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


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The Battle of Saintfield

battle-of-saintfieldThe Battle of Saintfield, a short but bloody clash in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland, takes place on Saturday, June 9, 1798. The battle is the first major conflict of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in County Down.

A rebel force, over a thousand strong, converge on a large house owned by the McKee family. The McKees are a family of loyalists, who are unpopular in the region because they had provided information to the authorities leading to the arrest of a radical Presbyterian minister and some members of his congregation. The McKees know that they are unpopular and are thus armed to the teeth. As the house is surrounded, shots are fired from the fortified house, hitting some of the attackers. Gunfire holds the insurgents back for a short while, until one of them, a fiddler by the name of Orr, manages to sneak around the back of the house with a ladder and sets the roof alight. The house is destroyed, and all eight members of the family inside are killed. News of this quickly reaches the British forces in the area, and a 300 strong force under Colonel Granville Staplyton, consisting of Newtownards Yeomanry cavalry and 270 York Fencibles, as well as two light cannon, march to the region.

The rebels, however, anticipate the move and are waiting in ambush. Stapylton sees the road ahead twisting into woods, and orders a pair of scouts to check for anything suspicious. The men do not seem to be particularly vigilant, as they return and declared the road ahead to be safe.

The redcoats march into the wooded area, a dense hedge snaking along the road on one side. On the opposite side, the ground steadily rises, with the areas higher up the slope dominated by demesne woods. This provides cover for the Irish. The Irish rebels are mostly armed with pikes and the terrain allows them to quickly swarm the soldiers on the road below. In the fierce hand-to-hand combat that follows the British forces are overwhelmed. One of the fencibles, a veteran of wars in Europe who manages to survive the attack later states that he had never before witnessed such fierce fighting.

Over fifty men are piked to death before Staplyton manages to order the soldiers. He then brings his cannon into play against the mass of rebels before him, inflicting enough casualties with canister and grapeshot to blunt their attack. In the meantime, Staplytons force uses the situation to march to safety.

The Battle of Saintfield is largely regarded as a victory of the United Irish rebels. Long after, in the 1950s, two skeletons, a sword and bayonet of the York fencibles are found in the area.

The rebellion in Down proves to be short lived. Only a few days later the rebel army is slaughtered at the Battle of Ballynahinch.

Many of the dead from both sides of the battle are placed in a mass grave within the grounds of the nearby Presbyterian church. Although there is a plaque signifying the location of these graves, the area seems largely neglected with what appears to be temporary vehicle access over the belligerents final resting place. In May 2010 a memorial park is finished and opened. The area has been cleared and landscaped, with several new plaques and information boards being erected. The graves have been refurbished and the headstones relaid.

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The Battle of Oulart Hill

battle-of-oulart-hillThe Battle of Oulart Hill takes place on May 27, 1798 when a rebel gathering of between 4,000 and 5,000 massacre a detachment of 110 militia sent from Wexford town to stamp out the spreading rebellion in County Wexford.

When news of the long expected rising on May 23 of the Society of United Irishmen in the midlands reaches County Wexford, it is already in an unsettled condition due to fears brought by the recently instituted anti-insurgent disarmament campaign in the county. The measures used included pitchcapping, half-hanging, and house burnings to uncover rebel conspirators. The recent arrival in Wexford of the North Cork Militia, who are notorious for their brutality in the “pacification” of Ulster, terror raids by local yeomen and finally news of the massacres at Dunlavin Green, Carlow and Carnew, have the effect of drawing people together in large groups for security, especially at night.

One such group of one hundred or so gather on the evening of May 26 at The Harrow, near the parish of Boolavogue under the tutelage of Fr. John Murphy, when they encounter a patrol of about 20 yeomen on their way to the house of a suspected rebel. They burn the suspect’s dwelling but, returning empty-handed, they encounter Fr. Murphy’s band again. The patrol are pushing their way through when a skirmish begins in which they lose two of their number, the rest fleeing with news of the killings.

The reaction on both sides is rapid. Vengeful yeomanry patrols roam, burning and killing indiscriminately, while the rebels rouse the countryside and make several raids on manors and other houses holding arms, killing more loyalists and yeomen. News of the skirmish and raids has by now reached Wexford town and, on the morning of May 27, the bulk of its garrison, 110 of the North Cork militia under Colonel Foote, are ordered north to crush the nascent rebellion. They are joined en route by some 16 yeomen cavalry under Colonel Le Hunt. However, these yeomanry are of doubtful loyalty, many (including their sergeant) having joined the rebels that morning.

The militia reaches the village of Oulart at 2:00 PM on May 27. Finding a mass of “from four to five thousand combatants” occupying the high ground of Oulart hill, they rashly advance and pursue the rebels to the summit. The rebel leaders mistakenly believe a large body of yeoman cavalry is waiting to intercept their flight, so their forces desperately turn to face their enemy and kill the whole detachment in an instant, leaving only the commanding officer, Colonel Foote, and four other survivors to escape to their base at Wexford.

Foote reports that, contrary to his orders, the militia had advanced incautiously and were surrounded and overpowered by the overwhelming rebel numbers, mostly armed with pikes, and that “great numbers” of the rebels were killed.

Following the rebel victory, almost all of North Wexford joins the rebellion. Crown forces and loyalist civilians cede control of the countryside, withdrawing to towns such as Enniscorthy, Gorey and Wexford.

(Pictured: The Battle of Oulart Hill by Fr. Edward Foran OSA (1861-1938) who also designed the 1898 Monument in Oulart Village)


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The Sack of Cashel

rock-of-cashelThe Sack of Cashel (also known as the Massacre of Cashel) is a notorious atrocity which occurs in County Tipperary on September 15, 1647, during the Irish Confederate Wars, part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

In the summer of 1647, Murrough O’Brien, 6th Baron Inchiquin, the Irish Protestant commander of the Protestant army of Cork, commences a campaign against the Irish Catholic strongholds in Munster. The counties of Limerick and Clare are raided and he soon turns his attention to the bountiful eastern counties of Munster. In early September, his forces quickly take the Cahir Castle in Tipperary. This strong castle is well positioned to become a base for the Cork Protestant army, and it is used to raid and devastate the surrounding countryside. The Munster army under Lord Taaffe does not make any serious effort to oppose Inchiquin, probably the result of the political scheming of Donough MacCarty, 2nd Viscount Muskerry and other powerful Irish lords who hope to keep the Munster army intact for their own ends. As such, Inchiquin is allowed to make a major push towards the town and ecclesiastical centre of Cashel.

Inchiquin has already launched two minor raids against Cashel, and he now has the opportunity to launch a major assault. The Parliamentarian forces first storm nearby Roche Castle, putting fifty warders to the sword. This attack terrifies the local inhabitants of the region, some of whom flee to hiding places, while hundreds of others flee promptly to the Rock of Cashel, a stronger place than the town itself. Lord Taaffe has placed six companies in the fortified churchyard that sits upon the rock, and considers the place defensible, though he himself does not stay to put it to the test, leaving command to the Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Butler.

Arriving with his army at the Rock, Inchiquin calls for surrender within an hour. The defenders of the churchyard offer to negotiate but that is refused, and on the afternoon of September 15 the assault commences. The Parliamentarians are first reminded of earlier atrocities against Protestants, and then begin to deploy. The attack is led by around 150 dismounted horse officers with the remainder of the infantry following. Troops of horse ride along the flanks of the advancing force to encourage the infantry. The Irish soldiers attempt to drive off the attackers with pikes while the civilians inside hurl rocks down from the walls. In turn the attackers hurl firebrands into the compound, setting some of the buildings inside on fire. Although many are wounded, the Parliamentarians gradually fight their way over the walls, pushing the garrison into the church.

Initially, the Irish defenders manage to protect the Church, holding off the attackers trying to get through the doors, but the Parliamentarians then place numerous ladders against the many windows in the church and swarm the building. For another half an hour fighting rages inside the church, until the depleted defenders retreat up the bell tower. Only sixty soldiers of the garrison remain at this point, and they thus accept a call to surrender. However, after they have descended the tower and thrown their swords away, all are killed.

In the end all the soldiers and most of the civilians on the Rock are killed by the attackers. The Bishop and Mayor of Cashel along with a few others survive by taking shelter in a secret hiding place. Apart from these a few women are spared, after being stripped of their clothes, and a small number of wealthy civilians are taken prisoner, but these are the exceptions. Overall, close to 1,000 are killed, amongst them Lieutenant-Colonel Butler and catholic scholar Theobald Stapleton. The bodies in the churchyard are described by a witness as being five or six deep.

The slaughter is followed by extensive looting. There is much of value inside, for apart from pictures, chalices and vestments of the church, many of the slain civilians had also brought their valuables with them. The sword and ceremonial mace of the mayor of Cashel, as well as the coach of the bishop are captured. The plunder is accompanied by acts of iconoclasm, with statues smashed and pictures defaced. The deserted town of Cashel is also torched.

The atrocity at Cashel causes a deep impact in Ireland, as it is the worst single atrocity committed in Ireland since the start of fighting in 1641. Previously, the most infamous massacre amongst the Catholic population is that at Timolin in 1643, when 200 civilians are killed by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde‘s English Royalist army, but many more than this are killed at Cashel, and the Rock of Cashel is one of the chief holy places of Ireland. The slaughter of the garrison at Cashel and the subsequent devastation of Catholic held Munster earns Inchiquin the Irish nickname, Murchadh na Dóiteáin or “Murrough of the Burnings.”


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The Battle of Dungan’s Hill

battle-of-dungans-hillThe Battle of Dungan’s Hill takes place in County Meath on August 8, 1647. It is fought between the armies of Confederate Ireland and the Parliament of England during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The battle takes place near the modern village of Summerhill and along the present main road between Trim and Kilcock.

By 1647, The Irish Catholic Confederation controls all of Ireland except for Parliamentarian enclaves around Dublin and Cork and a Scottish outpost in Ulster. The previous year they had rejected a treaty with the English Royalists in favour of eliminating the remaining British forces in Ireland.

In August 1647, the Confederate Leinster army under Thomas Preston is attempting to take Dublin from the English Parliamentarian garrison under Michael Jones, when it is intercepted by the Roundheads and forced to give battle. Jones had marched to Trim to relieve the Parliamentarian outpost there at Trim Castle. Preston, who had been shadowing Jones’ movements, attempts to march on Dublin before Jones’ army returns there, but covers only 12 of the 40 miles before being caught at Dungan’s Hill, where the Confederate forces have to form up for battle.

From a Parliamentarian point of view, victory in this battle is presented to them by the incompetence of the Irish commander. Preston is a veteran of the Thirty Years’ War, where he had been a commander of the Spanish garrison at Leuven, but has no experience in open warfare or handling cavalry. Jones, by contrast, had been a cavalry officer in the English Civil War. As a result, Preston tries to move his cavalry along a narrow covered lane where they are trapped and subjected to enemy fire without being able to respond. Even worse, Preston has placed a large number of his troops in wheat fields over seven feet tall. As a result these troops are unable to see the Parliamentarians until it is too late. With the Confederate army spread out and in confusion, Jones’ troops fall in amongst them causing the demoralised Irish cavalry to flee the field, leaving the remainder of Preston’s infantry unsupported.

The Confederate army’s infantry are primarily equipped with pikes and heavy muskets and trained to stand in tercios in the Spanish manner. This means they are difficult to break, but also highly immobile, without cavalry to cover their cumbersome formation when it moves. What is worse, Preston has positioned them in a large walled field, so that when their cavalry has run away, the Parliamentarians can surround and trap them. Some of the Irish infantry, Scottish Highlanders brought to Ireland by Alasdair Mac Colla, manage to charge and break through Jones’ men and escape into a nearby bog, where the English cavalry could not follow. Preston and 2,000 to 3,000 of his regular infantry manage to follow the Highlanders to safety, but the remainder are trapped.

What happens next is disputed. The Irish infantry manages to hold off several assaults on their position, before trying to follow their comrades into the safety of the bog. This makes them lose their formation and the Parliamentarians get in amongst them and then surround them in the bogland. Parliamentarian accounts simply say that the Irish force is then destroyed. Irish accounts, however, claim that the Confederate troops surrender and are then massacred. One account, by a Catholic friar named O Meallain, says that the corpses of the Irish foot soldiers are found with their hands tied. A recent study suggests that the Irishmen probably tried to surrender, but that, according to the conventions of 17th century warfare, this had to be accepted before it entitled them to safety. In this case, it was not accepted and the infantrymen were butchered.

Around 3,000 Confederate troops and a small number of Parliamentarians die at Dungan’s Hill. One of the English regimental commanders, Colonel Anthony Hungerford, is shot in the mouth, a wound that invalids him out of the English Army. Most of the dead are Irish infantrymen killed in the last stage of the battle. Those prisoners who are taken are mainly officers, whom the Parliamentarians can either ransom or exchange for prisoners of their own. Richard Talbot, a junior cavalry officer but later Earl of Tyrconnell and Lord Deputy of Ireland, is among the Confederate prisoners.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Owen Roe O’Neill‘s Ulster Army marches through the pass of Portlester Mill to mount an effective rearguard action, routing Jones’ advanced brigade and enabling the survivors of the Leinster army to escape. Jones, fearing O’Neills army, does not continue the pursuit and returns to Dublin. O’Neill and his Ulstermen return four months later to bury the dead Confederates.


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The Battle of New Ross

battle-of-new-rossThe Battle of New Ross takes place in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland on June 5, 1798, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It is fought between the Irish Republican insurgents called the United Irishmen and British Crown forces composed of regular soldiers, militia and yeomanry. The attack on the town of New Ross on the River Barrow, is an attempt by the recently victorious rebels to break out of County Wexford across the River Barrow and to spread the rebellion into County Kilkenny and the outlying province of Munster.

On June 4, 1798, the rebels advance from their camp on Carrigbyrne Hill to Corbet Hill, just outside the town of New Ross. The battle, the bloodiest of the 1798 rebellion, begins at dawn on June 5 when the Crown garrison is attacked by a force of almost 10,000 rebels, massed in three columns outside the town. The attack has been expected since the fall of Wexford to the rebels on May 30 and the British garrison of 2,000 has prepared defences both outside and inside the town. Trenches are dug and manned by skirmishers on the approaches to the town while cannon are stationed facing all the rapidly falling approaches and narrow streets of the town to counter the expected mass charges by the rebels, who are mainly armed with pikes.

Bagenal Harvey, the United Irish Leader recently released from captivity following the rebel seizure of Wexford, attempts to negotiate surrender of New Ross but the rebel emissary Matt Furlong is shot down by Crown outposts while bearing a flag of truce. His death provokes a furious charge by an advance guard of 500 insurgents led by John Kelly who has instructions to seize the Three Bullet Gate and wait for reinforcements before pushing into the town. To aid their attack, the rebels first drive a herd of cattle through the gate.

Another rebel column attacks the Priory Gate but the third pulls back from the Market Gate intimidated by the strong defences. Seizing the opportunity, the garrison sends a force of cavalry out the Market Gate to attack and scatter the remaining two hostile columns from the flanks. However the rebel rump has not yet deployed and upon spotting the British manoeuvre, rally the front ranks who stand and break the cavalry charge with massed pikes.

The encouraged rebel army then sweeps past the Crown outposts and seizes the Three Bullet Gate causing the garrison and populace to flee in panic. Without pausing for reinforcement, the rebels break into the town attacking simultaneously down the steeply sloping streets but meet with strong resistance from well-prepared second lines of defence of the well armed soldiers. Despite horrific casualties the rebels manage to seize two-thirds of the town by using the cover of smoke from burning buildings and force the near withdrawal of all Crown forces from the town. However, the rebels’ limited supplies of gunpowder and ammunition force them to rely on the pike and blunts their offensive. The military manages to hold on and, following the arrival of reinforcements, launches a counterattack before noon which finally drives the exhausted rebels from the town.

No effort to pursue the withdrawing rebels is made but when the town has been secured, a massacre of prisoners, trapped rebels and civilians of both sympathies alike begins which continues for days. Hundreds are burned alive when rebel casualty stations are torched by victorious troops. More rebels are believed to have been killed in the aftermath of the battle than during the actual fighting. Reports of such atrocities brought by escaping rebels are believed to have influenced the retaliatory murder of over 100 loyalists in the flames of Scullabogue Barn.

Casualties in the Battle of New Ross are estimated at 2,800 to 3,000 Rebels and 200 Garrison dead. Most of the dead Rebels are thrown in the River Barrow or buried in a mass grave outside the town walls a few days after the Battle.
The remaining rebel army reorganises and forms a camp at Sliabh Coillte some five miles to the east but never attempts to attack the town again. They later attack General John Moore‘s invading column but are defeated at the Battle of Foulksmills on June 20, 1798.

(Pictured: The 1845 illustration “The Battle of Ross” by George Cruikshank)


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The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits

The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits takes place in County Fermanagh on August 7, 1594 when a force of English Army soldiers led by Sir Henry Duke is ambushed and defeated by an Irish force under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O’Neill in the region of the fords of the Arney River on the approaches to Enniskillen.

The battle acquires its distinctive name due to the supplies of the Crown forces, largely hard biscuits, which are scattered and left floating in the river. The battle is an early exchange in the Nine Years’ War, and exposes the vulnerability of Crown forces to ambushes in the wilder parts of Ulster with its thick woods and bogs.

The relief force is under the joint command of Sir Henry Duke and Sir Edward Herbert, who have 600 infantrymen and 40 horses. Duke and Herbert believe this to be insufficient, and write to the Lord Deputy that “to go without a thousand men at the least or otherwise we shall dearly repent our going.” No reinforcements are forthcoming therefore the column sets north from Cavan on August 4. Burdened with supplies, the army is expected to take four days to march 29 miles north to Enniskillen. The night before the battle the English camp is pestered by Irish gunfire and incessant skirmishing which causes the English troops to be poorly rested when the set out on August 7 to relieve the beleaguered garrison. As the thin column starts to snake its way north, almost immediately it comes under attack on both flanks as Irish skirmishes hurl javelins, but this is not the main attack.

As the relief expedition approaches Enniskillen from the south, Maguire and Cormac MacBaron lay in wait for them on the Arney River. The Army’s cavalry scouts fail to detect the Irish laying in wait for them. The ground is boggy near the Arney ford, therefore they are forced to dismount. Consequently the infantry escorting the supply wagons for Enniskillen run straight into the ambush. Around eleven o’clock the head of the column approaches the ford. Without warning intense Irish gunfire tears into the lead English elements from concealed positions on the opposite bank. With the advance stalled, Maguire and MacBaron assail the rear of the column with the bulk of their forces. Wings of English shot deploy to skirmish with the Irish, but withering Irish fire pushes them back to their pike stands in the column.

The English rear falls into disorder causing the Irish pike and Scots mercenaries to charge, forcing them to flee pell mell onto the centre of the column. The English collapse continues as the column concertinaed towards the head of the army stalled at the ford. Fortunately the leading English pike has forced the crossing, pushing back the Irish shot, giving the English some room to reorder and regroup north of the river.

The English are engaged by Irish shot from the surrounding hills, but a counter-attack is stillborn when its leader, Captain Fuller, is killed. With most of the supplies abandoned at the river, Duke and Herbert decide their only option is to retreat. However, their retreat to the ford is met with renewed gunfire and the disintegrating army is compelled to cross on another ford an “arrow shot” upstream.

Luckily for Duke and Herbert’s men they are not pursued as most of the Irish have fallen to looting the baggage train which gives the battle its name, Béal-Átha-na-mBriosgadh or The Ford of the Biscuits.

The badly-mauled Crown forces retreat to Cavan. News of the defeats causes some alarm due to the small size of the peacetime Royal Irish Army, which is scattered in garrisons across the island. Although this can be supplemented by forces of loyal Gaelic chiefs, fresh troops need to be raised in England and sent across the Irish Sea to contain the developing northern rebellion. In addition a force of soldiers who have been serving in Brittany is brought to Ireland.

A second relief expedition, this time led by the Lord Deputy of Ireland William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, manages to reach Enniskillen and re-supply it. However Enniskillen does fall to the rebels in May of the following year and the garrison is massacred, despite having been promised their lives when they surrendered.

(Photo with permission by Dr.James O’Neill (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)