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Wexford and the 1798 Rebellion

Wexford was to provide the greatest threat to the Crown of any counties in the rebellion. It had not been a hotbed of the United Irishmen, and thus had not received the repression suffered by some other counties, until it burst upon its people in terrible fury after the arrest of the Leinster Committee. An Arms Proclamation allowed fourteen days for the surrender of arms in Wexford. There was no let up in the terror, whose chief exponents were the mainly Protestant yeomanry and the predominantly Catholic North Cork militia. In the view of some historians close to the times, the cruelty of the government forces pressed thousands of the peasantry into armed revolt.

On the 26th of May the rebellion in Wexford burst into flame. Thousands of peasants had taken to the fields, and became peasant armies. The largest force, led by Father John Murphy of Boulavogue, assembled on a hill at Oulart, ten miles south of Gorey and eight miles from Wexford town. Another rebel group assembled on Kilthomas Hill, nine miles west of Gorey, and was put to flight by three hundred yeomen from the garrison at Carnew, who in pursuit burned about a hundred cabins and farmhouses and two Roman Catholic churches, one of them Father Murphy’s at Boulavogue. An attempt to dislodge the rebels on Oulart Hill was a disaster for a detachment of 109 men of the North Cork militia from the garrison at Wexford. Only Colonel Foote, commanding, a sergeant, and three privates returned to Wexford.

The rebels were elated by their success. Hundreds of them had melted away at the sight of the militia, but the main body, by standing their ground, had destroyed a detachment of the king’s troops, killing over a hundred. No mercy was shown, no prisoners taken. As the wounded militia were piked to death, some waved missals and screamed that they too were Catholics. Four-fifths of the royal troops who put down the rising were Irish, the great majority Catholics.

The rebels now had the arms of the slaughtered militia. In high spirits, they marched for some hours about the countryside, unsure of what to do next, but recruited thousands of men, many of whom felt that as the fury of the military was being directed against guilty and innocent alike, they might as well become insurgents. The huge, virtually leaderless peasant army finally decided to attack Enniscorthy, the second largest town in County Wexford. The garrison there consisted of eighty men of the North Cork militia and 200 local yeomanry. As the rebels attacked, they drove in front of them frightened cattle and horses - an ancient tactic they would repeat at New Ross. There was bloody hand-to-hand fighting in the streets. After three hours of fighting, the garrison had lost more than a hundred men, and at four o’clock in the afternoon the retreat was sounded, and the survivors took the road to Wexford, already crowded with refugees. The jubilant peasant army set up camp on Vinegar Hill, a prominence overlooking the town, most of the buildings of which were now burning.

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<Vinegar.gif>For several days thousands of Catholics made their way to Vinegar Hill <Vinegar.gif> to swell the ranks of the rebel army.

The absence of an overall plan was shown by the uncertainty of the force on Vinegar Hill as to what to do or where to go next, and by their move when it finally came. It had been a critical weekend for Ireland’s rulers, and their troubles would have been much worse if the victors at Enniscorthy had marched north to link with the insurgents then active in Kildare and Wicklow, and so threaten Dublin itself. Gorey had been abandoned by its garrison, and the way to the north was open. In fact, the peasant army, after a few days indecision, marched south, with the intention of taking Wexford town. They camped for the night on a hill called Three Rocks, near the town. It was a still warm night - the rebellion was fought in one of the driest and warmest summers in living memory. A prophecy for 1798 had been whispered among the peasantry :

A wet winter,
A dry spring,
A bloody summer,
And no King.

The first three predictions were accurate.
Thomas Cloney recalled the night the rebels camped at Three Rocks. "The night was very dark, and it was curious to hear the stragglers, or such as had separated from their respective bodies calling each other aloud by the names of their different baronies. Those calls in the stillness of a very calm summer’s night, must have been distinctly heard by the out-posts of the garrison in Wexford, and from the names of so many baronies being incessantly repeated, the enemy was, no doubt, impressed with a strong notion of our having a greater numerical force than we really had, and they must have felt a deep and powerful anxiety for the issue of the next day’s expected attack."

The rebels’ final stand in Wexford was at their main camp at Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, on 21 June. The green flag that had flown for four weeks from the old windmill on the top of the hill was about to be hauled down, signifying the beginning of the end for the Republic. Following the turning of the tide for the government through the repulsions at New Ross and Arklow, General Gerard Lake, Commander-in-Chief, ordered a counter-attack by an army of more than ten thousand men that would drive the rebels towards Enniscorthy, on which five columns would converge. After taking Enniscorthy, Wexford would then be liberated.

Lake himself came from Dublin to take command of the operation. The rebel camp on Vinegar Hill was encircled at all but one point, where General Francis Needham had not yet come into position; but four of Lake’s five columns were ready to punish the republicans. Twenty thousand rebels packed together on the hill with inadequate protection presented a sitting target for the cannons and howitzers. General Henry Johnson cleared the town of Enniscorthy in fierce street-fighting that cost him twenty dead, including two militia colonels, Lord Blayney and Colonel Vesey. After an hour’s fighting, the surviving rebels fled in confusion through the one escape route open to them : the gap left by General Needham’s late arrival.

Research for this web page used the following source:

Eye -Witnesses to Ireland in Revolt

edited by James Hewitt