1798: The Lost Leaders

Co Wexford has started marking the 200th anniversary of the 1798 Rising, with concerts and flag-raising ceremonies, although …

Co Wexford has started marking the 200th anniversary of the 1798 Rising, with concerts and flag-raising ceremonies, although the Rising did not begin in Wexford until May 27th, and was effectively brought to an end with the execution of Grogan and Harvey on Wexford Bridge on June 21st.

The organisers have ensured the commemorations command broad support throughout the community. Next week sees a '98 Commemorative Concert in the National Concert Hall and events running through the year include exhibitions, lectures, seminars, the opening of the National 1798 Visitors' Centre in Enniscorthy, a National Service of Commemoration in St Patrick's Cathedral, and the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the 113 people burned to death in Scullabogue Barn in one of the worst excesses by supporters of the Rising.

The programme includes the staging of Mozart's Requiem in Belfast, Dublin and Wexford on three successive nights in the week before Easter, academic conferences in Belfast and Dublin in May, and the reconvening of the Wexford Senate at the end of May. Father John Murphy's house has been rebuilt in Boolavogue, the Tour de France will visit Enniscorthy and New Ross in July, and even the Orange Order has plans to commemorate the Battle of Ballynahinch in Co Down.

Bernard Browne, who has been co-ordinating Comoradh's commemoration efforts from his office in Enniscorthy, is proud of the tone the commemorations are taking this time round, and finds a sharp contrast with the commemorative events in 1898, 1938 and 1948.


Those previous major commemorations of the 1798 Rising were emotional celebrations of the ideals of a Catholic and Gaelic Ireland. Monuments to Pikemen and Fighting Priests were unveiled throughout the southeast, and grand tableaux and parades were staged, often led by folksy representations of Father Murphy on horseback. But there was little effort to undertake new historical research into the causes, nature and course of the Rising, few tributes were paid to the real leaders, and there wasn't even a hint of assent to the United Irishmen's ideal of uniting "Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter".

In the immediate aftermath of 1798, few people were brave enough to admit that family members had taken an active role in the Rising. Bernard Browne points out that the graves of many of the leaders remain unmarked, and many families erected gravestones throughout Co Wexford with dates such as 1788, 1797 or 1799 to avoid giving a hint that someone had died in 1798 during the Rising.

It was a wise precaution. In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, Catholic chapels were burned across north Wexford, and for years afterwards liberty trees were burned in triumph by loyalists in Enniscorthy, New Ross and other towns. Although Miles Byrne, Thomas Cloney, Edward Hay and others published their own accounts of the Rising, history and memories for most people in the 19th century were shaped instead by Sir Richard Musgrave's history, first published in 1803. Musgrave saw the hands of Catholic priests in every aspect of the Rising, and later editions of his history tried to link the cause and inspiration of '98 with accounts of the slaughter of Protestants in 1641.

For decades, families who had supported the Rising sought safety in suppressing their memories; confidence would come only in the years after the Famine. Anna Kinsella points out that the earliest known 1798 memorial in Co Wexford was erected as late as 1875 in Bunclody, and the first commemoration of the Rising was attended by fewer than 500 people on May 20th, 1877, in the village of Oulart. To this day, there is no public memorial to the Rebel Governor of Wexford, Matthew Keugh, or the president of the Wexford Council, Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey.

So how did Father Murphy become the hero of the Rising, and how did history come to distort the memories of men such as Bagenal Harvey or Keugh? According to three Wexford historians, Kevin Whelan, Daniel Gahan and Anna Kinsella, the Rising received a distinctly Catholic character and a blatantly religious dimension in the run-up to the 1898 commemorations due mainly to the writings of a Wexford Franciscan, Father Patrick Kavanagh.

Kavanagh's Popular History Of The Insurrection Of 1798 was first published in the aftermath of the failed Fenian rising of 1867, and quickly became the popularly accepted account of 1798.

For the firebrand friar, the Rising was a struggle for "Faith and Fatherland", the response of a Catholic people to a reign of terror by Orange oppressors. Kavanagh claimed his work was based on the recollections of survivors of the Rising, and his family connections ensured his credibility: Father Michael Murphy was a grand-uncle on his mother's side, and his paternal grandfather, Jeremiah Kavanagh, owned the pub in Ballinamonabeg where the Wexford leaders of the United Irishmen met the night before the Rising began.

But Kavanagh ignored the evidence of Miles Byrne that thousands of Wexford people had taken the oath of the United Irishmen in the year before the Rising, and Luke Cullen's evidence that John Murphy had no exceptional role in the Rising. He consciously distanced events in Wexford from the revolutionary plans of the United Irishmen, and blamed them for creating a climate of political intrigue which exposed innocent people to the excesses of violent Orange behaviour.

Although Kavanagh was dismissive of the leadership role played by Protestant United Irishmen in Co Wexford, both Harvey and Keugh were members of the Church of Ireland, as were four of the eight members of the government of Wexford town and all three colonels for the Baronies of Forth and Bargy. Two instincts dictated Kavanagh's approach - fear of the Fenians, and sectarian distrust of Protestants involved in the campaign for Home Rule.

In the aftermath of the failure of the Fenian Rising and Cardinal Cullen's condemnation of the Fenians as a secret society of "men without principle or religion", Kavanagh attacked the United Irishmen as a secret, oathbound society. Thomas Cloney, William Barker and John Kelly were praised faintly as brave men, while Bagenal Harvey was dismissed in negative terms; he failed to mention that any of these were United Irishmen, moved by the wave of democracy sweeping across Europe and North America.

Kavanagh's attitude can also be explained by his sectarian suspicion of the motives of Isaac Butt, Parnell, and other Protestant politicians - the second edition of his Popular History was published in 1874, the year 59 Home Rulers led by Butt were elected as MPs.

By down-playing the role of Protestants in the Rising, Kavanagh as a Catholic priest had managed to complete Musgrave's intentions: he changed popular history, cast the priests in an heroic mould, and placed them at the centre of the Rising.

"This heroic ideal found permanent expression in the bronze 1798 memorial erected in the Market Square in Enniscorthy," says Anna Kinsella. The monument consists of two figures: the larger one, with rosary beads dripping from his pocket, represents Father John Murphy; the smaller figure is a young rebel or croppy boy with a pike and unfurled flag in one hand and a sword in the other. The priests were seen as leading poor Catholics in revolt against Orange oppressors.

Kavanagh ignored the embarrassing conflict between John Murphy and Bishop James Caulfield of Ferns. The reality, of course, is that the Catholic clergy of Co Wexford were no different than their Church of Ireland contemporaries. Dr Whelan points out that of the 85 Catholic priests in Co Wexford in 1798, only 11 played an active role in the Rising, while the other 74 "were either active loyalists or kept a very low profile".

Among the 57 Church of Ireland clergy in Co Wexford in 1798, at least one - Rev Henry Wilson of Mulrankin - took the United Irish oath. The Rector of Wexford, the Rev John Elgee, showed his sympathy for the rebels by accompanying Cornelius Grogan and Bagenal Harvey onto Wexford Bridge and praying with them before their execution; and, ironically, the Rector of Kilmuckridge, the Rev Robert Burrowes, who was murdered at Kyle Glebe on the opening morning of the Rebellion, was sympathetic to the United Irishmen if not a member.

Despite Kavanagh's history, the majority of Catholic clergy of Co Wexford - like their predecessors of the previous century - wanted little to do with the Rising in the 19th century. At the first commemoration in May 1877, the parish priests of Boolavogue and Ferns refused to allow a 24-foot high cross to be erected to the men of '98 in the churchyard at Boolavogue. When thousands arrived for its unveiling in Ballytracy in September, they found the ceremony had been spoiled: a local priest had paid a small boy two shillings to remove the covering of cloth and garlands the night before.

The centenary edition of Kavanagh's Popular History once again isolated events in Wexford from the rest of the country, overemphasised the role of John Murphy and other priests and refused to accommodate the role of the United Irishmen in the leadership of the Rising.

The commemorations of 1898 came late that year, and the initial preparations were marked by the divisions between the Redmond and Dillon wings of the divided Parliamentary Party, with two competing centenary committees vying to organise national events. The politics and the divisions delayed the organisation of the 1898 commemorations. The main Wexford rally did not take place until July 31st, while the main event in Dublin took place on August 15th, perhaps because of its importance as a date in the calendar of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, of which Kavanagh was vice-president. Organisation was so poor, that Oliver Sheppard's pikeman in the Bull Ring, Wexford, was not erected until 1905.

Commemorations were staged once again on the 110th anniversary, when the statue in Enniscorthy was unveiled by Father Kavanagh on May 31st, 1908.

Kavanagh died in 1918, but Dr Whelan points out that his legendary and emotional approach continued to dominate the commemorations in 1938 and 1948. By then, Prof Louis Cullen of TCD points out, a "synthetic and suspect" version of the Rising had replaced real memories, and were popularised and consecrated in the words of popular ballads such as Patrick McCall's misleading Boolavogue.

It is ironic that these false images of the Rising, paying no tribute to Bagenal Harvey or the United Irishmen, were in tune with Lecky's assumption that the Wexford Rising was agrarian, or Musgrave's view that it was essentially a conspiracy master-minded by Catholic priests.

But Kavanagh's approach to history was challenged in the wake of local anger and resentment in Co Wexford following the publication of Thomas Pakenham's The Year Of Liberty in 1969. Nicholas Furlong of Wexford, Michael Kehoe of Glynn and others expressed strong anger at the launch of the book in White's Hotel. "I remember being angry all right," says Furlong, "for I recall Tom Pakenham confessing in strange innocence that never once during his research on 1798 had he entered Co Wexford."

Pakenham confessed to relying on "spy reports . . . folksongs and hearsay" for his picture of the revolution in Wexford. But in recent decades a major reassessment of the Wexford rebellion - mainly by historians such as Prof Tom Bartlett, Prof Louis Cullen, Dr Kevin Whelan, Dr Daniel Gahan, Dr Daire Keogh, Dr Marianne Elliott, Anna Kinsella, Nicky Furlong and Brian Cleary - has transformed our understanding of its economic, social, and political contexts.

Their careful research, and the seminars and publications of recent years, have laid the foundations that guarantee the events organised by Comoradh this year will not be dominated by the sectarian and narrowminded folklore popularised and even invented by men like Patrick Kavanagh. His ghost has been laid to rest, the real atrocities at Scullabogue and on Wexford Bridge are being admitted, and new life has been given to the real leaders, such as Harvey, Colclough, Keugh, the Grogans and the Hattons.

Patrick Comerford is an Irish Times journalist; his study of the Church of Ireland clergy in Co Wexford in 1798 appears in the newly published Protestant, Catholic And Dissenter (ed Liam Swords, Columba Press).