Fáilte Romhat

  Clonakilty in '98


THREE times within living memory Clonakilty has honoured the memory of those who fought and fell in the attempted rising near Ballinascarthy in 1798: at the monster hosting at the Big Cross in 1898, at the unveiling of the monument in 1903, and at the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1948.
It is all the more strange then that we have no completely reliable account of what happened there. At least six accounts survive, all contradicting one another. Or should we rather trust Deasy - writing nearly a century later, on Bennett - described in one masterpiece of understatement as "not entirely free from racial prejudice.
Never the less, it is possible to sketch the main outlines of the skirmish itself and more important still the general background against which it took place.

Two of these accounts have been published by Mr. Sean O Coindealbhin, M.A., in his account of "The United Irishmen in Cork County. - VI." in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, July/December, 1951, two (those of Bennett and O'Reilly) by the late James Buckley, in "The Skirmish at Ballinascarthy." - J. C. H. A. S., July/September, 1903.
Another account is by the Ardfield poet, Pdraigh Og O Scolaidhe, given in full in this publication. The sixth is contained in a long account (still unpublished), of the events of 1798, written by Rickard Deasy - of the Brewery, written in 1845 in St. Helir, Jersey, where he was then in exile.
Thanks are due to the Editor, J.C.H.A.H., Mr. O Coindealbhin and Basil O'Connell, K.M., for permission to use these accounts.

The Westmeath Militia were at this time quartered in West Cork, a large contingent in Clonakilty and a smaller one in Skibbereen. The lower ranks were very disaffected and a plot was under way to join with the local United Irishmen in a general uprising.
This plot was discovered by the authorities in the nick of time and late in the evening of June 18th, 1798, (three days before Vinegar Hill), when many of the officers were enjoying the hospitality of the local gentry, orders arrived that they were to leave for Bandon the following morning at six o'clock.
Late as it was the news was quickly spread through the surrounding countryside, as far it was said, as the Kinsale ferry, and before daybreak the men of West Cork were converging in hundreds on Ballinascarthy, there to wait the arrival of the Westmeath.

According to the commanding officer of the Westmeath, Lieut.-Col. Sir Hugh O'Reilly, the rebels had occupied the best position on the whole line of march, a short distance from Ballinascarthy on the old road to Cork, and attacked "with great rapidity and without the least previous notice" and scarcely giving his men time to form into line.
Their charge was repelled and just as they were preparing to attack again, the detachment of the Caithness Legion on their way to Clonakilty to replace the Westmeath arrived, and, as will happen to the bravest of untrained men when taken by surprise the rebels panicked. Col. O'Reilly praises highly the "cool, steady conduct" of the Caithness Legion. He praises also his own officers and men for what he describes as their "great ardour"...... "which it was almost impossible to restrain."

Col. Monro of the Caithness Legion says the rebel loss was about one hundred, and continues: "Such slaughter done in so short a space of time by such a handful of men exceeds the most sanguine ideas of the bravery of our troops."

Bennett, the historian of Bandon, maintains that the skirmish began when the insurgent leader, Tadhg an Astna, caught the reins of Col. O'Reilly's horse the militia having made only a pretence at obeying the order to fire. One, Sergeant Cummins, then shot the rebel leader and was himself shot from the rear ranks. It was at this point that the Caithness arrived on the scene and saved the day for the Colonel.

Deasy is also inclined to play down the skirmish, maintaining that very few of the rebels had any arms at all, and that the officers of the Westmeath crouched in terror by the hedges.

After the affray the local Yeomanry dragged the bodies of the dead rebels and left them for days outside the local market house in Clonakilty, and later flung them into the "Crab Hole." The relatives afterwards saw to their Christian burial.

What are we to make of the conflict between the various accounts?
Are we to accept the report of O'Reilly, no doubt anxious that his own part in extricating his troops from a dangerous situation should appear in a good light?

Whichever way we look at it the skirmish was a complete fiasco for the cause of the United Irishmen. It is none the less true to say that it was a stroke of luck for the British administration in Ireland. There is every reason to believe that the rebels expected nothing but a token resistance at the Big Cross. This feeling of security combined with the hasty manner of their "rising out," and their lack of military training, would account for their failure to place scouts on the Bandon side and their sudden collapse.

If their plans had worked out as they wished there is no doubt but that they could have provided the British army with a formidable problem to solve.
The very existence of a force over 1,000 strong, with at least, two hundred muskets and two six pounders (the armament of the Westmeath), would have pinned down a large force of the British army in West Cork. Moreover, they had on their side all those factors, desirable if not necessary, for successful guerrilla warfare, the support of a large section of the populace, greater mobility and more intimate knowledge of the terrain than the Crown forces and a large area to the west where a force of this kind could hold out indefinitely and at the same time keep their enemies on the defensive.
With capable leadership and the accession of the other militia regiments in the area the British would have found it extremely difficult to hold the south, with a French landing well nigh impossible.

Comparison is inevitable with the course of events in Wexford, where the insurgent armies in spite of inept and indecisive leadership and inadequate armament, kept the Crown forces at bay for over a month. At the fatal battle of Vinegar Hill, General Lake had no less than eight General Officers under his command.
Yet the Wexford rising started on a far smaller scale. When Fr. John Murphy, of Boolavogue "set the heather blazing" it is doubtful if he had more than thirty men under his command, and even after the successful battle of Oulart Hill, he had scarcely one hundred and fifty muskets to share among his men, now probably a thousand strong. Even on Vinegar Hill when the insurgents numbered about 15,000, their artillery consisted of two six-pounders and a small mortar or howitzer, with scarcely a round of ammunition.

Of the many points of comparison that could be made, let us confine ourselves to three: the degree of organisation in each county, the rise of the Orange lodges and provocation by the Yeomanry, and the stupid "play with fire" policy of the Government of goading the people into premature revolt. There seems to be no doubt that Wexford was very thinly represented in the ranks of the United Irishmen, and that the people were forced to revolt - a short time before the outbreak - Fr. Murphy had strongly advised the people to hand in their arms and had taken up arms only to prevent the massacre of his people.

In West Cork conditions were somewhat different. In 1798 the United Irishmen had scarcely any foothold in the area, by the end of 1797 there were cells in every area, the militia were disaffected and pikes were being manufactured in most country forges. This was due in part to the activities of the leaders, Roger O'Connor of Manch; Timothy O'Driscoll, of Skibbereen; Dr. O'Connor of Bantry; Swanton in the Ballydehob area, and Dr. Callanan of Clonakilty.
Of these, Swanton later escaped to America where he became a Judge, Dr. O'Connor was transported to Norfolk Island, where he spent ten years. He later settled in Clonakilty where he was still in practice in Mill Street in 1824. O'Driscoll betrayed the plans to the Government. According to Rickard Deasy the Stawells of Kilbrittain, were also deeply implicated and wished to attack Bandon after the departure of Sir John Moore for Wexford, towards the end of May. It was believed that a large part of the crew of an armed brig lying at anchor at Castlehaven, were in a mutinous state, and ready to desert with the complete armament of their ship. However, Dr. Callanan, in whom they confided, prevailed upon them to await the outcome of the Battle of New Ross then imminent. This resulted in the defeat of the rebel forces (June 5th), and the attack on Bandon was postponed.

However, the factor which predisposed the people to sympathise with the aims of the United Irishman was the rise of the Orange Order and the insolence of the Yeomanry who rode roughshod over the people, especially when they could do so with impunity.

On one score, however, West Cork was fortunate in comparison to Wexford in that the policy of goading the people into revolt was not carried to the same lengths. Nobody now doubts that such was official policy. On the 26th of February, the commander-in-chief, Sir Ralph Abercrombie, castigated the troops under his command for being "in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to everyone but the enemy." He was forced to resign.
That this policy was not carried out in West Cork to the same extent was due to the efforts of that honourable and upright soldier, Brigadier General Sir John Moore. Others saw the danger in this when it was upon them, Moore saw it from the start and exerted every effort to place restraint on the lawless Yeomanry. Deasy gives several examples of his humane approach to his duty and in Moore's own diary we read - "I found only two gentlemen who acted with liberality or manliness; the rest seemed in general to be actuated by the meanest motives. The common people have been so ill-treated by them and so often deceived that neither attachment nor confidence any longer exists."

What a pity he did not mention the names of these two gentlemen! It is fitting to close a story of savagery and brutality with honourable mention of men who may well have been in Moore's mind, the Reverend Horace Townshend. Vicar and Magistrate of Clonakilty, and his namesake, John Townshend, who did all that men could do to protect the unfortunate people from the Yeomanry.


Clonakilty District Past & Present  - A Tourist guide to the area -[158 pages, forward dated 1959] The guide was published by the Southern Star Ltd for the Clonakilty C.Y.M.S.

My thanks to Henry McFadden for providing this information.