The Rising in the West

When we talk about the rising of 1798 our thoughts immediately go to counties Wexford, Wicklow, Carlow or Kildare where the rising reached its peak and to all intents and purposes ended. A few of the United Irishmen got back to Wicklow following the fruitless effort to reorganise in Laois after Vinegar Hill. Fr. Murphy and his gallant comrade Gallagher were captured and killed in Tullow, while others got into the midlands where they eventually met the same end. In parts of Northern Ireland some also made a brave effort without success. Somehow the Irish, in their fight for freedom, were always waiting for help from some other country. In Kinsale it was the Spanish, in 1798 it was the French and in 1916 the Germans and the Irish Americans. Between one thing and another and after the French had first sent several ships to Egypt they eventually sent a number of men to Ireland. It is doubtful, even at this stage if the intention was to help the Irish or to find out the best place to attack Britain was at her weakest point – Ireland.

The 1,099 officers and men who landed at Killala were to be the vanguard of a French Armada. They sailed from La Rochelle on the 6th August and this sailing was to coincide with the sailing of some 3,000 men from Brest (including Wolfe Tone) under the command of French general, Hardy. Their own commander was General Joseph Humbert. He had joined the Revolutionary army and risen rapidly in the ranks. He had sailed with Hoche on the abortive Bantry Bay expedition.

Now a veteran of 31 he knew this was probably his last chance to make his name be remembered in both France and Ireland. The Directory’s orders were for Humbert’s expedition ‘to convey to Ireland arms and ammunition in order to help the United Irishmen throw off the English yoke’. But neither Hardy nor Humbert were to intervene in the main insurrection directly. Should they arrive at different times Humbert was to await the arrival of Hardy and place himself under his command or otherwise make no move until he thought he had enough for important operations.

Back at Brest everything that could go wrong had done so. Delayed at first by ureaucracy, then by adverse winds and finally by the British blockade Hardy was ordered to postpone the enterprise until the Autumn. For Tone, the delays were the culmination of a series of disappointments. His opinion of Bonaparte’s sincerity had proved well founded, for on the 26th of May he had learned that the general had embarked with the Toulon fleet for distant seas. As if this wasn’t enough the Irish in France now learned that the rising had already broken out in Ireland. Another disaster now caused a lot of trouble in the Irish group in France. Tones friends now boycotted Napper Tandy and his supporters with both groups claiming to be working under orders from the United Irishmen. They both made a desperate last request to the French to organise at least 1,000 men to go to the aid of the Irish. This plea was turned down in favour of sending a large force later on. Tone agreed that there was little use in sending a small force. Napper Tandy disagreed, stating that if he himself were to land in Ireland he would get 30,000 men to rise immediately. As time passed in discussing this matter both Tone and Tandy could see that the rising would be over before either of them got the order to go, and that unless Humbert, achieved a miracle the rising would have ended before either of them set foot on Irish soil again.

Humbert had also received a shock when he landed on Irish ground. He had been led to believe that when the French arrived in Ireland there would be thousands of trained men to meet him, instead he found himself meet by a group of ignorant peasants who knew very little about fighting and even less about forming a provisional government. As there was no sign of Hardy he made up his mind to advance inland with the French troops he had with him joined by whatever Irish were willing to join him. Most of the Irish were in rags and the French gave them whatever extra uniforms they had and also tried to show them how to handle a rifle but without much success. On 25th August he advanced to Ballina, leaving 200 men to guard his line of retreat. His veterans found the local yeomanry were not much better than the rebels he had met at Killala, they lost their nerve after a short encounter and retreated to Foxford, leaving Ballina without a shot being fired. He now made up his mind to encourage his Irish allies by showing them that numbers did not always win and although he had heard about 3,500 regulars were advancing towards him, he decided to strike at their position at Castlebar before they settled down. He left Ballina on the evening of the 26th with about 700 French infantry and cavalry and about the same number of Irish and a single cannon. He was told that as well as the road through Foxford there was another way through the wildest part of the west. This route would be undefeated and it was on the way he decided to go. He travelled the Foxford road a short distance, and then turned on to the mountain track. They marched all night and in the small hours they saw Castlebar ahead of them. After stationing a garrison at Foxford, the commander at Castlebar, Major-General John Hely-Hutchinson, was left with only about 1,700 troops, the great majority militia, with a small force of Scottish Fencibles (Mercenaries) some dragoons and yeomanry and a detachment from a line regiment together with his artillery which consisted of ten curricle guns and a howitzer. He had been instructed by Conwallis not to attempt any advance with so small a force and he had prepared a defence position to the north-west of the town. At eleven o’clock that night Lake, sent on post-haste by Conwalllis arrived and took over overall command.

Early on the morning of the 27th, the French came over the ridge to be met with the fire of the defending guns. Humbert realised he was in a desperate position now that the element of surprise had gone. His men did not flinch, but charged forward, it was at this stage he was told most of his Irish levies had fled. The position now looked really bad for Humbert when something completely unexpected happened, the Irish on Lakes side did the same thing, turned and ran. The French now charged their guns at bayonet point and although some of the rear guard fought gallantly, trying to stem the retreat but without success, nothing could stop the wild rush that had commenced when the militia turned and ran. In their eagerness to escape, all their cannon, all their munitions, even Lake’s luggage were left behind. The soldiers did not stop until they reached Tuam while others pressed on to Athlone. So ended the ‘Races of Castlebar’, one of the rarest defeats in British military history.

It was on that day, 27th August that Cornwallis and his staff had reached Athlone. The news he dreaded, but half expected came during the night, the French had won the battle of Castlebar, Cornwallis was no fool and realised that if the French were not stopped they could cause havoc as thousands would join Humbert and the rising would really get going and good or bad the weight of numbers would tell in the end. The danger was that Leinster would rise again and that had to be stopped at all cost. Cornwallis decided to stay in Tuam while he collected enough men to take on the French without fear of being beaten. By stripping as much as he dared of the garrisons in the area, by 2nd September he had 7,800 men. But how that went is another story.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist