Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

30 July 1998 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Remembering the Past: The Young Ireland Rising

The 1848 Rising, background and aftermath

By Aengus O Snodaigh

In the early 1840s young republicans within Daniel O'Connell's Repeal movement were growing impatient and formed a nucleus which were to be known as Young Irelanders. In 1842 three of the leaders, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon founded the Nation newspaper to promote nationalism and to give an outlet to the many revolutionary and radical social thinkers and nationalist intellectuals of the time.

The Young Irelanders broke away from the Repeal Association when O'Connell demanded an announcement that the Association would never use force to attain its ends. The new group believed that force could be justified in ridding Ireland of the yoke of British rule, but hoped its goals could be attained peacefully. Thomas Davis died in 1845 before the Irish Confederation was founded in 1847 but his writings in the Nation and that of his replacement, John Mitchel, formed the basis for much of its philosophy. Confedation Clubs sprang up throughout Ireland and in England and Scotland.

Famine in Ireland was by now taking on holocaust proportions and the demand was no longer merely repeal, but that ``the land of Ireland belongs to the people of Ireland''. Mitchel supported this call from James Fintan Lalor saying ``the Irish people should fight to set up a republic, completely cut off from Britian''. Because of this he was arrested and sentenced to transportation in July 1848. His arrest convinced the remaining Confederate leaders of the need to organise a rising.

In July the government took pre-emptive action in anticipation of that rising, suspending the Habeas Corpus Act and issuing arrest warrants for the remaining leaders.

With much of their plans still in their infancy, the leaders went on the run and tried to regroup. Terence Bellew MacManus was in Liverpool with orders to burn the docks, capture munitions and convey them to Wexford; Thomas D'Arcy McGee was in Glasgow to take Stirling and send the captured arms and ammunitions to Killala; Martin McDermott was in France drilling soldiers; Martin O'Flaherty was travelling to the United States to purchase weapons and to assemble volunteers for an immediate expeditionary force.

The initial military plans were for Michael Doheny to take Cashel; Thomas Francis Meagher to lead the assault on Waterford and Carrick, John Blake Dillon on Athlone; Richard O'Gorman, backed by Doheny, was to take Limerick, while William Smith O'Brien was to be Commander-in-Chief. Following the issuing of a proclamation the rebels would then turn and concentrate on Dublin.

Forced to abandon these plans they attempted to oranise the rising from Tipperary and Kilkenny. They failed abysmally, capitulating in the face of the constabulary at Ballingarry, County Tipperary.

One of its participants, Patrick O'Donohoe, stated that the rising failed due ``to the interposition of the Catholic clergy who denounced'' them, and that William Smith O'Brien's ``conscientious behaviour respecting the rights of property''alienated the impoverished, famished, who were ``thirsting for food and revenge on those whom they conceive have so long oppressed them'' from the Confederation who were dependent on them for success.

The collapse of the rising, the flight or the arrest and transportation to Australia of the leaders saw the mantle of Irish republicanism being passed to a new generation with the founding by former Young Irelanders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Fenians on St Patrick's Day 1858.

The Ballingarry skirmish

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Irish Confederation Rising of 1848 An Phoblacht reprints Donagh MacDonagh's account in the Thomas Davis commemorative brochure of 1945 (Thomas Davis and Young Ireland, 1845-1945) of the events at Ballingarry on 29 July 1848 which became known as the Young Ireland Rising.

Had the children of Widow MacCormack of Boulagh Commons, Ballingarry, not been locked into a house full of police on 29 July 1848, all Ireland might have risen in rebellion.

It was a year of revolution. Early in January 1848, there was a revolution at Leghorn; on 12 January one at Palermo against King Ferdinand; on 13 January Austria was in revolt and on the 29th Naples; the 30th saw the Duke of Medina in flight from his capital, while in February the King of Sardinia was forced to do the same on the 12th. Martial Law was proclaimed in Lombardy on the 22nd and on the same day Messina was bombarded by Neopolitan troops. Louis Philippe fled from Paris on the 23rd and soon every country in Europe was in ferment.

In Ireland Europe's new spirit did not go unobserved, and in the United Irishman John Mitchel urged the people, desperate with famine and misery, towards revolt. He and the other leaders of Young Ireland were gambling on a Rising in the autumn when there would be some food in the country, and the government, terrified by events in Europe, was determined to anticipate them. Mitchel was tried and convicted under the new Treason Felony Act, and country supporters of the Young Ireland movement were shocked to see his fellow advocates of physical force let him go to transportation without a struggle, but hoped they were merely biding their time.

Smith O'Brien, Meagher and the others thought they had ample time to complete their preparations, since in the then state of the law they did not see how government could bring them to trial in less than two months but they were stampeded into premature action when on 25 July Government incontinently suspended Habeas Corpus, issued proclamations for their arrest and offered rewards for their apprehension.

They immediately appointed a War Council: John Blake Dillon and Thomas Francis Meagher joined William Smith O'Brien at Ballinkeale, in Wexford, and there the three decided to organise a Rising. Kilkenny, they agreed, would be their headquarters, there they would set up their Provisional Government and issue their first manifesto.

They then made a tour of the countryside urging the people to be ready to rise, passed through Kilkenny where they were told that reinforcements would be necessary, and then into Tipperary where they held enthusiastic meetings, which became rather less enthusiastic as time passed and the people, hungry and thirsty, found nothing to eat or drink. At Mullinahone O'Brien bought them some bread himself, but told them that in future they would have to provide for themselves and that he would requisition nothing from any man. They returned home faint with hunger.

Gradually, the crowds which had been so great and which had cheered so loudly began to fade away, and when the Catholic clergy came among them begging them to return home, pointing out their utter unpreparedness, their lack of weapons, the ignorance of military tactics of their leaders, the utter lack of food, most of them forgot their warlike spirit.

To the majority Smith O'Brien's name was completely unknown, but his danger of immediate arrest without cause shown, the old tradition of revolt, and the appeal to them to risk an honourable death in action rather than one by starvation in a corner of their cabins, appealed strongly to them, and those who remained were willing to risk everything under the leadership of the Young Irelanders. At Boulagh Commons, where he gathered the miners from the local coal mines about him, Smith O'Brien found many eager volunteers, some of them already armed, others prepared to fight with their mining tools, or to use their technical skill in trenching the roads against the police and military.

While the meeting was still going forward the police and military were approaching Ballingarry. The Government had been frightened into sending out of the country every Irish regiment, and replacing them with English and Scottish units; they had expected a general rising throughout the country in answer to the propaganda which the Nation and the United Irishman had been so long disseminating, and as news came to them from Kilkenny and Wexford and Tipperary of the passage of the men on whose heads they had put a price they uneasily expected another `98. Now they ordered the RIC of Thurles, Kilkenny, Cashel and Callan to advance on Boulagh Commons.

The police from Callan were first to arrive, long before their time, and when the miners saw them riding forward in the distance they hastily threw up a barricade expecting a sudden assault. The police, on the other hand, when they saw a hundred or so miners gathered on the spoil-banks being harangued by a number of strange gentlemen, were not at all anxious to provoke an engagement, and made for a substantial farmhouse which they saw some distance away. This was the Widow MacCormack's farm.

In they went, tumbling over one another in their haste, for the miners, when they saw their change of direction had made a rush to reach the farmhouse before them. However, the police just managed get inside in time, but so hurriedly had they entered that the grey charger of their sub-inspector, complete with two pistols in a saddle-holster, was left outside for the rebels. Immediately they began to put the house in a state of defence.

The miners, seeing the police safely cornered, came to O'Brien and pointed out how simple an operation it would be for them to undermine the house, place a charge of explosive under it and blow it over the countryside, and O'Brien was about to assent to their masterly grasp of siege-tactics when Mrs MacCormack, who had been out watching the crowds, rushed up to him and began to abuse him for his thoughtlessness in frightening the police into taking refuge in her house where her five children were at this moment being frightened into hysterics.

``Glory be to God, sir,'' she said, going down on her knees, ``You can't risk the lives of those little innocent children for the sake of a couple of constabulary men!'' The miners in the meantime were standing anxiously by, waiting impatiently to go ahead with the blowing-up of the house. They watched O'Brien's face as he nodded to Mrs MacCormack and then gave them the signal to wait, sending Mrs MacCormack to the house to arrange a guarantee of his safety from the police. Then he went to the parlour window to discuss the evacuation of the children.

The police, seeing what a sure shield against aggression had been provided by chance, refused to give the children up, and the parley was still going forward when some impatient miner threw a rock through a kitchen window, to be greeted immediately by a burst of firing from every window in the house. The police killed several with this burst while they themselves suffered no casualties then or later.

O'Brien, his negotiations suddenly broken down, found himself trapped between two fires, and with some difficulty made his way through a small gateway into a cabbage garden behind the house, and from there he crept on all fours behind a low wall until he was able to rejoin his companions.

Meanwhile, Terence Bellew MacManus had gathered a number of miners to organise a new form of siege-work. He had noticed a load of hay some distance away, and this he now got them to push close to the kitchen door, being themselves safe from the police fire behind its shelter. Once in position he hoped to set it on fire and so burn or smoke the police out of their fortress, but, though he fired several shots from his pistol into it, the incessant rain of the previous days had so soaked it as to make it impossible to set it alight. In addition, O'Brien returned at this moment and insisted that nothing should be done towards wrecking the house while the children were still inside.

Smith O'Brien's opportunity was rapidly running through his fingers; his few followers were ill-armed, ill-fed, scarcely drilled at all and led by men who had no experience of warfare. Opposed to them were the armed, disciplined and well-fed police and military, ably led by experienced officers and backed by the British Empire. Yet, had he been able to grasp the opportunity there might have been a Rising in Ireland fit to stand with any in that revolutionary year.

The people were desperate; they were brave and had been filled for years by the able propaganda of the Young Irelanders; they were hungry, but a militant spirit might have taught them less respect for the stores of food which abounded in the dying country. One savage assault on the farmhouse of Mrs MacCormack, one decisive defeat for the government and the news, spread through the country, might have shaken the British occupation. Had Mrs MacCormack taken her little children with her to see the strange men from Dublin the history of Ireland might have been changed.

Soon troops and police were poured into the neighbourhood, the police were relieved, the children restored to their mother, and O'Brien and the others were fugitives in the hills....

``The Cabbage-Garden Revolution'' the affair was sneeringly christened by MacDonald of the Times, and both the English and Irish papers hailed it as a great victory of a few members of the RIC over thousands of armed men, though the Illustrated London News added this explanatory note....''The Irish constabulary are not a police; they are the most formidable troops in arms and equipment, drill, physique, ability, experience and self-reliance in Her Majesty's service.''

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1