Hay: History of the Insurrection of the County of Wexford

Pdf Hay, Edward. History of the insurrection of the county of Wexford, A.D. 1798. Dublin: John Stockdale, 1803.
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Edward Hay's account of the 1798 United Irishman rebellion in County Wexford was published in 1803. It is an important historical document because it describes recent events from the perspective of a man who witnessed many of them at first hand.

In 1783 the American colonists succeeded in overthrowing British rule and creating the United States . Meanwhile in Ireland a force of Irish Volunteers made up largely of Anglo-Irish Protestants was established to defend the country from French invasion. The British government feared that if the demands of the Irish Protestants were not met they would face open rebellion in Ireland too. Accordingly Henry Grattan and his Whig followers in the Irish Parliament were given the legislative freedom and autonomy they desired. Nonetheless while the worst excesses of the repressive Penal Laws had been repealed, Catholics were still excluded from Parliament. The Irish Parliament remained an undemocratic unrepresentative Protestant dominated institution.

In 1791 a group of liberal Protestants, inspired by the principles of the French Revolution of 1789, met in Belfast and founded the United Irishmen. They sought greater democratic reforms and Catholic Emancipation which the increasingly autocratic Irish and British governments had no intention of implementing. War with Revolutionary France following the execution of King Louis XVI and repression of secret oath bound societies forced them underground and radicalized the United Irishmen membership who remained made up of Anglican members of the Ascendancy, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics. The Irish parliament had a lucky escape when a French invasion fleet accompanied by rebel leader Theobold Wolfe Tone failed to land in Bantry Bay due to a storm in 1796.

The Irish government responded by implementing martial law and unleashing a brutal campaign of terrorisation. Loyalist forces rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and often murdered suspected United Irishmen. Undisciplined yeomanry often looted, plundered and burned the property of rebels and loyalists alike. The powerful Orange Order also unofficially assisted in gathering information and crushing rebellion. The leading United Irishman Lord Edward Fitzgerald was mortally wounded in Dublin during an attempted arrest while other leaders were betrayed by spies and apprehended. In the north-east, radical Presbyterians led by Henry Joy McCracken and Henry Munro who rose in rebellion were heavily defeated at Antrim town and Ballynahinch respectively.

Between the months of June and May of 1798, the rebellion had its greatest success in County Wexford where the rebel organisation remained more intact than in the rest of the the province of Leinster, Dublin city and throughout the rest of the island. Massacres at Dunlavin Green and Carnew by Loyalist forces ignited open rebellion in north Wexford. A rebel force was defeated at Ballyminaun Hill but another scored a victory at the Battle of Oulart Hill led by Father John Murphy and others. Soon rebels captured the town of Enniscorthy and also Wexford town after a force commanded by Colonel Maxwell retreated. Rebel numbers swelled by the thousands as confidence grew.

The rebel leaders established a civilian leadership in Wexford and it was hoped that establishment of this 'republic' would lead to the eventual overthrow of British rule in Ireland . They sought to expand their control by advancing in two directions, one force heading for New Ross and a second marching on Dublin . Therebels lacked basic military discipline and training, had few muskets and cannons and marched into battle armed with pikes only to be cut down by the superior firepower of professional British military units. Consequently the advance on New Ross was stopped after a bloody defeat while the march on Dublin was also halted at Arklow.

British forces under the command of General Lake launched a successful counterattack, advancing simultaneously into County Wexford from the directions of Duncannon, New Ross, Newtownbarry, Carnew and Arklow. The rebel army was forced to retreat on all fronts to a camp on Vinegar Hill above Wexford town where they suffered a final bloody defeat, that brought organised resistance to an end. The surviving rebels scattered and continued an ultimately futile guerilla campaign.

The 1798 rebellion in Wexford was often savage and sectarian with both sides committing numerous atrocities. Loyalist prisoners were massacred at Vinegar Hill camp and Wexford town. In one incident at Scullabogue hundreds of loyalists were imprisoned in a barn and burned to death. Government forces also massacred captured and wounded rebels following their victories and suspects were pursued by loyalist yeomanry. Considered traitors, fugitives were denied the customary protections afforded to prisoners of war and were usually executed by hanging.

In August after the Wexford rebellion was crushed, an expedition of over 1,000 French troops landed in Co. Mayo under the command of General Humbert before linking up with approximately 5,000 rebels. They won an easy victory over a demoralised British force at Castlebar. The short lived ' Republic of Connaught ' came to an end when the combined French and Irish rebel force were defeated at Ballinamuck, Co. Longford by a numerically superior force led by the new British viceroy General Cornwallis. Ironically the French prisoners were warmly received in Dublin , exchanged for British captives and repatriated to France while thousands of Irish rebels were given no quarter. According to Lord Edgeworth, the French ridiculed the Irish peasantry who made their living on 'roots, whiskey and lying.'

The rebel leader Wolfe Tone was himself captured at sea before committing suicide in prison after he was denied his desire to be executed by firing squad instead of being hung as a common traitor. 'General' Nappy Tandy, a rival United Irishmen leader, arrived in Ireland too late with a shipment of arms and fled back to France almost as soon as he heard of the catastrophe.

In 1803, Robert Emmet led an abortive rising in Dublin resulting in the death of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland , Lord Kilwarden, who was hacked to death. Emmet himself was later captured, tried and publically executed. Meanwhile guerilla warfare continued in Wexford until 1804 when an informer betrayed the location of the last remaining rebel group led by James Corcoran. They were all either killed or captured with Corcoran himself dying of his wounds.

The example of 'the men of '98' and the 'the boys of Wexford' inspired generations of Irish republicans in the 19th and 20th centuries. However the history of the rebellion was distorted for propaganda purposes. Oppression meant that few surviving accounts from the rebel perspective were published allowing Catholic conservatives in later years to claim that the rebels were fighting for their Catholic faith. However at the time of the rebellion the Catholic hierarchy actually sided with the Irish government against the rebels. Meanwhile the secular Enlightenment values of the largely Protestant leadership of the United Irishmen were purposefully obscured.

Edward Hay's brother John Hay was executed for his role in the rebellion, but was himself tried and acquited. He did not personally involve himself in the fighting and his role as an organiser and promoter is also not clear. Hay was lucky to survive as many thousands in Wexford both loyalist and rebel were killed in often indiscriminate slaughter during the rebellion. Meanwhile another brother, Phillip Hay served in the British Army. In later life Edward Hay took part in the Catholic Association and served as its secretary during the period 1806-1819. Hay died in Dublin 1826 and was buried in St. James' Cemetery, Kilmainham, Dublin .


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