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The Battle of the Big Cross where one hundred Irish died.
Tadhg an Asna remembered in song and story.
By no stretch of the imagination could the Battle of the Big Cross, which took place on June 19th, 1798, on the old road from Shannonvale to Ballinascarthy, be described as major military engagement. At best it was a hurriedly arranged attach by enthusiastic but ill-armed and ill trained civilians on a force, admittedly smaller in number, but having the advantages of superior weapons and military training. Enthusiasm was no match for superior skills and so the Battle of Big Cross ended in defeat for the Irish and the death of many of them, among whom was Tadhg and Asna O'Donovan, the only man whose name has survived in song and in tradition.
Clonakilty - the only place in all of Munster where a blow was struck during the Rising of 1798
The question may be rightly asked
why the Battle and Tadhg's name have over the years occupied pride of place
whenever the Rising of '98 is mentioned. There are many reasons. For a people,
as the Irish then were, deprived of any and every political power or access to
justice, any show of strength and defiance of English law became heroic.
New heroes were quickly recognised and became enshrined in tradition. Indeed it was those heroes that at a later date inspired another generation in their determination to be free, their defeat being and incentive rather than a deterrent.
Truthfully, the poet Stephen Gwynn wrote of : :"A land where to fail is more than to triumph, And victory less than defeat." It was with a sense of prided that the Clonakilty people realised, at a later date of course, that their town had the honour of being the only place in all Munster where a blow of some sort had been struck during the Rising of '98. And that blow commemorated in a song in the Irish language, Cath Bheal an Mhui Shalaigh, by Padriag O'Scolai, Ardfield, who took part in the battle, and was widely sung whilst Irish remained the spoken language of Ardfield and other areas. But probably most important of all was the fact that despite what could be described as a reign of terror which prevailed in the Clonakilty area and indeed throughout West Cork during the period 1796-'98, and the widespread searches for arms, it was remarkable that any group of men could even consider and arrange an attack on British troops. That they did, has earned for them a place in history.
An attempted French takeover
The attempted landing of a French
fleet in Bantry Bay in 1796 led to a military takeover of West Cork. British
troops from all parts of Ireland were stationed in various places. Camps were
established at Mawmore, near Bandon, and at Drinoleague whilst regiments of
military occupied Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Dunmanway and Bantry. At that time
disaffection was rife among the troops, many of them being sworn members of the
United Irishmen, but execution even on suspicion was nothing new to General
Coote, officer commanding the British troops.
In 1798, Sir John Moore succeeded Coote as officer commanding, with 3,000 men under his commands, and these were considered the best trained corps in the British army. Although a more humane man than Coote, he made no secret of his intentions to terrorise the people.
Proclamations were issued ordering people to hand up their arms before May 2nd either to the local magistrate, usually the landlord, or to the military authorities, with a guarantee that surrender of arms would not incur any punishment but rather ensure protection. Troops were to be sent into the homes to live upon the people at free quarters. "My orders to the soldiers." wrote Moore, "were to treat people with as much harshness as possible as far as words and manners went and to supply themselves with whatever provisions were needed to enable them to live well." For three weeks Moore and his men covered West Cork collecting arms, burning houses and generally terorrising the people. As he himself wrote "The moment a Redcoat appears everybody flees." The official disarming of West Cork was completed by May 23rd, and Moore having taken up a total of 800 pikes and 3400 guns of various types.
Assisting Moore were the armed civil defence force of the landlords known as the Yeomanry. There were called up under permanent pay in April '98 and so well did they carry out their duty of tracking down and arresting anybody suspected of disloyalty that the jails in Cork were full and prisoners had to be accommodated on board prison ships in Cork harbour. A branch of the Orange Order was established in Clonakilty and Hungerford of the Island has his men play "Croppies Lie Down" outside the old Catholic church in Old Chapel Lane.
During his time in Clonakilty, Moore camped at Clogheen, then left for Bandon stating that West Cork was peaceful and there was no danger of an uprising. Yes, so unaware was he of the true spirit of the people that he was only as far as Clonmel on his way to Dublin when the pikes were in action at the Big Cross.
Tadhg an Asna
Although the name of Tadhg and Asna
has always been associated with the Battle of the Big Cross, little if anything
is known about the man himself. It is generally accepted that he was a native of
Leaca na Luaithe which would seem to be borne out of the fact that he was buried
in Ballintemple. However it has been said that he was from Kilbree, this
statement having no other proof that that Padrigh O'Scolai's poem mentions
Kilbree as the assembly point for the Irish on the morning of the attack; but
instead of referring to Tadhg as the leader he mentions Costello, his neighbour,
as the most active.
Granted, a poet writes within certain constraints and is allowed a certain amount of license. From that mention of Kilbree, another ballad writer wrote: "Those pikemen mustered at the dawn, all sworn to be free, They gathered round their leader, that hero from Kilbree." However it can be safely assumed that Tadhg or any of the other leaders that day had no military training.
A detachment of Westmeath Militia
were stationed in Clonakilty with Lieut.Col. Sir Hugh O'Reilly as their
commanding officer. Many of them were Irish sworn members of the United Irishmen
and according to themselves ready at the first opportunity to join the local men
in an uprising. News of the disaffection got through to the higher authorities
and on the afternoon of June 18th, 1798, orders arrived that the regiment was to
transfer to Bandon the following morning.
This news reached the Irish, they made plans for the attack, hoping that the fire response from the British would be, at most, a token one. They assembled at the Big Cross, a spot about half a mile north of Shannonvale crossroads on the road to Ballinascarthy, where the actual attack was described thus by Sir Hugh O'Reilly, in a report to the Government: "I have the honour to report to you that a party of the Westmeath regiment consisting of two hundred and twenty men, rank and file with two six pounders under my commands, were attacked yesterday on our march from Clonakilty to Bandon near a village called Ballynascarty by the rebels who took up the best position in the march.
The attack was made from a height on the left of our column of march with very great rapidity and without any previous notice, by between three hundred and four hundred men as nearly as I can judge, armed mostly with pikes and very few firearms. We had hardly time to form but very soon repulsed them with considerable loss when they retreated but not in great confusion"
Whilst the Irish were preparing to make a second attach, they were surprised and came under heavy fire from a detachment of the Caithness Legion under Col. Munro, which was on its way from Bandon to replace the Westmeath men in Clonakilty. The combined enemy fire left at least one hundred Irish dead and the remainder retreating in disorder. The traditional account of the battle differs fro that of O'Reilly in some aspects.
According to it, after the first repulse Tadhg an Asna led a group of pikemen in an attack on the six pounders which they succeeded n capturing. Victory seemed at hand when Tadhg seized the reins of O'Reilly's horse calling on him to surrender but at that crucial moment he fell to the ground having been shot in the back by a Militia sergeant named Cummins. Confusion followed the death of their leader and this was quickly followed by the arrival of the Caithness Legion.
Another local tradition is that Tadhg was acquainted with a member of the Westmeath Militia named White whose support was promised. As Tadhg approached the enemy he called out the man's name but using the Irish pronunciation the world used was "Fight" and immediately the response came "If 'tis a fight you want, you'll get it." and fire opened immediately.
The support expected from the Westmeath Militia did not materialise and thus ended another sad episode in the history of Ireland.
After the battle, the local Yeomanry dragged the bodies of the dead rebels to Clonakilty and left them for days in front of the Market House after which they were thrown into a hole in the strand known as the Crab Hole which later became known as the Croppy Hole. According to tradition Tadhg's body was dragged after a horse and suffered the grossest indignities from the Yeomanry and the local loyalists before being deposited at the Market House.
Many stories, some fanciful, have grown up around Tadhg an Asna and the Battle of the Big Cross but for the people of Clonakilty at that time it was but another victory for the invader who for generations had tried to wipe out any and very spark of resistance.
However the Catholic population of the town received the final insult to their spirit of defiance on the Sunday following the Battle when in the church at Old Chapel Lane the Rev. Horatio Townsend, Vicar of Kilgarriffe and chief magistrate of Clonakilty addressed them as follows: "Deluded though still dear countrymen, your eyes have hitherto been blinded by passion and your understanding perverted by artifice, you shut your ears against the voice of reason, your despised the admonitions of authority and you rejected the counsels of your true friends ... Reflect with remorse and repentance on the wicked and sanguinary designs for which your forged so many of those abominable pikes.
Yield up to justice your leaders and instigators, surrender all your illegal weapons, return to you habitations and resume your industrious employments..." Much if not all the Rev's words must have been lost of a congregation which, if not mainly Irish speaking, had but a mere working of the English language.
Had the Irish won at the Big Cross what would the result have been? Speculation is idle but perhaps it may be appropriate to quote from the poem composed by Padriag O'Scolai:
'Da rithfreadh lenar dtreada, mo lean, go dtigeadh on oiche,
'Se Sealy a bheadh go sciosmhar, agus buionta Bheal Athain
Droichead Banndan taobh leis mo lean do gheobhadh and sceimhle
'S narbh fhios go dtigeadh on oiche go ndeanfai orthu an lamh."