“After the Battle of Vinegar Hill on the 21st of June 1798, the insurgents under the command of Fr. John Murphy camped in this field on the night of the 22nd of June 1798. That night plans were made to attack the garrison in Goresbridge” (Tomduff Field Commemorative Stone).
Following on from last week’s theme of the invisible past, this week’s post brings us to an unassuming site; a field on the slopes of Tomduff Hill where a contingent of rebels stayed for one night during the infamous month of June 1798.
The site is accessed today via a narrow country laneway and is signposted from the nearby crossroads. The field is sub-triangular in shape and under pasture. A large sign has been erected just outside marking the spot for visitors where you can stop and pull in. Just inside the gate an inscribed stone has been erected, donated by Tom and Josie Ryan, commemorating the event which gives a brief outline of the field’s history. Otherwise the field is just like any other on the slopes of the Blackstairs but instead it has an extraordinary history that has been preserved to this day in the letters, accounts and folklore of the period.
Lead up to the Night
The 1798 rebellion led by the United Irishmen, was one of the bloodiest armed risings in Ireland and especially given its short time span. While the rebellion was crushed swiftly for the most part across the country, some of the rebel’s greatest successes were achieved in County Wexford. Following their victory at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, the insurgents here, led by the famous Fr. John Murphy of Boolavogue, pushed north into County Carlow to gather support and to attack English garrisons. The group reached the Scullogue Gap, a narrow lowland pass between the Mount Leinster spine to the north and the Blackstairs Spine to the South on the 22nd of June, the day after Vinegar Hill passing through the Blackstairs village of Killanne on their way. Two roads pass through the gap today a northern one closer to Knockroe Mountain and a southern one on the Blackstairs side. It was the northern one which was taken by the rebels as the southern road was not built until 1847 as part of a Board of Works relief scheme during the Great Famine.
After coming through the gap, some of the rebels swung north across the bogs to the east and north of Rathanna Village on the Carlow side of the ridgeline in an attempt to stop the Yeomanry stationed at Killedmond escaping north through the Crumlin Gap between Tomduff Hill and Knockscur although some did get away. It was while attacking Killedmond that the Wexford rebel’s first victim in Carlow was claimed, ex-Lieut. John Stone, a Rathanna village resident. He was 74 and despite having been long retired he spent much of his time at the Killedmond garrison. His death was regretted locally even by those who supported the United Irishmen as he was seen to be in control of the local yeomanry and had prevented them from ever getting out of hand (his nephew also Lt. Stone was among those listed as killed at the Battle of Kilcumey 4 days later on the 26th June in a return list of killed and wounded from Sir Charles Asgill to Viscount Castlereagh). Ex-Lt. Stone was later buried in Kiltennel graveyard just outside the church door.
Another person reported killed during the Rathanna and Killedmond attacks include a man named Daly who was killed by the English at his front door on the village street above the chapel on the road to the Scullogue Gap. In the 1930’s, old men from around the village of Rathanna including James Meaney (then living in Ballynabearnagh/ Walshstown) reported having been told this by a Michael Kelly from Crannagh who was 10 in 1798 who said he witnessed the event and later a priest attending to Daly.
From Myles Byrne’s memoirs of that summer’s events (an 18 year old insurgent in 1798 who would go on to become Brigadier General of Napolean’s Irish Legion) we know that when the rebels attacked Killedmond they succeeded in driving the yeomanry out. Fr. Murphy ordered the barracks slate roof to be burst and the village burned. At this stage, tired and hungry, they made their way north to the Crumlin Gap where they stopped for a night in a field- later known as the Tomduff Campfield.
The Night of the 22nd of June
A letter from Sir Charles Asgill to Viscount Castlereagh after the rebels defeat describes how they camped at Killedmond and had 24 Yeomanry prisoners with them but does not describe where they had come from or the day’s events.
Amongst the rebels that night was a native of Glenglass, Co. Wexford, Thomas Doran. Here he met his future wife Mary Little of Spahill when she came with a group of other girls in the surrounding area to see the camp and the rebels arriving. At this time she was a Protestant. Doran would go on to fight at Castlecomer and Kilcumney and escape back to Wexford. He later returned to Carlow to find Mary who converted to Catholicism. They settled in Seskinnamadra and Mary lived to be 94.
The leaders of the insurgents surrounding Fr. Murphy made plans that night to attack the garrison of Goresbridge where they had heard a regular force of cavalry and infantry had been stationed to protect this vital River Barrow crossing. A victory here would not only be strategically important but would also offer a moral boost for a campaign which at this stage was beginning to wane across the country. Myles Byrne described the following morning briefly “we left our bivouac in right good spirits to attack this post”
As the rebels approached Goresbridge on the morning of the 23rd of June they were attacked by a Company of the 4th Dragoon Guards but succeeded in driving them back as far as their infantry lines held by the Wexford Militia who opened fire and wounded a few. Seeing the undettered advancing rebels the Militia’s commanding officer abandoned on horseback leaving them to face the insurgents alone. They were quickly surrounded and taken prisoner. Sir Asgill reported that at this stage the rebels numbered up to 5000 and as they moved north from town he followed in pursuit and chased them all day between Goresbridge and Shankill- a distance of four miles. This report and the fact that he made no mention of the defeat at Killedmond has led some to speculate about what else might he have left unreported.
Myles Byrne says they camped again that night but does not say where. Tradition holds that it was another field in Baunreagh near the village of Old Leighlin, Co. Carlow. After this they made their way as far as Kilcumney where their advance came to an end. In a letter sent on the night of the 26th of June to Viscount Castlereagh, Asgill reports how he ambushed the rebels at 6am with a swift victory, killing 1000 rebels compared with 7 English dead. He also seized arms, ammunition, ten cannon, two swivels, and cattle. The rebels were dispersed in many different directions. Some made it south through the Scullogue Gap again, in a fighting retreat while Father Murphy made it across County Carlow, staying in a number of houses before finally being recognised and captured in the town of Tullow, northeast Carlow.
While there is little to see today beyond the commemorative stone, this field nonetheless played a role in one of the most famous turn of events during the 1798 period in the southeast. Another example of how the most unassuming sites are filled with history, meaning and memory.
This post, despite being one of my longer one’s is nevertheless a very short description of a series of events which are well documented in the area. For further information see the following;
National Folklore Archive MS.973 Pages 333-337. Information collected from Br. Luke, De La Salle Monastery, Muine Bheag at ’98 weekend on Colaside Garman, Gorey on Sun. 24th April 1938.
Byrne, M. 1863 Memoirs of Miles Byrne: Chef de Bataillon in the Service of France[,] Officer of the Legion of Honour, Knight of Saint-Louis, Etc, Volumes 1-2. Paris; Gustave Bossange et cie 25. Available online here
MacSuibhne, P. 1974 ’98 in Carlow. Self-published.
McHugh, R. (ed.) 1998 Voice of Rebellion: Carlow in 1798; The Autobiography of William Farrell. Dublin; Wolfhound Press.
Pakenham, T. 1969 The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798. London; Hodder and Stoughton.