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  • James Houser

August 27, 1798 - Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Castlebar Races

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

August 27, 1798. Outside of Castlebar, a small county town in Ireland, a brief glimmer of hope emerges for the locals. A combined force of 1,000 French Revolutionary troops and Irish patriots send the British-backed Protestant militia fleeing. The “Castlebar Races” are, sadly, the last victory of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The luck of the Irish fails, despite the valor of the boys of ’98; Ireland will not be free and green until 1922.

By around 1600, Ireland was firmly in the possession of the crown of England – soon to become Great Britain. For many years, the rulers of Ireland had been a loose confederation of clan kings dominant in their little stretch of the land. Now, Ireland was ruled by the Lord Lieutenant, a royal viceroy who kept a shaky hand on the notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy emanating from Dublin Castle. The government of Ireland was almost completely in the hands of a tiny elite of Anglican English landowners, who presided over the largely Irish Catholic population. The Scottish colonization of Northern Ireland after 1650, sponsored in part to inject some good solid Protestants into the filthy Papist countryside, ended up creating a third faction – the non-Anglican Presbyterian Irish, who soon found themselves also crushed under the bootheel of the Anglican hegemony.

The English ruled over Ireland with little mercy and an eye on exploitation. The British Army, often subject to cuts by a penny-pinching Parliament, found a good rationale for its existence in the “Irish Establishment,” a virtually untouchable reason to keep their numbers high. The Anglican Protestant Ascendancy kept control of the population through institutionalized religious apartheid, which discriminated against the Irish Catholics and the Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Ireland had a Parliament, sure. Who could vote in the Parliament? Technically, anyone who owned sufficient property – which was always the Anglican elite. Worse, a series of English laws passed in the 1600s prevented Catholics from gaining public employment or attending university.

Back in the 1680s and 1690s, a fear of France and the Catholic Jacobites caused Parliament to enact a harsh new set of laws. These restrictions generated what came to be called the “Protestant Ascendancy.” Both Catholics and Dissenters (i.e. Presbyterians) were targeted in laws that prevented them from: intermarrying with Anglicans, being elected to Parliament, voting, entering the legal profession, inheriting land from a Protestant relative, and even building new Catholic churches from stone, forcing them instead to be built with wood. All this was designed to quash the Irish Catholic church and force conversion to Protestantism.

Just to make this very clear – the English treated the Irish way, way worse than they ever treated the American colonies. It was with these restrictions in mind that the Founders of the United States were so vigorous in ensuring religious freedom in their own Constitution: the power of the state to target a single religion was simply too great.

The Irish were for the most part helpless to resist. By the 1780s, though, something was on the wind. Revolution was in the air. The American and French Revolutions inspired liberal and nationalist ideas among some of Ireland’s elite, and by the late 1780s even some of the nobles of the Protestant Ascendancy were pushing for increased autonomy within the United Kingdom. The liberal ideals of freedom of religion, human rights, and the value of the individual had spread into the would-be oppressors of Ireland, and some of the Protestant Ascendants even began pushing for Catholic and Dissenter rights. The British crown did begin to let up in the 1790s, and Parliament passed laws in 1793 allowing Catholics with property to (gasp!) vote, even if they still couldn’t be elected or hold public office. Liberal elements in the Ascendancy took the inch…and then they sought the mile.

In 1791, a small band of Protestant liberals formed the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast. It was a surprisingly diverse set of Irish radicals, including Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians. The United Irishmen advocated for further autonomy and the idea of “Catholic Emancipation,” which would become the rallying cry of 1798. Their leader, and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, was the famous revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone, a North Irish Protestant with high ambitions and broad goals. Wolfe Tone was, like many of the United Irishmen, an advocate of Catholic emancipation and Irish autonomy without severing the links to England. He was a passionate supporter of religious freedom, arguing that only cooperation between Ireland’s various religious sects would secure freedom and liberty.

In 1793, though, events caught up to the United Irishmen. In that year, Britain went to war with Revolutionary France, and that meant that the suspiciously liberal society over in Belfast needed to be dealt with. The United Irishmen were forced underground, and soon sought support from Revolutionary France. Wolfe Tone had gone into exile in the United States in 1793; by 1796, he was in France to seek support from the Revolutionary government.

The United Irishmen and their high-minded liberal ideals soon ran into the problem all Irish rebellions run into: the religious divisions of the nation. The Catholic leadership looked at Revolutionary France’s suppression of the Church with horror, and the Protestants became more and more worried that total liberty in Ireland would lead to the land being dominated by the Papists (aka, a mean word for Catholics). When the Rebellion of 1798 DID come around, only a very small number of the United Irishmen would actually join the rebels – most of them supported the rising’s aims, but did not support the use of violence to achieve them, fearing that it would uproot the whole order of Irish society.

Nevertheless, Wolfe Tone managed to gin up support for a French expedition to Ireland. In late 1796, 14,000 French soldiers set sail under General Lazare Hoche to try and invade the island and support an Irish uprising. After the interference of the Royal Navy, terrible weather, and uncertainty on the part of General Hoche, none of the French troops landed and they limped back home in shame. Never try to cross the Channel in the winter.

The English reaction to the attempted French landing, and the sudden spike of fear this caused in London, was swift and brutal. The English launched a relentless campaign of martial law throughout Ireland, including the burning of houses, torture of captives, and executions. The epicenter of this backlash was in Ulster, the main province where the Catholics and Protestants had united in common cause as the United Irishmen. The English did their level best to sow dissension between the religious factions on purpose, believing that united they would be a serious problem. To the Protestants, they fed fear that any rebellion would fall into the hands of the Catholics; to the Catholics, they pointed to the French Revolution and its anti-religious sentiments. The English really did pull off a complicated political tap-dance here, playing “those crazy conservatives” to the Presbyterians, and “those libtard radicals” to the Catholics – and it worked.

The last straw came in March 1798, when a rat within the United Irishmen gave away most of the organization. Soon the English were kicking down doors all over Dublin and rounding up most of the United Irishmen’s leadership. The Lord Lieutenant imposed martial law all over the country as a means of stopping whatever potential rebellion was in the works. This action had the opposite effect: it provoked the United Irishmen to act now, before it was too late. As long as the English repression continued, they were confronted with a stark choice: launch a rising NOW, without French aid, or be eradicated bit by bit. Soon unrest was spreading across the Irish countryside, and militants began forming a large force to assault Dublin – with or without French assistance – on May 23.

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 is one of the great, stirring touchstones of Irish history. It is literally the source of most of those bouncy Irish folk songs you may have heard – “The Rising of The Moon,” “Minstrel Boy,” “The Wearing of the Green,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” – were all written about the great saga of “The 98.” As always, memory outstrips reality; those who found romance and passion of the 1798 Rebellion were far greater than those who actually participated.

Once again, a rat spoiled the Revolutionaries’ plans at the last minute. The British troops teemed through Dublin hours before the rising was supposed to start on May 23, capturing many of the leaders of the rising and preventing many rebels from assembling in their appointed places. The first goal of the 1798 Rebellion had been to capture Dublin itself; with that goal nullified by swift British action, the rebels never carried out their plan to attack Dublin itself. The other planned risings, on the Dublin outskirts and in the surrounding regions, went off on schedule, though. Like it or not, the great rising was here. Grab your spears, top hats and four-leaf-clovers, lads, the Irish are rising!

The turnout was unexpectedly poor, however, mainly because of those religious tensions that the British had stoked. Many rebel units sought to turn the rising into a religious war, and soon Catholic and Protestant bands were battling it out across Ireland. The fear of an independent Ireland devolving into either a Catholic “Papist” state or a Revolutionary hellhole also discouraged many recruits, and this denied the Irish rebels their only real strength: numbers. The results of this division would cripple the rebellion.

By May 24, the battles of the rebellion had begun. All across eastern and northern Ireland, the famous dun-colored pikemen of the Irish countryside turned out to wrest their country from the English overlords. They had no discipline or military posture at all, great clods of men in the clothes of workers or farmers turning out with long homemade pikes or the occasional rusty musket. The rebel bands travelled as a whole community, often with bands of women haranguing their “Croppies” into action. When a rebel force came out, it was like the whole countryside was on the move. Drawn from every class of society, a teeming mass of ill-armed men and their womenfolk, overwhelmingly Catholic (except in the North) and poor, they were desperate and full of vigor. They were also incredibly unprepared to face the British Army.

Even if the Irish establishment had been denuded of reinforcements and weapons in the last few years – especially due to the demands of war with France – it was still a regular army, with disciplined regulars, artillery, and cavalry. The rebels had no cavalry to speak of, and not a single artillery piece at first. The few cannon they captured, without effective operators or officers, made an encouraging noise but little else.

In much of eastern and northern Ireland, the rebels turned out in droves but were unable to win a single encounter with the British forces. Nevertheless, the British often had to pull back temporarily due to being isolated in small units. This caused temporary cheer among the rebels, and throughout the early summer of 1798 they managed to force the British to pull back their most exposed units. Unfortunately, they all sputtered out. Each county had its own sad story:

In County Kildare, the Army was forced to withdraw after beating off every rebel attack. One rebel attack overwhelmed and destroyed the redcoats at Prosperous on May 24, but the rebellion in Kildare was shattered at Carlow on May 25.

In County Meath, 4,000 rebels were heavily defeated by 700 Redcoats on Tara Hill on May 26, former seat of the High Kings of Ireland and one of the holiest sites on Eire.

In County Wicklow, an enormous turnout pinned the British down for months. The British were so concerned for this province that they massacred a large number of rebels in their custody, and did not end the rising until October.

In County Antrim, the rebellion started late – June 6 – and for a time conquered most of the county, but collapsed after a defeat at Antrim itself on June 7.

The most successful rising was at County Wexford; the rebels seized the whole county, but after three terrible battles the rebellion was confined to the region. The British army shattered the rebels at Vinegar Hill on June 21 in the largest battle of the rebellion, with nearly 15,000 men involved on each side. It was the only real opportunity the Irish had to win a fight, and it was an utter defeat.

The upshot of all this is that the main Irish Rebellion of 1798 had basically fallen apart by July of that year. It was a glorious, brave, and noble effort, but staggeringly futile. The only successes had been local, and the British had been quick on the trigger, hunting down and putting down any major rebellions within a matter of days. The only real trouble spots were Wexford and Wicklow; Wexford had been crushed at Vinegar Hill, and Wicklow was in a brutal guerrilla war that could only have one outcome.

That would normally be where the story ended. But there was a postscript.

On August 22, long after they could have given any help to the main effort of the Rising, a thousand French troops under General Jean Joseph Humbert landed in northwest Ireland to help the rebellion. We’re here you guys! Rather than asking the obvious question – “Where the hell were you three months ago?” – the Irish in Connacht rallied to the French. General Humbert soon had 5,000 Irish recruits at his side. He divided his army into parts to conquer as much territory as he could, and headed off for a confrontation with the British.

He found it at Castlebar, on August 27, 1798. In a surprising little victory, the French and Irish launched a ferocious and unnerving bayonet charge that ran the gauntlet of devastating artillery fire and routed the much larger British force opposing them. The thousands of fleeing Redcoats left behind muskets, artillery, and even the personal baggage of their commander. The Irish would forever remember this little triumph as the “Castlebar Races.”

It was not to last. A new commander had arrived to sort out the situation in Ireland, and he’s someone we know. General Charles Cornwallis, he of Yorktown, had just arrived to become the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Cornwallis would be unexpectedly lenient and conciliatory with the Irish; he put an end to the martial law and the ravages of the previous British government. But first he had to end the rebellion. On September 8 (my birthday!), 1798, Cornwallis finally crushed this final Irish-French army at Ballinamuck. Cornwallis was fair – but he was not merciful. The French prisoners were exchanged through the usual wartime methods, but the Irish rebels were all executed. This campaign is remembered in Ireland as the Bliain na bhFrancach – “The Year of the French.”

Wolfe Tone had observed all this from his exile in France, and pleaded with the Revolutionary government to send more troops, money, and guns – ANYTHING to help his people. Finally, in October 1798, the French sent a further 3,000 men. This time, Wolfe Tone himself sailed with them – but this time, his Irish luck finally ran out. The little fleet was captured by the Royal Navy, and the famous Irish rebel wound up in the hands of the Crown. After being refused death by firing squad – considered a more “noble” death – Wolfe Tone denied the British the privilege of hanging him. On November 12, 1798, Wolfe Tone committed suicide in prison. With his death, we can finally close the book on The ’98.

Low levels of guerrilla warfare continued for years, some holdouts even lasting until 1804, but it was ultimately pointless. The Act of Union in 1801 formally brought Ireland into the United Kingdom and took away most of the autonomy given to the Protestant Ascendancy. The British co-opted the Anglican and Presbyterian liberals into its new structure by siding with them against the Catholics, further stoking the religious tensions that keep Ireland divided to this day.

In essence, the 1798 Rising was the only hope for Ireland to overcome its religious divisions and truly unite. When the successful Irish struggle for independence first broke out in 1916, it would be divided by religion from the outset – resulting in a divided Ireland to this very day. The liberal United Irishmen would give way to the sectarian and terroristic IRA. Irish independence did not die in 1798, but a united Ireland did.

At least we got some good songs out of it.

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