1848 was a momentous year in Europe. From one end of the continent to the other, governments and regimes were swept up in a series of liberally-pushed revolutions, that overthrew the monarchy in France, ended serfdom in Austria and resulted in widely different political systems in Denmark and the Netherlands. In many cases, the new forms of government, held together by the shakiest of coalitions, didn’t last long, but in places like France and Germany, 1848 was a crucial year for the future development of major European powers.
Britain managed to avoid any revolutions, but in Ireland trouble brewed. The direct causes of the potato famine were receding, but the lack of seed potatoes would ensure that many years of hunger, immigration and death by malnutrition were still to come. In the middle of all this was the Irish Confederation, the formed entity that emerged from what we call the “Young Ireland” movement.
Thomas Davis, who had spear-headed the movement’s rise in the early years, had died from scarlet fever in 1845, and in his place came others determined to carry the cause forward, men like William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and John Blake Dillon. O’Brien was a Protestant country gentleman from County Clare, and an MP since 1828, but was a fiercely determined advocate of Catholic emancipation, and had joined the Repeal Association largely as a protest against Daniel O’Connell’s imprisonment in 1843. But his connection with O’Connell went little further, and O’Brien was among the leading lights of the Irish Confederation when it broke away from the Repeal Association.
In 1848, O’Brien and Meagher were part of an Irish Confederation delegation that travelled to Paris to meet with representativeness from the new French Republic. While there, Meagher was given a symbolic flag as a gift, with the colour of Catholic nationalism juxtaposed with the colour of Protestant unionism, separated by white to signify the desire for peace between the two traditions, the first instance of what would later become the national flag of Ireland. More important perhaps was O’Brien’s experience, the MP returning to Ireland afterwards further pushed to believe that the time was ripe for a similar revolution to sweep through his homeland.
O’Brien was particularly inspired by the relative bloodlessness of the revolution in France, and hoped that the same kind of uprising, with minimum loss of life, could be achieved in Ireland. The Young Irelanders were ambivalent on the use of force, but the aims of the Irish Confederation were certainly not the kind of thing that could reasonably expected to be achieved without violence. Men like Dillon advocated the creation of militia force, a National Guard, that would obligate the British to resurrect the Irish Parliament, but beyond that the Confederation had no firm military plans. Indeed, even today, many characterise the Young Irelanders as more of a literary and cultural movement, rather than a revolutionary one.
O’Brien’s activities, and the success of The Nation newspaper, did bring the attention of Dublin authorities, and Smith himself was unsuccessfully prosecuted on charges of sedition in May of 1848, before the Confederation’s then leader, the noted writer and political journalist John Mitchel, was convicted of treason by a packed jury and sent to Australia. On 22 July habeas corpus was suspended by the government, a move undertaken after a mass meeting at Slievenamon of Young Irelanders and their supporters, obviously designed to allow the government to deal with the Irish Confederation quickly and without the necessity of awkward judicial reviews. Urged on by some of his more militant contemporaries, O’Brien was pushed into making a sudden impromptu move towards Irish freedom.
Starting on the 23rd, O’Brien, with Meagher and Dillon, made a rapid tour of towns, villages and the countryside in the counties of Wexford, Kilkenny and then into Tipperary. For six days, they attempted to convince local farmers and tenants to follow their lead and rise up against the authorities. Unfortunately for them, they met with only partial success, with the effects of the famine still the major point of the day: most people were simply too busy trying to survive to be interested in any unlikely plan to overthrow the British regime in Ireland. When Dillon claimed he would be able to take Kilkenny if 500 men could be found, only 50 came forward to volunteer.
By the 29th, the Young Irelanders had reached the Tipperary village of Ballingarry, not far from the border of Kilkenny. They had managed to assemble an large-ish group of farmers, miners and tradesmen that were armed in a rudimentary fashion, and who put together barricades to block the roads leading to the town, on expectation that the local constabulary would attempt to put an end to proceedings.
This was a wise impulse. 47 members of the police force, marching from Callan, arrived that day with the intention of arresting O’Brien, but veered away from Ballingarry upon seeing both the barricades and the size of the crowd awaiting them. O’Brien followed them as they broke east, heading for County Kilkenny. Worried about being surrounded in the open, the leader of the police, a Sub-Inspector Thomas Trant, decided to seize a local two-story farmhouse, owned by a widow named Margaret McCormick, taking her five young children as hostages. Soon, O’Brien’s group had the house besieged.
O’Brien attempted to negotiate with the police, largely on the pleading of Mrs McCormick, but was apparently shot by a constable before getting anywhere. The exact circumstances of this shooting remain murky, but it set off a larger exchange of fire between the police and the rebels. O’Brien was dragged out of the line of fire, still alive.
The shooting went on for some time, and two of the rebels were killed. The police, securely barricaded inside the farmhouse, were unassailable, and eventually the fighting subsided, as local clergy attempted to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. When a new force of constabulary arrived from the direction of Cashel, the rebels briefly attempted to engage, but then scattered to the winds. Thus ended the “Battle of Ballingarry” and what has somewhat grandiosely been described as the “Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848”, and more derogatorily as the “Battle of Widow McCormick’s Cabbage Plot”.
The Irish Confederation, and the Young Ireland movement, essentially ended that day, any pretensions at mass popular support destroyed and the leadership on the run. O’Brien and Meagher would both be arrested in the days ahead, while Dillon went into exile in France, and would not return for several years. O’Brien was tried and found guilty of high treason, and initially sentenced to death, but petitions for clemency signed by thousands saw this reduced to transportation for life to Australia, the same punishment meted out to Meagher and others. O’Brien would eventually be pardoned and returned to Ireland, but took no further part in politics, dying in 1864. Meagher is someone we’ll have to get back to in time. There were some scattered attempts to reignite the embers, most notably by Young Ireland activist James Fintan Lawlor the next year, but none were able to achieve much, Lawlor’s rising amounting to an aborted attack on a police barracks in Cappoquin, County Waterford, before his death by bronchitis three months later.
The 1848 rebellion has a lesser place in the Irish pantheon of risings, one of those “six times” mentioned in 1916, but undoubtedly the one with the least penetration, an insurrection barely worthy of the term. O’Brien and his compatriots hoped to forge an alliance between farmer and tenant, Catholic and Protestant, to force change that would be in line with the larger series of revolutions occurring throughout Europe, but they seemed to completely overestimate the level of support they actually had from the populace, who had more important things to worry about at the time, and even with that, it is questionable whether the Young Irelanders really would have been able to conjure up the kind of mass enthusiasm that would make such an uprising a success. With such a paucity of military experience and planning, the Young Irelanders were set on a road towards inevitable failure the moment they decided to attempt a rebellion.
The failure and collapse of the Young Ireland movement was another step on the road to a new form of militant Irish nationalism, that would see it’s apogee in the Irish revolutionary period. Two of the more gung-ho members of the Irish Confederation, James Stephens and John O’Mahony, would escape Ireland and eventually wind up in America, where they would found the next entity to spearhead the efforts to gain Irish freedom.
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