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28 May 1998 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The beginnings of failure

By Aengus O Snodaigh

Considering the effects of General Lake's terror, firstly in Ulster, then in the rest of Ireland, the infiltration of informers and arrests of a large section of the leadership it was a wonder that the United Irish army was in position to stage any sort of a rising in May/June 1798.

Proscribed for over two years and operating under martial law since March the crown forces campaign against them had taken its toll on the United Irishmen's membership. With the long-awaited French expedition now delayed until August and most of the soldiers and British Army regiments which could be relied upon to support a rising having been dispersed abroad, a hastily-convened Directory meeting on 17 May felt compelled to decide a date for a rising before the movement would be no more. So it was that 23 May was selected as the commencement day for an Irish Revolution.

Following the arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Samuel Neilson, John and Henry Sheares within days of this decision, any hope of a co-ordinated rebellion evaporated, but in spite of this the rising began. The northern section of the leadership were still opposed to a rising before French aid arrived and with little or no communications between localities the prospects for a successful rising were receding fast.

On the night of 23 May before his arrest Neilson had directed local commanders to assemble at points inside Dublin. This they did but with no further direction coming throughout the night and with the pre-informed Castle authorities massing soldiers at some of the assembly points the thousands of United Irishmen gathered returned to their homes. The grand strategy of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Arthur O'Connor and Samuel Neilson was no more.

Their strategy involved the taking of key locations in Dublin, with surrounding areas stopping the mail coaches as a signal for the rest of the country to rise, before moving en masse into Dublin to reinforce the rebel strongholds. The county rebels were to attack local garrisons and would be reinforced or relieved by United Irish battalions after Dublin was secured. A similar plan was used in 1916.

The failure of the Dublin United Irishmen to execute their section of the plan did not deter outlying areas from trying to effect their orders. What occurred in the next month was sporadic risings in different areas with little or no communications between the various United Irish camps. With little contemporary United Irish records of casualties or deaths, many were buried in unmarked or mass graves. We must rely on later works, tradition/folklore and/or the English Administration's accounts, all of which can be taken to be exaggerated for their own purposes.

On hearing of the outbreak of war, A delighted Lord Camden, England's Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, wrote to the Home Secretary in England, ``Martial Law is established - the sword is drawn - I have kept it within the scabbard as long as possible - it must not be returned until this alarming conspiracy is put down''.

By the dawning of 24 May the United Irish commanders in counties surrounding Dublin had effected their plan; they held a crescent of positions within a 25 mile radius of the capital, effectively sealing it off from the rest of the country. At least three mail coaches were stopped; the Belfast mail at Santry; the Athlone mail at Lucan; and the Cork mail at Naas, others were ambushed unsuccessfully. The failure to stop these or even intercept them at all was to have dire consequences, leaving some counties rising with others still awaited a signal.

Some United Irish units began to advance on the city in the hope of linking up with the city units which were to be in position by now, before once again withdrawing.

The failure of Dublin allowed the crown forces to begin a mopping up operation against the partially successful United Irish armies in counties Westmeath, Carlow, Kildare, Meath, Laois and Offaly. Much of this was done with great barbarity and against all accepted rules of engagement which the English would uphold in continental wars. What atrocities were committed on the rebel side were replicated a hundred fold by crown forces prior to, during and after the rising.

Despite the initial successes the United Irish armies were to incur heavy losses over the next four days. At Naas an hour-long battle left 130 United Irish soldiers and the rest fleeing to the Wicklow Mountains; Kilcullen saw ``130 dead - no prisoners''; Barrettstown 100 dead; Monasterevin 60 dead, including only five of the crown forces. In Carlow the United Irish contingent literally walked into cannon-fire. An eye-witness stated that after this ``the army advance, firing volley after volley till they came up to the cabins. They set every one of them on fire and all that were in them, men, women and children, innocent and guilty, all burned together in one common mass.''

At Tara Hill the several thousand United Irishmen gathered there were routed by the Highland Fencibles leaving 350 dead; Rathangan rebels were dislodged by cannon fire; 500 United Irishmen engaged in surrender talks were gunned down on the Curragh of Kildare.

While these Leinster areas were doing battle and retreating after bearing the brunt of the mass of crown forces, word was filtering into other counties of what was occurring and preparations were in hand in counties Down, Antrim and Wexford especially to relieve their brethren. But co-ordination was lacking and the original haphazard nature of the rising had allowed the crown forces to regroup and reinforce weaker commands before taking head-on the rebels in Ulster and then what remained of the May/June United Irish Rising of 1798 in Wexford. Mopping up operations continued into July, before the August French expedition again threatened the crown's hold on Ireland. The Battle of Ballinamuck as good as ended this revolutionary period of Irish history, though sporadic United Irish actions continued until 1803, when Robert Emmet's rising failed, Thomas Russell was captured and the Wicklow United Irish leader Michael Dwyer was transported to Australia.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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