We move now back to the growing rebellion in County Wexford. The armies of Fr John Murphy had won a stunning victory at Oulart Hill, thanks to the rash actions of just a few government leaders, and now stood poised to fall upon a target of serious worth: the town of Enniscorthy, then and now the second biggest urban centre in Wexford, around 5 km’s from Oulart.
The residents of Enniscorthy had spent the opening days of the rising in a state of confusion, listening desperately to every wild rumour and scrap of news entering the town. Little of it boded well: the talk was all of massacre carried out by Catholic peasants in the surrounding area, and the news of Oulart, and the influx of refugees, did nothing to assuage doubts and fears. At least one extra-judicial hanging took place due to fears that a fifth column might be operating in the hordes of those refugees that now swelled Enniscorthy’s native population.
The garrison in Enniscorthy, commanded by a Captain Snowe, was tiny in the face of the rebels that were now advancing towards it. 80 members of the militia and roughly 200 yeomanry were joined by rapidly armed and drilled civilian volunteers, giving Snowe somewhere in the region of 400, with which he would have to face thousands. There was no chance of a quick relief from the direction of the capital either, and no other town in Wexford had a garrison big enough to risk riding out to the aid of Enniscorthy.
Snowe was not so daring as to march out and try and offer a pitched battle, having learned from the results of Colonel Foote’s expedition. Instead, he decided to defend the walls of the town as best he could. Enniscorthy straddled the Slaney River and had expanded fast from its original state as a medieval strongpoint in the intervening times of prosperity. Numerous gates had to be defended, key among them the Duffrey Gate to the north-west of the town. Other key points included the bridge that spanned the Slaney, the castle and the marketplace. Snowe considered and placed his troops where he felt they would do the most good in the coming fight: the militia at the bridge where he expected the main enemy advance, the yeomanry at the gate, and a mixture of what remained at the other two. The civilian volunteers were less firmly placed, scattered in the streets of the town in wherever they could find shelter, there to harass any advancing enemy.
His plan was probably made from a realist perspective: in the face of the advancing thousands, the chances that his men would be able to repel an attack on the walls were minimal, if the attacker had any intelligence at all. All it would take would be to split the attacking force in two and advance from different directions, and the outer defence would be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The Slaney too was at a lower tide than usual, and easily forded. Snow seemingly banked on his force’s chances of hitting the enemy hardest after they gained entry to the town, as they attacked places like the castle or the market, all while dealing with fire from every other house and building. If his men could maintain their discipline and rate of fire, they could wear down the inexperienced rebels down and force them out. It was not a foolhardy or overly-ambitious plan: as we have seen already, giant forces of rebels had routinely been defeated by much smaller, organised government troops that had something to defend, even if it was just a walled home. Even with an absence of cavalry and artillery – things that would have proved crucial – Snowe did not have an unreasonable chance of inflicting enough damage on the rebels that they might think better of an attack. He still felt he needed to split his army up though.
Imagine Snowe surprise then when, on the morning of 28th of May, he was informed from outposts that the rebel army was advancing on Enniscorthy in a single mass, approaching the Duffrey Gate. Flush with success and merging with other rebel forces in the locality, this United Irishman army now must have numbered over 5’000, and had a slight advantage over some of their compatriots in that their stated leader, John Murphy, was an educated man with at least a partial grasp of military tactics and strategy. He wanted Enniscorthy captured, as its fall would only grow his own cause and leave the entirety of the County at the rebels’ mercy.
The initial fighting was quick and vicious. The yeomanry at the gate formed up just outside it and were drawn into a firefight with those advanced elements of the rebels who had arms themselves. For once, it was the government forces that came out worse in such an exchange, the rebels making good use of natural cover on the approach to the town to make themselves a less conspicuous target. Then, the master stroke: a large herd of cattle and horses sent scurrying forward from the main body of the rebels, driven on in panic by the sound of the guns. What was left of the yeomanry defenders were forced backwards in the face of such an unorthodox attack, and soon the battle had become one of desperate hand-to-hand in the streets and alleys of Enniscorthy.
Snowe, commanding the militia at the bridge, received word of the northerly setback and immediately moved his men in that direction, only to have to rapidly re-trace his steps when he got word that the bridge was subject to its own attack. The rebels had split into two groups after all, and Snowe got back to the bridge only just in time. A lengthier firefight broke out, with Snowe later claiming his men fired 30 rounds in 15 minutes, and incredible rate of fire for a militia group of the time, if true. The fighting raged back and forth now, as the government troops attempted to withstand constant rebel charges, the United Irishmen attempting to level the gap between their forward ranks and the enemy guns, so that weapons like the pike could be suitably employed.
After a few hours of fighting Snowe had lost half his garrison and large sections of the town were on fire, rebel troops wading through the Slaney to avoid the defenders and infiltrate the streets. In desperation, Snowe and his militia carried out successive and costly charges against the enemy facing the, attempting to put the rebels in flight with a show of the bayonet, briefly dislodging the enemy from the height just to the east of the town that would go on to be a place of vital importance: Vinegar Hill. Having won a short breathing space, Snowe rapidly turned around and led his men into the melee within Enniscorthy, and drove the rebels back northward from the base of the marketplace.
It was all for naught. Losing men at every turn and with the rebels showing no sign of breaking – a testament either to their courage or leadership that day, as other rebel armies had broken due to lesser resistance – Snowe ordered a retreat, heading south on the road to Wexford Town. Snowe insisted later that the retreat was planned and executed carefully. But more local accounts insist it was a tired and bedraggled affair, with officers removing their insignia in case of capture, which occurred much to the horror of the Protestant locals, who were being left to their fate. Some of the townspeople hurriedly fled with the remnants of the army, even as the rebels made their final advance into a now undefended Enniscorthy. Casualties for both sides are hard to ascertain: at least 90 of the defenders were killed outright, with probably the same number injured. The rebels may have lost anywhere between 250 to 600.
Snowe has received some criticism for his conduct during the course of the battle, but shy of just giving up Enniscorthy without a fight, it’s not clear to me what more he could have done with the forces at his command. Perhaps if his militia had been at the gate, they might have been able to slow the advance from that direction to a greater extent, but then it would have been the yeomanry trying to stem the rebel assault at the bridge, with little likelihood of success. In the end, with the rebels’ resolve steadied by their previous success and by the leadership of men like John Murphy, they provided themselves capable of maintaining a prolonged attack, utilising their key advantage of numerical superiority. Snowe, for his turn, actually held Enniscorthy longer than he might reasonably have expected to, and with nor relief force coming to him, he was left with a choice of retreating or fighting to the last man. His troops, militia and yeomanry, were not going to sacrifice themselves for no reason.
The fall of Enniscorthy sent shockwaves through the rest of Wexford, especially Wexford Town, whose leaders now began to fully grasp the size of the task in front of them. Even as Snowe maintained an ill-disciplined retreat in that direction, thought was being taken for unpalatable next moves. The rebels, celebrating another success, were in no mood to stop the advance.
Unbeknownst to most of them, things had turned against the United Irishmen to the north.
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