Historical Notes and Stories of the Ballinamuck, Co. Longford I

Historical Notes and Stories
of the County Longford.
By James P. Farrell
1886 : Dollard Printing House, Wellington Quay, Dublin


THE word “Ballinamuck” is derived from “Beal-aith-na-muic,” which means, “The Mouth of the Ford of the Pig” and the pig here referred to is no other than the celebrated black pig which rooted up the Danes’ Cast in Armagh, and came as far as Ballinamuck, making her famous trench, until she arrived at the Ford of Lough Gaun, where a man knocked her on the head with a blow of a stone and put an end to her rooting. The hollow trench extending from Ballinamuck to Lough Gowna, and said to have been formed by this pig, was at one time recognised as the barrier between Ulster and Leinster, and subsequently the barrier between Breiffny and Annaly.

The Danes’ Cast in Armagh here referred to was celebrated line of fortifications which extended from near the city to the old ruins of Emania – the residence of the ancient kings of Ulster. The fabulous black pig was supposed to have commenced her operations here, and rooted onwards until she came to Lough Gownagh, where she was killed by a man who had been born predestined to destroy her. The course of her peregrinations was marked by a deep valley, which is plainly traceable from this place to Armagh.

The parishes of Drumlish and Ballinamuck, Killoe, Abbeylara, Dromard, and Columbkille, form what one might call a wild country – in some places (oases in the desert) beautifully productive and fertile; in others wild, barren, and wintry looking. Yet, strange to say, at all times and places the men of these parishes have been looked upon as the, best and bravest men in the County Longford. Hardworking, and in many cases ill-clad, through the heavy burdens they have to carry in the shape of impossible rents and cruel taxes, these men are ever recognised as the men of the County Longford.

Perhaps no part of the county presents such a fine field for the pen of the war correspondent, or the pencil of the painter, as the high plains of Ballinamuck. For miles after leaving Drumlish, the country is one succession of sloping hills and by no means fertile dales, interspersed with bog; and in the neighbourhood of the village of Ballinamuck the country presents as likely a field of action for an army as could be found in Europe. It is the fitting scene of what was the fatal termination of a great national movement : for here, as the world knows, was fought the celebrated Battle of Ballinamuck, which terminated the French invasion of Ireland in 1798. On leaving Drumlish, a succession of rocky hills abound on each side of the road, and a short distance outside the town a brawling rivulet crosses it; a level plain of moor and bog then succeeds for some distance, which is terminated by a rising knoll of very considerable dimensions. Seen as the author saw this knoll, which formed the base of the British troops on that memorable 8th of September, in the grey dawn of a cold winter’s morning, with people crossing its heathery surface on their way to their chapel to assist at the Holy Mass, it would greatly remind one of a scene in the Afghan or Balkan Mountains during some of the late troubles in the East; and on going on a little further there was pointed out to me the two hills which formed the positions of both armies. They are on the south side of the village-the one on which by the British centre being on the left of the road, whilst the Irish position was on the right. The former, in my opinion, was decidedly the best of the two, being more elevated and having a better slope for a charge on the Irish position; whilst the latter, although not so elevated, presented no small difficulty to the advancing troops to overcome in the broken ground in front of it. There are no traces whatever of any earthworks thrown up to defend either of the positions, and if such did exist they have been effectually demolished. On entering the village of Ballinamuck, the writer was astonished to see a large square building erected on a very elevated piece or plateau of ground, and flanked by two towers, loopholed for musketeers, and minaretted on the top to also afford shelter to besieged troops. This, I was informed was a barracks specially erected here during the troubled days of the nineteenth century, to afford shelter to the troops of the Queen in case of another outbreak, and is at present used as au extensive police station. Such precaution does not look unlike “taking time by the forelock” on the part of the rulers of this country.

In order to give the reader a true idea of what the Battle of Ballinamuck was, it is better to quote from a well known authority on this subject. The following passage from Haverty will, doubtless. throw as much light on the battle as there can be thrown on it (histor:cally speaking) by any other writer:-

“On the morning of the 8th of September (1798). at Ballinamuck, in Longford, Humbert prepared to give battle to his pursuers. His band was reduced to about 800 rank and file, and his undisciplined Irish auxiliaries could render but little assistance, whilst the army which was closing around him numbered 20000 men, Regarding their position as hopeless, 200 of the French laid down their arms at the first attack; but the remainder made a gallant resistance for a short time, and captured Lord Roden as he charged at the head of the cavalry. Finally, General Lake coming up with the bulk of the English army, Humbert was obliged to surrender at discretion. The French, to the number of 748 privates and 96 officers, became prisoners of war, but no stipulation was made for their Irish auxiliaries, who were pursued and slaughtered without mercy, the number slain being, according to Gordon, 500.”

As is well known, the French Directory, in 1798, at the solicitation of Wolfe Tone, who acted on behalf of the Irish Directory of the United Irishmen, determined to send an expedition of troops to Ireland, to assist the latter in their attempt to shake off the yoke of British thraldom. The United Irishmen rose in rebellion, as agreed among themselves; but their rising was not simultaneous, neither was it organized; and, to add to their misfortunes, the French expedition did not sail at the time the Dublin Directory ex·pected. Consequently, the rising was crushed and past when Humbert sailed from Brest with his troops. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a man of iron will, for he landed in Killala early in August, captured Castlebar and marched for Dublin. The southern pass to the capital was closed at Athlone, and Humbert thought that by taking the northern route he would baffle pursuit and bring a host with him who would strike terror to the hearts of the British. In both these expectations he was disappointed. The tyranny and oppression of the British soldiers and officers at the outset of the rebellion had crushed the spirit of the Irish peasantry, whose lives were daily sacrificed, homes burned, and crops destroyed, by the accursed yeomen and soldiery; and so it was but the young and hardy men of each county who joined him. On the other hand General Lake, a fiercely savage brute, hung on his rear with a large force of troops, and Lord Cornwallis marched from Dublin with all the available troops in Leinster, to intercept Humbert in his route. So that when both armies effected a junction they were fully eighteen to one, Humbert’s force not amounting to 2,000 men.

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