Next year the Bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion will be celebrated throughout Ireland. Books and pamphlets all centered on the events of 200 years ago have already begun to appear in the book shops. As an act of rebellion 1798 can only be regarded as a failure. Nevertheless ’98 remains the most potent rallying call for republicanism in our country. Other events in Irish history pale into insignificance alongside the stirring tales of the United Irishmen.
When the commemoration ceremonies take place next year they will be for the most part centered in either Dublin or Wexford - Dublin because it is our capital city and Wexford because it figured in many of the battles of the period. Who can forget Vinegar Hill, Kelly the boy from Killane or Father Murphy of Boolavogue. Growing up in an Ireland where the Christian Brothers groomed the Irishmen of the future we learned of the heroic adventures and deeds of the ’98 men. However, I never once heard any reference to the 1798 rebellion in Athy and finished my education oblivious to the extent of my townspeople’s’ involvement in the events of that time.
Indeed, it was an English television personality and historian, Robert Key who first prompted the realisation of Athy’s involvement in the rebellion. He included in his TV series on 1798 a scene of locals being flogged against the backdrop of the Town Hall in Athy. This single reference to Athy was enough to create an interest in the subject which has served to recover from obscurity the local events of 200 years ago.
The first references to Athy and the United Irishmen were included in Patrick O’Kelly’s book published in 1847 and simply entitled “1798 Rebellion”. Some years later the diaries of the Quaker author Mary Leadbetter were published as “The Ballitore Annals”. They gave a detailed personal account of events and happenings in Ballitore and surrounding areas during the period of the Rebellion.
The memory of those eventful days was however short-lived and no research appears to have been done on the Rebellion in County Kildare until recent years. Since then a number of people have independently of each other examined the part the men and women of this county played in the rebellious years which marked the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.
In February of next year Liam Chambers of Maynooth College will have his work published by the Four Courts Press under the title “Rebellion in Kildare”. Before Christmas another book on the same topic will come from the pen of Mario Corrigan who is attached to the County Kildare Library Services. There will also be published in the new year a small booklet dealing with the 1798 Rebellion in Athy and District.
The Local Museum Society established in 1983 to foster and develop a local museum in Athy will host a number of lectures dealing with the 1798 Rebellion. These lectures will take place on the first Thursday of each month commencing in February with a talk by yours truly on “Athy and the 1798 Rebellion”. The March Lecture will be given by Vincent O’Reilly who will talk on “Hempenstall - The Walking Gallows”. In April Liam Chambers will deliver a lecture on “The 1798 Rebellion in County Kildare”. The venue for all these lectures is the Town Hall where the hanging Judge Norbury sat in judgment on local United Irishmen 200 years ago. Indeed the Courtroom is now the exhibition/lecture room adjoining the main library room and the very room where the Museum Society lectures will be given.
To give a flavour of the times experienced 200 years ago consider the following extract from a paper I recently gave to a seminar in Clongowes Wood College under the auspices of Kildare Archaeological Society and Kildare County Council.
“Trial by court martial was a common occurrence in Athy during the months of May and June. Seven men were tried, convicted and hanged in the town in the early days of June. Six of these men were from Narraghmore and had been arrested following the killing of John Jeffries. The seventh man was named Bell, a graduate of Trinity College who lived in the Curragh. One of the Narraghmore men was Daniel Walsh, a steward of Col. Keating’s and a member of the Narraghmore Yeomanry.
On the day that Walsh and his companions were hanged, Rawson’s Loyal Athy Infantry erected a triumphal arch across the Barrow bridge under which the convicted men had to pass on their way from the gaol in White’s Castle to the place of execution. The prisoners were accompanied by a Fr. Patrick Kelly, a Catholic priest who, when passing under the arch, rushed and knocked down a yeoman named Molloy. Grapping at the orange flag which was hoisted on the spot, he pulled it down and trampled on it. We are told that the Protestant yeomen did not react as one might expect, presumably because the prisoners were escorted by members of the Waterford Militia whose rank and file members were Catholics. The hangings took place at Croppy’s Acre, located at the basin of the Grand Canal. Two of the seven were beheaded and their heads placed on White’s Castle where it was said they served as targets for Rawson’s yeomen who fired at them from the adjoining Barrow bridge. The same yeomen defaced with sledges the coat of arms of the Geraldine family which was carved on a large flagstone and embedded in the castle wall when the bridge of Athy was rebuilt in 1796. The damaged stone can still be seen inset in the wall of White’s Castle.
In August 1798, information was given to Captain Rawson that the Protestants of Athy were to be massacred while attending Sunday service. As outlined to Rawson, the plan was to set fire to some cabins outside the town in the hope of attracting the local yeomanry force to the scene. Three hundred men, concealed in the yard of Walsh’s Inn, were then to gain possession of the Courthouse and White’s Castle while another group waiting at the scene of the fire were to wipe out the yeomanry. Those Protestants attending service in St. Michael’s Church in Emily Square were then to be executed. Information of this alleged plot was sent by Rawson to Dublin Castle, and 120 men of the Fermanagh militia were immediately sent to Athy under the command of Major King. Arriving on Saturday evening, the day before the planned massacre, their presence guaranteed the safety of the Protestant minority in the town.”
Next year will be an important landmark in the contemporary history of our island as we commemorate a time when Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter came together in a struggle for equality and freedom.