Local History Publications on 1798

Published in Issue 2 (Summer 1998), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 6

The Wexford Insurgents of ‘98 and their March into Meath, Eamon Doyle (Duffrey Press, £5.99).

Leitrim and the Croppies 1776-1804, Gerard Mac Atasney (Carrick-on-Shannon and District Historical Society).

The Tellicherry Five, Kieran Sheedy (RTE and The Woodfield Press, £9.99).

All that Delirium of the Brave: Kildare in 1798, Mario Corrigan (Kildare County Council, £6).

The United Irishmen in County Tyrone, Brendan McEvoy (Cumann Seanchais Árd Mhaca).

The Sites of the 1798 Rising in Antrim and Down
, Bill Wilson (Blackstaff Press, £7.99).

Dublin in 1798: Three Illustrated Walks, Denis Carroll (South Hill Communications, £3).

Here’s Their Memory
, Richard Roche (Wexford National Graves Association, £5).

The Trial of Billy Byrne of Ballymanus
(Dee-Jay Publications, £5.99).

The Gold Sun of Irish Freedom, Danny Doyle and Terence Folan (Mercier Press, £7.99).

Songs of ‘98, Seán Ó Brádaigh [ed.] (Irish Freedom Press, £2.50).

‘98 Diary: Ireland in Rebellion, Ambrose Madders (The author, £4.50).

Carlow ‘98: Souvenir Booklet (Carlow Bicentenary Commemoration Committee).


Overviews or studies of the 1798 Revolution as a national event (macro-narrative to the initiated) often, by their nature, omit the telling detail that locally produced books can include.
The totality of the history of ‘98 usually contained in these macro-narratives does not allow access to specific local detail which is often too trivial, too unimportant for inclusion in ‘national’ works. Such local narratives, however, can often be revealing and, indeed, may cause the authors of the general histories to revise their deductions and observations. Local historians may also throw light on obscure events and personalities that otherwise might remain in the shadows. Wasn’t it Carlyle who said that history is the essence of innumerable biographies?
To take one example from the selection of local histories under review here: all the marco-narratives of ‘98 are deficient in information about the fate of Thomas Dixon and his wife Margaret after they had ridden away from the massacres on Wexford bridge in June 1798. It has taken a keen local historian, Eamon Doyle, in his well-researched book The Wexford  Insurgents of ‘98 and their March into Meath, to discover that Dixon was still with the Wexford army in County Meath on 13 July and had taken part in a council of war at Whelp Rock, County Wicklow, on 9 July. It appears that the archives on the rising have still to give up some of their secrets.
They have been diligently mined by Eamon Doyle as well as by several other local historians here, notably Gerard MacAtasney in Leitrim and the Croppies 1776-1804, Kieran Sheedy in The Tellicherry Five and Mario Corrigan in All the Delerium of the Brave: Kildare in 1798. Good use of archival material is also made by Fr. Brendan McEvoy in his study of the United Irishmen in County Tyrone, tracing their evolution from roots in the Volunteers, through the movement’s suppression in 1796, to its failure to rise in ‘98. The methods of terrorising the United Irishmen have a familiar ring to them:

…about fifty men, some of them dressed in Yeoman’s uniform and armed with firelocks and bayonets, attacked the house of Felix Ruddy and son at Killman, near Dungannon in the County of Tyrone about midnight. The father who started naked from his bed…defended himself at his room door with a pitchfork; afraid to force in on him they seized his daughter…attacking her with every species of violence and abuse. On hearing her cries the unfortunate father rushed to her relief… they attacked him with sledges and hatchets, one of which sank into his breast…He was thrown into a ditch as dead…They then broke into the son’s house, cut the bed-posts and let the tester fall on the children…and burned both houses with their contents to ashes.

Counties Antrim and Down, which did rise, are well served by Bangorman Bill Wilson, whose illustrated guide to their ‘98 sites is both helpful and handy. The seven featured tours fit into the pocket-sized booklet which, appropriately, ends with a description of the execution to Henry Munro at Lisburn. ‘Tell my country’, he said to the crowd, ‘I demand better of it.’ A fitting epitaph for all the United Irish being commemorated this year.
Illustrated guide-books work best when there are interesting sites to be seen, as in Wilson’s booklet and, indeed, in the case of Denis Carroll’s Dublin in 1798: Three Illustrated Walks. Here we are dealing with more durable sites, rather than rural battlefields—places such as Tailors’ Hall, Croppies Acre, the old Parliament House, Dublin Castle and St Michin’s church (located on the wrong side of Church Street on the main map, incidentally). The problem with ‘98 battlefields, in fact, lies in their undistinguished nature; there were no grand set-pieces like Agincourt or Waterloo and the tactics used by the insurgents were largely of a defensive kind, based on hilltop camps and massed charges with the pike.
There is no denying, however, the courage and determination of the insurgents and this is vividly portrayed in several of the booklets here, notably Eamon Doyle’s March into Meath, Mario Corrigan’s Kildare in 1798 and my own Here’s Their Memory (which the editor has kindly allowed me to mention). The dogged bravery of the south Wexford army in its repeated assaults on New Ross, the heroic last stand of another Wexford detachment at Ballyboghill or the fiery attacks on Prosperous and Clane by the Kildare men are examples which even the enemy could not scorn.
Nor were their courage and determination confined to the battlefield. When the insurrection failed and the participants were arrested and put on trial, most of them conducted themselves with confidence and intrepidity. Billy Byrne of Ballymanus typified the stance taken by many of the accused. The Account of his trial, first published in Dublin shortly after the event, has been reproduced with a foreword by Jim Rees. ‘He was’, writes Rees, ‘twenty-three at the time of the rebellion. His physique, good looks and camaraderie singled him out.’ Byrne’s behaviour in the dock exhibits not just the desperation of a doomed man trying to save his life but also unusual juristic skills and proud demeanour. The fact that he failed to save himself and was hanged has not diminished his stature in any way. he was and is a hero to many, especially in County Wicklow.
‘Ninety-eight’ has its fair share of heroes and heroines—Fr. John Murphy, Roddy McCorley, Kelly of Killane, Mary Doyle, Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Henry Munro and the anonymous Croppy Boy. They largely owe their immortality to the ballads and songs written about them in the intervening years, ballads and songs which, regrettably, have not been heard very often in recent times. Perhaps the bicentenary commemorations this year will provide fresh opportunities to hear them again and again, even on RTE.
Lest the words of these ballads have been forgotten, several new publications are now to hand to refresh the memory: The Gold Sun of Freedom: 1798 in Song and Story by Danny Doyle and Terence Folan and Songs of 1798, edited by Seán Ó Brádaigh are but two of many. Originally envisaged as a script for a commemorative show, Doyle’s and Folen’s collection includes songs and ballads of the rising with their history and a linking narrative. The songs and ballads come complete with musical notation and simple guitar chords. The authors quote Queen Elizabeth I—’We shall never conquer Ireland while the bards are ther’—and then proceeded to hang every one she could find. Such bards are still around and Danny Doyle is one of the best. Seán Ó Brádaigh’s collection is less ambitious but nevertheless contains about fifty ballads and poems, with short notes on their origins and subjects.
Finally, to a few diaries and programmes: Ambrose Madders’ ‘98 Diary is a sixty-page summary of the main events of the insurrection, on a day-to-day basis; Carlow ‘98 is a colourful booklet giving brief accounts of events in that county and a programme for the commemoration this year.
There will be many more local publications this year, each one useful and enlightening in its own sphere. The selection here is a random one but the booklets mentioned offer serious and often fresh perspectives and information on localised events and personalities. The rising is here, in cameo, in all its bloody vividness. The accounts are mainly fair and impartial, drawing on manuscript and secondary sources, and viewing the insurrection in the different areas from opposing sides. Together these booklets will surely provide future historians of the period with an unrivalled source of local data and observation.

Richard Roche is a local historian and writer.


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