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THE MILITARY STRATEGY OF THE WEXFORD UNITED IRISHMEN IN 1798

The following article by Daniel Gahan is republished from History Ireland Vol 1 No 4 Winter 1993

 

 

Until recently historians of 1798 regarded the rebellion in Wexford as a spontaneous popular reaction to unwarranted government repression and not part of a larger United Irish conspiracy. Scanty references to the county in the manuscript record and the bitter, apparently localised, character of the Wexford conflict seemed to support this interpretation.

Today, inspired by the work of LM Cullen, historians look at the Wexford rising very differently. They point out that Wexford political life was sophisticated in the 1790s and that there was an elaborate United Irish network in the county on the eve of the insurrection, thereby discrediting explanations which suggest that Wexford people rose up simply to avoid being slaughtered by a cruel government.

Examining the military conduct of the Wexford United Irishmen in the light of this new interpretation, the strategy adopted by the rebel leadership begins to make sense. The Wexford rebels, set out to attain specified military goals. When they achieved these (and they did so efficiently and thoroughly), their task was all but completed. Their comrades in other counties did not match their success however; as a result they found themselves initially confused and ultimately isolated. This turn of events, and not a fondness for drink or a failure to impose discipline, explains many of the moves they made in the last three weeks of their struggle and it may also explain the tragic episodes which occurred as their cause began to collapse.

THE RISING AS PLANNED

The particular tasks facing the Wexford United Irishmen are now well understood. Their job was to mobilise first at local and then at county-wide level and to ensure that all government forces inside the county were either destroyed or tied down. In the meantime the epicentre of the rising would be in Dublin City which was to be seized from within by local units. (In the event, on the evening of 23 May, this part of the plan was pre-empted by the rapid mobilisation of the city’s yeomanry at the intended rebel rendezvous points.) At the same time United Irishmen from the counties immediately adjacent (north County Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow) were first to form a cordon of positions around the city (thus isolating it from possible government reinforcement) and then to advance on it in order to reinforce their comrades within. (In the event only the first objective was accomplished.) United Irish forces beyond (including those in Wexford) were to seize control of their own counties but were not expected to join in offensive action outside of them.

THE PATTERN OF MOBILISATION IN WEXFORD

The pattern of initial United Irish mobilisation in Wexford fits this model very well. Cullen demonstrates that by mid-May 1798 the United Irishmen were well organised in County Wexford, especially in northern and central parishes, and were establishing themselves in the south.

His evidence for this is the geographical distribution of United Irish officers, identified as colonels and captains, as well as the actual mobilisation in the early hours and days of the rising in those areas to which he paid close attention – the parishes east and west of Enniscorthy.

If we take Cullen’s work as our point of departure and look at mobilisation in the county at large, we discover a pattern that confirms almost everything in his analysis. Thus, a survey of surviving contemporary accounts suggests that initial mobilisation took place on the night of 26/27 May, in a wide crescent of parishes from near Newtownbarry, on the border with Carlow, to Oulart and Blackwater on the county’s east coast, a distance of over 25 miles. The signal for this mobilisation was the arrival of news of the midland rising that afternoon. The actual process was the same in all parts of this crescent: under cover of darkness, bands of men, usually 20 or 30 to each unit, gathered at pre-arranged meeting places and then converged on more important assembly points. By noon the next day, particularly large numbers had massed at Kilthomas and Oulart, at either end of that crescent. It had all the hallmarks of a well-planned operation; when examined closely it shows few signs of being a spontaneous popular response to a ‘great fear’. The failure of the rebels around Gorey to join in at this stage can be readily explained by the fact that their colonel, Anthony Perry of Inch, had been taken prisoner and tortured by the authorities a few days beforehand and was not able to co-ordinate the movement there for the time being.

The diffusion of the rising from this initial crescent was rapid and shows signs of having been equally well orchestrated. On 28 May, the rebels who had massed at Oulart the day before, swung around to the north of Enniscorthy and combined with the Kilthomas group at Scarawalsh and with other units from parishes to the west of the Slaney at Ballyorrill Hill. Then the combined force marched on the town in a fashion that suggested co-ordination not spontaneity.

Rebel units to the west and south-west of Enniscorthy were already mobilising by that evening, 28 May; they joined the main camp on Vinegar Hill the following day, as did numerous bands from the north Wexford/south Wicklow borderlands. By the night of 29 May therefore, rebel units had mobilised in and seized almost every parish in the northern two-thirds of the county, the district around Gorey being the only possible exception. (We might note here that there was a debate among the leaders on Vinegar Hill that afternoon as to whether they should attack New Ross or Wexford town next and in the end they chose to attack the latter. Significantly though, they gave little consideration to an attack on Gorey at this stage, suggesting that they assumed that their well-organised comrades in Carlow and Wicklow would neutralise the government threat from that quarter.)

Late on 29 May the now huge rebel army marched south to Forth Mountain, just outside Wexford town. On the following day, the fourth of the rising, they took the town. The garrison slipped away and escaped to Duncannon Fort, depriving them of a valuable chance to acquire arms and ammunition. There are hints in contemporary accounts though that as this was happening, rebel units in the south-east and south-west of the county were already forming. So, for example, local rebels may have launched a small and ineffective ambush against the fleeing garrison at Mayglass, to the south of the town that morning. By the following morning an army of two thousand men was ready to march into the county capital from parishes to its south. Additionally, a rebel unit from Loughnageer almost certainly conducted an ambush at Taylorstown bridge, in Shelbourne barony later that night. Clearly, the rebellion spread into the far southeast and far southwest of the county both before government forces drove the people to rebel by their atrocities and before insurgent armies had the chance to intimidate people into joining.

LIMITED STRATEGIC OBJECTIVE

An extraordinary situation had developed in County Wexford by the end of the fourth day of rebellion, 30 May. The insurgents had driven government forces from the entire county, with the exception of toeholds at Duncannon, New Ross, Newtownbarry and Gorey; only the Gorey garrison was any distance within the county boundary. They had done do in a lightening campaign in which they had not once relaxed the pressure on their enemies and had demonstrated the ability to adopt unconventional tactics. (On at least one occasion they had used a stampeding herd of cattle as a substitute for a cavalry charge and in their battles they relied heavily on the pike and close combat.) On the whole, the campaign shows every sign of having been well planned, and to have been limited in its strategic objectives.

The steps the rebels took the next day, 31 May, make perfect sense if we assume that they saw themselves as only a peripheral part of a nationwide uprising, complementing a decisive seizure of the capital, Dublin. First, they selected Bagenal Harvey as their commander-in-chief but with very little real power. This was befitting a post assumed to be temporary pending more specific instructions from the United Irish leadership in Dublin. Second, rather than keeping their forces united and driving out into Munster or the midlands and thereby spreading the rebellion, they divided them into three separate divisions, each with the objective of reducing a particular government toehold. This too is consistent with a limited strategy of rounding out the liberation of their own county but not pushing beyond its boundaries.

Decisiveness characterised the next 24 hours of the Wexford rising too. By nightfall on 31 May, one division was back at Vinegar Hill, poised to attack Newtownbarry the next morning, another was at Carrigrew, ready to move against Gorey, and a third, the division under Harvey himself, was at Taghmon, ready to move on New Ross.

THE TURNING POINT

All this changed dramatically the following day, 1 June, the sixth day of the rising, and in many respects its most critical turning point. On this day the rebels began to realise that something had gone badly wrong with the rebellion elsewhere in the country. Initially, the evidence was probably vague and confusing but as the days passed it must have become clearer to them. On that day, the divisions sent to attack Newtownbarry and Gorey both ran into unexpectedly stout resistance and were driven back with heavy losses to their camps at Vinegar Hill and Carrigrew. The division headed for New Ross got as far as Carrickbyrne by evening but did not launch their attack as yet. On the following day, 2 June, with word of defeats further north filtering southward, rebel boats outside Wexford harbour captured Lord Kingsborough, commander of the North Cork Militia. Since he had left Dublin after the rising had failed there, he almost certainly passed on the news to rebel leaders in the town, and it may have begun to filter out to rebel camps in other parts of the county soon afterwards. Kingsborough would have known little about the midland rebellion at this point and could not have given them accurate information on Ulster either. Even if the Wexford leaders assumed that all was well with their midland and Ulster comrades, the news of a Dublin collapse would have been a severe blow to their hopes. Having already been informed of the defeats at Newtownbarry and Gorey, it must have given them real reason to doubt their chances of success.

EXTREME CAUTION MIXED WITH DESPERATE BOLDNESS

Their actions from this point on are a curious mixture of extreme caution and desperate boldness which betray the anxiety that was beginning to creep into their ranks. So, for example, on 2 and 3 June, the rebels camped at Carrickbyrne and Carrigrew marked time drilling and waiting probably because they were unsure of what to do next. Then, between 4 and 9 June they suddenly mounted offensives against the government toeholds on the perimeter of the county that betrayed all the hallmarks of both confusion and desperation. First was the disastrous attack on New Ross by the southern division on the 5th, followed by attacks by the northern division on Carnew and Arklow on the 7th and 9th, the first a success, the second a failure. These offensives against New Ross and Arklow came after days of hesitation while their garrisons were being reinforced by the government. Thus the southerners remained immobilised at Carrickbyrne for three days in all before attacking New Ross; the northerners, who had reached Gorey Hill (after a morale-boosting skirmish at Tubberneering) on the 4th, did not move against Arklow for five days.

The rebel response to this series of setbacks was perfectly sensible – given their assumption that the issue was still being decided elsewhere and that Dublin might yet be cut off by rebels from the midlands (a few days previously such a plan was communicated to the Wexford rebels by the United Irish envoy, Father John Martin of Drogheda) – they simply bided their time. So, we find that in the southern part of the county the rebel forces passed the entire two week period between 6 and 19 June deploying from hilltop to hilltop but making no attempt to launch another attack on New Ross. They spent two days on Carrickbyrne, moved atop Slievecoilte for one or two days and then marched north to Lacken Hill and remained there, just two miles from New Ross, for an entire week. Similarly, their northern comrades passed the two days immediately following the Battle of Arklow on Gorey Hill; they then went to Limerick Hill, where they remained for four or five days; then they pushed just inside the Wicklow border and camped on Mountpleasant; finally, after a quick and successful attack on Tinahely, they turned south and established themselves on Kilcavan Hill. They made few determined efforts to carry the fight to the enemy nor did they attempt to break out of the county and spread the rebellion into east Munster or the midlands, something they (or the southern division) could surely have accomplished had they so wished. (The remarkable treks by rebel remnants into the heart of the midlands in the aftermath of the defeat at Vinegar Hill on 21 June is proof of this.)

CONCLUSION

We are learning a great deal more about the United Irish movement in general in recent years, allowing us to throw far more light on the various components of the 1798 Rebellion. Current research demolishes the myth of the rebels as a rural mob, perpetrated by Musgrave and other loyalist commentators but inadvertently supported by former rebels anxious to conceal the extent of their involvement in an elaborate conspiracy to overthrow a government by force of arms, and given a new lease of life by Thomas Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty, whose rebel divisions are brave but fanatical and undisciplined mobs. In fact the rebels were politically and militarily far more sophisticated than these accounts would have us believe.