Last week I mentioned the Bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion which will be commemorated rather than celebrated next year. The distinction is important because there is little in the events of 1798 which should give rise to any bouts of enthusiastic celebration such as accompanies notable achievements. What happened in the last decade of the 18th Century resulted in considerable distress amongst many communities up and down the country. There is evidence of outrageous and barbarism committed on both sides. The rebels untrained and unskilled were perhaps less blameworthy than the well drilled and better armed Government forces but nevertheless apportionment of blame is less than a useful exercise after such an elapse of time.
Written accounts of the happenings of 1798 first appeared within a short time afterwards. Amongst them was Sir Richard Musgrave’s “Memoirs of the Rebellion in Ireland” first published in 1801. It was unsympathetic to the Irish rebel side as indeed were all the earlier books on the subject. Almost 30 years were to elapse before Wolfe Tone’s biography was published and this understandably included much material relating to the emergence of the United Irishmen and the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion. Another account by an active participant was Teeling’s “Personal Narrative” published in 1828. The major work on the United Irishman which has stood the test of time is Madden’s four volumes “The Lives and Times of the United Irishman” published in the years immediately before the Great Famine. It was Madden who sought to rescue Robert Emmett’s housekeeper Ann Devlin from the dreadfully poor conditions she was forced to live in after her employer’s execution.
In the years since Madden’s substantial tomes first appeared many other books dealing with the ’98 Rebellion have been published. Local man Patrick O’Kelly who was leader of the Athy men during that period wrote his account of the rebellion which he had published as “The history of the rebellion of 1798”. As you might expect it had many references to Athy and to County Kildare never before included in any previously published account of the rebellion.
When the Centenary of the rebellion was remembered in 1898 Ireland was still under English rule. Nevertheless local committees up and down the country were organised to commemorate the rebellion of 1798 and a small number of publications were issued. There has been a tendency for such publications to concentrate on Wexford, Wicklow Antrim and Down with little or nothing appearing in relation to other counties in Ireland. This deficiency was remedied somewhat with the appearance in 1949 of McHugh’s edition of “The Autobiography of William Farrell of Carlow”. Farrell had written graphically of the floggings in Athy and highlighted the hardships experienced by the local people during the rebellion.
Next year we will have an opportunity to study not only the rebellious activities of 1798 but also the events which led up to it. The American War of Independence and the French Revolution were important influences on what happened in Ireland in the 1790’s as was Thomas Paine’s work “The Rights of Man”. The United Irishmen founded in Belfast in 1791 was a radical and largely Protestant movement. It was also a movement of particular appeal to Catholics and Dissenters alike at a time when the cry liberty equality and fraternity first sounded during the French Revolution found an echo on the streets of Irish towns. Within a few years of its foundation the United Irishmen organisation began to undergo a change. Forced to go underground it became a secret organisation committed to republicanism and the organisation became more and more militarised. To the alarm of the Government it was reported that local people throughout the country were involved in pike making while rebel raids for guns were a frequent occurrence. In November 1797 a boat anchored in the Grand Canal Harbour at Athy was raided and guns destined for a Co. Carlow Corps of Yeomanry were stolen. The military based in the local Army Barracks immediately reacted and the people of Athy and district were to incur heavy retribution during the following year.
The local blacksmiths of the town were arrested on suspicion of making pikes for the rebels and lodged in White’s Castle jail. Floggings under the triangle became a common occurrence in Athy and we have a contemporary account of this in William Farrell’s diary.
I have often wondered to what extent the 1798 Rebellion affected the community at large in Athy and specifically the Quaker community which lived there. The Quakers as pacifists did not become involved in the 1798 rebellion but as was noted by Mary Ledbetter in her “Annals of Ballytore” members of the Quaker community were nevertheless subjected to violence. Despite having held a weekly meeting in Athy from the latter part of the 17th Century and having had a meeting house constructed at the corner of Meeting Lane in 1780 the local Quaker community disappeared from Athy a few years after the 1798 Rebellion. Was their departure due to intolerable interference during the Rebellion or was it due to the demise of Thomas Chandlee a linen draper of Athy whose dynamic leadership had earlier reactivated the Quaker community in the town? We may never know the answer to this question but perhaps the Bicentenary of 1798 affords us all an ideal time and opportunity to evaluate the period when Protestant, Catholic and
Dissenter came together in a republican movement.