One of the most infamous characters linked with the 1798 Rebellion is Thomas Reynolds, the one time resident of Kilkea Castle. Reynolds was a distant relation of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the Duke of Leinster’s son and one time Member of Parliament for the Borough of Athy. Colonel Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House, Athy was Reynold’s uncle and both, unusually, for members of the gentry in 18th century Ireland, were members of the Catholic Church. Reynolds’ father Andrew was a silk merchant from Dublin and he married Rose Fitzgerald of Kilmead. Their son Thomas spent the first eight years of his life in the Kilmead home of his maternal grandfather Thomas Fitzgerald. Educated at Chiswick in England and later at Liege in Flanders he returned to Dublin in 1788, just a few weeks before the death of his father.
Thomas Reynolds son, in his father’s biography, published in 1838, claimed that his father was inveigled to become a member of the United Irishmen in January or February 1797 through the efforts of Richard Dillon, a Catholic and Oliver Bond, a Presbyterian. Some time previously Reynolds had agreed to take a lease of Kilkea Castle from the Duke of Leinster following the death of the previous tenant, a Mr. Dixon, an elderly man who passed away at the beginning of 1797.
Soon after Reynolds took up residence in Kilkea Castle he accepted Lord Edward’s invitation to take over from him as Colonel of the United Irishmen in the local barony of Kilkea and Moone. At the same time Reynolds was appointed as County Treasurer which entitled him to attend the Provincial Council meetings of the United Irishmen. Reynolds is believed to have passed on information to Dublin Castle regarding a planned meeting of the Provincial Council in Oliver Bond’s house in Bridge Street, Dublin. As a result members of the Leinster Directory including Peter Ivers from Carlow, Laurence Kelly from Laois, George Cummins from Kildare and Peter Bannan from Portarlington were arrested on 12th March.
Two days later Thomas Reynolds met Lord Edward Fitzgerald at the home of Dr. Kennedy in Aungier Street, Dublin when Lord Edward gave him a letter for the County Kildare rebels. On 17th March Reynolds left Dublin for Kilkea and stopped overnight in Naas. There he was met, to Reynolds’ surprise, by Matthew Kenna who told Reynolds of a meeting of the County Committee arranged for March 18th at the house of Reilly, a publican, near the Curragh of Kildare. Reynolds attended the meeting, although he must have been somewhat concerned that his colleagues would suspect his involvement in the Dublin arrests six days previously. However, nothing untoward happened to Reynolds and he afterwards arranged a meeting of local rebel captains in Athy for 20th March. The meeting, held in the back room of Peter Kelly’s shop in the main street of Athy, was arranged to coincide with the town’s monthly fair. Having read Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s letter to the meeting Reynolds then pressed the south Kildare captains to allow him to step down from the organisation, citing the earlier arrest in Oliver Bond’s house as his reason for wanting to do so. However, his unsuspecting colleagues decided that he should continue, but allowed him to share his position as Colonel of the United Irishmen with Dan Caulfield of Levitstown.
On 3rd April 1798 the Commander of the Government troops in Ireland issued a decree requiring all weapons to be handed up within ten days. At the same time Colonel Campbell of the 9th Dragoons stationed in the local barracks in Athy had notices distributed throughout the town, informing all and sundry of the military ultimatum. However, little or no attempt was made to comply with the military directive and so on 20th April soldiers were sent out from Athy’s military barracks to live at free quarters amongst the local people.
Rather surprisingly Colonel Campbell sent a troop of the 9th Dragoons and a company of the Cork Militia to Kilkea Castle, the home of Thomas Reynolds. Commanded by Captain Erskine they arrived on 20th April and used the famous Norman Castle as their base for the next eight days. Reynolds’ biographer was later to recount that ‘the friends and acquaintances of the officers, their wives and children and those of the soldiers came daily from Athy to see the Castle and feast at my father’s expense.’ As well as the free quartering of troops, searches for arms continued and no restrictions appeared to have been imposed on the soldiers. Contemporary accounts graphically recount the military’s plundering of goods which were brought to the Army Barracks in Athy. Erskine and his troops finally left Kilkea Castle on 28th April and moved into the Geraldine residence of Thomas Fitzgerald at Geraldine where they remained for the next thirty days.
On 3rd May Thomas Reynolds set off for Dublin to lodge a claim with the Dublin Castle authorities arising from the military occupation of Kilkea Castle. On the road out of Athy he met up with Wheeler Barrington from Fortbarrington House. Wheeler was the brother of Jonah Barrington who was later to be a judge of the Admiralty in Ireland and whose colourful career is recounted in his book ‘Personal Sketches of his Own Times’.
Just beyond Naas Barrington and Wheeler met Mr. Taylor, an attorney from Athy, who like Reynolds was a member of the Athy Yeomanry Cavalry. Taylor informed them of rumours circulating in Dublin concerning Reynolds’ arrest in Athy. As a consequence Reynolds changed his plans and stayed overnight in McDonnells Inn in Naas. Subsequently the Athy Yeomanry Cavalry of which Reynolds was a member were disbanded for suspected disloyalty to the Crown at a time when their captain Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House was under arrest.
Quite a number of local men were arrested around this time and lodged in Whites Castle jail. Reynolds’ son claimed that the arrested men implicated his father in rebel activities and as a result Colonel Campbell sent a party of Dragoons to Kilkea Castle on Saturday, 5th May to arrest him. Marched back to Athy under escort early that Saturday morning, Reynolds informed on Peter Kelly and pointed out his shop as the place where local United Irishmen held meetings. Kelly was immediately arrested and his shop premises was burnt to the ground but not before the stock and furniture in it had been removed and taken to the local barracks.
Following his arrest Reynolds wrote to William Cope, a Dublin merchant and procurer of informers, informing him that he had been arrested and thrown into what he described as ‘the common jail’ in Athy. He asked Cope to send down an order for his release and in another letter Reynolds indicated that he had revealed to Colonel Campbell, the local army commander, ‘the situation I stand in with regard to our business’ and demanded that the Lord Lieutenant order his immediate release ‘for having done the great and essential services to the government’. Subsequently transferred to Dublin by the order of the Chief Secretary, Thomas Reynolds passed out of the life of Athy and its townspeople where his short-lived presence had created havoc amongst the United Irishmen of the locality.
The part played by Thomas Reynolds during the 1798 period must be contrasted with that of the many locals who, as members of the United Irishmen paid, in some cases, the ultimate penalty for their involvement in the planned Rebellion. Reynolds, despite the defence put up by his son 40 years later, is acknowledged to have been an informer. He was however not the only informer in the south Kildare area but undoubtedly he was the highest ranking member of the United Irishmen from this locality to cooperate with Dublin Castle.
As a community we have never commemorated in any permanent way the spirited bravery of our predecessors of ’98 or acknowledged their suffering in a cause which was intended to benefit the Irish people. I know that Athy Urban District Council ten years ago set about to remedy that omission, but unfortunately the current Council is unable to find amongst its €5.4 million annual budget a few thousand euro to erect in the centre of the town an already commissioned memorial to the people of ’98.
The tragedy of ’98 lives on!