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


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The Battle of Ballyellis

The Battle of Ballyellis, a clash during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, takes place on June 30, 1798. The battle is between a surviving column of the dispersed Wexford rebel army and pursuing British forces. It is the last Irish victory in the most violent Irish rebellion in modern history with at least 10,000 killed in a campaign that sees appalling atrocities inflicted by English and Irish.

The British victory at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21 had denied the rebels static bases of operation but had not finished the rebellion and at least three major columns of rebels are operating throughout the southeast, moving outwards from County Wexford in an effort to spread and revive the rebellion.

One such column, numbering about 1,000 but accompanied by a number of women and juveniles, is mobile in north County Wexford, continually altering course to elude combined movements of pursuing British forces. The column is led by Joseph Holt, and under his command Denis Taaffe. It heads in the direction of Carnew, County Wicklow, toward the security offered by its mountain ranges when one of its foraging parties is intercepted and destroyed by a cavalry patrol. It quickly becomes evident to the British authorities that this party is a detachment from the main body of rebels. A mounted force of 200 troops consisting of Ancient Britons, dragoons, and three yeomanry corps, assemble near the neighbourhood of Monaseed to begin a pursuit of the rebels.

However, the approaching British are spotted and a force of rebels then moves ahead of the main force to prepare an ambush at the townland of Ballyellis. The spot chosen is behind a curve in the road flanked by high ditches and estate walls. Wagons are placed on the road and access points cut into the ditches. The main force arrives and deploys itself behind the wagons, on the wall and ditches with a small force left to stand on the road ahead of the barricades standing to face and lure in the approaching soldiers.

Upon spotting the small force standing on the road, the pursuing British quicken their pace and charge forward, assuming that they are facing only the rearguard of the fleeing column. Upon reaching the turn, they are met by a barrage of gunfire and are hemmed in by the rebels on three sides. As more mounted troops arrive they press their comrades further into the trap making effective manoeuvre impossible and many are easily picked off by the long pikes of the rebels.

The rear-ranks quickly flee with a few more soldiers escaping by jumping their mounts over the ditch. The rebels organise a relentless pursuit of the soldiers who are tracked and killed through the adjoining fields. At the end of the action about 120 troops, including a French émigré, and two officers are killed with no rebel casualties.

The news of this rebel victory comes as a shock to the authorities in Dublin Castle who had assumed that the offensive capabilities of the rebels had been finished at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. Reports of the defeat are downplayed and the scale of losses withheld from the general public, but the military now recognises Wicklow as the main theatre of rebel operations and begins to transfer troops there in anticipation of a new anti-insurgency campaign.


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The Battle of Vinegar Hill

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, an engagement during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, takes place on June 21, 1798 when over 13,000 British soldiers launch an attack on Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy, County Wexford, the largest camp and headquarters of the Wexford United Irishmen. It marks a turning point in the rebellion, as it is the last attempt by the United Irishmen to hold and defend ground against the British military. The battle is actually fought in two locations: on Vinegar Hill itself and in the streets of nearby Enniscorthy.

By June 18, the British have surrounded County Wexford with between 13,000 and 18,000 troops and are ready to pour into Wexford to crush the insurgency. The United Irishmen leadership issues a call to all its fighters to gather at Vinegar Hill to meet the army in one great, decisive battle. The number assembled is estimated at between 16,000 and 20,000, but the majority lack firearms and have to rely on pikes as their main weapon. The camp also includes many thousands of women and children who are staying there for protection against the rampaging military.

The British plan, as formulated by General Gerard Lake, envisages the complete annihilation of the United Irishmen, women and children by encircling the hill and seizing the only escape route to the west, the bridge over the River Slaney. Lake divides his force into four columns to accomplish this. Three columns, under Generals David Dundas, James Duff and Francis Needham are to assault Vinegar Hill, while the fourth column, under General Johnson, is to storm Enniscorthy and its bridge.

The battle begins shortly before dawn with an artillery bombardment of Irish positions on the hill. Advance units quickly move against the United Irishmen outposts under cover of the bombardment and move artillery closer as forward positions are secured. The tightening ring forces the United Irishmen into an ever-shrinking area and increases exposure to the constant bombardment, including new experimental delayed-fuse shells resulting in hundreds of dead and injured. At least two mass charges are launched by the United Irishmen which fail to break the lines of the military and the situation on Vinegar Hill soon becomes desperate for the United Irishmen.

Meanwhile, a detachment of light infantry under the command of General Johnson attacks the town of Enniscorthy but meets with fierce resistance. Buildings in the town have been fortified and the initial attack is driven back with the loss of munitions and men. A second attack commences with reinforcements including cavalry, which retake the lost cannon and ammunition while also incurring considerable casualties. The United Irishmen are slowly driven out of the town but manage to hold the Slaney bridge and prevent the British from crossing.

When British troops crest the eastern summit of Vinegar Hill, the rebels begin to slowly withdraw through a gap in the British lines later known as “Needham’s Gap”, so-named because the late arrival of General Needham’s troops prevented a total encirclement of the hill. Although the bulk of the United Irishmen army escape, many are left behind and killed in the routing phase of the battle from both cavalry and infantry attack, but also from the advanced field guns which are switched to grapeshot to maximize casualties.

In addition to conventional casualties, there are also instances of British troops raping the women accompanying the United Irishmen and in Enniscorthy, United Irishmen wounded are burned to death when soldiers set fire to a building used as a casualty station. These atrocities may have been perpetrated in revenge for the execution by the United Irishmen of numbers of mostly Protestant loyalist prisoners of war in the preceding weeks. The United Irishmen abandon much of the supplies they had taken from surrounding areas, and thirteen cannons are captured by the British, a number of which had been taken from the British forces previously.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the United Irishmen force streams uninterrupted towards the Three Rocks camp outside Wexford and, following the decision to abandon the town, split into two separate columns in a new campaign to spread the rebellion beyond Wexford. One immediately sets out to the west, the other northwards towards the Wicklow Mountains to link up with General Joseph Holt‘s forces.

The defeat is therefore not the immediate crushing blow to the Wexford United Irishmen that it has falsely been depicted as, but it does alter the course of the fighting as continued resistance now takes the form of mobile warfare, raids, and large scale, guerilla-type operations.

Casualties for the United Irishmen have been variously reported, with estimates ranging from 400 to around 1,200. Kevin Whelan estimates a figure of between 500 and 1,000 including camp followers, while Archibald McLaren, a British soldier eyewitness, writes that the United Irishmen casualties total about 1,200 men. British casualties are around one hundred.


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Death of Joseph Holt, United Irish General

joseph-holtJoseph Holt, United Irish general and leader of a large guerrilla force which fights against British troops in County Wicklow from June–October 1798, dies at Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire, near Dublin on May 16, 1826.

Holt is one of six sons of John Holt, a farmer in County Wicklow. He joins the Irish Volunteers in the 1780s and holds a number of minor public offices but becomes involved in law enforcement as a sub-constable, billet master for the militia and a bounty hunter. He is involved in the Battle of Vinegar Hill which is an engagement during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 on June 21, 1798 when over 15,000 British soldiers launch an attack on Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy, County Wexford.

Despite Holt’s apparent loyalism, he becomes a member of the Society of United Irishmen in 1797 and gradually begins to attract suspicion until finally in May 1798, his house is burned down by the militia of Fermanagh. He then takes to the Wicklow mountains, gradually assuming a position of prominence with the United Irish rebels. The defeat of the County Wexford rebels at Vinegar Hill on June 21 sees surviving rebel factions heading towards the Wicklow Mountains to link up with Holt’s forces.

Emerging to meet them, Holt is given much of the credit for the planning of the ambush and defeat of a pursuing force of 200 British cavalry in the Battle of Ballyellis on June 30, 1798. However, the subsequent Midlands campaign to revive the rebellion is a disaster, and he is lucky to escape with his life back to the safety of the Wicklow Mountains.

Holt largely holds out in expectation of the arrival of French aid but news of the defeat of the French in the Battle of Ballinamuck together with his ill-health brought about by the hardships of his fugitive life, age and family considerations prompt him to initiate contact with the Dublin Castle authorities with a view to a negotiated surrender. Dublin Castle is eager to end the rebellion in Wicklow and allows him exile after incarceration in the Bermingham Tower without trial in New South Wales.

Holt goes out on the Minerva and meets Captain William Cox who has been appointed paymaster of the New South Wales Corps. The ship arrives at Sydney on January 11, 1800, and shortly afterwards Holt agrees to manage Captain Cox’s farm. He always claims in Australia that he is a political exile and not a convict. In 1804 when the Castle Hill uprising occurs Holt, who is not involved, has been warned that evening that it is about to happen. During the night he sets up a defense of Captain Cox’s house. He is nonetheless afterwards hounded by Governor Philip Gidley King and many false witnesses are brought against him. Although there is no plausible evidence at all against him, he is exiled by King to Norfolk Island in April 1804, and there put to hard labour.

Holt is officially pardoned on January 1, 1811 and in December 1812, with his wife and younger son, takes passage to Europe on the Isabella. The ship is wrecked by a reef so the passengers and crew are landed at Eagle Island, one of the Falkland Islands. He shows great resolution and ingenuity in making the best of the conditions on the island. He is rescued on April 4, 1813 but does not reach England until February 22, 1814 as he travels via the United States. He retires to Ireland where he lives for the rest of his life, but regrets he had left Australia.

Joseph Holt dies at Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire, near Dublin on May 16, 1826 and is buried in Carrickbrennan Churchyard at Monkstown.