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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Execution of William Michael Byrne

William Michael Byrne, a key figure in the Society of United Irishmen in the years leading to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against the British government, is executed in Dublin on July 25, 1798.

Byrne is one of the two sons of Colclough Byrne of Drumquin, Hackettstown and Mary Galway of Cork, a great grand-niece of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond. He lives most of his adult life at Park Hill in the Glen of the Downs, County Wicklow. In late 1796, he enlists in the yeomanry, serving in the Newtown Mount Kennedy cavalry.

Byrne joins the Society of the United Irishmen in the spring of 1797 and later that same year is appointed by the Leinster committee to organise the half barony of Rathdown. As a delegate for Rathdown barony, he is a well respected and competent figure. With the assistance of his Protestant friend Thomas Miller of Powerscourt, he undertakes the organisation of military and civil branches of the United Irishmen in Rathdown, recruiting 2,000 men by late 1797. In October 1797 he is forced to resign from the yeomen after refusing to swear the oath of loyalty and his activities begin to come to the attention of Dublin Castle.

According to the informant A.B. (Thomas Murray), Byrne attends the inaugural meeting of the United Irishmen’s Wicklow county committee in December. It is held in the Annacurra home of William’s first cousin, John Loftus. Murray’s information tells that Byrne established networks of contacts between the Leinster committee and the Cork United Irishmen along with other contacts in Munster.

Byrne’s career comes to an end when he, along with fourteen other Leinster delegates, are arrested on March 12, 1798 at the house of Oliver Bond. They had been betrayed by Thomas Reynolds, treasurer of Kildare United Irishmen and member of the provincial committee. Reynolds had been informed that plans for an insurrection were about to be finalised by the committee. Byrne is arrested in possession of incriminating documents which are described by Attorney-General for Ireland Arthur Wolfe as being ‘very treasonable printed papers.’

On July 4, 1798 Byrne with four others is brought before a commission of oyer and terminer on charges of high treason. The case mounted by the state against him is based principally on the evidence of Reynolds and also that given by his former comrade William Miller of Powerscourt. The weight of the evidence is overwhelming, rendering an effective defence impossible.

Byrne’s lawyer, John Philpot Curran KC, the leading defence counsel of the period, attempts to cast Reynold’s character and motives in a foul light but it is futile. In his last days, efforts are made to spare his life if he would only express regret for his actions and accuse Lord Edward FitzGerald for having led him to this point. He refuses, meeting his end with great dignity and stoicism.

Byrne is convicted of high treason and executed on July 25, 1798 outside Green Street Courthouse, Dublin.

The Dublin Magazine notes that Byrne “met his fate with a degree of courage perhaps unequalled.” For his service to the state, Reynolds is honoured by Dublin Corporation with the freedom of the city on October 19, 1798, spending much of his life thereafter in fear of assassination.


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Birth of Poet Charles Wolfe

charles-wolfeCharles Wolfe, Irish poet, is born at Blackhall, County Kildare, on December 14, 1791. He is chiefly remembered for “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” which achieves popularity in 19th century poetry anthologies.

Wolfe is the youngest son of Theobald Wolfe of Blackhall and his wife Frances, who is also his cousin and daughter of the Rev. Peter Lombard of Clooncorrick Castle, Carrigallen, County Leitrim. He is a brother of Peter Wolfe, High Sheriff of Kildare. His father is the godfather, but widely believed to be the natural father, of Theobald Wolfe Tone and the first cousin of Arthur Wolfe, 1st Viscount Kilwarden.

Not long after he is born, his father dies and the family moves to England. In 1801, Wolfe is sent to a school in Bath but is sent home a few months later due to ill health. From 1802 to 1805, he is tutored by a Dr. Evans in Salisbury before being sent to Hyde Abbey School, Winchester. In 1808, his family returns to Ireland, and the following year he enters Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1814.

Wolfe is ordained as a Church of Ireland priest in 1817, first taking the Curacy of Ballyclog in County Tyrone before transferring almost immediately to Donaghmore, County Tyrone. There he develops a close friendship and deep respect for the Rev. Thomas Meredith, Rector of nearby Ardtrea, and a former Fellow of Trinity College Dublin. Wolfe writes two epitaphs for Meredith, one on his memorial in the parish church of Ardtrea, and another intended for his tomb.

Wolfe is best remembered for his poem “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna”, written in 1816 and much collected in 19th and 20th century anthologies. The poem first appears anonymously in the Newry Telegraph of April 19, 1817, and is reprinted in many other periodicals. But it is forgotten until after his death when Lord Byron draws the attention of the public to it. Wolfe’s only volume of verse, Poetical Remains, appears in 1825 with “The Burial of Sir John Moore” and fourteen other verses of an equally high standard.

Wolfe remains at Donaghmore until 1820 but, rejected by the woman for whom he gave up his academic career, and with Meredith, his only real friend in County Tyrone, now dead, he moves to Southern France. Shortly before his death he returns to Ireland and lives at Cobh, County Cork, where he dies at the age of 31 of consumption, which he catches from a cow. He is buried in Cobh at Old Church Cemetery. There is also a plaque to his memory in the church at Castlecaulfield, the village where he lives whilst Curate at Donaghmore, as well as a marble monument to him at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

(Pictured: Bas-relief of Charles Wolfe in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin)