Bagenal Harvey’s army had retreated back to its nearby camp on Carrickbyrne Hill following the devastating defeat at New Ross. It was from there that Harvey departed back to Wexford Town, essentially ceding his position as commander-in-chief of the rebel forces, disgusted by the overall military situation and the atrocities being carried out in the rebellions name.
The new boss was a priest named Philip Roche. He was a broad shouldered man from the middle of the county, who had once been admonished by a bishop for supposed “debauchery”. While his military experience was certainly in question, his authority was not, he being one of many priests to take leading roles in the Wexford rebellion.
While his army was still disintegrating due to casualties incurred and an endless tide of deserters, Roche still wanted to take to the offensive, just in a different way to before. Even while General Johnson in New Ross was hurriedly preparing for what many thought to be an inevitable second attack on the town, the rebels were undergoing what we might call a “strategic reset” today, eschewing direct frontal assaults on fortified positions in favour of something more mobile and loose, the Irish falling back to the guerrilla warfare tactics of their ancestors.
Roche sent several raiding parties out from his main force, with the intention of striking smaller targets, disrupting enemy supply lines and communications, and causing as much havoc as they could. The Wexford reels desperately needed a victory of any kind, and these raids gave them one, with a successful attack on a British gunboat not far from Duncannon Fort, which also yielded a stash of government correspondence pertaining to the local fighting. The rebels wouldn’t be able to make much of this intelligence coup, beyond what they already knew anyway, but the larger success showed what they were still capable of. Another raid to Borris, on the border of Wexford and Carlow, with half an intention to try and inflame a further rebellion in that neighbouring county, was less successful, beaten off by a determined garrison.
While all of that was going on, there was still the northern operations to consider. The victory at Tuberneering had left a large portion of Wicklow, along the coast, open to attack, as the small government garrisons withdrew to the safer environs of Dublin. It is not inconceivable that, with the forces they had to hand, the rebels could have extended their territory a long way up the eastern coast, and from there to threaten Dublin directly.
That army was a giant, disjointed force, which, with camp followers included in the total, might have numbered somewhere in the region of 20’000 men, women and even children. Much like Harvey’s difficulties, controlling and administering such a vast force would be a supremely difficult task, in this case entrusted to the command of several men. Among them was Father Michael Murphy, whom we have briefly mentioned before in relation to his presence at Oulart a little earlier in the fighting, and Anthony Perry, the local gentleman and land-owner who had been arrested by the authorities just before the outbreak of the rebellion, brutally tortured, and then released. Despite being forced to give names to the government, he had reported to Vinegar Hill to take part in the growing rising. These men and a few others now had the chance to drive northwards and seriously endanger Camden’s position in the capital.
But this did not occur. Though they had taken the town of Gorey, the rebels took several critical days to get moving again, and in that time some gumption returned to the government, who re-occupied the strategically crucial town of Arklow. The delay was due to many factors: trying to keep the army fed by foraging in the surrounding areas, trying to find more arms and maintain the ones already found, and trying to obtain more gunpowder and share it out properly. The last point was particularly important. While many of the rebels had found themselves muskets during the righting, there was only a pitiful supply of actual powder to give out to them, and so inexperienced were the soldiers that they often had to take it loose from the barrels, instead of the usual fashion of keeping it enclosed in paper cartridges.
The delay was also down to a certain aimlessness in strategy. While it might seem obvious in retrospect that Dublin should have been an eventual target, it must be remembered that the rising was supposed to be a nationwide effort, and that Wexford was supposed to be just one piece of that. The remaining higher-ups knew that their initial task was to seize control of the county – that had been done, to an extent – and then support neighbouring counties, or be supported by them. But the rebellion in other counties had either ground to halt or was in the process of being completely subjugated, and Wexford was suddenly the only game in town, at least when it came to Leinster.
On June 7th the army was finally on the move, but even then they took a circuitous route north, stopping at the village of Carnew so that some scores could be settled over the atrocities that took place there, Perry allegedly leading. Discipline, as ever, was an issue for the United Irishmen, and by the time the force got within striking distance of Arklow, they had discovered the reality of its re-garrisoning. If the rebels had moved faster, they could potentially have taken Arklow and surrounding villages without firing a shot.
Arklow was a well-fortified town and, at the time, was built with its back to the River Avoca. But what would have been a natural extension to the defences of other towns was not so much at Arklow, as the Avoca was a commonly shallow river, easily fordable in the summertime. The suggestion was made that the rebels could bypass Arklow entirely by fording the river upstream and then continuing north, which was practical. Wicklow Town was still ahead, and after than Dublin. But the United Irishmen still had no clear idea what they were doing really – raising rebellion in Wicklow, capturing towns, advancing on Dublin? – and this lack of a clear agreed strategic goal mean that rational action was difficult to arrive at.
Instead, the loose amount of commanders at the top of this northern Wexford army decided to keep things simple, and to attack Arklow from the front, at numerous points so as to swamp the defenders. Those defenders, commanded by another American veteran, General Francis Needham, were sizable enough, with 1’700 men in total, including some regular troops, artillery and cavalry. But they were still surprised by the numbers that suddenly came swarming down upon them from the south on the 9th of June, carrying green flags inscribed with the words “Liberty Or Death”.
But, surprised or not, the defences were in decent shape, with Needham having entrenchments dug on the southern side of the town, and his artillery set-up behind. Now, just as at New Ross, devastating grapeshot blasts tore holes in the advancing rebel lines, before musket fire added to the carnage. Two rebel columns threw themselves at the defences.
Their courage could not be doubted, but their effectiveness certainly could. There was one, brief, breakthrough, when some pikemen advancing by the seashore got in behind the defences and set part of Arklow alight, but they were quickly thrown back by a sudden cavalry charge. Just as in New Ross, the cavalry then went too far and suffered on the ends of pikes for their trouble.
Attacking at other areas, the rebels took shelter in ditches and behind hedges, but could not progress against the defensive line Needham had directed. The British right flank was keenly contested in particular, with accounts recording that the United men came within a few yards of the cannon before being forced back. Needham had the intelligence to place his force of regular infantry on this right flank, and though the rebels spent several hours assaulting it, they could make no breakthrough. Having begun the attack in the late evening, the rebels were put to flight just before nightfall, leaving Michael Murphy behind, he killed while leading an assault on that right flank. The government forces, running short on ammunition and presumably fearful of being ambushed in the failing light, did not pursue. Somewhere in the region of 300 rebels fell at Arklow, in exchange for a 100 or so government casualties.
While not as devastating in casualty terms as New Ross had been, the repulse was still a serious setback, and the entire campaign leading up to the attack had demonstrated rebel weaknesses in leadership, organisation, arms and supplies. The rebels fell back, with cartloads of wounded to care for, to Gorey, there to reappraise. The rebels had suffered two devastating defeats within a matter of days, on either side of the county. They were now forced on the defensive. In Wexford it would now be the government going on the attack.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.