The year 1798 saw the largest failed rebellion in Ireland against English for over 100 years and there would be nothing on a scale like it again until the violence of the years 1916-21. That latter rebellion led to the Anglo-Irish treaty, 100 years ago and arguably the 1798 rebellion was just as profound, leading as it did to the end of the Irish parliament in Dublin and founding of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800.
The main focus of the 1798 was the uprising in Co Wexford, with a lesser rising in other parts of Leinster and Northern Ireland. But there was also a French landing in Killala, Co Mayo which led to a second major front from the west known in local folklore as “Blíain na bhFrancach” anglicised as Year of the French, also the title of a Thomas Flanagan novel about the events, first published in 1979.
France was still in the middle of its revolutionary wars in 1798 led by the Paris Directory though Napoleon was on the rise. Directory leaders feared Bonaparte’s popularity after his victories in Italy, so they were relieved when he proposed to leave France and mount an expedition to Egypt to gain further glory against the British Navy. Ireland was only a minor concern though United Irishmen leaders in Paris including Dublin lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone had long been keen for French support for a rebellion in the supposed weakest link of the British Isles, with claims of 250,000 Irish irregulars ready to support any invasion.
Two years earlier General Lazare Hoche led a plan to invade Ireland and Cornwall with a force of 20,000 men but arrived off the coast of Co Cork in mid Winter. Storms sunk several ships and prevented any landing. After two fruitless weeks in Bantry Bay the French sailed home in frustration forcing a postponement of the planned Irish rising. Tone called it “Britain’s luckiest escape since the Armada”. There was also a short-lived invasion of the Welsh coast at Pembrokeshire in 1797. By 1798 the United Irishmen felt ready to start a rebellion without French aid but aided by informers Britain arrested most of the leaders and imposed martial law.
Despite the crackdown rebels began fighting in May but were swiftly overcome by British forces in Dublin and Antrim. Rebels had more success in Wexford but were eventually annihilated at Vinegar Hill near Enniscorthy on June 21 though fighting dragged on in the midlands until mid July. Against this backdrop Tone agitated for another French force which left port in early August. A force of 1000 men under General Jean Humbert unexpectedly landed on the west coast on August 22 at Killala Bay, Co Mayo. While there was Whiteboy activity in this region with violence against landholders, it was no United Irishmen hotbed. Nevertheless Humbert quickly raised several hundred poorly disciplined recruits to join him, and began moving south.
Flanagan uses several fictional narrators to tell the tale. There is Protestant clergyman Arthur Vincent Broome, probably based on Church of Ireland bishop of Killala and Achonry Joseph Stack, a loyalist who “grieves for the sufferings of all”. Stack was captured and his bishop’s palace was used as military headquarters during the rebellion. Episodes are also written by local United Irishman Malcolm Elliott and his wife Judith, as well as a Castlebar schoolteacher Sean MacKenna and Harold Wyndham, a fictional aide to British forces leader Lord Cornwallis.
Cornwallis had an army 25 times the size of the French but was slow to go west. Within five days of landing, the invasion force took the Mayo country town of Castlebar. Although General Lake had 6000 defenders, the 2000-strong attackers had the benefit of surprise, taking a seemingly impassable route and arriving at an unguarded side of town. The British panicked under a bayonet charge and fled to Athlone in an act known as the “Castlebar Races”. The exultant Irish and French force declared the newly formed Republic of Connaught.
Though the victory gave Humbert 5000 Irish recruits, they were poorly armed and trained and Castlebar had not led to a renewed outbreak of the rebellion as hoped. A massive British army was assembled in Athlone under Field Marshal Lord Cornwallis, newly appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and he was determined not to make the same mistake as Lake. He moved to Tuam and set his headquarters near Ballinrobe, 20km from the rebel army. With no sign of reinforcements from France, Humbert abandoned Castlebar and moved towards Sligo to ignite a rising in Ulster.
Humbert’s army moved 50km northeast to Tobercurry, where late on September 4 he routed a small body of loyalist yeomen under Captain O’Hara who alerted Colonel Vereker, the commander of the Sligo garrison. The following morning Vereker marched out with 500 men and two guns. He took up a position near Collooney, 13km south of Sligo with his left protected by the Ballysadare River and his right anchored on a steep, wooded hill.
The French advanced on the right along the river, while the Irish rebels deployed to the left. Their advance was held up by Loyalist gunfire. United Irishman Colonel Bartholomew Teeling who held a French commission, galloped forward alone to the British line, pistolled the enemy gunner at point-blank range, and rode back unscathed under a hail of musket-fire. Inspired by his example, the Irish and French surged forward and routed the Loyalists.
After the victory Humbert made a surprise decision to abandon the journey north and instead head towards the midlands. He had received word of an uprising breaking out in Longford and Westmeath and hoped to link up with new allies. Cornwallis ordered Lake to harry Humbert’s rearguard but not directly attack. The French headed east to Manorhamilton then south crossing the Shannon at Drumshambo heading towards Longford or Granard. They would not quite make it to either town with the British quickly putting down an insurrection at Granard. It was now a forced march with Humbert abandoning heavy guns. He wanted a short skirmish followed by an honourable surrender and return to France. What would happen to the Irish was not his concern.
Cornwallis set up his army to meet them on a hill near the village of Ballinamuck, Co Longford, 20km north of the county town. Humbert’s army arrived at Ballinamuck on September 8 wedged between 15,000 Cornwallis troops in front of him and 14,000 troops under Lake behind him. The boggy ground didn’t help French cavalry and the Irish regiment narrowly escaped heavy British reinforcements arrived from the southwest.
Several companies of British foot and horse ascended the hill toward the main Irish position. Twice, they were repulsed by counter-charges of Irish pikemen. General Lake then sent a large force on a flanking movement around the base of the hill. The French and Irish withdrew a short distance to the east and south. When the British grand assault poured up the hill from three sides, in overwhelming numbers, Humbert gave the order to surrender. The final battle lasted 30 minutes.
While Humbert’s French were treated as gallant prisoners of war after an honourable defeat, the Irish were massacred where they stood. Many were driven into the bog south of the hill where they were hunted down and executed. Captured Irish officers such as Bartholomew Teeling were seized and hanged as traitors, despite their French commissions. The 800 French prisoners were taken to Dublin and were exchanged and repatriated a few weeks later. Killala, where the rebellion started, was retaken on September 23 amid much slaughter.
The last act of the 1798 rebellion came a month later with the arrival of Wolfe Tone in Irish waters with a 3000-strong French naval force. On October 12 they attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly but were intercepted by a large British Navy squadron. The French surrendered after a three-hour off-shore battle. Wolfe Tone was tried by court-martial in Dublin and found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Tone slit his own throat in prison on November 12, and died a week later.
The rebellion was the deathknell of the protestant dominated parliament in Dublin and the Act of Union was signed in 1800. The result of the rebellion was to bring Ireland more under London’s command at time when British hegemony was stretching across the globe. But its neglect of the country on its doorstep would continue to haunt Britain and eventually led to a massive famine laid the groundwork for future more successful rebellions.
“The huntsman’s horn echoes from hill to hill, and their cries have a mystery of ritual, from a view to a kill.” (Thomas Flanagan, Year of the French).