Even as Camden was departing Dublin for good, Cornwallis was situating himself as the new man in charge, with an initial primary goal of bringing the rebellion to an end, that was to be expanded into a larger objective of settling the political problems in Ireland once that was done. Things were rocky right from the off: Cornwallis was determined to act differently to the incompetent and ineffective Camden, and largely ignored the established administration as he went about his business, not consulting the higher-ups of the ascendency on his actions and leaving the management of the Irish Commons to others. Predictably, that brought a great deal of anger from the same men who had so easily kept Camden under their thumb.
It got worse when it became clear that Cornwallis was in no way interested in a bloody conclusion to a rebellion that was already on its last legs, or so it seemed. Taking a leaf from Dundas, Cornwallis initiated a policy of offering terms in exchange for peaceful surrender, and that was a long way away from actions undertaken by many military commanders in Ireland before that point. Cornwallis was disgusted at the extent of the sectarian nature of reprisal and atrocity, and realised that he could not bring peace to the country if the cycle continued.
Lake, still in Wexford, seemingly thought little of all this, with the thousands of men under his command given largely free reign in Wexford in the days following Vinegar Hill and the taking of Wexford Town. Random killings, only some with the bare semblance of due process, house burnings, rapes and other atrocities were carried out by the victorious militias and yeomanry, with only the likes of Sir John Moore doing anything to rein the troops in. Lake, busy overseeing a raft of executions and preparing for what he must have hoped would be a triumphant first audience with Cornwallis, didn’t really care all that much. The rebellion looked like it had been crushed.
But in that, he was very much mistaken. There were still thousands of United Irishmen still organised, in arms and in the field, who were determined to carry on the fight. For some, that meant a flight to the mountains, bogs and woods to begin an elongated guerrilla struggle. For other, it meant a continuation of more regular tactics. The final tragic chapter of the initial 1798 Rebellion was about to unfold, as numerous columns of rebels undertook desperately long marches through Leinster and beyond, seeking to kick-start the rebellion again.
The first was under Father John Murphy who, the day after the defeat at Vinegar Hill, was leading 5’000 men away from the battlefield and into neighbouring Carlow, with the aim of swinging into the midlands of Kilkenny, then Laois. Small, but successful engagements at Goresbridge and Castlecomer followed, but no additional support appeared at any point in the long circular march, only yeomanry and militia biting at the larger forces heels. The column made it to Laois and then realised their effort was pointless, and determined to head back to their native Wexford. On the way there, they became separated in poor weather, leading to the capture and execution of Murphy, as noted in the last entry.
Under Miles Byrne, this group made contact with another large force of fleeing rebels who had escaped Vinegar Hill, under Anthony Perry, Edward Roche and Edward FitzGerald of Newpark. This column had already had their own engagements, attacking a yeomanry garrison in the small town of Hacketstown on the 25th of June, from where they were repulsed with loss, the rebels still unable to properly mount an attack on a well defended position.
From there, the focus was switched to the town of Carnew, where the rebels hoped to augment their largely diminished stock of weapons and powder. The rebel attack there went much the same way as Hacketstown, with the United party unable to make any headway against a well defended position. But, they did a gain a success in the process, when they successfully ambushed a cavalry detachment that had been pursuing them near Ballyeilis, leaving over 40 horsemen dead before the government retreated.
The government armies, amounting to tens of thousands still, were closing in all the while, seeking to manoeuvre around and trap this column of rebels, which might have numbered somewhere in the region of six or so thousand. Running out of options, and finding little to keep them going in Wexford, the fateful decision was taken to leave Wexford again, this time to head into Wicklow. After a brief, stalemated engagement at Ballygullen, where the United pike drove off cavalry but had to withdraw in the face of infantry attack, the remaining Wexford rebels in arms left their native county again.
By the 6th of July, this column had made camp at a stony position inside Wicklow called Whelp Rock, where it amalgamated with another force of rebels under Joseph Holt, who later claimed that over 13’000 men were mustered there. It was on Whelp Rock that the larger course of what to do was determined. A council of war, consisting of 25 leading members of what was left, debated and voted on two different options.
Holt argued forcefully that the combined rebel army should attack the Wicklow town of Newtownmountkennedy, capture its powder and artillery, move on and liberate Wicklow Town and then march on the capital itself. He argued that, with so much of the governments forces still in Wexford, the Wicklow targets and Dublin were largely undefended, and would prove to be much easier objectives than the places the rebels had tried to hit between Vinegar Hill and then.
He was opposed by Father Mogue Kearns, who argued instead that the army should attempt, once again, to get the rebellion going elsewhere, by marching from Wicklow into Kildare, there to join up with another rebel force at Timahoe, before continuing a march northward, possibly with the end goal of attacking the vital garrison at Athlone.
It is easy to look back and critique these plans with the benefit of hindsight, but in truth neither seems like a very viable option for success. Holt was arguing for a series of frontal assaults on garrisons and towns, not least Dublin, when the rebels had proved themselves incapable of carrying out such operations time and again, even against the smallest garrisons. It is likely that such attempts would have failed again, and even if they had succeeded, Holt seemed to be operating on the principle that Lake would just stay in Wexford and not intercept the rebels if they came in any way close to Dublin.
As for Kearns, his plan had already been tried by Murphy, and it hadn’t worked then. The rebellion had petered out in Kildare and Meath, and had never really gotten started outside of those areas, barring the brief combat in Ulster. The local people there wanted no part of the United actions: not because they did not sympathise with the rebel cause, but because they seemed to have no chance of success. Association with the United Irishmen now was risking a summary execution with the government invariably re-asserted control.
When the argument was put to a vote of those present, Kearns narrowly won out, perhaps because his clerical influence was stronger. Holt was bitterly disappointed by this result, and criticised the decision to the end of his days. Kearns, with Perry, essentially led the army from that point on. On the 9th of July, they packed up and left Whelp Rock, heading for the open country of Kildare.
What should the rebels have done? Exactly what others in Kildare had already done, and were still doing, which was to mass numbers in a defensible spot, and then negotiate a peaceful surrender on terms. Not with Lake, who could not be trusted with such matters, but Cornwallis, who so desired a final end to the fighting. The leadership of the rebels at Whelp Rock seem to have not really considered this option at all, and their continued resistance in the face of inevitable defeat fits into romantic narratives rather well. But it wasn’t practical, and simply increased the death toll of the rebellion for zero strategic gain. I’m sure the rebels, some of them anyway, really did believe that they could get the people to join their cause if they just kept going, and it would not be the last time that Irish republicans held that belief. But it was not true.
Soon enough, Kearns’ army had crossed into Kildare, going through the Curragh plains towards Timohoe. There, they would find United allies, but also disappointment.
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