Vinegar Hill – the Irish rebels’ last stand

Enniscorthy Castle, County Wexford.

Enniscorthy Castle (GNU Free Documentation License)

This weekend (August 3 – 4, 2013) the Irish rebels (cheers!) and the redcoats (boo!) have been recruiting, drilling, camping and fighting around Vinegar Hill in County Wexford.

They’ve been re-enacting the last full battle of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the end of the story for most of the United Irishmen and their allies. It’s very likely that my 3x great grandfather, Nicholas Delaney, was one of the men standing with a pike against the cavalry, swords, muskets and bayonets of the regular army on that day.

I’ve enjoyed reading the posts and tweets from Knights and Rebels, the organisers of the re-enactment and the people who run Co Wexford’s historic sites, Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy Castle and the National 1798 Rebellion Centre nearby.

Sadly I can’t be there (that seems like this month’s theme) and so I’m missing not just the spectacle but the chance to talk to other people interested in the history of the 1798 Rebellion – and the music. I remember Vinegar Hill well from our research trips to Ireland and a bare, spooky place it still is.

Vinegar Hill - view from Enniscorthy.

Vinegar Hill – view from Enniscorthy. (via Wikipedia)

So just to make my own contribution from across the water here’s an extract from A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798, the book my mother and I wrote about our Irish ancestor and the times he lived in (pp 27-28). I’ve edited it so this post won’t be too long.

Now there was no hope for any action but a last stand at Vinegar Hill. Government soldiers moved nearer as the last of the [insurgents from the] northern division, exhausted from their two-day march, reached the rebel camp…

Many of the women there had accompanied their men, whether to care for them or out of fear for their own and their children’s safety… Some of the women… took up arms and fought alongside their male relatives.

That night, as [Miles] Byrne wrote, ‘The thousands of little fires to be seen in the fields and plain all around the hill, where our people were preparing to get something to eat and to pass the night, afforded plenty of light and presented at the same time the appearance of a vast camp…’

George Cruikshank ( 1792-1878.) Defense of the...

‘Defence of the rebels at Vinegar Hill’ (George Cruikshank) via Wikipedia

It was early in the dawn of the 21st when [British forces' commander General Gerard] Lake‘s troops moved to annihilate the United Irish on Vinegar Hill. The rebels were ‘bombarded by cannon ball, grape-shot, musket ball, as thickly as a shower of hail-stone’. Heavily armed government forces against exhausted men, women and children, often with few or no weapons or ammunition; defeat was inevitable for the insurgents despite their ‘bravery and intrepidity… for nearly two hours, until our ammunition was expended’.

It is a mark of the willpower of the cornered rebels that this battle is still the one [from 1798] remembered by most Irish people – and by the American and Australian diaspora.

After their victory, Lake allowed his men to carry out extreme reprisals, ‘an orgy of looting and rape’, while the defeated forces’ hospital and its patients were put to the torch.

Major-General John Moore, the future hero of the Peninsular War, was the only one who made any attempt to restrain his troops…

Many defeated rebels slipped away… to the comparative safety of the Wicklow Mountains, to begin the guerilla campaign that the northern rebels were to keep going into the next century.

All quotations in the extract above are taken from the Memoirs of Miles (or Myles) Byrne of Monaseed, a valuable source from an eye-witness at the battle, which is available free online. For similar books about 1798 and Ireland, look here.

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia.
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2 Responses to Vinegar Hill – the Irish rebels’ last stand

  1. Catherine says:

    A terrible story and very well told… thankyou.

    • rebelhand says:

      Thank you, Catherine! It was terrible, indeed. And the punishments went on long after. Of course there were good and bad on both sides, but the Government troops and the (for want of a better word, and I’m aware it’s a loaded one) loyalists took their revenge with gusto.

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