The 1798 Rebellion

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin on 20th June 1763. Educated at Trinity College, he studied law and was called to the Irish bar in 1789. His great aim was to unite Catholics and Protestants “under the common name of Irishmen” ” and, towards this end, he published several pamphlets including one entitled “Argument of Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” which endeared him to Catholics and liberally minded Protestants alike. Deeply impressed by the ideals of the French Revolution, he travelled to Belfast on 17th October 1791, and a few days later, along with Thomas Russell and Napper Tandy, founded the “Society of United Irishmen” in that city.

Returning to Dublin, Wolfe Tone, although a Protestant, was appointed secretary of the Catholic Committee in July 1792. Later that year he organised a Catholic Convention which was instrumental in compelling the government to pass the Catholic Relief Bill of 1793. Equal rights for Catholics now become one of the main aims of the United Irishmen and this, they felt, could best be obtained in an independent Irish Republic based on the French model. Back to Belfast in May 1795, Tone, along with Russell, Samuel Neilson, Henry Joy McCracken and some others, met on Cave Hill overlooking the city and took a solemn oath not to desist in their efforts until they “had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”

Sectarian strife was now rampant, especially in Ulster, with secret oath-bound societies springing up everywhere. The Protestants had the ‘peep-o-day boys’ and the Catholics had the Defenders. Following an affray at Loughgall in Co. Armagh in 1795 the Orange Order was founded, while the Yeomen were also established in June 1796. These were made up mainly of men from the Orange Lodges while most of the Defenders enlisted in the United Irishmen.

In grave danger of arrest, Wolfe Tone emigrated to America in June 1795 and from there he went to France in an effort to get military assistance for an Irish Rebellion. Arriving in Paris in February 1796, he so impressed the French Directory that plans for a military expedition were soon got under way. On December 15th 1796, along with one of France’s finest soldiers, General Hoche, Tone set out from Brest with 43 sips and 14,000 men and sailed for Ireland. Arriving at Bantry Bay in Co. Cork, this first French expedition was dogged with ill-luck as severe storms prevented their landing on the Irish coast. Scattered by the gale force winds, the expedition had no option but return to France in January 17097 with a very disappointed Tone aboard.

Marital law was proclaimed in March 1797, but the Catholics of the South and Presbyterian radicals of the North who formed the backbone of the United Irishman still prepared for an
uprising. Despite the disappointment of Bantry Bay and the arrest of several of their leaders, including the Sheares brothers, Neilson and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who later died from the wounds received during his arrest, they continued to prepare for Rebellion, and the Summer of 1798 saw several outbreaks occur throughout the country, mainly in the Leinster counties of Wexford, Carlow, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow and in Antrim and Down in the north-east.

Thomas Pakenham, in his book “The Year of Liberty”, wrote: The rebellion of 1798 is the most violent and tragic event in Irish history between the Jacobite wars and the Great Famine. In the space of a few weeks 30,000 people - peasants armed with pikes and pitch-forks, defenceless women and childrenion but return to France in January 1797 with a very disappointed Tone aboard.

Marital law was proclaimed in March 1797, but the Catholics of the South and Presbyterian radicals of the North who formed the backbone of the United Irishmen still prepared for Murphy, had always been a man of peace but, driven to desperation, he now put himself at the head of his parishioners and marched them to battle. Armed mainly with pikes, the insurgents defeated the militia at Oulart Hill, then took the town of Wexford on June 21st and followed this up by capturing Enniscorthy and Gorey. Their leaders now also included a Fr. Michael Murphy, but their elected principal leader was Bagenal Harvey. As assault was made on New Ross where, despite tremendous bravery and early success, they were eventually defeated and driven back.

With little hope of assistance from outside their county they then assembled on Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, where they were surrounded and, following yet another very bloody battle, they were defeated, though quite a number escaped through a gap left by the English commander, General Needham, ever since known as ‘Needham’s Gap’ to continue a guerrilla war in the north of the county and in the Wicklow hills, for some more months. Those who were captured were summarily executed and all the towns of Co. Wexford were very soon back in English hands. Bagenal Harvey was captured, executed, and his head impaled on the railings of Wexford courthouse.

Elsewhere in Leinster there were scattered attempts at uprisings in Carlow, Kildare and Meath where initial successes were eventually overcome and the insurgents summarily executed.

In Ulster the Rising began on 7th June when a number of small towns were taken. Led by Henry Joy McCracken and Jemmy Hope, they captured Ballymena and Randalstown and then attacked the town of Antrim where yet another very bloody battle ensued, ending in defeat for the insurgents. A day later the men of Down were in revolt. These were led by Henry Monro and they also captured some small towns in the north of the county, but were then defeated at the Battle of Ballynahinch. Again no quarter whatsoever was given to the defeated. Henry Monro was captured and hanged in Lisburn, while Henry Joy McCracken was also captured in Carrickfergus and hanged in Belfast on 17th July, 1798.

The Rebellion of 1798 had apparently now been completely subdued and the government forces exacted a terrible retribution. The Yeomanry companies and County Militias scoured the countryside seeking out rebels’ and executing them in an outburst of hatred, murder and revenge. Otherwise, the entire country now seemed completely quiet and under English rule, with farmers reaping a bumper harvest following an excellent summer, when news filtered through of a strange occurrence in the western province of Connacht, which had not been part of the recent Rebellion.

It was August 23rd and the Protestant Bishop of Killala was sitting down to a dinner with some guests when a messenger rushed in with news that a flee had sailed into Killala harbour. Three frigates had arrived in the bay and were unloading powder, firelocks and stores, while soldiers in blue uniforms were also disembarking. At long last French help had arrived. The small force of 1,099 men under General Humbert had left La Rochelle on August 6th and, on landing at Killala, were immediately joined by the ‘United men’ of Mayo. When news of their arrival reached Dublin an English army under Cornwallis immediately set out for the west, travelling by canal barge. A second expedition under General Hardy had been scheduled to leave France at the same time as the Killala expedition but it never even got out of Brest harbour.

Humbert had been accompanied on this expedition by Matthew Tone, the younger brother - were cut down or shot or blown like chaffs as they charged up to the mouth of the cannon.”

The Rising in Wexford began on 23rd May 1798 and a few days later came the burning of the Catholic church at Boolavogue by the Yeomen. The local priest, Fr. John battle ended with the British fleeing for their lives, an action ever since referred to as “The Races of Castlebar”. Humbert then set up “The Provincial Government of Connacht’ and appointed John Moore as its President.

A much bigger British force under Lord Cornwallis now counter-attacked and Humbert retreated towards Sligo. Following a skirmish at Collooney, he was joined by the United men of Longford and Westmeath. He then swung towards Dublin but was defeated by the encircling British forces at Ballinamuck on September 8th. The French who were captured were sent back to Dublin by barge and then returned to France, but the Irish who were captured were slaughtered unmercifully. Shortly afterwards another small French expedition under Napper Tandy arrived at Rutland in Co. Donegal, but on learning of Humbert’s defeat, they returned to France. The towns of Mayo were re-captured by the British in the weeks that followed.

The final chapter of the 1798 Rebellion had still to be written, however, and it to of Wolfe Tone. The joint French/Irish force then advanced on Ballina which they took rather easily and from where Humbert advanced to meet a strong British force, under General Lake, that was marching against him. They met at Castlebar and the resultingted and defeated by a British fleet off the north-west coast after a deadly ten-hour battle that saw the young Dubliner stay in command until all the guns around him had been silenced.

Wolfe Tone was captured, recognised when he came ashore, and then brougt ht in chains to Dublin. Dressed in a French uniform he demanded a soldiers death, but this was denied him and he was sentenced to be hanged. However, he cheated the hangman by taking his own life in prison, at the youthful age of 35.