Extract from the Galway Journal of Archaeology & Historical Society. Progress and Suppression of the United Irishmen in the Western Counties in 1798-1799. Rev. Patrick Egan. Published in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society VOL XXV Nos. 3 & 4 1953-54.
Contemporary or near contemporary published accounts of the Rebellion of 1798, those of Musgrave, Gordon, Plowden, Hay, Teeling and the rest, including Dr. Richard R. Madden, give scant reference to the belated rising in the western counties. Richard Hayes in ‘The Last Invasion of Ireland – When Connacht Rose’ has however, restored the balance and shown that when the French landed at Killala there were thousands, especially in the County Mayo, eager and waiting to join an insurrection. They were representative of all classes, Old Irish and Anglo-Irish, gentry, clergy, professional men, landowners, tradesmen, tenant farmers and labourers – all except the Ascendancy, a small Protestant minority, The insurgent leaders were anything but the notorious and desperate ruffians they were alleged to be by the prejudiced writers of the time. The Protestant bishop Stock bore witness to the extraordinary bravery of the untrained and ill-armed rank and file of the rebels on the battle field and remarked that “it is a circumstance worthy of particular notice, that during the whole time of this civil commotion, not a drop of blood was shed by the Connaught rebels, except in the field of war.” Stock’s sympathies lay not with the rebels and he was a deeply prejudiced writer in many respects, but honest as regards the facts which came within range of his own observation.1 Incidents of their singular bravery when taken out for execution after the suppression of the rising have been narrated by Dr. Hayes, 2 to which we might add the testimony of one of the most inhumane of the military leaders, Lieutenant General Lake, which refers in particular, however, to a district further south. Writing to the Castle from Limerick, on March 27, 1799, he says, “The Common people are more afraid of Corporal punishment
1. “The bishop in a publication on this event did them (the insurgents) ample justice, at the expense of his own translation” – Jonah Barrington ‘Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation,’ 1860 edition, p.367
2. 2. Op cit., passim
than of Death. From the moment that they see their Priest, they glory in the thoughts of it and become hardened beyond all imagination.” 3
The position in Connacht before the rebellion was somewhat different from that in the other provinces. Class antagonism, racial hatred and religious prejudice were less apparent there than ni other parts of Ireland and least of all in the counties of Galway and Mayo. The Protestant landowners were fewer than elsewhere, while the Catholic gentry were correspondingly more numerous and influential. Many of the native gentry, who had conformed to the Established Church to hold their property, were still, to some extent, united by race and blood to the tenant class.
When in December, 1791, the United Irishmen of Dublin issued a letter calling for the formation of societies for reform and Catholic emancipation it was followed by grovelling letters to the Viceroy from the Catholic aristocrats of, among other counties, Galway and Mayo, in disapproval of the determination of the Catholic Committee to sue for the repeal of the Penal Laws. 4 This was countered by meetings of Catholics in Galway and Roscommon in favour of the stand taken by the Catholic Committee. 5 Tone in his diary relates how in October, 1792, he had met the gentry of the West at the great fair of Ballinasloe and had at last secured their allegiance to the Catholic Committee. 6 The Catholic town of Galway, like Limerick, was loyalist 7 and the people of Connacht during the intervening years until 1798 were not provoked as they were in Ulster and elsewhere and remained comparatively quiet.
Musgrave, writing under a pseudonym, paints a different picture: “In short, in the years 1793, 1794, 1795 and 1796, the counties of Donegal, ‘Sligo, Mayo, Leitrim, Roscommon,’ (S,M,L,R included by Fr. Egan – not in original report)8 Cavan, Fermanagh, Armagh, Meath and Dublin, were agitated to an alarming degree” 9 by the Defenders “a Popish banditti, whose professed object was to deprive the Protestants of their arms.” 10 Later, however,, writing under his own name he states the opposite, that “the gentlemen and landowners in the province of Connaught piqued themselves on the peaceable demeanour, and a respect for the laws, which the lower class of the people there continued to evince, when most other parts of the kingdom were disturbed by
3. State Paper Office 620/7/73, p.8
4. 4. Rosamond Jacob, The Rise of the United Irishmen, p. 99
5. 5. Ibid., pl100
6. Ibid., p.118
7. Curtis, ‘A history of Ireland’ p. 339; Annelecta Hibernica, No. 14, pp.90-91
8. (italics are mine – Rev. Egan). Sligo and Mayo are not included in the Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the Irish House of Commons, August 21, 1798, p.5. There is some evidence of Defender Activity in County Galway
9. ‘A Concise Account of the Material events and Atrocities which occurred in the present Rebellion…..’ by Veridicus, Dublin, 1799, p. 41
10. Ibid., p.39
The United Irishmen.” 11 Their failure to resort to arms he explains away by the remark that the Roman Catholic peasantry of Mayo and Sligo were savage, ignorant and superstitious and though sworn would not have had the spirit to rebel if the French had not arrived. The libel has been repeated by Maxwell in face of the first hand testimony of Stock to the bravery of the Connacht rebels.
No such reason can be assigned for the failure of Connacht to rise with Ulster and Leinster. The rebellion was deliberately provoked in these provinces before the United Irishmen had the opportunity to perfect their organization in the West. “Leinster and Munster had been but partially organized – Connaught not at all.” 12 The official opinion was that “in May 1797, although numbers had been sworn both in Munster and Leinster, the strength of the organization, exclusively of Ulster, lay chiefly in the metropolis and in a few neighbouring counties, namely Dublin, Kildare,Meath, Westmeath and the King’s county (Offaly)” 13 The organization spread in Connacht by way of the northern counties. Maxwell 14 cites the report of the provincial committee at Dungannon, in the Autumn of 1797 to the effect that the United Irish system was gradually progressive then in Mayo and Sligo and that the northern refugees had given a fresh stimulus to the movement, but, until the end of 1797 the system had made very little progress in Connacht.
It was almost two years previously that the events occurred which resulted in this migration into Connacht. Lord Gosford in an address to the magistracy of Armagh, printed in the Dublin Journal, 5th January, 1796, stated that “a persecution, accompanied with all circumstances of ferocious cruelty, is now raging in this country. Neither age, sex, nor even acknowledged innocence can excite mercy. The only crime which the wretched objects are charged with is the profession of the Roman Catholic Faith. A lawless banditti have constituted themselves judge of this new delinquency, and the sentence they pronounce is equally concise and terrible; it is nothing less than confiscation of property and immediate banishment.” 15 At the time “it was generally believe that 7,000 Catholics had been burned or forced out of the county of Armagh, and that the ferocious banditti who had expelled them had been encouraged, connived and protected by the Government.” 16
The refugees from the North were received hospitably. Their reputation for industry and their knowledge of the linen manufacture were inducements to landlords to allow them to settle and several hundred families did so in west Mayo. A colony of Ulster weavers who were settled in Ballina were among the first
11. R.R. Musgrave ‘Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland,’ Dublin 1801, p.559
12. Thomas Wyse ‘Historical Sketch of the Catholic Association’. 1829, Vol. I, p.132
13. Commons Committee of Secrecy, Report, p.9
14. ‘History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798,’ 1866 Edition, p. 220
15. O’Neill Daunt, ‘Eight Five Years of Irish History’ p. 16
16. Plowden’s quoting ‘History of Ireland,’ Vol. 11, Ibid., p. 377
To respond to the call of arms after the French landing. It was natural that they should have been more advanced in the principles of the United Irishmen than their western neighbours. 17
There was another colony of Ulster families settled in County Galway who had fled from Counties Monaghan and Cavan. Whether their flight was due to the happenings of 1796, to the further ferocities which followed the rebellion in the North in 1798, or to proselytising activities of Lord Farnham 1 in Cavan about 1827, I have not ascertained accurately. It is believed that they came in considerable numbers at an earlier period, but that there was a trickle of migration in the same direction down to the famine of 1847. According to local tradition some of them were evicted by Sam Grey, agent to Lord Farnham. They settled and made homes for themselves, mainly on the barren and unpopulated slopes of the Slieve Aughty mountains in the parish (civil) of Balinakill, now the Catholic parishes of Woodford and Ballinakill, where their descendants are still known locally as ‘Oulthachs’ (Ultach). Some of the surnames are : Clarke, Cleary, Connolly, Daly, Dempsey, Finlay, Jo0rdan, Keon, Logue (Leech), Loughry, MacBride, MacCabe, MacEneany (McEnany), Maguire, Murray, O’Donnell, O’Farrell, O’Reily, Sheridan. 2 The landowner who received them was Thomas Burke of Marblehill, a Catholic Loyalist and magistrate of the county, who was created Baronet in 1797. His father had risen to wealth in the cattle trade during the American War and had purchased this extensive mountain property, 3 part of which was called Ulick’s Mountain and had belonged to the Burkes of Cloncoe. The planting of these Colonists was to the mutual advantage of both parties. The Ulstermen were glad of any place to settle in peace and Sir Thomas who was experimenting with afforestation, road building and the opening up of the barren areas 4 was provided with a tenantry who would reclaim the mountain. If they were there in 1798 they must have remained quiet for the area is not represented in the list (infra) of courtmartial in County Galway between February and July 1799.
During the early part of 1798 the rebellion had taken place in Ulster and Leinster and had been suppressed with barbarity and bloodshed. Its failure was marked on July 17th by the passing in the Irish parliament of an Act of Amnesty, resulting in the general submission of the rebels. All the while Connacht had remained apparently quiet, but the alacrity with which so many from every stratum of the population sprang to arms when Humbert landed at Killala on
17 Maxwell, op. cit,. p.221; Hayes op.cip. p. 32
f see O’Connell, The Schools and Scholars of Breffne, pp.488-503
f I am indebted to Rev. Louis Page, St. Josephs College, Ballinasloe for this list
f Sadleir, ‘The Burkes of Marblehill’ in this jnl, Vol. VIII, p.1
f Hely Dutton, ‘Statistical Survey of the County of Galway (1824, p.440; Hall ‘ A Tour through Ireland,’ (1813) Vol I, p. 319
August 22nd postulates the existence of a widespread organization in the northern counties of the province by that time. The means whereby it was extended there are stated by the Commons Committee of Secrecy: 18 “It appears to your Committee, that the leaders of the treason, apprehensive lest the enemy might be discouraged from any further plan of invasion, by the loyal disposition manifested throughout Munster and Connaught on their former attempt (ie the Hoche expedition to Bantry, December 1796), determined to direct all their exertions to the propagation of the system in those provinces, which had hitherto been but partially infested. With this view emissaries were sent into the south and west in great numbers, of whose success, in forming new societies and administering the oaths of the Union, there were, in the course of a few months, but too evident proofs in the introduction of the same disturbances and enormities into Munster, with which the northern province had been so severely visited.”
The Lords Committee of Secrecy reported that the organization was completed in Ulster on May 10th, 1795, but did not make any considerable progress beyond that province until Autumn, 1796, when emissaries were sent into Leinster. Reports to the provincial committee at Dungannon, 14th September 1797, stated that “Leinster was in a tolerable state of organization, as also Connaught and Munster, and there had been a great number of United Irishmen made, more since the Proclmation.” 19 Howevre, the optimism of this report seems not to have been fully justified in regard to Connacht, particularly in the essential matter of arming the people. Every member of the union who could afford to do so was ordered by the Irish Directory to provide himself with firearms and ammunition, while those who could not were to furnish themselves with pikes. The order was carried out extensively in the provinces of Ulster, Leinster and Munster. In Connacht “the emissaries……..seem not to have been enabled to proceed further…….than by administering oaths to the people; their further progress seems to have been obstructed by the vigorous exertions of the executive government, when rebellion broke forth in open acts of hostility.” 20 Whatever the reason for it, the centre of the province seems to have been dilatory in this respect. As late as August, 1798, when the French had landed, people in Hollymount were seeking information on the making of pikes and between Monivea and Tuam they were idling in ditches and along the roads waiting for news; which does not point to any vigorous reaction in that area to the events that were taking place at Killala. 21 The failure at least to provide firearms could be due in part to the greater poverty of the people in the west. Prompt and vigorous action to prevent arming at this stage
18 Report p.9
19 Ibid., Appendix XIV, p.112. The proclamation referred to was issued on May 17th, offering amnesty to those who would return to allegiance – Musgrave op cit., p.559
20 Lords Committee of Secrecy, Report, p. 10
21 Musgrave, ‘Rebellions’, p.599
was undoubtedly taken. An example can be cited from east Galway in the person of Rev. Power le Poer Trench, rector of Creagh and afterwards Protestant Archbishop of Tuam. As a captain of yeomanry he scoured the country day and night hunting the rebels and made a particular point of confiscating the blacksmiths’ bellows to prevent forging of pikes.22
The United Irish organisation would appear to have been at a less advanced stage in County Galway than in Mayo, when the French landed, but that here too it was gradually progressive is borne out by the numerous courts martial in 1799. The victims of these trials were from every district from east to west of the county with the exception of the southern area. 23 Maxwell assigned as reasons for the Connacht inaction either imperfect organisation or good affection to the government. 24 To these must be added the further causes already mentioned. In County Galway, it is true, there was in addition to the ascendancy group, a large body of loyalist opinion among people of mean of Catholic and native stock. Large numbers who had amassed wealth in trade and other ways were enabled by the partial relaxation of the penal laws to acquire property in land and were aiming at advancement in the social scale. Their energies and outlook were directed primarily towards the aggrandisement of themselves and their families. The most they would wish for was repeal of the laws affecting Catholics. Knowing the temper of the ascendancy, they dreaded any disturbance which might being about a re-enforcement of the penal code. On the other hand, the horrors of the recent revolution in France were vividly before their minds with the consequent fear that they might become the victims of a successful revolution here.
In the southernmost part of the area west of the Shannon, the County Clare, preparedness for insurrection would appear to have been even less. As late as April 27th, 1799, Brigadier General Moore, writing from Athlone stated that “there must be mismanagement of some kind in the Co. of Clare. It is difficult otherwise to account for that miserable little county which till lately had been so quiet being at once so disturbed and continuing so in spite of hanging, banishment etc”. 35 The inference is that here the people were goaded into action by the conduct of the military after the insurrection which had been suppressed further north. Maxwell, in his obnoxious way, reveals the same state of affairs. “A number of inferior criminals were at the tmie (he is referring to what followed September 8, 1798), sacrificed rather to the angry spirit of the times, than to meet the strict ends of justice – and instead of operating beneficially, this unwise severity kept the wilder parts of the mountain districts disquieted for several
22 D’Arcy Sirr, ‘A Memoir of Power le Poer Trench’
23 Document 13, infra
24 Op. cit., p.220
25 S.P.O., 620/7/73, p.27