“All that Delirium of the Brave - Kildare in 1798” is the title of a book by Mario Corrigan published by Kildare County Council. The author is a member of the County Library services and spent some time in Athy Community Library. In the preface to his work he tell us that “the purpose of this book is to examine the realities behind the rebellion in Kildare 1798”. It is also he claims “an attempt to demythify and break from the seemingly inherent Irish trait of finding some sort of dignity in disaster.”
Having made that statement of intent Mario proceeds to provide us a text full of interesting and thought provoking analysis. In his opening chapter the author gives brief background information on the county without dealing sufficiently with the United Irishmen’s organisational links with the area. It is in the next chapter dealing with Lord Edward Fitzgerald that Mario’s book comes into its own. He analyses Lord Edward’s involvement in the United Irishman and rather succinctly summarises the links between Ireland and France and the influence of Thomas Paine.
Mario offers the view that the 1798 Rebellion was due more to military excesses on the part of the Government forces rather than what he describes as “the exigencies of the United movement”. In County Kildare in particular he claims that the local mens’ participation in the rebellion was primarily a reaction to military repression. It is difficult to agree with this analysis given the nature and extent of the United Irishmen’s organisation in the County prior to 1798. Kildare was one of the most highly organised counties in Ireland for the United Irishmen while Athy was an important centre for that organisation. Throughout 1797 the organisation in Athy and district was active in forming military style groups each intended to take part in a planned rebellion. Every twelve volunteers appointed a sergeant each eight sergeants a captain and a lieutenant, and every eight captains a colonel. Captaincies in the United Irishmen in Athy were held by Denis Devoy, Patrick Kelly and his brother Peter who was a local shopkeeper. James Lynam, publican was also a Captain as was James Walsh a farmer of Skerries, James Murphy a farmer of Ballytore, Edward McDaniel and Patrick Davin both of Fontstown.
An informer of the time John Chanders of Shrowland, Athy swore information that sixteen companies of the United Irishmen were to be found in and around Athy. Meetings were held in various local houses including Peter Kelly’s shop in the town, John Hyland’s house near the Upper Turnpike Gate and William Kelly’s shop on the main street. Plans for a rebellion were in hand almost certainly encouraged by the events in American and France of a few years previously. Raids for arms such as that which took place in the Canal Harbour in Athy on the 7th December 1797 is evidence of the United Irishmen’s determination to be prepared and ready for an armed rebellion. When the rising took place on the 24th May it was part of a planned operation but one which undoubtedly suffered in the planning due to the earlier arrest of the Leinster leaders.
In chapter three the author explores further the affect that the military repression had on the local people. Reference is made to the writing of Patrick O’Kelly a Kilcoo man who published his own history of the rebellion. When martial law was declared the rebels and those perceived to be rebels in Athy were to bear the full brunt of its harsh enforcement by the military based in Athy Barracks. The well known reference to Thomas James Rawson of Glassealy who had local men stripped and tortured in the triangle is used to reinforce Mario’s argument that the rebellion was due to military excesses rather than anything else. He writes “fear of torture, imprisonment or execution could stir men to resistance more easily than any political reteric”. I tend however, to the view that the military repression and excesses in South Kildare area prior to the 24th May served to dampen local enthusiasm for a planned rebellion. There can be no other explanation for the failure of the rebellion to ignite in South Kildare despite the strength of the organisation in the area in the months leading up to 1798.
In the fourth chapter the rising in County Kildare is dealt with in some detail and the author has done well to bring sense and meaning to the many conflicting and sometimes sketchy accounts which have appeared over the years. I cannot understand, why, however it should be claimed that the rebellion in County Kildare “quickly degenerated into a plundering, Defenderist, bandit war”. It would be wrong to indict an entire movement on the basis of the unacceptable behaviour of some. The actions of “Black Top” otherwise John Whelan and his companions who ruthlessly murdered four women at Glassealy in 1798 were not typical of those involved in the rebellion. The United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in October 1791 by young radicals such as Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell who influenced by the American War of Independence and the French Revolution sought political reforms which would include people of all religious denominations. Its subsequent militarisation did not mean that the United Irishmen lost sight of their primary objectives. That there were excesses by some members of the United Irishmen is beyond dispute. There is not however, adequate evidence to support the writer’s claim that the rebellion in Kildare degenerated into a “bandit war”.
An excellent chronology of the rebellion in County Kildare is included in the book as are poems and songs of Kildare in ’98. I have to admit to being envious of Mario Corrigan’s production which impressed me despite my lack of agreement with some of his analysis. This is a book which will appeal to those who require an analytical rather than a simple descriptive narrative of events in Kildare in ’98. If I can be allowed one little gripe it is to register my dislike of what I see as the deadening hand of academia which is perceptible throughout the text even if not easily understood. How about this in the opening paragraph “if the historian has a hunger for acquiring knowledge he adversely retains a passion to disseminate it multifariously, contritely obvious in the enormous outpourings on emergent mass politicalization in the 18th Century”.
Nevertheless this is a book worth buying and one which anyone in Kildare interested in local history should have on the shelf. It is available to buy in your local library even if it is not in your local bookshop.