On the 10th of July, the Wexford army of the United Irishmen arrived at the camp of their Kildare brethren, at Timohoe in the Bog of Allen. They hoped to find succour, reinforcement and fresh impetus to raise both Kildare and the surrounding counties, the entire purpose for their desperate march out of the south-east.
But instead, they found a fellow rebel army on the brink of throwing in the towel. Commanded by William Aylmar, what remained of the Kildare United Irishmen had been reeling from the defeat at Ovidstown, and had already sent several weekends thrashing out terms of surrender with the government authorities, in line with the surrender of the other Kildare camps previous in the rebellion. That final laying down of arms in return for protection was near, and Aylmar was none too impressed with Mogue Kearns’ men or his plan, deeming it impossible to carry out with their limited amount of supplies and arms. Aylmar and his men flat-out refused to join Kearns in his ambitious operation.
Worse still, a section of Kearns men, under Edward FitzGerald of Newpark, detached from the Wexford army and threw in their lot with Aylmar. They had never been fully on-board with Kearns since the choice at Whelp Rock, and now decided that it would be better to seek and accept reasonable terms. The day after their arrival, Kearns led his further depleted force onwards. The Kildare army, and FitzGerald, eventually finished their peaceful surrender on the 21st.
The Wexford men marched on to the north, coming to the border with Meath. Numbering anywhere between 2’000 or 10’000 men depending on who you believe, they were now badly under-supplied and exhausted, having covered a remarkable distance in only a few days. Kearns pressed onwards, and sought to cross the Boyne River via the bridge at Clonard, a small town not too far from the border with Westmeath and Kildare.
The bridge was defended by a small number of armed locals, centred around the loyalist Tyrell family, who owned a number of buildings near the bridge, from which they set up a defensive position. They were remarkably outnumbered, but had a surplus of skill with firearms, and with the added benefit of walls to place themselves behind, determined to effect a resistance to any rebel crossing of the river. Kearns ordered an attack, and for six dreadful hours on the 11th of July, the United army attempted to storm the Tyrell household.
Despite their overwhelming advantage in numbers, the rebels were unable to secure either the household or the bridge, perhaps due to the likelihood that their final gunpowder supplies had now disappeared. Accurate and deadly fire from the defenders, some of them stationed in a tower that had built not too long ago in the event of a rebel attack, inflicted terrible casualties on the advancing infantry. They were able, eventually, to take and fire that tower, but the overall capture of the buildings next to the bridge was beyond them. When a small amount of mounted yeomanry reinforcements approached the scene of the fighting, the rebels retreated back the way they had come. Around 160 of them fell at Clonard, the last significant engagement of this phase of 1798.
Fleeing back into Kildare, another split occurred among the United army, as the majority of the Wicklow-based rebels now decided to head back to their homes, if they could, leaving Kearns with only a small remnant of the force that had assembled at Whelp Rock. Numerous branches of the government military – regular cavalry, yeoman infantry and suddenly assembled armed groups of militia – were now streaming to the region, and Kearns’ men were soon involved in repeated small-scale engagements. Heading first east and then north, the army began to break up as the slower and more exhausted struggled to keep pace with the others, and government forces happily swooped in to kill or capture such unfortunates. What limited supplies that the rebels still had with them were also easy prey.
Yet still they kept going, still hoping to find somewhere where the spirit of the rebellion could still be stoked, briefly crossing the border into County Louth, before being repulsed by an enemy force at Knightstown Bog on the 13th of July. It was there, at the conclusion of a march that had gone beyond 400 miles in the course of a few weeks, that the final desperate disintegration of the rebel army occurred, as what remained of its leadership either ordered or did not try to stop their men breaking out in all directions, in an attempt to avoid the massing government artillery, that would surely have blown them all to pieces if they had remained where they were.
For some days afterwards, the government cavalry was busy tracking down groups of rebel fighters, varying in size from a handful to over 300, that were simply trying to escape detection and capture, no longer in any capable state when it came to fighting a war. Some would make it back to Wexford, and some would find new lives for themselves among locals in Meath and Kildare who took them in and hid them from the government pursuit. But many would be found and either be killed on the spot or taken as prisoners, to await an uncertain fate of execution or deportment to British colonies in the southern hemisphere. Kearns and William Perry, the nominal leaders, stayed together and avoided arrest for over a week, but were eventually found, tried for treason and executed rapidly, by hanging.
Kearns’ plan was hideously ambitious, and flew in the face of the actual reality playing out all around him. The situation at Timahoe should have provided all the proof that he needed that the rebellion was essentially finished: those still in arms were not in a position to continue the fight, and the local people were no longer going to rise up. But still Kearns and the others pressed on, to their final destruction not all too far from the border of Cavan, having strayed all-around the south-east and the midlands in those terrible last few weeks. In what few recognisable engagements that were fought, the rebels were easily bested, with the repulse at Clonard, when the United Irishmen may have outnumbered their opponents over a hundred to one, one of the last examples of rebel inability to successfully assault well defended fortified positions.
In the end, Kearns failed in both his main objective – of reinvigorating the rebellion – and in secondary ones like in the engagement at Clonard or any subsequent encounter with the government. While one cannot question the determination or bravery of those Wexford men who doggedly held their shape and clung on all the way to the final skirmish at Knightstown, the wisdom or necessity of the entire campaign can certainly be examined critically, in relation to its slim likelihood of success in exchange for so many needless casualties.
With the end of this campaign, it seemed like the end of the 1798 rebellion. There remained guerrilla bands operating in the Wicklow Mountains, and the tiresome task of dealing with the mountain of captured rebels now kicking their heels in overcrowded and poorly maintained prisons. But Cornwallis, having only just taken up his new position in Dublin, could well be satisfied that the fighting in Ireland was over.
Naturally enough, he was wrong.
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