Ireland’s Wars: Guerrilla Days After 1798

With the end of the rebellion came the chance to enact a lasting political settlement in Ireland, in order to try and counteract the perceived inadequacies of the Irish Parliament and prevent another violent uprising. Both Cornwallis and Pitt wanted the proposed union of Ireland and Britain into one Kingdom to include the emancipation of the Irish Catholic underclass, but unsurprisingly this notion was opposed vehemently by Ireland’s ruling elite, who were in no mood to be generous after the rebellion, and were as unwilling to acknowledge their own culpability in Catholic dissatisfaction as they were before 1798.

In the end, in no small part due to King George’s refusal to contemplate it, the union process went ahead without Catholic emancipation, much to the disgust of Cornwallis, whose tenure in Ireland became increasingly disagreeable to him as time went on. The Lord Lieutenant’s unwillingness to tow the Ascendency line made him unpopular, and his political efforts to insure the Act of Union was passed – essentially that the Irish Parliament would willingly vote for its own dissolution – amounted to officially sanctioned bribery and patronage, Cornwallis describing some members of the Ascendency as “the most corrupt people under heaven”. He would leave Ireland in 1801, a few months after the Act of Union came into being.

He left a country still rife with dissension and low-level violence, with the bloodshed of 1798 continuing for several years afterwards. Beyond agrarian agitation being revisited or reprisal raids led by loyalist groups who felt that previous rebels had not been adequately punished, numerous groups of United Irishmen remained in arms, having retreated into forests, mountainous areas or bogs to avoid government armies, and were thus able to continue the struggle, now in a guerrilla form. Some of these bands would have been little more than bandits taking advantage of the chaos, but others would have been genuinely committed United Irishmen, who were stilling willing and able to fight on. This struggle, much like the Tory War that had characterised the end of the Cromwellian Conquest, was a largely hopeless one, fought as much out of a desire to escape official retribution as it was for the aims of the United Irishmen.

Of these groups, there are three, with notable leaders, that deserve special consideration.

The first was that under Joseph Holt, whom we last left arguing with Mogue Kearns on Whelp Rock. Holt wanted a strategy of targeting nearby towns with an aim of eventually taking a chance on Dublin, while Kearns had insisted upon a march into the midlands seeking to restart the rebellion there. Kearns had won out, and eventually led what was left of his army to disaster. But Holt took his men and did his own thing, though only for a short time.

Holt took his men back into the Wicklow Mountains, a well-used location by Irish guerrilla fighters for centuries, even millennia. From there, he launched hit and run raids, ambushes and carried out other acts of sabotage against the government forces still present in the south-east. His actions were little more than pinpricks to the victorious British forces, but still necessitated a response, with large amounts of troops, regular and militia, sent into the area to try and flush Holt out. But Holt was not to be deterred and evaded capture, utilising the speed and manoeuvrability of his men in the difficult terrain.

But Holt was no die hard, and continued his resistance largely out of a belief that the promised French assistance would radically alter the strategic picture. After the defeats at Ballinamuck and Tory Island, much of Holt’s personal enthusiasm for the struggle waned, and while he stayed active into 1799, he took steps to negotiate a surrender of both himself and the men under his command. In exchange for what was essentially a permanent exile, the authorities accepted Holt’s surrender, and he left Ireland, along with his family, travelling to New South Wales. He would eventually return to Ireland over ten years later, following numerous Australian adventures and misadventures, and by then his rebel days were well behind him.

It was one of his main subordinates that proved a trickier problem for the government. Michael Dwyer was a farmer’s son, who had fought everywhere with Holt during the rebellion, before following him into the guerrilla struggle. With Holt’s surrender, Dwyer split off with his own group, that would remain in the field for several more years, much to the chagrin of the Dublin administration.

Between Holt and Dwyer, the guerrillas in the Wicklow Mountains tied down thousands of troops over several years, with Dwyer especially targeting militia and yeomanry groups, that were often easy prey in the unfamiliar terrain. Moreover, he sought after and encouraged deserters from the British military to join up with his rebel bands, and they provided a competent core force to his guerrilla units.

Dwyer constantly had to split his small army into tinier pieces in order for them to evade capture in the constant government sweeps that overtook the area in search of him. In February of 1799 he narrowly avoided capture while taking shelter at Dernamuck, when the houses he and his men were sleeping in were surrounded by government forces, tipped off by a local informer. Most of those who were surrounded surrendered without a fight, but those in Dwyer’s house choose to fight it out: he managed to escape out the back while his enemies were focused on firing at the front.

Dwyer would remain a threat to the British position in Ireland for over five years after the initial rebellion. His band motivated harsh recriminations doled out to civilians suspected of helping the guerrillas, standard counter-insurgency tactics of the day, with the British posting huge reward offers for information leading to Dwyer’s capture or death. The longer the troops were obliged to stay in Wicklow, the more desperate they became, and soon numerous new barracks had been constructed, one at Glenmalure, site of a famous battle centuries before. The forts were serviced by a rapidly constructed new transport link, the Military Road, that allowed soldiers easier access throughout the mountains than previously.

All of these efforts eventually told, and Dwyer soon despaired of achieving anything with the forces he had under his command. Late in 1803 he came to an agreement with the government, as Holt had, but instead of being allowed to depart freely to America as he hoped, Dwyer was bundled off to Australia as an unsentenced convict. There, he had further adventures and constant run-ins with the authorities, before his death from disease in 1825.

The last leader we will take note of in this entry is James Corcoran, a member of the Wexford forces during the actual rebellion, where he led troops into battle at New Ross, even though he was just 18. Despite this youth, he seems to have been a competent enough character, and by 1800 had assembled a large enough band of guerrilla fighters that he was noted as an extremely dangerous threat by the Dublin authorities. Corcoran operated primarily in the woods in northern Wexford, and favoured launching raids into Carlow from there. Like Dwyer, Corcoran did all that he could to tempt deserters from the armed forces, and had some success.

Powerful enough to both evade detection and to stand up to pursuing militia forces when the need arose, Corcoran remained in the field until 1804. By then relentless government pressure had forced him to relocate his band into Kilkenny, where he subsequently split his forces into smaller and smaller groups in order to avoid capture. The British were largely free to focus on Corcoran after Dwyer’s surrender, and so he found himself pressed hard on all sides.

Returning to his original haunt with only a small group of his most loyal followers, Corcoran was cornered in the Killaughrim Woods outside Enniscorthy in February of 1804, his location given away by a well-paid informer. Corcoran and his men fought to the last, but were eventually all killed, he being the last major guerrilla leader of any consequence.

This kind of insurgent war was one that provided a potent enough security concern in Ireland, but was never likely to be as dramatically effective as the rebellion had been. The British had learned a thing or two about dealing with guerrillas, and their gradual efforts in the south-west paid dividends in the end, not least their methods of insuring easier movement in the Wicklow Mountains, as well as greater bases of operation.

But we cannot definitely end our examination of this period and the 1798 rebellion, without taking a look at the events in Dublin in 1803, when the next on Ireland’s ever lengthening list of rebellions took place. Even as other United Irishmen groups continued the fight in the hills and valleys of the south-east, a young idealist was preparing a more traditional stroke in the Irish capital, whose echoes in history would last far longer than its practical effects.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Guerrilla Days After 1798

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Robert Emmett’s Riot | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Review: The Australian Vinegar Hill | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The 1798 Rebellion | Never Felt Better

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