LET us recap a little and fill in some gaps. The battle of Oulart Hill on 27 May, took place after the incident at The Harrow the previous day, which saw two yeomen killed led to a night of hostility.
The yeomanry patrols were out for revenge, burning and killing indiscriminately, while the rebels raided the manors and houses of loyalists and yeomen holding arms, killing more of the enemy. News of these raids reached Wexford, which led to the bulk of the garrison, comprising 110 men from the North Cork Militia, which was ordered north to crush the rebels.
More than 1,000 rebels occupied the highest part of the hill. In an attempt to lure them down, the English set fire to cabins on the lower ground. It was early days for some of the rebels and many began to drift away. The appearance of yeomen cavalry stemmed this outflow, while the militia confidently began to march up the hill. As they did, they fired a couple of volleys, but the rebels held their fire until the militia were close enough. Then they opened up and brought down many of the enemy. The remainder fled. They were chased by rebels, who cut them down as they caught up. Only four made it back to Wexford.
The yeomen cavalry also fled when one of their members was killed. This victory was the catalyst for thousands to join the rebellion, which saw the capture of Enniscorthy and a practically undefended Wexfrod on 30 May. Many prisoners were released, included Bagenal Harvey, a Protestant, who was a member of the United Irishmen but who had not taken part in the planning of the rebellion. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Wexford rebels and would lead the division, which travelled south to take New Ross.
First, a meeting as called by Harvey and attended by most of his officers. A list of general orders was drawn up which, if fully implemented, would have been quite severe and could have had a detrimental effect on the morale of the rebels, not forgetting that these were volunteers and not paid soldiers.
We now turn our attention to the rebels, who set out to take New Ross. First, we will address the attempts of General Fawcett on hearing of the Oulart battle and knowing Wexford was poorly defended. He left Duncannon with 200 soldiers and orders for 100 more to follow, including an artillery detachment. The two groups were to link up at Taghmon, midway between Wexford town and Duncannon. Fawcett reached the village without interference and took residence with local supporters.
The artillery column, with Captain Adams in command, arrived at 2am and was advised that there was no rebel presence between Taghmon and Wexford, so they pushed on towards the town. But this was not the case. A large band of rebels was waiting close to the three rocks at the bottom of Forth Mountain near Barntown. And as dawn broke, the English walked straight into the rebel ambush. The first volley of shots took down a good number and the follow-up attack by pikemen did the rest. More than 70 were killed and the battle was over in minutes – the gunners and their guns captured. On hearing the news, Fawcett immediately returned to Duncannon. The Irish leaders involved were John Hay, Edward Fitzgerald and Edward Roche, while overall command was divided between Thomas Cloney, Robert Carty and John Kelly.
The battle of New Ross was one of the bloodiest and most brutal of the campaign. The town was defended by more than 2,000 English regulars, militia and yeomanry and commanded by General Henry Johnston, Luke Gardener and 1st Viscount Mountjoy, who was killed in the battle. Once again, the Irish made the mistake of not moving fast enough, which allowed reinforcements to arrive and bolster the defence of the town.
The rebels had spent three days resting on Carrigbyrne Hill. This replicated the Arklow situation and had given the garrison time to prepare a solid defence plan, which they carried out with vigour, digging trenches both outside and inside the town to be manned by skirmishers (infantry and cavalry stationed ahead of the main body to disrupt the attackers). On 4 June, the rebels moved forward to Colbert Hill with a force of more than 10,000 men.
Harvey sent a man called Matt Furlong to the town to negotiate surrender under a flag of truce. But he was shot down by a Crown outpost. This infuriated John Kelly, who was in command of an advance party of 500 men, with orders to seize the Three Bullet Gate and wait for reinforcements before pushing into the town. Kelly immediately led a furious charge, driving a herd of cattle through the gate in front of them. Another column attacked the priory gate, while a third pulled back from the market gate due to the strength of the defence. The garrison sent forward a troop of cavalry to attack the remaining two columns of rebels. The rump of the rebels saw this and rallied the front ranks that stood and beat off the charge with pikes.
Rebels then swept through the crown outposts, seizing the Three Bullet Gate. Without waiting for reinforcements, they moved through the town, simultaneously sweeping down the sloping streets but then running into stout resistance from the second line of defence. Despite suffering horrendous casualties, the rebels had taken two-thirds of the town. They had the crown forces on the run and on the verge of withdrawal, but a shortage of ammunition left them depending on the pike, giving the defenders some respite until noon, when reinforcements arrived. A counter-attack saw the exhausted rebels driven back and out of the town.
The English did not pursue the fleeing rebels, but as soon as the town was secured, a massacre of prisoners began, which lasted for days. Casualty stations were set alight and hundreds of rebels and sympathisers were burned alive. It is believed that more rebels died in the aftermath than in battle. There are different figures for the numbers killed, but the most accurate is probably 2,806 rebels and 200 crown soldiers. The bodies of the rebels were either thrown into the River Barrow or buried in mass graves outside the town walls.
It is believed that the reports brought by escaping rebels led to the massacre at Scullabogue. Here, rebels rounded up more than 100 loyalists – men, women and children, who lived in the area. Thirty of these were shot dead, while 80 others inside a barn, which was set alight, died in the fire. These included women and children.
As the English, under General Lake, moved towards Enniscorthy from the north side, General Moore was marching from New Ross with 1,500 men when he was confronted by 5,000 rebels, led by Fr Phillip Roche, at Horetown near Foulksmills. After some initial success, the rebels came under heavy artillery fire and withdrew with the loss of 500 men, while Moore’s force suffered 100 casualties.
Also, on 20 June, Wexford town was retaken by the crown, but not before rebels, under Captain Dixon, rounded up 100 loyalists, brought them to the bridge, piked them and threw the bodies into the Slaney.
We have written of Vinegar hill in full detail some time ago, but just a brief reminder of events there, which was more or less the end of the Wexford rebellion.
The battle was fought on 21 June 1798 and featured the largest army – 18,000 men – the crown had put together throughout the rebellion. They also had many artillery pieces at their command against a rebel force of 20,000, which depended mainly on the pike. Lake planned to annihilate the rebels and he had split his force into four divisions led by generals Dundas, Duff, Needham and Johnston, covering every escape avenue available.
The rebel leaders were Perry Myles Byrne and priests John Murphy and Mogue Kearns. Following a heavy bombardment just before dawn, the English gradually moved in on the rebels. Meanwhile, Johnston had attacked Enniscorthy town but was beaten back with heavy casualties, while a second attack supported by cavalry did move the rebels out of the town, but they still managed to defend the bridge over the Slaney.
As most of the English reached the crest of the hill, Needham was slow and left a gap through which most of the rebels escaped. Meanwhile, the heavy guns were switched to firing grape shot to maximise casualties. The English committed many atrocoties, including the gang rape of the women left on the hill. And in the town, the rebel wounded were burned to death in their casualty station. Despite the superior firepower of the English, less that 1,000 rebels perished, while just over 100 of the enemy were killed.
We have covered most of the Wexford battles in this article, but we conclude with Ballyellis, near Carnew, where General Holt had a victory over a small English contingent. Holt was on his way to the safety of the mountains around Carnew with 1,000 men and a number of women and children when one of his foraging parties was attacked and destroyed. In Monaseed, 200 English troops realised this was part of the main band of rebels and gave chase. Holt set up an ambush at the townland of Ballyellis, a few miles south of Carnew. The spot chosen was behind a curve in the road, with plenty of cover from high ditches. Then wagons were placed on the side of the road, with the main force in hiding between them. Finally, a small group was left on the road to lure the soldiers. When they spotted the small force, the English charged. On reaching the curve, they ran into a barrage of fire as they found themselves hemmed in on three sides. More troops arriving only added to the problem, as they pressed their comrades into the hands of the pikemen. Troops at the rear fled, with a few others jumping the ditches into fields. They were pursued and more were killed. At the end of the battle, 60 English had died with no rebel losses.
Of the principal leaders, Bagenal Harvey, Anthony Perry, Cornelius Grogan and Matthew Keogh, all Protestants, were executed. They were decapitated and their heads put on spikes outside Wexford Courthouse. Fr John Murphy was captured near Tullow. He was stripped, flogged, hanged, beheaded, burned in a barrel and his head placed on a spike opposite the Catholic Church in the town. Myles Byrne escaped to France and became a brigadier general in Napoleon’s Irish Brigade.