New side advert

10 September 1998 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Remembering the Past: A short-lived republic

200 years ago this week the Battle of Ballinamuck effectively ended the United Irish Rebellion. Aengus O Snodaigh describes what happened

Since the failed landing of a French expeditionary force at Bantry Bay in December 1796 the Irish, and specifically the leadership of the United Irishmen, put their faith in further support for their forthcoming rising. When the rising went ahead in May 1798 without the French, the leaders still hoped against hope that the long promised expeditions were on their way, but it was not to be. The rising was snuffed out before that project even set sail.

In spite of Napoleon Bonaparte's loss of interest, the French government continued to plan for a small expedition to Ireland. In Paris Wolfe Tone and Edward Lewins were working tirelessly to this end. Spurred by the news that a rising was afoot in Ireland there were plans by 14 July for several separate expeditions, one under General Humbert, followed by General Hay and Napper Tandy, with the main one under General Hardy at Brest.

  Brave Irishmen, our cause is common, like you we hold as indefeasible the right of all nations to liberty. Like you we are persuaded that the peace of the world shall ever be troubled as long as the British ministry is suffered to make with impunity a traffic of industry, labour and blood of the people. The moment for breaking your chains has arrived. Our triumphant troops are now flying to the extremities of the earth, to tear up the roots of the wealth and tyranny of our enemies...
Union! Liberty! the Irish Republic! Such is our shout. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.  

General Humbert's proclamation on 22 August 1798

Humbert's force was to establish a bridgehead with his 1,019 soldiers, 6,000 stands of arms, three field guns and 3,000 uniforms. The other expeditions would follow shortly after with extra munitions and a larger body of soldiers.

Despite many problems Humbert sailed out into the Atlantic on 5 August in a circular route avoiding the English fleet blockading France, but Hardy, who was to follow directly behind, faced financial as well as weather problems and was unable to set sail until 16 September. Wolfe Tone was part of this expedition. Napper Tandy managed to set sail with 400 soldiers and a large supply of arms and ammunition before him.

On 22 August, Humbert and his three frigates dropped anchor outside Killala on the coast of County Mayo in Ireland. As the French soldiers came ashore some yeomen offered resistance but took to their heels very quickly. With no resistance offered the French occupied the town's strongest building, the castle.

Humbert made a declaration that they had come to liberate Ireland from the ``English yoke''. Luckily for him the strength of the English forces in the area was negligible and it allowed him to delay awhile in Killala. While there hundreds of local United Irishmen and Defenders joined with them and helped them prepare for the battles ahead, requisitioning provisions in the name of the ``Provisional Government of Connaught''. United Irishmen all over set off across Ireland to join with the French.

Connaught was not typical of the rest of Ireland that year, being the weakest link in the nation-wide United Irish army, but it did contain many highly-motivated individuals and many refugees from the backlash against the risings in Ulster and Leinster.


On learning of the landing the English commanders Cornwallis and Lake ordered reinforcements to Connaught immediately and called for Westminster to send more. Both travelled west immediately to try to prevent the wholesale rising which they felt such a landing would precipitate. The garrisons in Ballina, Castlebar and Sligo, unsure of the size of the expeditionary force strengthened their defences and made preparations to take on the French.

Unsure of Hardy's whereabouts and believing that the best defence was attack, Humbert suddenly struck at the Ballina garrison several miles away. Having left 200 soldiers to safeguard Killala, his tactic paid off with soldiers fleeing after putting up token resistance. More Irish now flocked to the standard, but still there was no sign of Hardy. Humbert decided to press ahead in view of reports that government forces were beginning to converge on him.

On Sunday 26 August he set off with about 1,500 men and headed towards Castlebar, which was held by a larger force of English soldiers. In a classic manoeuvre he approached the town from the unexpected northwest, having travelled along the mountain roads and skirting around Lough Conn. The element of surprise was retained, which would have been lost by taking the direct route.

Totally unawares, General Lake reached Castlebar at midnight, just hours before the dawn attack of Humbert's army. With some notice the town's defenders rallied to face them, but they were not in a good position and were soon dislodged.

Unnerved by Humbert's tactics and the fearsome reputation of the French soldiers, when the United Irish and French army attacked at about eight o'clock the defenders fled with 50 dead and several hundred missing. Humbert's army swept into the town and took possession of the disgarded weapons, artillery and ammunition. This most impressive victory left Humbert in control of half of county Mayo and a good section of the western seaboard. It also encouraged many to rally once more to the United Irish standard. In Tipperary, Laois, Offaly, Longford, Westmeath, Leitrim, Cavan and in the rebel stronghold of Wicklow preparations were made to join with the new army as it made its way across the country. Some set off across country to meet it.

With no sign yet of Hardy, Humbert decided to press on. A Republic was declared on 31 August with John Moore elected president. All United Irish soldiers were being trained and prepared for forthcoming battles.


The British, smarting from the defeat at Castlebar, began reinforcing their large garrisons at Tuam, Athlone, Boyle and Sligo and on 4 September the British army under Cornwallis and Lake moved 8,000 soldiers out of Tuam and headed in the direction of Castlebar preparing for an attack the next day. Realising the threat, Humbert moved rapidly towards Sligo, all the time seeking new recruits to boost his half professional, half rag-tag army. He still believed that he could link up with a United Irish army in Ulster, despite no sign of it stirring again.

But the English general, Cornwallis, who had been heading for Castlebar, on being informed of Humbert's dash across Mayo changed tack. He divided his force, retiring half of it to protect Dublin. The rest under General Lake set off in pursuit of Humbert.

Maintaining his hectic pace Humbert's army clashed with over 1,000 English soldiers from the Sligo garrison at Colloney, south of Sligo town. Despite being victorious Humbert had to press on, camping that night further east at Drumahair, County Leitrim. His soldiers were now beginning to tire. One of his captains, Jobit, reports: ``Our soldiers, extremely fatigued and much depressed by the news of enormous enemy forces dogging and surrounding them, had now so neglected order in their march that the army formed a queue more than a league long.'' In the meantime Castlebar was retaken by English soldiers virtually unopposed.

The rebellion in Longford and Westmeath was gaining momentum, both groups now numbering near 6,000. The Longford group was concentrated at a camp near Granard, while the other gathered at Wilson's Hospital, outside Mullingar. Neither group was well-armed nor well organised, but their numbers were sufficient to cause concern in English military circles.

Very soon the nearby English garrisons began to encircle the rebel camps, but try as hard as he could Humbert was not in time to save them from their fate.

Humbert marched his troops to Drumkeeran on 6 September and the following day crossed the Shannon at Ballintra and stopped for the night at Cloon.

Foolishly, the leaders of the Longford United Irish decided to attack the Granard garrison. After failing miserably panic spread among them. The fleeing rebels were massacred, over 400 of their number dying that day. In Mullingar the United Irish forces were routed by government reinforcements from Cavan and Castlepollard.


Humbert's chances of success were evaporating fast. With no word of French reinforcements, he would have realised the cause was nearly lost. Thirty-five thousand soldiers under General Lake and General Cornwallis were moving in on his charges when he decided to make a final bid to break through to the east, break the crown forces morale and hopefully to join up with any United Irish armies still capable of putting to the field.

On a low hill at Ballinamuck, between Cloon and Granard, he drew up his forces in opposition to the approaching English army. The battle was brief, beginning at 9am, and lasting no longer than half an hour. Government and French casualties were light. The killing continued through till the afternoon.

To an onlooker the contribution of the French to the battle would have seemed a token gesture, a short exchange of fire to validate their national honour before laying down their arms. The thousand or so Irish rebels though suffered the brunt of the fighting. Having moved up Shanmullagh hill overlooking the village under Colonel McDonnell's direction and making a stand against the onslaught of English troops, they acquitted themselves well. Despite the heroics of gunners Magee and Casey (Longford Militiamen who joined the French after Castlebar) who tried to prevent General Lake from outflanking the Irish on Shanmullagh - Eoghan O Tuairaisc's famous ballad recaptures the atmosphere of their role in the battle `An Gunnadóir Mac Aoidh' - they were soon outgunned. A French general said of the fight on Shanmullagh that:

``Colonel McDonnell gave proof in this engagement of the most intrepid valour and showed himself a superb tactician. At the head of a band of United Irishmen, he defended a post by which the enemy would have been able to debouch and cause disorder in our ranks... With their pikes they repulsed the English cavalry who three times charged and three times retired with loss.''

The French, who had mutinied before leaving for Ireland, no longer had heart for the battle and Humbert surrendered, leaving the Irish to fend for themselves. While the French were to `enjoy' the status of prisoners of war, no quarter was given to the United Irish or to Irish-born officers in the French army.

While the French were surrendering their weapons the Irish were still being slaughtered on the battlefield and pursued by the cavalry to the edges of the bog, where the Armagh Militia (who had missed the battle) took over the chase. One of their number said afterwards: ``we ran for four miles before we could get into the action; the men forgot all their troubles and fought like furies. We pursued the rebels through the bog - the country was covered for miles round with their slain.''

The English reports put their losses at less than 20, while over 500 United Irish soldiers lay dead, but it was not to be the end. For the rebels and the country people associated with the rising, however, there followed the by now usual English campaign of counter-revolution, of summary executions, house burnings and general terrorism against the people in every area rebellion had taken place.

The actions of the Armagh Militia were typical of this terror. A militiaman wrote:

``We remained [at Ballinamuck] for a few days burying the dead - hung General Blake and nine of the Longford Militia; we brought an 113 prisoners to Carrick-on-Shannon, 19 of whom were executed in one day, and left the remainder with another regiment to follow our example, and then marched to Boyle...''

While Lake orchestrated his campaign of terror, Humbert and his 800 men were being transported by canal barge to Dublin, whence they would be shipped back to France.

Humbert's aide-de-camp, Bartholomew Teeling, was singled out from among the French officers and sent along with Matthew Tone, who had been captured in disguise in Belturbet, to Dublin for court-martial.

Two weeks after their victory at Ballinamuck the English retook Killala, leaving several hundred rebels dead. The Connaught Republic was no more. John Moore, the erstwhile President of Connaught, was among those hanged after a hurried trial.

The Battle of Ballinamuck took place this week 200 years ago.

New book

A new book detailing in much more detail the French campaign in Connaught in August and September 1798 has been published recently by Lilliput Press. Written by Leitrim man Liam Kelly it places Leitrim among the other rebel counties of Ireland that year. Using local and archival sources, maps and illustrations he especially shows the history of the French expedition to Connaught, its forced march into defeat and the consequences for the United Irish who flocked to the French revolutionary standard. This is local history at its best.

A Flame Now Quenched: Rebels and Frenchmen in Leitrim, 1793-1798 by Liam Kelly is available in most bookshops for £9.99.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

Powered by Phoenix Media Group