Meath had received the signal to rise along with Kildare, but with just a slightly greater level of organisation, that allowed for a concentration of United Irishmen to be formed. The rising underclass marched and assembled at a point around 20 KM from the Kildare border and 10KM from North Dublin, and within a few days of the signal to rise on May 24th, over 8’000 rebels had arrived there, green cockades on full display. After initially raising their banners near the town of Dunshaughlin, the place they assembled was the Hill of Tara.
It had numerous advantages as a site to assemble an Irish army. Obviously, there was immense symbolic importance to Tara, where the Old High Kings had founded their seat, and there was a great significance to an Irish military force fighting for independence choosing their staging area to be such a potent reminder of Ireland’s pre-Norman past.
But Tara had other advantages as well, more practical ones. On a tactical level, the hill allowed great visibility for miles around, and its stone walls and banks would provide decent defensive positions against attacking infantry. On a strategic level, the hill overlooked one of the main roads leading to the north, essentially cutting off the government in Dublin from Ulster.
Camden, still insistent that he could not order any kind of counter-attack until Dublin’s safety could be assured, made no effort in those early days to go against the rebel forces in Meath. Luckily for him and the British administration in Dublin, the rebels in Tara, despite their numerical strength, were not in a pro-active mood either. The United Irishmen’s stated organisational aim of officers in the respective counties had fallen to pieces with the arrests and disarmament campaigns, and the hopes that militia and yeomanry members would flock to join them, bringing arms and cannon, had not come to fruition either. So, while Kildare fought back and forth, the army in Meath stayed in place and waited, absorbing the occasional newcomers or reinforcements from elsewhere in the midlands. George Cummins, the son of a local innkeeper, was in command. If they had decided to march somewhere – such as, say, Dublin – a lot of things could have turned out differently.
Some very brief skirmishing, little more than small-scale ambush, had resulted in the capture of regular military supplies nearby, as well as ten members of the Scotch Fencible regiment that had been garrisoned in the area. The arms were handed out, and the Highlanders forced to train men in their use, lest they be shot or piked out of hand. As the army grew, the surrounding countryside was plundered for supplies, much to the chagrin of landlords and their yeomanry, who were too small in number to offer a suitable response.
On the 26th of May, that changed. Three additional companies of the Fencibles arrived in the area, and in line with the yeomanry, the government forces numbered around 300 to 400, commanded by a Captain Blanche. Blanche had no orders from Camden or anyone else in government, but was seemingly irritated at the loss of baggage in the previous ambush, and unsatisfied with the prevalent sense that the British were falling back. That evening, he moved to attack Tara, despite being outnumbered nearly 25 to one by some estimates. But he had advantages the rebels did not have: a cavalry detachment, and a 6-pounder cannon.
The rebels had situated their troops all throughout the Hill of Tara area, with the main force between two large hills, that stopped a straightforward enemy attack. A church on the summit provided the main stronghold, with its stone wall providing additional defence. But the rebels’ greatest asset was simply their numerical strength, and they greeted Blanche’s approach with cheers.
Blanche committed to the attack, ordering his infantry to fire and move at the flanks, while the 6-pounder would maintain fire upon the centre. For as long as there was daylight left, the firing continued, as did Blanche’s advance. The British guns proved irresistible in the end, though it took a final charge of Grenadiers under Blanche’s personal command to finally break the rebel lines, a large proportion having retreated inside the churchyard. But the British cavalry has gone walkabout, later to be court-martialled, and successive rebel attacks on the artillery position nearly succeeded in capturing the piece, which would have been disastrous for the British cause. But in attempting to capture it, the ranks of the rebels were exposed to infantry fire to a greater extent than before, and many fell before the reckless attacks was called off. Having gained the churchyard, Blanche’s small army was able to drive the rest of the rebels, poorly armed and led, off the hill and into the night. The remaining cavalry did the rest.
When morning came, the results of the carnage became clear. Blanche had 41 casualties, 13 of them dead, in exchange for at least 350 rebels, maybe as many as 500, who also left behind most of their captured arms and supplies, including the arms captured just a few days before. How could 8’000 men have been defeated so easily by 300? The Battle of Tara Hill is a potent example of the limitations of forces like the United Irishmen, who lacked training, lacked arms, lacked discipline and lacked leadership. You can have all the soldiers you want, but if they do not have the officers capable of teaching them, arming them and commanding them in battle, they will fall apart under sustained fire, especially from artillery. Even when they hold higher ground, they will fall back when attacked by better trained and armed forces, and a breaking becomes inevitable.
Blanche’s victory essentially destroyed the rising in Meath. A few of the fugitives from Tara would end up in Kildare, continuing the fight, but the majority simply went home, trying to avoid government retribution. There would be no more uprisings in Meath. The road to the north was opened back up, and another sterling example of how easily the rebels could be defeated had been made. Indeed, the news of Tara Hill came as a bit of an embarrassment for Camden and his cronies, who continued to hesitate in Dublin, despite ample evidence that the government had the forces with which the rebellion could be defeated.
In the course of the last few entries then, we have seen the full scope of the United Irishmen’s rebellion: partial success with British acquiescence in Kildare, the signs of larger scale triumphs in Wexford, the beginnings of things in Laois and Offaly, and utter defeat in Meath. The rebels were running the gambit then, and the government response was similarly varied in effectiveness. We go next back to Wexford and Father Murphy’s army. Where Meath had failed, Wexford would succeed.
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