C: Pikeman statue at Ballinamuck (C: John & Penny, Shutterstock)

On this day, September 8, 1798, the last great defeat of the Rising took place

I mBaile an Muc, Dé Sathairn, chailleamar an lá,
Nuair a ghéill an ginearál Francach is a shaighdiúirí don námhaid.
Bhíomar féin ar Shean-mhullach os comhair arm mór an Rí.
“Go ndírí Dia an t-urchar,” ars’ an Gunnadóir Mac Aoidh.

Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s poem An Gunnadóir Mac Aoidh was written in tribute to a real person, James Magee, who fell at the Battle of Béal Átha na Muc, Ballinamuck, County Longford, which was fought on September 8, 1798. The surrender by the French general Humbert marked the effective end of any chance of success in the rising associated with the United Irishmen.

Ó Tuairisc’s poem was published by Seán Ó Tuama in the illustrious company of Máirtín Ó Direáin and Seán Ó Ríordáin in the 1950 collection Nuabhéarsaíocht.  Ó Tuairisc also wrote a novel in Irish, L’Attaque (1962) which ends with the aftermath of the battle.  

While the French were allowed to surrender honourably, the Irish fighters knew they could expect no quarter, so they fought to the end and were slaughtered. The English soldiers and Orangemen from Cavan took vengeance on the local population who were murdered, raped and plundered of everything they had. According to the 1933 account of Pat Gill whose grandfather had been there, “the Cavan Orangemen drove away all the cattle and horses they could get, and left the whole place beggared.”  

Magee’s exploits had been preserved over the generations and Gill recalled how his grandfather had told him that Magee had only stopped firing the cannon when their own men came between his line of fire and the enemy. Two Cloone men, Larry McGlynn and Gagheen Molloy, who were suspected of throwing the chain of the cannon down a well the night before the battle, were also remembered over the generations.  

Statue of a pikeman at Ballinamuck, Co. Longford, Ireland, taken on July 25th, 2017.

The force under Humbert was outnumbered by around ten to one by the English and local militia and yeomanry commanded by Generals Cornwallis and Lake. The forces of the ‘Republic of Connacht’ had defeated Lake at Castlebar on August 27, but the augmented English and loyalist army had moved quickly across the country and ruthlessly put down local midland rebellions that might have allowed the French and Irish to move eastwards and ignite a more general uprising.

That was possibly a forlorn hope anyway, as Wexford had been beaten and the insurgents in the rest of Leinster and in Ulster had been dealt with by early June. There was still a possibility that Dublin might have come out but the terror within the city had been as effective as it had been in other parts of the country where the United Irishmen had co-opted local Defenders and others prepared to take on the English and the local armed forces. 

Unfortunately, the pre-existing resistance was to a great extent betrayed by an organisation riddled with informers and men who were prepared to save themselves when arrested by other gentlemen at the expense of what one recent leftist historian described as “the mass of peasants.” The published accounts of the evidence given at the secret committee by some of those still considered to be among the republican pantheon makes for sorry reading, at least from the perspective of the “mass of peasants.” 

Mayo, like most of the West, was not strongly organised by the United Irishmen and the French realised, if they had not done so already, that the picture of the Irish “peasant” painted for them by the United Irish emissaries was not wholly accurate. Hardly surprising given what even a sympathetic left republican historian like Rosamund Jacob described as Tone’s ignorance of the language and the “hidden life” of Gaelic Ireland.

Some of the Gaelic song and verse that has survived strengthens what many have dismissed as ludicrous a suggestion by the French Directory at the time of the Mayo landings that the Irish might recognise the kingship of the Stuart pretender, and grandson of James II, Henry Benedict as the Catholic King Henry IX, rather than be inspired by the “egalitie, fraternite, libertie” that was looking increasingly unconvincing in a Europe riven by war. 

This was apparently dismissed out of hand by Wolfe Tone but the notion was clearly current within the Gaelic speaking population, of whom Tone and the United Irishmen leadership were almost completely unaware. Some of them were not simply ignorant of the Irish language but also militantly hostile to the religion and culture of the majority of a people who the less enlightened ancestors of the Trinity and Belfast radicals had dispossessed. 

The proof of the Jacobite association with the French in 1798 is found within a song that has survived and has been recorded by Clannad among others. Ó Bhean a Tí cén bhuairt sin ort?  which contains a verse that has puzzled some historians. It goes:

Tá jug ar an mbórd is tá beoir ag teacht,

Ta arm go leor ag an Duke of York.

Tá ’n Francach ’s an Spáinneach ar bhruach na trá,

’Is b’fhearr liom go mór é ná comhrá bán

The reason for the confusion of course is that it refers to the army of the Duke of York, just prior to the reference to the French and Spanish about to land in Ireland. The Duke of York and Albany in 1798 was Prince Frederick, son of the reigning English monarch George III.  He was hardly going to be sending an army to fight his Da’s forces in Ireland of whom he was in fact the commander-in-chief. 

However, the Duke of York on which Gaels in Gaoth Dobhair perhaps were pinning their hopes was Henry Benedict, Cardinal Duke of York, he being a Cardinal and the Dukedom having been inherited through the Stuart line.  So, the hope of the Gael for French and Spanish armies was no different than the hope that had survived for one hundred years since the victory of William over the Cardinal’s granddad. Seamus an Cacha. 

As Vincent Morley and others have pointed out, the Jacobitism of the Irish poets and hidden nation had little to do with any sentimentality for the fallen House of Stuart, as suggested by the unflattering descriptive for James II.  It was, rather, the symbol of a hope that the Catholic powers of Europe might help to restore the fallen Gaelic order. That notion was just as foreign to most of the settler descended leaders of the United Irishmen as were the Deism and “enlightenment values” of the French republican bourgeoisie to the dispossessed of Ireland. 

Jacobitism was far stronger among the Gael than the Jacobinism of the Dublin and Belfast United Irishmen. As was indeed noted by Mairtin Ó Cadhain who once wrote that in the Gaelic tradition it had not been Tone who had made history but Aodh Balldhearg Ó Domhnaill who had joined the Jacobite forces in Ireland in 1690 and that it was Jacobitism rather than republicanism that de-legitimised the Ascendency in the eyes of the people and the poets. 

Thus, the French Directorate, who had by 1798 had suppressed the far left within France, were quite astute and obviously well advised, in believing that a Catholic king might be more attractive to the Catholic Gaels of all ranks in Connacht than the exotic notions of what a latter day self-described Slieve Luachra Jacobite, Brendan Clifford, described as a deracinated “gentleman adventurer” such as Tone.

Another who deliberately conflated the millennial hope for the aid of revolutionary France with the old Jacobite vision of armed friends “ag triall thar sáile” was Cork poet and United Irishman Micheál Ó Longáin. 

He wrote two of the best known songs in Irish of 1798; Maidin Luan Chincíse and Buachaillí Loch Garman. In the final verse of Maidin Luan Chincíse, he apologises for the failure of the Munster rebels for not answering the call from Wexford. 

Na Buachaillí Bána  – which referred to the Gaelic underground but was also a phrase associated with the Jacobite tradition as in the Buachaill Bán of  Mó Ghile Mear – was written by Antaine Raiftearaí who was born in Galway in 1779 but was familiar with what had taken place in Mayo in 1798. The song refers to Donnacha an Rópa, Denis Browne, who was High Sheriff of Mayo in 1798. It wishes him no good:

A Dhonncha Brúin is deas do chraithfinn lámh leat
Agus ní le grá duit ach le fonn do ghabháil
Cheanglóinn suas thú le rópa cnáibe
Agus chuirfinn mo “Spír” i do bholg mór.
Mar is iomaí buachaill maith chuir tú thar sáile
Thiocfas anall fís is cúnamh leo
Faoi chultaibh dearga agus hataí lása

Is beidh an droma Francach a seinm leo!

Raiftearaí clearly regarded the French republicans as promising the same prospect of settling of scores with the settlers as had survived for centuries among the descendants of a beaten down race whose ancestors had been subject to several attempts at genocide and who would endure another 50 years after the failure of 1798.

As Seán Ó Ríordáin understood, Gaels are heirs to something that long predates the passing ideologies of the 1790s, or 2020s. One that survived the failure of Irish Jacobinism and is still, just about perhaps, alive. Ó Ríordáin wrote in 1940 of how “an traditio acu no an ‘tseanchuimhne shinsear,’ mar a thug an Céiteannach air,” had survived even among those who had possibly lost the essential link to that tradition that is the language.

It was that tradition which motivated the gunner Magee, who may possibly have been one of a generation that was being anglicised for the first time, and those we recall who on this day, September 8, 1798, were hunted down and slaughtered in their own fields by the armed thugs of the settlers. Fighting not for the ‘Republic of Connacht’ but for an Ireland restored to its rightful owners and heritage.

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