperate for relief and fearful of further attacks. In Meath, United Irishmen units were gathering in force, with precious little in terms of counter-movies being attempted. Many rebels in North Kildare now crossed the border, to join up with larger camps being set-up in Dunboyne and Tara, but with little idea of what to do with such numbers.
The combined actions of Dundas in withdrawing his soldiers to strongpoints and Camden in refusing to allow a push out of Dublin were now allowing the fires of rebellion to spread rapidly outside of Kildare. Wicklow towns on the border of Kildare beat off assaults – Ballymore, Stratford and Baltinglass were among the targets – some in desperate circumstances. 13 of a 50 strong garrison in Ballymore became casualties in defending against and then charging their attackers, while news of Protestant killings and house-burnings increased the sensation of panic.
Carlow too was seeing the beginnings of violent action. Carlow Town had been attacked on the 25th by around a thousand United Irishmen, facing a relatively sizable garrison. After some grim street-fighting half the town was in ashes, but still in government hands, the local commander having the aid of artillery aside from being forewarned of the coming assault. 600 rebels fell. Another attack shortly afterwards on Hackettstown had much the same result. Again, the deficiencies in the United Irishmen’s poorly armed and led forces were being shown up, but so too was the isolated nature of the government garrisons, who could defend themselves but offer no kind of counter-attack for the moment. The days following the 24th thus unfolded in a hectic uncoordinated way, for both sides, with little clear picture of how things were truly unfolding from any one point in the country.
Government forces were fast catching up on the atrocity front though: 28 “suspected” rebels were summarily shot in Carnew, Wicklow on the 25th, followed by another 36 in Dunlavin the next day, partly as a response to rebel activity thus far, but the sectarian bent to everything was obvious. In Wicklow more than anywhere else thus far, a bitter enmity between Catholic and Protestant communities would make the resulting clashes and reprisals especially brutal. It was Camden’s fears coming true, and it would only get worse. The rebellion was spreading ever southwards, and Wexford would be the next county to answer the call.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.