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The Rebellion in Wicklow

Any examination of the 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow must necessarily begin by looking at the neighbouring county of Wexford, since it was here that the local rebels first took a stand. As the two most successful Protestant settlements outside Ulster, Wicklow and Wexford were closely linked. The Byrne family were very prominent in Wexford during the years leading up to the Rebellion and close family ties existed across the two counties. One of the most important Catholic families to have maintained its social standing in county Wicklow during the eighteenth century was the Byrnes of Ballymanus.

Wicklow in the 1790s had a higher percentage of Protestants than any other county in Ireland, excluding Ulster, while Wexford had the next highest. The Protestant community in Wexford were mainly found in the northern regions of the county and Gorey rivalled Carnew in south Wicklow as the most Protestant region in both counties. In such communities, sectarian disturbances in other counties could quickly lead to increased tension, fear and hatred. Both south west Wicklow and Wexford had few towns and few industries, with the result that the rural population, both Protestant and Catholic, were almost totally engaged in agriculture, with many strong Protestant farming settlements on the western slopes of the Wicklow hills. There were few intermarriages between the two communities and very few conversions to Protestantism.

Although the leading United Irishmen had been arrested on 12th March, the organisation claimed that the positions left vacant by them on the Leinster Provincial Committee were quickly filled and that the organisation of the capital was "perfect". In fact a new National Directory had been established under the leadership of a young Protestant barrister called John Sheares. He and his brother were arrested only five weeks after the arrest of the previous United Irishmen leaders, due to the evidence of the informer Armstrong. The brothers were subsequently sentenced to death for high treason.

The Sheares brothers were in gaol by 21st March. Their replacements had no choice but to go ahead with the Rebellion, planned for 23rd May, as events had progressed too far to be stopped. Tension was high among the peasantry, exacerbated by the military terror. A dozen or more "risings" of badly-organised groups of peasants, armed with pikes and some firearms, occurred in the counties surrounding Dublin between 23rd and 25th May, often amounting to little more than demonstrations. The rebels were defeated with great slaughter, although they did succeed in inflicting some casualties. Their own losses were said to be enormous, as high as several hundred after each battle. Many of these deaths probably took place after the battles themselves were over - anyone caught a few miles within the vicinity of a skirmish was likely to be shot on the spot. Houses were burnt and people were flogged and executed in greater numbers than ever before.

At Dunlavin in west Wicklow, twenty eight prisoners were taken from the local gaol by the government garrison and executed without trial, although they had played no part in the rebellion. In Carnew, a further twenty eight people suspected of rebel activities were shot without trial by a squad of local yeomen and militia. News of these shootings quickly spread and confirmed the local peasants’ worst fears with regard to the treatment they could expect at the hands of the government forces.

The attack on Arklow took place on 9th June, led by Fr. Michael Murphy amongst others.

"they not only disposed themselves skilfully but fought with almost absurd dash and bravado".

Armed largely with pikes, they attacked the town from the south, charging into the path of five pieces of artillery firing grapeshot, sustaining heavy losses. The commander of the Arklow garrison, General Needham, had received reinforcements prior to the battle and, despite repeated attacks to the English line, held firm. The rebels’ tactics were not good enough for victory, their marksmanship was bad and their weapons inferior. While they had some cannon, they were not familiar with them and had to force prisoners captured with the guns to fire them, with negligible results. By eight o’clock they were running short of ammunition and withdrew, leaving between 2,000 and 3,000 dead. Fr. Murphy was killed within thirty yards of the loyalist lines.

The strategic consequence of this failure to take Arklow was that the rebels remained contained in the south east corner of the county. For the Rebellion to succeed it had to spread from the south east and connect up with the Rebellion in Ulster, hopefully gathering support along the way. The failure of the rebels to take Arklow and open a path to Dublin averted the threat of a general uprising throughout Ireland.

The Rebellion was characterised both in Wicklow and Wexford by systematic burning of houses, churches and businesses by both sides. There was hardly one sound house left standing in west and south Wicklow once the rising ended, although the damage around Rathdrum was less, due to the protection offered by the yeomanry of the district to the loyalists. The fact that Wicklow was less urbanised than Wexford could account for the lower number of claims lodged by loyalists for compensation. The underlying sectarian element is evidenced by the lengthy retributions which followed the crushing of the Rebellion in July. The landlords of both counties did little to help matters, being bitterly opposed to emancipation.

Research for this web page used the following sources

The Last County
The Emergence of Wicklow as a County 1606 - 1845

County Wicklow Heritage Project