Just as I have done with the Nine Years War, the Eleven Year Wars and the War of the Two Kings, I will now take an entry to look back and offer a general summation of the 1798 Rebellion, including what I deem to be its different phases, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, an overview of its most notable military commanders, the truly critical moments and some final thoughts on the rising relative to its remembrance today.
-United Irishmen Build-Up (1791 – 1797)
This phase was characterised by the growing influence and reach of the United Irishmen, and their efforts to organise a mass uprising with French support. Includes the founding of the society, the Expedition d’Irlande, and the growing weakness of the Camden led administration.
-Government Response (Spring/Early Summer 1798)
This phase was characterised by the growing government counter-response to the United Irishmen, both legally and militarily. Includes the attempted reforms of General Abercromby, the arrest of the society leadership, the disarmament campaigns and the final days before the rebellion started.
-Chaotic Beginnings (Late May/June)
This phase is characterised by the scattered fighting throughout the midlands, south-west and, to a lesser extent, the north. Includes the initial uprising on May 24th, the strikeback in Kildare, and the opening moments in Wexford.
-Rebel Success, Rebel Failure (Late May/June)
This phase was characterised by the collapse of the erstwhile rebel control over Kildare, Meath and the north, even while they gained their greatest success in Wexford. Includes the Battles of Tara Hill, Antrim, Ballynahinch, the taking of Enniscorthy and Wexford Town, with the proclamation of the “Wexford Republic”.
-The Government Closes In (June)
This phase is characterised by the growing government response to the rising, and the collapse of the rebel position in Wexford. Includes the Battles of New Ross, Arklow and Vinegar Hill, and the appointment of Cornwallis to the Lord Lieutenancy.
-Mopping Up (Late June/July)
This phase is characterised by the total collapse of the rebels in arms, and smaller scale operations carried out by the government to end the fighting. Includes the final operations of consequence in Kildare, the fall of Wexford and the Midlands campaign.
-French Intervention (July to October)
This phase is characterised by the French landings on the west coast, and their eventual defeat at the hands of Cornwallis and the Royal Navy. Includes the initial incursion, the “Races of Castlebar”, the Battle of Ballinamuck, and the action off Tory Island.
-Lingering Resistance (1799-1806)
This phase is characterised by continuing guerrilla warfare in the south-east and in Dublin for a few years after the end of the rising proper. Includes the campaigns of Holt, Dwyer and others, Emmet’s rebellion in 1803 and the Castle Hill convict uprising in Australia.
United Irishmen Strengths
From the moment that the society was founded in the early 1790’s, it was able to amass a gigantic number of followers across the country, through particularly in Ulster and Leinster. This large-scale recruitment drive made the society a very potent force in Irish politics in a very short space of time, and allowed them to make the kind of impact that successive republican organisations would struggle to copy.
You could use other words, but I refer to the ability of the hardcore of the movement – those who kept fighting after Vinegar Hill especially – to continue the fight even to a point where its futility was obvious to all. United infantry could prove themselves capable of taking heavy losses and then continue marching, to a point: in the aftermath of events like New Ross and Arklow, this quality was shown strongly, despite the casualties incurred. Better leadership could have made more of this.
Despite the inherently botched nature of the rebellion’s opening, the United Irishmen were able to garner a great deal of early momentum, dictating the pace of events in Kildare and Wexford, forcing the government in those areas to be a reactive force.
United Irishmen Weaknesses
-Will under fire
Under truly heavy and well conducted fire, the United party wilted. They could stand up to cannon, or infantry, for a time, but rarely both when they were conducted with even the bare semblance of competence.
The rebels barely had any worth talking about, and while their massed infantry could account for foolish cavalry charges, when the United Irishmen broke in battle, they were all too often run down easily.
-Long term stability
The United movement, in 1798, needed success to be a viable entity. When things turned against them on the field of battle, any other structures created, be they a revolutionary government like in Wexford or the remaining society organisation in the north, tended to collapse very quickly.
-Reliance on France
Despite everything else, the society leadership in charge of the time of the rebellion was still overly and hopelessly reliant on the French to gain a final victory in the rebellion, and that misplaced trust would lead both to the stemming of the initial uprising and the lackadaisical French intervention later.
Whether they were in France, in jail, or dead, the highest levels of society leadership were largely absent from the fighting in Ireland, on both a tactical and a strategic level. The arrests at Oliver Bond’s and the many former leaders turned exiles point to a pattern of the society being unable to sustain continued leadership, and this told in the fighting itself, which was chaotic and unorganised, lacking a single powerful executive to form a direction.
Whatever about anything else, the government forces had a distinct and overwhelming advantage in both the number and quality of firearms, muskets and cannon, that they were able to bring to bear on the rebels.
While plenty of yeomanry and militia units proved unreliable, the amount of instances where numerically inferior government forces held their ground against mass rebel attacks is striking, from the beginning to end of the rebellion, and this speaks to the advantages of even a minor training program for armed units.
As mentioned above, the government cavalry units provide a gigantic benefit in the field, both as a threatening force during battle and as a casualty multiplier afterwards.
-Dublin and other garrisons
The holdout of the capital – or at least how it avoided a direct attack – along with the continued government presence in other garrisons, constantly stymied and affected the United ability to move troops and formulate a coherent strategy.
No matter what happened, it was the government side that had access to more men, with a steady stream available both from the western part of Ireland and from across the Irish Sea. This allowed the government the opportunity to go on the defensive for a time, before Cornwallis’ crushing show of strength later.
The incompetence of the Camden administration meant that large sections of the political and military levels of the country were left stunned and unprepared by the outbreak of the rebellions, given the United Irishmen men a crucial measure of time in which to spread the uprising.
Both before, during and after the rebellion, the government side was guilty of the lion’s share of atrocity and what we recognise today as war crimes, whether it be indiscriminate burnings and killings directed at the civilian population, or the torture and killing out of hand of captured enemy combatants. All of this was for little material gain, simply entrenching sectarian resentment for the next generations.
At times, the worse elements of the militia and yeomanry would either flee from battle or perform poorly, connected somewhat to the atrocity issue mentioned above. Abercromby’s concerns were well reasoned: this would ultimately see the disaster at Castlebar occur, a humiliating moment in British military history.
As always, it is impossible to include every military figure of note, and many of the United Irishmen’s upper echelons would never actually engage in any fighting.
He tried to get the various British military forces – regular, militia and yeomanry – reformed and better placed to deal with both internal dissent and foreign invasion, but was too hamstrung by the Protestant Ascendency and a weak-willed government in London. We will never know if his preferred methods of dealing with things would have been better for Ireland.
The Lord Lieutenant’s time in Ireland was a remarkable failure, as he allowed the entrenched Ascendency to keep him largely ineffective, while his efforts at eliminating the United Irishmen as a threat backfired spectacularly. During the rebellion itself, Camden was an absent force, prevaricating in Dublin while things raged out of control to the south.
Appointed late in the rebellion, Cornwallis’ experience and confidence helped the government bring a swift end to the rising proper, before his patient and calculating approach to the French invasion made good the failure at Castlebar at Ballinamuck. Frustrated by the Ascendency’s refusal to contemplate a lenient response, his time in Ireland would prove a bitter disappointment in the end.
Dwyer’s guerrilla campaign was one of the stand-out military efforts of the post-rebellion period, and kept government forces locked in the south-east for many years after 1798. But, like the others, he was incapable of carrying on the fight in such an isolated manner indefinitely.
His actual rebellion turned into a damp squib, but one cannot fault Emmet’s passion for organisation or the republican cause, as well as his boundless idealism and personal courage. His actions after his rebellion would spur many on in years to come.
We will never know what would have happened if FitzGerald had been able to command troops in the field during the rebellion. As a figurehead to rally the society around, FitzGerald worked well, but his lack of care for his own personal safety was a terrible flaw, that may have affected the coming rebellion more than we will ever know.
A brave and resourceful leader in Wexford, his plan for continuing the fight after Vinegar Hill may have been far more successful than that advocated by Mogue Kearns, but we will never know. His continuing guerrilla resistance was exemplary, but without hope of substantial success.
In effecting a landing and routing the government at Castlebar, Humbert showed himself to be an enterprising and effective military leader, but the wayward and pointless march east, culminating in the defeat at Ballinamuck, showcased his inadequacies starkly.
-Henry Joy McCraken
In the north, much depended on the proper timing and communication between different groups. McCracken got little luck, but his battlefield leadership was far from stellar. The collapse of the northern rebellion cannot be laid entirely at his feet, but he is not absolved from blame either.
His leadership in Wexford at times was exemplary, but in the end he made a disastrous call to move the remnant of those Wexford rebels into the midlands, where they were easily accounted for.
His succession to Abercromby proved a disaster for the British administration in Ireland: his overly cruel and inefficient disarmament campaign failed to stop the rebellion and his time in the field was summed up by the disastrous performance of his troops at Castlebar. His blushes largely spared by the numerical superiority of the troops he commanded than his actual ability, Lake left Ireland in a much worse position than how he found it.
Moore would go on to become famous in the Napoleonic Wars, dying in battle against the French in Portugal, and it was in Ireland that his military career really took off, as he led some of the more tolerant disarmament campaigns and then proved an able soldier in brief engagements with United forces in Wexford.
As one of the key leaders of the early rebellion in Wexford, Murphy is a good example of the kind of bravely committed and strong-willed military commanders that so upturned the applecart in the south-east, beating nominally more impressive forces
While he actual impact on the rebellion was minimal, he being stuck trying to endlessly organise an invasion force from France, Tone’s political writing were one of the most important touchstones for revolutionary sentiment in Ireland. At Tory Island, Tone got his opportunity to fight for Irish freedom, and then willingly walked towards certain execution, showcasing his own courage and principled idealism.
More so than other wars in Ireland’s history, the crucial moments in the 1798 Rebellion are obvious. In the earliest stages, the actual outbreak of the rebellion, on May 24th, was a vital time. If the United parties that suddenly went on the rampage in Kildare had achieved their objectives, capturing more towns and garrisons, something akin to what occurred in Wexford might have happened, but next to Dublin. Connected, the actual attacks on Dublin that failed to go ahead on that date were critical failures, stunting the overall impact that the United Irishmen could achieve from then on out.
Elsewhere, the United failure at Antrim was probably the most defining moment in terms of stopping the rebellion’s spread to other areas. The Antrim defeat essentially ended the realistic possibilities of a large scale United uprising in the north, and kept the military activities limited to Leinster, allowing the government to mass their forces there. Much like May 24th, the poor organisation in the north was a fatal blow to any effort to organise the kind of required mass uprising.
To the south-east, it was the Battle of New Ross that defined the Wexford struggle. Breaching the town walls marked the Wexford Republic’s brief zenith: the repulse demonstrated starkly the weakness of the rebels and the strengths of the government. The government victory there both stopped the spread of the rebellion further south and potentially into Munster, and sent the rebels reeling back north .In conjunction with the failure of other rebel armies, like at Arklow, New Ross was the beginning of the end for the overall movement in arms.
Lastly, in the final stages, there is simply Ballinamuck, or maybe rather the build-up to that battle. Humbert didn’t have to march off east in such a desperate manner, when he would have been better off making a stronger defensive position in on the west coast and awaiting the incoming reinforcements (which, in turn, should have been better directed to a single landing area, instead of three). At Ballinamuck, Humbert allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred into a position where Cornwallis’ army barely had to do anything in order to secure a victory: with the end of the active French military presence in Ireland came the end of any lingering doubts over how 1798 would conclude.
In the Croppy Acre, outside Collins Barracks in Dublin, a large stone slab faces the quays. Emblazoned is only a cross, and the four numbers that loomed so large over Ireland for so long afterwards: “1798”. For over a century, the events of 1798 and their legacy dominated the political, cultural and military life of Ireland. For those of the nationalist persuasion, it was the glorious time when Ireland was closer to a free republican government than it ever had been, an inspiration for successive generations. For unionists, it was a constant reminder of the tentative nature of their stranglehold on the administration, and a bogeyman that ever threatened to terrify anew.
But then came the Irish revolutionary period of 1916-1923, led by men and women who were reared on tales of Tone, FitzGerald and Emmet, and 1798 began to fade, an ever distant memory for a country that had new figures to focus its historical remembrance on. Where once 1798 was the defining year of Irish history, it is now, like 1641 and 1689 before it, largely consigned to the dusty archives of Irish national consciousness.
Some things are remembered. Places like Vinegar Hill and Ballinamuck. Figures real or imagined like “Kelly of Killane” and the Minstrel Boy. Cries of “Liberty or death!” and “Croppies lie down!”. Yet, by and large, the Irish have moved on from 1798, with 1916 the new primary historical bookmark, as forceful a discussion point for us now as 1798 must have been in the days before the Easter Rising.
But we should not forget, not the dead men who charged the cannons to the point of obliteration at New Ross, not the Protestant families slaughtered a few miles away from the same event, not the French who died on Irish soil in Mayo, nor the convicts who made one last desperate grab at freedom in Australia.
1798 was the beginning of the modern, violet, movement to secure Irish independence and to establish a free nation. Its failure birthed a closer union to Britain, but that movement, though temporarily subdued, could not be destroyed. In the time to come, even while Irish men in British uniform fought in nearly every continent on the planet, entities like the Young Irelanders, the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood would come to the fore, along with the continuing issue of agrarian agitation, the growing discontent of the working class in urban areas and the bubbling sectarian tension that so defined the latter history of Ireland. What is sometimes called the “Long Nineteenth Century” began in blood in Ireland. And much more would be spilled before it was finished.
Ireland’s Wars will take a very short break while I plan out my coverage of Irish military history between 1804 and 1916, but will be back soon. Until then.
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