The fall of Enniscorthy had radically altered the situation in Wexford. Where once a large, but undisciplined, mob had threatened the north of the county, now they suddenly held one of its biggest towns, and were gaining additional numbers and arms at an alarming rate. On numerous occasions the government forces had been beaten, and panic was the order of the day throughout the south-east.
None more so than in the county town itself, where the influx of refugees brought with it every rumour and fear imaginable. But Wexford Town had its strengths. It had decent walls, access to the north was blocked by the sea and the River Slaney, and the garrison was sizable enough in the circumstances, consisting of over a thousand militia and civilian volunteers, with additional artillery support. Further, a relief column consisting of additional regular troops and more artillery, was winding its way to the town, commanded by a General Fawcett, marching from Duncannon Fort. Barricades were placed at crucial points and at gateways, thatch was removed from roofs. By all indicates, Wexford Town gave the impression that it was readying for a fight.
Fawcett’s men had reached a point around 12 or so miles to the west when a succession of disasters struck that would again shift the state of things in Wexford. For some reason, his artillery, guarded by only 70 militia, marched on ahead of the main column, seemingly without orders to do so. As night was beginning to fall, a few miles from the town, they were ambushed at a place called Three Rocks, an outcropping that overhung the road. A large force of waiting pikemen engulfed the hapless government soldiery, and most of the militia and artillery officers were killed.
Worse was to come. The following day part of the Wexford Town garrison sallied out to meet up with the oncoming relief column, and just narrowly managed to avoid being ambushed in the same place, forewarned where the others had not been. But the commander of the Wexford garrison, a Lieutenant-Colonel Jonas Watson, was killed in the encounter, sending morale within the town into a tailspin. And worse still, Fawcett thought better of his advance when he learned what had happened at Three Rocks, and matched his men back to the safety of Duncannon. Wexford Town was, for all intents and purposes, on its own.
A bitter debate ensued. The garrison could stand and fight, but would be badly outnumbered, now commanded by an inexperienced militia colonel. The militia themselves could not be entirely relied upon. The danger of being overwhelmed, or of falling victim to a suspected fifth column among the civilian population, was great. Food was low. On the other hand, they could evacuate the town, and as many people as they could, before the incoming rebel army reached them.
To that end, the authorities in charge of Wexford Town turned to the two men that were currently incarcerated in the gaol: Bagenal Harvey, John Colclough and Edward FitzGerald of New Park. Considered to be among the top brass of the United Irishmen, they were used as intermediaries to make contact with the rebel army, so that Wexford could sue for terms, or at least buy precious time before an attack. Harvey was not gung-ho about the prospect of being the spokesman or leader of the movement, not exactly being the type to lead a military revolution. But now, that exact role was being thrust upon him whether he liked it or not.
In the days that followed, the garrison in Wexford Town began to disintegrate, as elements of the yeomanry deserted and others made ready to retreat south. When that retreat was made, it was in a great deal of disorder. Refugees flooded the roads with the soldiers, while others made desperate attempts to escape by sea, not exactly aided by the large amount of Catholic fishermen with rebel sympathies.
The rebels marched into Wexford on the 31st of May, and the scene quickly became one of looting and indiscriminate firing. Loyalist civilians hunkered down and prayed that the storm would pass. Numerous Protestant men were instantly imprisoned in the soon over-crowded gaol. Desperate, some Protestants “converted” to Catholicism in the face of rebel threats, often aided and abetted by priests who engaged in such sham acts in order to try and save lives. It was a dangerous time, as 15’000 armed men and women congregated in the streets, drinking copiously wherever they could find it and sleeping out in the open.
With Harvey now freed, the rebels moved towards something resembling a more concrete form, that some have since dubbed “the Republic of Wexford”. Bagenal Harvey, now freed, was pushed into the role of General, essentially becoming the commander-in-chief of the new entity, with Edward FitzGerald of New Park and John Colclough as his colonels. The three attempted to hammer together the rebel forces, which mostly involved attempts to prevent outrages being perpetrated on Protestants and Protestant property. A new town governor and guard was appointed for this task, a rudimentary navy was formed from captured boats, while Harvey and others formed an entity akin to French Revolutionary Committees of Public Safety, to try and regulate the seizure of foodstuffs, procurement of weapons, and prosecution of those deemed enemies of the cause.
This mostly consisted of imprisoning prominent loyalists, as much for their safety as anything else. The rebel army remained, in large part, a mob that could not be properly controlled. Several days into the occupation of the town, “formal” executions began to take place, which mostly consisted of revenge killings against those deemed to have aided the authorities in the prosecution of Catholics. Some were piked, others were shot. It was all Harvey could do to rein in the intentions of the more bloodthirsty element within the United forces, who were intent less on a regime change than on a total overturning of society’s structures.
He also had to look to the future. Despite his total lack of military experience, he agreed to take command of the rebels in the field, perhaps in the hopes that in doing so he could restrain the most powerful part of the rebel structure, and immediately set his sights on the next major urban centre in the country, the town of New Ross, which guarded the road into Waterford. The majority of the rebel army, once it could be persuaded to leave the streets of Wexford, would head in that direction.
But there was also the north to worry about, and the possibility of government troops marching against Wexford through Wicklow. Indeed, though the rebels did not know it, and the government did not know about the fall of Wexford yet, General Lake has sent a small force marching along the east coast with the exact purpose of providing security to Wicklow and then striking into Wexford. While Harvey was busy trying to subjugate the south – or, as some believe, attempting to create favourable conditions for a surrender – he sent men northward to guard against this possibility.
The first contingent, under a priest named Father Mogue Kearns, headed north-west to try and secure the county frontier, targeting the town of Newtownbarry that lay close to the point where Wexford, Wickow and Carlow meet. Using nearby high ground and captured artillery from Three Rocks, they forced the garrison to evacuate over the Slaney. The bloodless seizure of Newtownbarry led to celebrations from the released rebels, who failed to adequately clear the town as they marched in. A combination of yeomanry left behind who opened fire from concealed positions, and an unexpected counterattack from the suddenly emboldened garrison, combined to send the rebels flying. 400 United Irishmen may have fallen there. Sometimes dubbed the Battle of Bunclody, the name Newtownbarry took on post-Irish Independence, the event was one of the first serious repulses the United Irishmen suffered in Wexford.
The other contingent, under men like Father John Murphy and Anthony Perry, was moving more directly north, towards Wicklow proper, and it was hoped they might threaten the town and garrison of Gorey in the process. Opposing them was that small force sent by Lake, around 250 men under a General Loftus, and an additional 400, with some artillery, under one of Camden’s aides, a Colonel Walpole. Walpole, an eager, but inexperienced, young man, wanted to lead an attack on the rebels as soon as possible, much to the irritation of the older, wiser, Loftus. He wanted to bide his time a bit, assemble some more men from local garrisons, and then encircle the rebel force congregating at Ballymore Hill, not far from Gorey.
In order to do this, Loftus took a risk and split his combined army in two, he himself taking the coast road, while Walpole would lead others down paths inland, through the countryside. The two would thus approach Ballymore from either side, hitting the rebels with a pincer movement. It was hoped that forces from Newtownbarry, marching from there, would complete the encirclement. The rebels would be forced back by one arm, and then be destroyed by the other.
A grand plan, that all went wrong. Loftus reluctantly sent the majority of the men and horse available to him with Walpole, including three vital pieces of artillery. Despite being ordered not to engage the rebels alone, and to report any such contacts, Walpole impetuously pushed on to the rebel position unsupported. Despite warnings from his subordinates and sighting of rebel scout parties on his flanks, Walpole marched on too quickly, and blundered into an ambush, caught in a defile near a place called Tuberneering. Murphy and Perry had decided to be pro-active. Just as at Three Rocks, the fighting was brief and decisive: 100 government troops fell, the cavalry was unable to manoeuvre, and the rest escaped back the way they came. Walpole was killed, and the artillery captured.
Loftus was forced to withdraw, and Gorey fell into rebel hands shortly afterwards. Garrisons like that at Arklow further to the north were left to their own devices. Lake desperetly wanted to march southwards himself, but Camden, ever fearful of a direct rebel attack on Dublin, refused to let him. Camden wasn’t entirely wrong in his reasoning: with the defeat near Gorey, a huge portion of Wicklow was open to rebel attack, and Dublin would surely have come after.
The events at Wexford Town, Newtownbarry and Tuberneering again demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. The government had the arms, the trained men and the artillery, and at times this could prove decisive, such as when their men retook Newtownbarry with little loss, sending the inexperienced and easily driven rebels to flight. But at others, the benefits of having decent leaders in charge of rebels forces, in comparisons to nitwits in uniform on the British side, was obvious. At Tuberneering, as in several other Wexford locations thus far in the fighting, the Irish attacked aggressively and with commitment, and won an important victory. The men at Dublin Castle, only just starting to realise the depth of the task facing them, would have to radically alter their strategy, especially with the largest contingent bearing down on the town of New Ross.
And there were other problems too. Up to now, the rebellion had been mercifully confined to three counties and a smattering of fighting in a few others. But the north, where the United Irishman movement had first begun, was about to join in.
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