Marking the 225th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion, David Mullen looks at Father John Murphy’s epic and ill-fated march to ignite a rebellion in the Midlands.


Father John Murphy must have been in the blackest of moods as he retreated from the smoke, chaos and gore of the Battle of Vinegar Hill. His brother, Pat, had been killed in the fray, and as he withdrew along the dusty road, clogged with thousands of rebels and refugees displaced by that summer of terrible and glorious violence, the 45-year-old priest must have reflected on what a damnably stupid idea it had been to fight on Vinegar Hill.

He had never been happy with the plan. The rebels, armed with little more than farm tools and courage, had been left like sitting ducks on the hill, pounded by General Lake’s deadly artillery; they’d lost hundreds of men; the rising had been almost quashed in the county, and there was still no sign of a French invasion. No, thought Murphy, no more following these foolish orders. It was time for he and his followers — hardy veterans now — to go their own way.

In the early summer of 1798, a month prior to Vinegar Hill, Wexford had been a tinderbox. Spurred on by new continental republican ideals, many now flocked to Wolfe Tone’s secret Society of United Irishmen. The collapse of Wexford’s grain industry had created mass unemployment and disquiet among all quarters of the population. It made the whole county fertile ground for United Irish recruiters, with the government also fearing an imminent French landing like the one that had nearly happened in Bantry Bay in 1796.

The start of 1798 saw a febrile atmosphere prevail in Wexford with forges clattering to the sound of freshly hewn pikes, the threat of brutal martial law, and corps of militiamen let loose to terrorise the population into passivity. The United Irishmen’s ranks grew in number, and in few places with more vigour than the parishes of north Wexford.

There was practically nothing to suggest that Father John Murphy, the curate of Boolavogue, had the makings of a leader of fighting men. Born and reared near the hamlet of Ballycarney in 1753, Murphy had been educated in Seville before returning to Wexford where he took up a curacy among people like his own. While his bishop, James Caulfield, excoriated other priests in the diocese for their revolutionary and seditious talk, the worst adjective he could level at Murphy was ‘giddy’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own