We must return now to the situation in Kildare. The rebellion had started in earnest there, with the cross-county uprisings that had seen the United Irishmen take numerous towns and important centres, largely with the acquiescence’s of local commander, General Ralph Dundas, who had ordered the majority of government forces in the county to retreat to Naas.
A few days later, and both nothing and everything had changed. The British forces remained confined in Kildare, and the rebels held the majority of the county. But a large proportion of the rebels had lost the will to keep the fighting going. Having won their early success, now they had no direction: there was no national leadership, no march on Dublin being organised, and no sign that the rest of the country was joining them. The news of Tara Hill would have been a blow, the North was quiet, Munster and Connacht had no active movements, and even the news coming from Wexford would have been confused if it came at all. All the while, rebel groups stayed in their camps – the main ones being Knockallen Hill, Gibbet Rath, Timahoe and Blackmore Hill – with reducing supplies, little arms and precious little in the way of active leadership. Moreover, the few who had come face to face with the guns of organised resistance, such as at Kilcullen Bridge, knew that the task in front of them was still enormous, early success or not. Most, it must be remembered, were peasants of little education or military experience.
Dundas, a man much criticised for his decision to retreat on May24th, was of a mind to tap into the growing feeling within the rebel camp. He sought a way to end the violence as peacefully as possible, which meant the rebels surrendering their positions and their arms, on terms of non-persecution. When a deputation from the Knockallen Hill camp, not far from Dundas’ own estates, reached him seeking terms, Dundas was willing to listen.
By the time news of these talks reached Camden and General Lake in Dublin, it was too late to do anything about it. They were disgusted at the idea of negotiation with rebels who had already killed soldiers, and so was a larger proportion of the political class in Dublin. The Lord Lieutenant wanted unconditional surrender and the arrest of leaders. Camden hurriedly sent Lake, the commander-in-chief, to Dundas to put a stop to anything else, but Dundas had already come to an arrangement with the rebels of the Knockallen camp by the time his superior arrived. The rebels would stack their arms and go home, and Lake was obligated to respect this arrangement, which was carried through on the last days of May, barely a week after the rebellion had started. Protections were offered, and Dundas was pleased. He soon moved to begin the same pattern with the next camp, that at Gibbet Rath, not far from the Curragh.
Unfortunately, events then overtook Dundas’ clemency, as the government forces too became victims of miscommunication. The rebellion had never broken out in Munster, but the province had to weather a total lack of communication from Dublin due to the stopping of the mail coaches and the cutting of the roads. Such situations lent themselves to rumours and speculation, and fears of insurrection were everywhere. Paralyzed, the garrison in Cork stood fast and awaited developments. In Limerick, General Sir James Duff, the local commander, decided to be a bit more pro-active. Organising a force of roughly 350 militia infantry, 60 cavalry and a small unit of field artillery, he marched out of the city, aiming straight for Kildare. He made remarkable time, and was marching into the smoking wreck of Kildare Town only two days later.
The sight did not do much for Duff’s mood. One of the dead soldiers found there was the son of a respected officer in Duff’s column, which enraged the entire force. Hearing about the rebel camp at Gibbet Rath, Duff steered his small army straight for it, unaware of Dundas’ negotiations.
The rebels there were several thousand strong, but through the help of Protestant intermediaries were close to making a final deal with Dundas on much the same terms as those offered previously. A final deal may have been just a few moments away when Duff’s column suddenly advanced on the rebel rear-guard. What happened next is, predictably, unclear. Duff insisted his men were fired upon and then defended themselves, and that he could not rein in the “rage of the troops”. The Gibbet Rath site was a coverless plain, and the rebels there, ready to surrender, were easy pickings for the militia and dragoons. 350 people were killed before order was restored, with even the Protestant negotiators targeted, mistakenly. Duff claimed three of his soldiers were killed. The rest of the rebels scattered. What Dundas thought of all this goes unrecorded, but we can easily presume he was horrified.
Duff marched on to Dublin the next day, where he received praise for his actions. Dundas’ policy was immensely unpopular in the eyes of the Ascendency, who were out for blood, and the massacre was exactly what many of them wanted. Camden was left with no way to win: Dundas’ policy was best for the country but politically unpopular, while Duff’s impromptu actions made his government look weak. He remained largely ineffective in Dublin Castle, and a proper strategic plan for countering the rebellion nationwide remained lacking.
Much the same process repeated itself at Ballitore, not far from the Wicklow border. Rebels held the village, but, with the help of local Quaker elements, they now sought surrender terms from the commander of the nearby Athy garrison. That commander was willing to accept this, provided arms were surrendered by a set time. The rebels vacillated, and a new deal was agreed whereby the rebels would send hostages as a show of good faith. Then, suddenly, elements of the Carlow garrison, totally ignorant of these negotiations, attacked the village, whose rebel population quickly scattered. The Carlow men, informed of the negotiations, left, only for the Athy garrison, the deadline passed, to march in from the other direction. Between the two forces, much of the village was ruined and numerous civilians killed. Again, the possibility of a peaceful cessation was destroyed by lack of communication between different arms of the same army.
The fighting continued in other parts of Kildare while all of this was going on, with the most notable clashes occurring in and around the village of Rathangan to the north-west, not from the border of Offaly. It was held by rebels: on the morning of the 28th a small section of the Tullamore garrison attacked, but was beaten off with the loss of nine men, out of 80. The rebels used the urban cover of the village to their advantage, largely nullifying the advantages of the cavalry in the narrow streets. Later that day, a larger force of militia marching from Dublin – apparently without any explicit orders to do so from higher-ups, but largely on the initiative of their own leadership –with artillery, attacked from the opposite direction. The cannon sent the rebels flying, and the cavalry did the rest. Maybe 60 people in the village were killed, to no loss for the government.
These episodes demonstrate the scattershot “strategy” being employed to counter the rebels in Kildare. On the one hand, commanders tried to negotiate. On the other, commanders kept the fighting going, and the British left hand rarely knew what its right was doing. The result was a calamitous mishmash of policy. Hopes that the rebels would surrender peacefully were largely dashed by events like Gibbet Rath and Ballitore. Why would they now surrender on terms, when it seemed as if such agreements were merely preludes to slaughter?
Yes, the British were gradually forcing the rebels out of Kildare’s towns and villages, restoring control over the county and strangling the United movements in the rest of the midlands. But thousands of rebels remained unaccounted for, many now retreating to the relative safety of bog and mountain, like the wood-kerne’s of old. The horrible possibility of a protracted guerrilla struggle was now very real. It could have been avoided. If men like Dundas had gone after the rebels with everything at their disposal from the start, the United Irishmen might have been completely crushed in just a few days. If men like Duff, Lake and Camden had gone along with a policy of negotiation cooling down tensions, the United Irishmen in Kildare might well have just laid down their arms and gone home without any more blood being spilled. Instead, both policies were pursued at different times, at different places, by different men, with the nominal people in authority watching on, mute-like, as the rebellion continued and expanded.
It is back to where the rebellion is now hottest, to Wexford, that we will return next.
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