Wicklow’s Rebel Chieftain in 1798 is profiled by Bridget Hannon

During the 1798 Rebellion, Joseph Holt was so enterprising a military commander that he gathered an army of 10,000 men behind him, a significant proportion of whom were deserters from the forces of King George III. A canny strategist, the authorities considered Holt so dangerous a rebel that they put a price of three hundred pounds on his head, an enormous amount of money for that period.

Born in 1856, Joseph was one of six sons born to John Holt, a farmer in Co. Wicklow. The Holt family were Protestant loyalists in Ballydaniel (Ballydonnell) near Redcross. In 1782, Holt married Hester Long and set himself up as a farmer in the vicinity of Roundwood.

During the 1780s Holt joined the Irish Volunteers and held a number of minor public offices such as an inspector of wool and cloth. He also became involved in law enforcement as a sub-constable.

Despite his apparent loyalty to the Crown, Holt became a member of the United Irishmen in 1797. Gradually he attracted suspicion until finally his house was burned down by the militia – instigated by the local landlord Thomas Hugo, who owed Holt a sum of money. Holt then took to the Wicklow mountains.

Avoiding pitched battles, Holt led the United Irishmen in a fierce campaign of raids and ambushes against loyalist military targets in Wicklow. Following the defeat of the rebels at Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy, on 21 June, surviving rebel factions headed towards the Wicklow Mountains to link up with Holt’s forces.

Spectacularly, Holt ambushed and defeated a pursuing force of 200 British cavalry intent on killing these Wexford rebels, at Ballyellis near Carnew, Co. Wicklow, on 30 June 1798.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own