Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Rebellion of '98

In spite of the capture of their military commander, the rebel flag was raised at the given signal. Dublin, Kildare and Meath were the first counties to defy the government. The first blow was struck at Naas, where the combatants met in battle. At Tara, the defeat of the rebels was a check on the rising of Meath.

The outbreak in Wexford led to horrors, never to be forgotten in the annals of Ireland. The natives of this county had been prosperous and peaceful. They were chiefly the descendants of English settlers, and held aloof at first from the United Irishmen. Fear of massacre, and above all the oppression of Catholics, drove them to revolt, for the Catholics were in the majority throughout Wexford and had a leader in the curate of the parish, Father Murphy.

Quarrels had been rife for some time between Catholic and Protestant of the lower classes. Secret plans were muttered in the chapels on Sundays while the trees were cut down in grim token of the general discontent. As soon as the pikes were made the rebels showed their intentions. They took the town, of Eniscorthy, and went into camp on Vinegar Hill. It was a wild and picturesque sight, that camp of rebels, none of them trained soldiers or skilled in military organization. Tents of all shapes and colours dotted the ground—they had been hurriedly shaped from wattles and covered with tablecloths, curtains or blankets from plundered houses of the neighbourhood. A ruined windmill, afterwards of dreadful notoriety, stood in the centre of the camp, and from its summit waved the green flag of defiance. A few guns had been placed in a battery but this was a war of hand-made weapons. Pikes did deadly injury in all the battles of the year. The soldier fared well on provisions taken from the larders of the gentry, and often sprawled about the camp the worse for wine, stolen from the cellars of great houses. Numbers of women were gathered on Vinegar Hill, grown almost as merciless as the soldiers. Some of them boiled cattle in great copper brewing-pans outside the tents, while others played musical instruments they had found on some wild expedition of plunder.

Vinegar Hill was the only settled camping ground the rebels had. The summer of '98 was unusually fine and the soldiers, who took this as an omen in their favour, often bivouacked on the bare earth without the shelter of a tent. Vinegar Hill was also the scene of some of the cruellest outrages of the year.

Father Murphy followed up the success at Eniscorthy by an attack on Wexford. The inhabitants were terror-stricken, having learnt the nature of the rebel forces. They agreed to surrender, and many tried to leave the town before the enemy approached. In the frenzied escape by ships, more than one was found to prefer death by drowning to the mercy of the rabble that was soon pouring into Wexford. There were grotesque figures of men, adorned with the gayest attire from some fine lady's wardrobe—hats, feathers and tippets, especially those of a green shade, were the favourite articles of dress. The trembling inhabitants of Wexford hastened to hang green from their windows, and pinned into their hats the green cockades.

The rebels would have marched on Wicklow, if they had not been checked by the defeat of Newtown Barry. They had a kind of superstitious faith in their leader, Father Murphy. It was commonly reported among the soldiers that he could catch bullets in his hands without being hurt. He had led them into battle near Wexford, holding a crucifix aloft, and all the glory of the day was attributed to this.

The battle of New Ross was the fiercest in the rebellion, raging from four in the morning till late in the afternoon. The rebels began by driving black cattle before them, to break through the ranks of the English. This stratagem served its purpose and the day opened victoriously for Murphy's men. Lord Mountjoy, one of the staunchest friends of the Catholics in former times, fell fighting for the government. Men ignorant of military tactics showed desperate courage at New Ross. One stood in the thick of the fight holding up a cross, and his companions paused to kneel down and kiss it before charging the enemy, as if inspired with fresh enthusiasm. Women showed themselves as daring in actual warfare as on the looting expeditions. A peasant-girl went in and out among the rebels, supplying them with cartridges, apparently unconscious that she risked her life a thousand times. She was matched by the wife of a loyalist townsman, who chose to remain in New Ross alone after the other inhabitants had fled. Here she spent the day of battle mixing wine and water for the soldiers. At night the rebels were obliged to break and flee from the field, having lost about two thousand of their party:

A dreadful outrage followed the battle of New Ross. Some Protestant prisoners, who had been placed in a barn at Scullabogue, were dragged out to meet the punishment of death, and then the barn was set on fire that none of them should escape. This massacre roused the government to a tardy sense of danger. Rebellion did not break out in the North as soon as was expected, considering that the Presbyterians of Ulster had been closely concerned with the Society of United Irishmen. Ulster had been placed under martial law before the other provinces, and the military kept a very strict watch on all signs of conspiracy. Then, too, the opinions of the people began to undergo a change, as reports came of that riotous Catholic rabble which plundered and murdered ruthlessly instead of drilling for battle. The men of Ulster were chiefly Protestants who had sympathized with Tone's desire for an Irish Republic, quite independent of England. They had pinned their faith to an alliance with the French, and saw the policy of France change with a sensation of dismay. They had no desire to establish a despotism, where the soldier ruled, a very tyrant; and slowly the dream of being free citizens was dispelled by the course of affairs abroad. Antrim and Down were the only northern counties to aid the insurrection. They broke out and were suppressed by government within a few days of their first rising.

In the south, the decline of the rebellion dated from the defeat of the insurgents of Arklow. The camp at Vinegar Hill was stormed by reinforcements sent from England, and Wexford passed once more under the rule of government. Father Murphy died, but when or how he met his end has never really been discovered.

A struggle went on in the Wicklow Mountains after the rebels had capitulated in other parts. The French sent an expedition to their help, and Humbert, landed in Killala Bay. Hoping to find trained soldiers, he found only a trampled peasantry, who were childishly eager to join him because they were attracted by the gay uniforms he brought, and the weapons they used as toys for shooting at birds or trees. Humbert failed through lack of any real support, and the same disaster fell on a third French fleet, which carried Wolfe Tone on board. The English took the ships and sentenced Tone to be hanged. He had always felt a horror of this shameful death and evaded it by taking his own life in prison.

The rebellion was now at an end. The leaders had been punished and the peasants cowed into submission, when the birthday of King William III. came round. As the conqueror who gave Ireland to the rule of the Protestant, his birthday had always been celebrated with great ceremony by the Orange party in Dublin. Processions and peals of bells, and the firing of a feu de joie  bade the Protestant rejoice in his deliverance. Orange and blue adorned the statue of the king in Dublin, while his horse, decked with the same colours, trampled a green silk scarf, the emblem of the United Irish, in token that their cause, too, lay in the dust.