ON THIS DAY: 21 June 1798: Irish insurgents defeated at the Battle of Vinegar Hill

Reenactment Battle of Vinegar Hill Photo Credit: A Still taken from Youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W36Eyi-R-r8

June 21, 1798 was the day on which the Irish insurgents were defeated at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The British forces numbering up to 18,000 under the command of General Lake had been engaged in a sweep through Wexford that had forced the rebel army to muster its forces, to the number of up to 20,000, on Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy. For the day of what Seamus Heaney described as “the final conclave.”

Also among the numbers gathered were thousands of people who were not fighters but who had travelled with the insurgents, as family members, and as people who were escaping the terror of the British forces and the colonial Militia and Yeomanry. That terror had begun in 1797 as informers among the United Irish leadership provided the British with considerable fore-warning of a planned uprising.

Lake had been central to the terror in Ulster in 1797, instructed by the Lord Lieutenant Camden “not to suffer the cause of justice to be frustrated by the delicacy which might possibly actuate the magistracy.” That was a licence for wholesale murder, torture, rape and theft, aided by the Orange descendants of the settler population. The United Irishmen in the north was torn apart not least of all by the treachery of some its own leaders.

The United Irishmen had also been rendered weaker by their counsel to those tens of thousands of people they had recruited to hold fire during the terror, on the foolish belief that a French expeditionary force was imminent in the early Summer. Only in Wexford was the outrage of the people sufficient to overcome their putative leaders, and the county rose in late May 1798 to defend itself from the loyalists gangs.

Two of the key leaders in Wexford were Fr. John Murphy and Fr. Mogue Kearns who had narrowly escaped being murdered by the Paris mob during the French Revolution. Neither were therefore under any illusions about the Jacobinism advocated by the United Irish leaders, but like most people were drawn into the armed resistance by what they saw taking place around them to their families and neighbours.

Fr. Murphy had advised his parishioners to hand over their pikes to the Yeomanry and Militia, but by late May it was clear that disarming, far from buying relief, was only encouraging the depredations against what the loyalists clearly regarded as a supine, cowardly people. Catholic bishops like Dr. James Caulfield were complicit in the betrayal of a people that had endured much for their faith.

The resistance in Wexford did not last long and Vinegar Hill, while not the end, was the decisive event as they could not hold out until the French did eventually send a force in August which landed in Mayo.

Vinegar Hill was not a suitable place to take on a much better armed force of professional soldiers. Miles Byrne had made his way to Enniscorthy while attempting to protect the thousands who had fled north Wexford. He was irate at both the site chosen, and the lack of preparations for what he knew was the imminent assault led by bombardment from batteries of cannon.

In his memoirs published later in Paris, Byrne lamented the fact that the force gathered at Vinegar Hill had not attacked the British with the large force now at Enniscorthy before they got that far south. Byrne also left what might be regarded as the saddest epitaph of those terrible years:

“Why had not his country, witnessing the perpetration of monstrous crimes, the courage to rise en masse and rather be sacrificed to the last man than to lie prostrate at the tyrants’ feet while they were committing outrage?”

The men and women on Vinegar Hill and in Enniscorthy fought valiantly but were overcome, suffering somewhere in the region of 1,000 killed. All who were captured and who were thought to have been involved in the fighting were killed under the orders of Lake. Eighty wounded being treated in the courthouse in the town were burned to death. Women and girls who were captured were raped.

A substantial number of the insurgents fought a bloody retreat but the dispersed forces no longer had any hope of mounting a renewed offensive. Most people who had not previously risen were too frightened by the earlier terror and what they knew of what had taken place in Wexford to join with the scattered Wexford army.

 

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley –

No kitchens on the run, no striking camp –

We moved quick and sudden in our own country.

The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.

A people, hardly marching – on the hike –

We found new tactics happening each day:

We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike

And stampede cattle into infantry,

Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.

Until, on Vinegar Hill, the final conclave.

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.

The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.

They buried us without shroud or coffin

And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

Seamus Heaney

 

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