Fr John Murphy in Carlow

When we talk about the rising of 1798 we are inclined to think of county Wexford as the beginning of the rising and the best prepared county in Ireland as far as organisation and arms went. The first skirmish in county Wexford took place near the Harrow on the evening of May 25, but the first action in what we call the south east was taken on the morning of that day when Carlow town was surrounded by rebels. Roads to the north, west and south of the town were blocked by English troops and Yeoman, but the road to the west remained open and it was along this road ( now called Tullow Street, Carlow) that young Hayden led his men to destruction. Once again the informer had done his work and the garrison knew every move and plan that the Irish had made long before they even started on their journey to what was certain death for over 600 of them. The plan had been to reach the Potato Market and give a cheer to let their friends know they had arrived. This, they did, but as far as most of them were concerned it was the last sound they ever made. Instead of meeting friends they were met by a hail of fire from the upper windows of the houses around the market place. They had walked into the trap set for them and paid a terrible price, not only were the rebels slaughtered but the houses into which some of them had ran for safety were set on fire and women and children died in the flames. The gate leading to the Roman Catholic Seminary (St Patricks College) had been opened and many made their escape through this gate. Later the bodies of the dead were gathered up and buried in a large sand pit which later became know as "Croppy Graves". This had been the first organised attack by the rebels in the south east as Carlow were well organised and armed and well before Wexford.

Another big mistake people who did not know the real story of the Rising make is when they believe that Vinegar Hill was the last battle of the Wexford rebels when it was anything but. As a matter of fact the hill was one of the worst choices the rebels could make for a last stand. Surrounded as it was on almost three sides by the Slaney and the eastern or Wexford side was easy to close by the government forces.

When Myles Byrne heard of where they were getting ready for the battle on the hill he was very angry with the decision of the leaders. As the battle progressed and the rebels were being forced into an ever, decreasing circle, General Lakes forces felt that they had the rebels trapped, with only the ever narrowing gap to the east their only way out. On this occasion the rebels were lucky, General Lakes had ordered General Needham in the morning to be in position to cut off the way to Wexford, but the general had delayed to burn a few houses and hang a few rebels on his way down the east coast and arrived too late to close the gap and the hard pressed rebels on the hill made their way to the Wexford area with the help of Monk and his John Street rebels before Needham could close the gap. He was known forever afterwards by both friend and foe as "The Late General Needham".

Following their lucky escape from Vinegar Hill the rebels gathered on the Three Rock Mountain just outside Wexford and began to discuss what options they had left. Some felt it would be better to go into Wexford and see could they come to any agreement with the crown forces, while others felt that they should cross the Blackstairs Mountains into Carlow and onto Laois, where they were told that thousands of men would join them. After a long discussion the majority decided to take the latter course and head for the mountains and Laois. Some did go to Wexford but got nowhere with their idea, most of them being hanged. Those who had decided to stay with Fr Murphy began what was to be their last effort to keep the flag flying.

Let us not forget that these men were after having a hard time and had done a lot of travelling in a short time, had fought battles and had very little to eat. The very clothes they wore were in most cases in rags and their footwear not must better. As far as food went they lived on the land which meant that the majority of them depended on wheat or corn they had in their pockets, drinks from the rivers or stream they crossed or whatever they could get in the towns or villages they passed through. We are now dealing with Fr Murphys journey through Carlow from Kiltealy, crossed the mountains and came through Rathanna and camped in Tomduff on June 23. They then attacked the garrison at the village of Killedmond and during this battle the commander of the Yeomanry, Let Stone was killed.

Local rumour has it that his ghost has been seen in the village several times since the battle. They then stormed Goresbridge and went on to camp at Baunreagh on the night of June 24 at 2.30am. Disappointed with the response they had got in Castlecomer they then headed for Slatt Lower. At this stage they realised that they were going to get very little or no help at all from the Laois people in general and decided to return to county Wexford and try to link up with the men of Wicklow. This was really the start of Fr Murphy's last journey. Evading the soldiers as best they could they eventually reached Kilkenny. There is a story told that on the night before they lay down for a much needed rest Fr Murphy requested that the new men that had joined them in the midlands should do guard duty that night as his own men were worn out.

Although they hard of doing it a number of the Wexford men were ordered to give their weapons to the new-comers. Some time in the early hours Myles Byrne was awoken by a Monaseen man and told that the new men had gone and brought most of the weapons with them and that they had also thrown water and urinated on the powder. Byrne is supposed to have told Fr Murphy and his friend James Gallagher what had happened and begged them to move away for some time and rejoin them later as the rebels would blame Fr Murphy for giving their weapons to men they did not know. Let this be true or not Fr Murphy and his friend parted from the main body and did not rejoin them again. It was now that Fr Murphy and his friend headed north east for Tullow.

One of the places at which Fr Murphy is said to have stopped for a night was Jordans of Coolasnaughta in the parish of Myshall where he said a House Mass which tradition tells us was his last Mass. Sadly Myshall men paid with their lives for taking part in the battle of Kilcumney. He also visited the homes of Protestant people who treated him well and one woman actually hid him and when Yeoman called to ask had she seen two strangers pass that way her answer was "No stranger passed this house today". When asked later why did she lie, she claimed she had not lied because they had not passed the house, they were still there. The men then travelled on through Fenagh and Ballyveal on June 30. On July 2 they were captured in Castlemore and brought into Tullow as unknown fugitives. They were brought before General Sir James Duff and his staff. It was only when he was searched that they found out he was a priest. During the search they discovered his stole, a pyx, a small crucifix and a vial of holy oils. They were found guilty of being rebels, sentenced to death and executed on the Market Square that evening. So ended the life of a man who had been trying to keep the peace for as long as he could in his parish in county Wexford. A question often asked was "Why was he going to Tullow?" It will probably never be answered now.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist
20 October 2006