An extract from the new book Vinegar Hill – The Last Stand of the Wexford Rebels of 1798
Scanning the landscape of County Wexford from the windmill on Vinegar Hill, one sees the river Slaney meandering quietly through the town of Enniscorthy below. Enniscorthy Castle and the evocative monument of Fr. John Murphy and the Croppy Boy stand symbolically in the Market Square, while the rolling landscape spreads out in all directions to the Three Rocks, Slieve Coillte, Scollough Gap and Oulart; all areas forever impacted by the 1798 rebellion in County Wexford.
In some regards, time remains standing still as traces and reminders of this bloody period and the battle of Vinegar Hill overtly and covertly permeate the town and county, particularly through written and oral histories, archaeology, and architecture.
The Battle of Vinegar Hill, fought on 21 June, 1798, saw some 20,000 men, women, and children trapped on this hill, facing a Crown Force of some 15,000 troops led by no less than four generals, 16 general officers and 26 pieces of artillery. This was the dying days of a rebellion that had shaken British rule in Ireland to its core. The army surrounding the hill were determined none should escape.
Stories of those who witnessed the battle are evocative and speak the loudest, even after almost 225 years.
In particular, Jane Barber, a fifteen-year-old girl from a loyalist family in Enniscorthy, comprehensively recorded her experiences of the rebellion.
She describes the first conflict in the town on 28th May, 1798, when the rebels drove the herd of cattle through the town; houses and the Market House itself were ablaze and her family and others were fleeing for their lives.
Over the coming three weeks, loyalists from the locality were killed or taken prisoner, housed at Beale’s Barn at the foot of Vinegar Hill, many awaiting trial and ultimate execution at the very windmill that still overlooks the town today. Jane and her family were also taken to Vinegar Hill, only permitted to leave by the intervention of a rebel woman named Mary Donnelly.
Unbeknownst to many, Beale’s Barn likewise still sits unassumingly in the corner of a farmyard to the present day.
The rebel leader, Miles Byrne, a mere 18 years old at the time, but commanding a group of Wicklow rebels, likewise described the battle and how from the sound of the guns at 3.30 a.m., the rebels knew they were surrounded, save to the south-east of Vinegar Hill, where General Francis Needham and his almost 2,000 men should have been.
Folklore suggests he was late to the battle due to humanitarian concerns for the rebels.
This was not the case.
The most intense phase of the battle lasted only 90 minutes, ending at 9 a.m. as the majority of rebels retreated through what would become known as Needham’s Gap. Given the fine weather that day, the sound of the battle was heard in Wexford town, some nine miles distant.
Archibald M’Laren, sergeant of the Dumbartonshire Highlanders described seeing a wounded woman, lying in a ditch with her children.
Having begged them to kill her, she then asked for a drink of water to quench her thirst. They gave her some grog (a mixture of brandy or rum with water), the officer took her three or four children into his care, and upon looking back, observed she had died from her injuries.
Supported by Wexford County Council and published by Four Courts Press, this book is a must-read. Available in book shops and www.fourcourtspress.ie for just €25.00.