It is perhaps fair to say that there is no other county in Ireland more synonymous with the 1798 Rebellion than Wexford. And, strangely enough, it really didn’t have to be that way.
Wexford in the later years of the 18th century was a peaceful, and even prosperous, county. It had a healthy trade in corn, sea sand, and sea weed, and two large rivers, the Barrow and the Slaney, to facilitate that trade through the county. Towns like Wexford, Enniscorthy, Ferns, Gorey and New Ross were vibrant places, and Wexford generally had less noticeable antipathy between landlords and tenants. As the 1790’s passed by, there was little hint that Wexford’s loyalty to the British administration was anything but sincere.
But then the war with France came, along with restrictive and damaging taxation legislation from London, that cut the legs out from under Wexford’s financial prosperity, especially in the barley trade. Throughout 1796 and 97, widespread penury engulfed Wexford, as tenants and other members of the lower classes suddenly found themselves lacking employment prospects, with the knock-on effect threatening the livelihoods of small and medium farmers who could no longer afford the land they had rented at exorbitant rates. The prices and costs of day to day necessities fluctuated widely. The yeomanry started to show signs of discontentment. Suddenly, the message of the United Irishman was able to find purchase.
By the time 1798 came around, rumours of secret cells, the assembling of weapons and Catholic plans to slaughter Protestants were sweeping across the county. Protestant Bishops in the county warned that “massacre and pillage” would soon engulf the population, though they had little time for the idea that Protestant gentry might actually be involved in said schemes. The local authorities, the militia and the magistrates, had little time for such apocalyptic warnings and even as the disarmament campaign was gaining steam in the rest of the country, Wexford remained largely unrepressed. Magistrates appealed successfully to Churches for information about possible subversive activity, and there was no flogging or living off the land by soldiers. Pikes were handed in without recrimination, and United Irishmen leaders in the county were informed on and arrested, if they were not able to flee. Even as Kildare, Laois, Offaly and Wicklow were howling under the brunt of General Lake’s assault, most of Wexford was going about its business, the magistrates assembling for quarterly court proceedings as late as May 23rd, courts which pardoned men charged with planning insurrection and then extended deadlines for handing in weapons. In most respects, Wexford was a model example of how to peacefully break and underground conspiracy for rebellion.
But there were things being missed as well, such as some of the most prominent leaders of the United Irishmen in the county. They included men like Bagenal Harvey, a popular Protestant landlord, a squire named Edward FitzGerald and a doctor named John Colclough. In the middle and southern sections of the county, these men, of the middle professional classes, or gentry, lent an air of respectability to the cause, though their lager political beliefs and ambitions, outside of inevitable revolution, were unknown.
Further north, things were getting desperate faster. There, with a greater proportion of dissatisfied yeomanry and a slew of assassinations of informers, the government was more willing to hit back hard. A well-known famer named Robert Graham was the leading United Irishmen light in the area, one of the few who had escaped the mass arrests of Leinster Executive members owing to his lateness to attend the March 12th meeting. His efforts to get the rest of the county, and men Harvey, Fitzgerald and Colclough, to more actively prepare for insurrection, were unsuccessful, and the United Irishmen in this border region between Wexford and Wicklow probably numbered only a few thousand.
Caught between the harsh disarmament being carried out in Wicklow and the milder, but arguably more successful, approach in Wexford, the United Irishmen in the area may have been doomed. But things swung more and more their way in May. Wild reports and rumours about intended massacres to be carried about members of the Orange Order – a popular bogeyman for pro-Catholic groups, which ironically had not really penetrated Wexford by 1798 – swept through the county. Even as Protestant listened to and repeated tales of imminent Catholic bloodletting, the Catholics were doing the same about the Protestants. The difference was that Catholics outnumbered Protestants in Wexford, maybe by as much as thirty to one. The United Irishman, through newssheets and pamphlets, were happy to stoke up the rumours, and there are reports that elements of their membership even impersonated Orangemen and conducted faux night-time raids in order to frighten locals. All of this increased the support of the United Irishmen in Wicklow, but also increased the potentially uncontrollable agitation of the underclasses.
By late May, northern Wexford was starting to get a taste of proper disarmament, as local magistrates began to introduce flogging in an effort to curb the agitation, with newly recruited yeoman, of Protestant background, happily going along. The border country, all the way up to the Wicklow town of Arklow, was suddenly aflame with house burnings, summary judgements and refugees fleeing persecution. The United Irishmen in the districts crumbled under the sudden ferocity of the assaults, and soon names were being named by those desperate to avoid prosecution. Following those names led government forces further south, and terror came with them.
Anthony Perry, a prominent United Irishmen closely tied to Robert Graham, was arrested on May 23rd. Under savage torture, he disclosed numerous details of the society’s organisation and make-up in Wexford. His confession, and the 22 names he provided, provoked further outrages as loyalist groups more actively hunted United Irishmen and their arms deeper and deeper into the rest of Wexford.
After the relative calm and court proceedings of the 23rd, hysteria was suddenly gripping the county. Protestants feared a Catholic uprising, and Catholics were fleeing from government sponsored persecution, arrests and house burnings. Floggings and torture were suddenly widespread. All restraint suddenly seemed to have vanished.
Into this maelstrom stepped up a 45 year old Catholic priest named John Murphy. Educated in a hedge school and trained at a Spanish seminary, Murphy was the local curate for the Boolavogue area, 12 Km north-west of Enniscorthy, who previously helped to draw up declarations of loyalty in his area. But amid the constant tales of massacre, torture and repression, he suddenly went the other way. The news of the Dunlavin and Carnew shootings were an obvious influence. But greater still was the sudden influx of news from Kildare, and other nearby counties.
The reality that the United Irishmen were “out” in these areas, and had actually captured towns of importance, cannot be underestimated as a motivator for Wexford. For many, it must have seemed that Dublin was about to fall to a gigantic populist uprising, and that the tide had turned against the government all over. Those who had hesitated in taking up arms against the militia and yeomanry now took more decisive action, buoyed on by the idea that they were following the example of fellow rebels in other parts of the country, and could count on reinforcement and support from those areas.
John Murphy was one of these people. He agreed to lead a party of men from his local area, and begin a more active resistance. When a group of yeoman cavalry tried to force their way through an impromptu roadblock made by these men, near the village of the Harrow, shots were fired and pikes brandished. Two yeoman officers fell and the rest fled. The grandiosely titled “Battle of the Harrow” was a very small success, but was the first step in a strong of rebel successes that would soon have a huge proportion of Wexford in flames.
Father Murphy was soon sending his men out to raid local farmhouses for arms and other supplies. The arms were duly found, and many homes burnt: at Oulert, the home of a Protestant clergymen was surrounded and attacked by 500 rebels, who eventually took it and killed all of its male inhabitants. Soon, much of the country around the town of Ferns was in rebel hands, its loyalist homes burning and Protestant population fleeing for safety.
The yeomanry, seeking vengeance for the Harrow debacle, were soon responding in kind. Father John’s home and church were soon in cinders, other Catholic homes were attacked as well, and reinforcements from numerous towns were soon heading towards the area, intent on putting down the insurrection as fast and as ruthlessly as possible.
By now it was May 27th. Father John and his ragtag forces, which were probably around a thousand strong, had assembled at Oulart Hill, not far from the village of the same name, one of the highest points in the area. Murphy made no attempt to defend the village from attack, its most prominent buildings still burning, and his rapidly assembled army was soon sheltering Catholic refugees trying to avoid the militia and yeomanry intent on retribution. They were a force of less than 150 men, a mix of militia infantry and yeomanry cavalry, under the command of a Colonel Foote, an American veteran, outnumbered but with superior amounts of arms and horses.
Foote was capable enough to know that the pikemen on a hill were a daunting obstacle for his small army, which lacked both discipline and actual battle experience. With artillery, he would have been able to make major headway, but he had none. In point of fact, Foote didn’t have to do anything but wait, as his very presence nearby put fear into the hearts of many of the rebels, who began to melt away from Oulart Hill, rather than face redcoats in open battle, before their leader’s protestations and the movement of the enemy cavalry stopped them.
Foote attempted to get the rebels down off the hill by burning nearby homes, but Murphy refused to take the bait, smart enough in his turn to know that an attack would likely flounder against British guns. At a loss, Foote began making preparations for a withdrawal when his men, some drunk after taking over and later burning a pub on the way to Oulart, charged, apparently under the orders of Foote’s less intelligent second in command.
The attack, uphill and without artillery support, was a disaster. Those who survived the limited rebel musketry found it impossible to get past the array of pikes and farming implements brought to bear, with those who had no weapons throwing stones found on the hillside. No prisoners were taken. Nearly the entire force, infantry and cavalry, was annihilated, with Foote fleeing with a tiny escort. It was, much like the government attack on Old Kilcullen a few days before, the only likely result when a poorly led and poorly trained force of men attacked a numerically superior enemy uphill. Foote’s expedition could literally have just stayed in place and had a chance of defeating the rebels, but conspired to destroy themselves. As with the Harrow, it was an unenforced error, that would resonate far and wide in Wexford.
The Colonel arrived back where he came from, the town of Wexford, and was unable to hide the scope of what had occurred. Much of the town’s garrison had marched out with him, and now it had little more than its walls as a defence. Morale had been high enough in Wexford up to that point, with Harvey, FitzGerald and Colclough all arrested and held in the town gaol. But the news of the initial uprising in the Oulart area had unnerved many, and the defeat at Oulart Hill sent people into a panic. Wild preparations for an attack were made, as locals were impressed into the town guard, thatch was removed from roofs and mobs threatened the lives of the prisoners in the gaol. The panic spread elsewhere too, as the tiny garrison in Gorey abandoned the town rather than attempt an impossible defence, and Arklow prepared itself for attack. Now it was Protestants fleeing persecution and oncoming rebels wholesale, with convoys of refugees seeking shelter wherever it could be found. But the residents of Wexford Town, Gorey and Arklow, newly terrified of the rebel menace, were not to be the next target.
John Murphy, his suddenly victorious army increasing in size every hour, took the undefended Ferns, with the help of an another sizable group of rebels under another priest, Michael Murphy, which had previously been dispersed by cavalry. Seven miles to the east, the citizens and garrison of Enniscorthy could see the smoke rising from Ferns with their own eyes. They were next, and they knew it. The Republic of Wexford was on the rise.
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