seamus dubhghaill

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 Battle of the Hill of Tara

battle-of-tara-hillThe Battle of the Hill of Tara is fought on the evening of May 26, 1798 between British forces and Irish rebels involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, resulting in a heavy defeat for the rebels and the end of the rebellion in County Meath.

Following the outbreak of the rebellion, signaled in Meath by the prearranged signal of the ceasing of a mail coach near Turvey hill, road blocks are posted on the Navan road. Members of the Society of United Irishmen and rebels in Meath begin to assemble at the Hill of Tara. Tara is chosen as it provides strategic control of road access to the capital of Dublin and cultural significance as the former seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Between 4,000-7,000 rebels gather at the hill. Following the outbreak of the rebellion on May 23, there are incidents of violent encounters throughout the countryside as rallying rebels make their way to Tara.

Picking up yeomanry reinforcements along the way, the combined fencible, yeoman and militia force forms up at the bottom of the hill in advance of the attack on the rebels who have established a large camp on the hill. The lack of any cannon or cavalry places the rebels at a great disadvantage despite their numbers. Disciplined volley fire and flanking cavalry action combined with withering grapeshot delivered from a 6 pounder cannon drive the rebels to within the graveyard walls at the summit. There, at dusk, the rebels make their last stand on the hill until a final grenadier assault finishes them.

The loss to the fencibles, yeomen and militia is minimal. However rebel casualties have estimates running from several hundred to several thousand dead and many wounded. Many bodies are removed during the night of the 26th and 350 dead are counted still lying on the battlefield the following day. Witnesses to the burial recollect many more bodies of those rebels who died of their wounds during the night being collected from the surrounding countryside in carts. It is noted by the witnesses that the bodies are universally disembowelled by the victors. The dead are buried in a mass grave marked by the Lia Fáil stone which is moved to mark the burial site. The defeat effectively ends the United Irishmen’s rising in Meath.

(Pictured: The high cross at the site of the Battle of the Hill of Tara, County Meath)


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The Battle of Carlow

battle-of-carlow-monumentThe Battle of Carlow takes place in Carlow, County Carlow on May 25, 1798 when Carlow rebels rise in support of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 which had begun the day before in County Kildare.

The Society of United Irishmen organisation in Carlow, led by a young brogue-maker named Mick Heydon who had taken over the leadership following the arrest of the previous leader, Peter Ivers, who was arrested with several other leading United Irishmen at Oliver Bond‘s house in March of that year, assemble on the night of May 24 and set off at dawn to attack the county town. Picking up more volunteers along the way, their numbers swell to around 1,200 and they march completely unopposed.

The attack on the town is planned to take place simultaneously from four different directions, through the four main streets. All are to converge on Potato Market.

As the various contingents advance, they are unaware that Colonel Mahon of the Ninth Dragoons has the military in the barracks and the town on the highest alert. Their every move is known to him. A strong party of military is stationed in the court house, which is now known as the Deighton Hall, situated immediately to the north of the bridge across the River Burren. Another party with two small cannon are stationed on the bridge. On Graigue bridge, there is an officer’s guard of yeomen. In Dublin Street and to the north, well-armed loyalists fill some large strong houses, but without military support, as the attack is known to be weak from that quarter. Tullow Street is left open and to all appearances undefended against what is expected to be the strongest attack of all. The trap is laid.

When the Rebels enter the town of Carlow they are joined not only by the Catholic inhabitants but also by people who have secretly arrived there during the previous day and night. A crowd of approximately two hundred people break away and march through Tullow Street but when they reach Potato Market their fortunes change.

The forewarned garrison had prepared a deadly ambush, posting men at every window and rooftop. As the rebels relax after their apparently easy victory, the concealed soldiers pour volley after volley of gunfire into the masses of exposed rebels. Taken completely by surprise, the shocked and poorly armed rebels break and flee only to run into another army ambush. The survivors try to escape by breaking through adjoining houses and cabins which are set afire by the pursuing soldiers causing the deaths of 200 of the inhabitants.

In the meantime, the County Laois Rebels, on their way to aid the Carlow rebels having heard mixed reports of the battle and hearing the fate of their comrades, decide it is too late to help and change their plans. They are led by men called Redmond and Brennan. They proceed to Ballickmoyler instead, some miles outside Carlow in County Laois and there they set fire to many loyalist houses and attack the home of John Whitty, a Protestant clergyman. Twenty-one of the Rebels are killed in the fray but despite this they eventually overcome the loyalist inhabitants.

An estimated 500 rebels and civilians are killed in the streets of the town with no reported losses to the military. Another 150 are executed in the repression over the following ten days. A local man who becomes known as “Paddy the Pointer” is reported to have helped to identify escaped rebels to the military by riding around the town and pointing them out.

A memorial, pictured above, is located at Carlow-Graigue, or Graigue-Cullen as it is now known, where remains of many of those who perished that day were flung into a mass grave.


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Birth of William Drennan, Physician, Poet & Political Radical

william-drennanWilliam Drennan, physician, poet and political radical, is born on May 23, 1754 in Belfast. He is one of the chief architects of the Society of United Irishmen and is known as the first to refer in print to Ireland as “the emerald isle” in his poem When Erin first rose.

Drennan is son the son of Reverend Thomas Drennan (1696–1768), minister of Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street. Thomas Drennan is an educated man from the University of Glasgow and is ordained to the congregation of Holywood, County Down in 1731. Drennan is heavily influenced by his father, whose religious convictions serve as the foundation for his own radical political ideas. His sister, Martha, marries fellow future United Irishman Samuel McTier in 1773.

In 1769 Drennan follows in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in the University of Glasgow where he becomes interested in the study of philosophy. In 1772 he graduates in arts and then in 1773 he commences the study of medicine at Edinburgh. After graduating in 1778 he sets up practice in Belfast, specialising in obstetrics. He is credited with being one of the earliest advocates of inoculation against smallpox and of hand washing to prevent the spread of infection. He also writes much poetry, coining the phrase “Emerald Isle” and is the founder and editor of a literary periodical, Belfast Magazine. He moves to Newry in 1783 but eventually moves to Dublin in 1789 where he quickly becomes involved in nationalist circles.

Like many other Ulster Presbyterians, Drennan is an early supporter of the American Colonies in the American Revolution and joins the Volunteers who had been formed to defend Ireland for Britain in the event of French invasion. The Volunteer movement soon becomes a powerful political force and a forum for Protestant nationalists to press for political reform in Ireland eventually assisting Henry Grattan to achieve legislative independence for the Irish parliament in 1782. However Drennan, like many other reformers, quickly becomes dismayed by the conservative and sectarian nature of the Irish parliament and in 1791 he co-founds the Society of United Irishmen with Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell.

Drennan writes many political pamphlets for the United Irishmen and is arrested in 1794 for seditious libel, a political charge that is a major factor in driving the United Irishmen underground and into becoming a radical revolutionary party. Although he is eventually acquitted, he gradually withdraws from the United Irishmen but continues to campaign for Catholic Emancipation.

On February 8, 1800, Drennan marries Sarah Swanwick, “an English lady of some wealth” from Shropshire. They have one daughter and four sons.

Drennan settles in Belfast in 1807. In 1810 he co-founds the non-denominational Royal Belfast Academical Institution. As a poet, he is best remembered for his poem The Wake of William Orr, written in memory of a United Irishman executed by the British. Despite his links with revolutionary republicans, he gradually becomes alienated from the post-Union nationalism of the period. His abiding concern for Liberalism and post union realities make him contemplate his political ideas anew.

Drennan dies on February 5, 1820. He directs that his coffin be carried by an equal number of Catholics and Protestants with clergy from different denominations in attendance.

Drennan’s son, John Swanwick Drennan, is a noted poet who, along with his brother William Drennan, write a biography of him for Richard Davis Webb‘s A Compendium of Irish Biography. Through his daughter Sarah, who marries John Andrews of a prominent family of flax merchants, he has several notable descendants, including William Drennan Andrews, judge of the High Court of Justice in Ireland, Sir James Andrews, 1st Baronet, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, John Miller Andrews, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Thomas Andrews who drew up the plans for the RMS Titanic and was aboard and drowned when she sank, and Thomas Drennan, performance artist known primarily for his seminal work ‘Journey to the Centre of Drennan.’


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The Suicide of Reverend William Jackson

william-jacksonThe Reverend William Jackson, noted Irish preacher, journalist, playwright, radical, and spy, commits suicide on April 30, 1795 after being found guilty of high treason.

Jackson was born in Newtownards, County Down, in 1737. Much is unclear about his early life. He studies at Oxford and became an Anglican curate. In the 1760s, he moves to London, where he preaches at the Tavistock Chapel and St. Mary-le-Strand. Although he gains some popularity as a preacher, he remains unbeneficed and eventually turns to journalism to support himself.

In 1766, Jackson becomes the editor of The Public Ledger. Under his editorship, the London paper becomes increasingly strident and oppositional in its politics. He is forced to flee to France in April 1777 to avoid a trial for libel that the popular actor and playwright Samuel Foote had initiated. He does not have to stay long in exile because Foote dies on October 21 of that same year.

After Foote’s death, Jackson returns to England. He resumes his political activities by publishing The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America in 1783, with a dedication to the opposition leader, William Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland. But the following year, he is secretly hired by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, to support the government in The Morning Post. Publishing anonymously, he attacks his former allies with his usual vehemence until he is discovered and is soundly damned for his apostasy and finds himself generally excluded from English politics.

Jackson’s next appearance in the public results in yet another scandal. In 1787 he joins forces with “Gentleman” John Palmer. Their goal is to build a new theatre in London. Jackson and Palmer persuade investors to sink more than eighteen thousand pounds into the construction of the Royalty Theatre. However, while there is no law against building a theatre in London, there is a law against operating one without the Lord Chamberlain‘s authorisation. Jackson and Palmer have no such authorisation so the theatre is shut down after just one night. The duped investors initiated legal action. Jackson again flees to France, where he arrives on the eve of revolution.

During his stay in Paris, Jackson is swept up in the revolutionary fervour and becomes involved with the radical British expatriate set there. Swept up in the general arrest of British subjects in 1793, he is released from prison on the strength of his radical commitments. Upon his release, he becomes inspector of horses for Meaux and later in 1793 is commissioned as a spy for the French. Nicholas Madgett, an Irishman who works in the Marine Ministry, recruits Jackson to go to England and Ireland to assess the public’s inclination towards armed revolution.

Jackson arrives in London in early 1794 and becomes reacquainted with John Cockayne, a lawyer he had met two decades earlier. He reveals his mission to Cockayne, who promptly reveals it to the Prime Minister out of fear of being tried for treason himself. When Jackson leaves London for Dublin, he is accompanied by Cockayne. In Ireland they meet with several radical leaders of the Society of United Irishmen, including Theobald Wolfe Tone, James Reynolds and Archibald Hamilton Rowan. Hamilton Rowan, in particular, is tempted by Jackson’s talk of French assistance, and persuades Tone to write up a report for the French, indicating Irish willingness to rise up. Jackson makes the fatal mistake of placing Tone’s report and other letters in the public mail, where they are seized by the authorities. This seizure leads to Jackson’s arrest on April 28, 1794.

Jackson remains in prison for a year before his trial takes place. The delays are at his request, allowing him time to assemble a defence and procure witnesses. During his imprisonment, he writes his last work, Observations in Answer to Mr. Paine’s Age of Reason (1795). His trial takes place in Dublin on April 23, 1795, and he is found guilty. One week later, on the morning of his sentencing hearing Jackson steps into the dock looking terribly ill. As his lawyers make drawn out speeches, hoping to avoid judgment on the technicality of an improperly filed indictment, Jackson’s condition steadily worsens. The judges order that a chair be provided for him and ask that a doctor attend him. He then collapses and dies. An autopsy finds that Jackson had ingested a large quantity of a “metallic poison.” This is likely administered by his second wife, but the inquest pointedly refuses to assign blame.

The effect of Jackson’s suicide is that he had not actually been pronounced guilty of treason by the court, and so his family can inherit his goods and a pension.


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The Death of Theobald Wolfe Tone

theobald-wolfe-toneTheobald Wolfe Tone, Irish republican and rebel who sought to overthrow English rule in Ireland and who led a French military force to Ireland during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, dies at Provost’s Prison, Dublin on November 19, 1798 from a stab wound to his neck which he inflicted upon himself on November 12. His attempted suicide is the result of being refused a soldier’s execution by firing squad and being sentenced to death by hanging.

Wolfe Tone is born in Dublin on June 20, 1763. The son of a coach maker, he studies law and is called to the Irish bar in 1789 but soon gives up his practice. In October 1791 he helps found the Society of United Irishmen, initially a predominantly Protestant organization that works for parliamentary reforms, such as universal suffrage and Roman Catholic emancipation. In Dublin in 1792 he organizes a Roman Catholic convention of elected delegates that forces Parliament to pass the Catholic Relief Act of 1793. He himself, however, is anticlerical and hopes for a general revolt against religious creeds in Ireland as a sequel to the attainment of Irish political freedom.

By 1794 Wolfe Tone and his United Irishmen friends begin to seek armed aid from Revolutionary France to help overthrow English rule. After an initial effort fails, he goes to the United States and obtains letters of introduction from the French minister at Philadelphia to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. In February 1796 he arrives in the French capital, presents his plan for a French invasion of Ireland, and is favourably received. The Directory then appoints one of the most brilliant young French generals, Lazare Hoche, to command the expedition and makes Tone an adjutant in the French army.

On December 16, 1796, Wolfe Tone sails from Brest with 43 ships and nearly 14,000 men. But the ships are badly handled and, after reaching the coast of west Cork and Kerry, are dispersed by a storm. He again brings an Irish invasion plan to Paris in October 1797, but the principal French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, takes little interest. When insurrection breaks out in Ireland in May 1798, Wolfe Tone can only obtain enough French forces to make small raids on different parts of the Irish coast. In September he enters Lough Swilly, Donegal, with 3,000 men and is captured there.

At his trial in Dublin on November 10, Wolfe Tone defiantly proclaims his undying hostility to England and his desire “in fair and open war to produce the separation of the two countries.” He is found guilty and is sentenced to be hanged. Early in the morning of November 12, 1798, the day he is to be hanged, he cuts his throat with a penknife and dies at the age of 35 in Provost’s Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born. He is buried in Bodenstown, County Kildare, near his birthplace, and his grave is in the care of the National Graves Association.