On This Day -Drivetime – 23 May 1798 – the rebellion of the United Irishmen begins





It may come as a surprise to learn that the county of Wexford was once a Republic in its own right, as opposed to being merely part of one.   I blame the French myself, as did the British administration in Ireland. Far too many people thinking they could emulate the French Revolution and get rid of tyrranical rule.


It all happened, of course, in May 1798, when the United Irishmen rose in rebellion in different parts of the country. The most successful and longest lasting of these disparate insurrections was in the Banner county but the rebellion itself kicked off in Dublin when small crowds of men set out from some of the poorer parts of Dublin hoping to seize the symbolic Dublin Castle and other key public buildings.


So thoroughly infiltrated were the Dublin United Irishmen – one of their most inspirational leaders, Lord Edward Fitzgerald had already been captured, that the rising stood little or no chance. The militia sorted out the rebels and many simply abandoned their weapons and quietly slipped back to their homes. More successful were rebellions in the counties around Dublin, in north Kildare, southern Meath and west Wicklow – though opposition was mopped up quickly here.


But the most successful insurrection, other than that of the Northern United Irishmen in County Antrim, was in Wexford, an area not deemed worthy of that much attention by the Castle in its intelligence operations. That was a mistake. Despite losing its leader, Bagenal Harvey, before Wexford rose, the rebels retained good enough leaders to cause serious problems to the local militia. Harvey was captured after the authorities moved against him on the basis of information secured through the torture of leading United Irishman Anthony Perry. Perry had been pitchcapped by the North Cork Militia in Gorey. This delightful practice involved pouring hot tar onto the heads of rebels and tearing it off when it had cooled. Perry later got at least some of his own back when he was released, joined the rebels and led a force at the Battle of Tuberneering in 4 June which destroyed much of the British force in North Wexford. A few days before the citizens of Wexford had established their own republican regime.


The rebels had quickly taken Enniscorthy and then Wexford town itself, led by among others, Perry, Fr.John Murphy and John Kelly, the ‘Boy from Killane’ in the folk song of that name – though he was highly unlikely to have ‘seven feet in height with some inches to spare’. For a fortnight the British Army in Wexford was unable to inflict serious defeat on the rebels, until the United Irishmen fell short of taking New Ross on 5 June. It was towards the end of the battle for New Ross that one of two infamous massacres of loyalist civilians took place at Scullabogue when 200 men, women and children were herded into a farm building which was then burned with the loss of all but two lives. The atrocity was probably in retaliation for the many outrages that had been committed, by the largely Protestant, Yeomanry forces in the weeks prior.


As the British General, Gerard Lake, continued to make inroads on the rebels, defeating the bulk of their forces at Vinegar Hill on 21 June, a second massacre of loyalists took place on Wexford Bridge. Accordingly it was there that Bagenal Harvey and John Kelly were hanged after the reverse at Vinegar Hill and inevitable repercussions of that defeat. The British response to rebellion was ferocious, all the more so as small bands of rebels continued to hold out in the county for some months. Many of those captured in 1798 and later were brutally executed.


The United Irishmen’s rebellion, which found its most successful expression in County Wexford, began in Dublin 216 years ago, on this day.s