The 1798 Rebellion, or Rising, brought battles and bloodshed to many parts of Ireland.
County Wicklow was one of the main areas of conflict. Several important rebels were imprisoned at Wicklow Gaol during and after the struggle.
Background to the 1798 Rebellion
Ireland at the end of the 18th century was deeply divided by material and political inequalities. While the landowning, Anglican Protestant ‘Ascendancy’ class grew rich on agricultural exports to a growing British empire, basic freedoms were denied to both Catholic peasantry and an enterprising Presbyterian minority.
The 1790s was an era of conflict and change for the world. News of independence in America and revolution in France electrified both Catholic and Presbyterian leaders back in Ireland. In 1791, the Society of United Irishmen was founded, with the intent of uniting all religious persuasions in pursuit of Irish independence.
Leaders of the United Irishmen – Wolfe Tone and Edward Fitzgerald to name but two – formed alliances with other revolutionary Irish groups, such as the Defenders, as well as important military agents in France. Attacks on British forces around Ireland then occurred throughout the summer of 1798, with varying degrees of success.
The 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow
The 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow had its epicentre in the south of the county. The Battle of Arklow was an unsuccessful attempt by Wexford rebels to take the coastal town from British control. Rebels were also very active around Aughrim.
Other areas of Wicklow saw action too; the Battle of Newtown Mount Kennedy, for example, was a bloody but unsuccessful attempt to drive loyalist militia out of the town.
Rebels in the Wicklow Mountains
Guerrilla tactics proved more successful. Ambushes were launched on British and loyalist forces from the wilderness of the Wicklow mountains. The deep valleys and sympathetic locals of the mountains hid rebel groups from reprisals long beyond final defeat for the United Irish forces in other areas of the country.
The 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow Gaol
During 1798, Wicklow Gaol housed a large number of rebels, many of whom were executed and disposed of from fishing boats into waters offshore.
Famous Wicklow rebel leaders include General Joseph Holt and Michael Dwyer. Two other prominent 1798 rebel leaders became intimately associated with Wicklow Gaol, as you can read below:
William “Billy” Byrne became a well known rebel leader during the 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow. Originally from Ballymanus, in the south of the county, Billy Byrne led several local attacks against loyalist forces before being tried and executed in Wicklow town.
Byrne was held in Wicklow Gaol before his trial and executed at Gallows Lane (now known as Friar’s Hill). A statue commemorating his life and sacrifice can be found in the centre of Market Square, just down the hill from Wicklow Gaol. Billy Byrne is also remembered through this well-known traditional song.
James ‘Napper’ Tandy
Napper Tandy was imprisoned at Wicklow Gaol in 1801, long after the rebellion had died out. Originally a Dublin shopkeeper, Tandy had been agitating for political change in Ireland since the 1780s.
He led and co-founded the United Irishmen, as well becoming an energetic pamphleteer and eloquent agitator. During the rebellion, Tandy landed a small fighting force in Co. Donegal from a French ship. His group took control of a small town and planted an Irish flag there, before fleeing.
It was for this last act in Donegal that Tandy was tried for treason in 1801. Found guilty, Tandy was spared execution because of his links to revolutionary France. Instead, it is said that Napoleon himself intervened in negotiations to secure the Irishman’s release and delivery to France. Such was Tandy’s popularity, the Irish authorities feared keeping him in Dublin.
Thus, one of the central figures in the 1798 Rebellion was locked up at Wicklow Gaol before his embarkation for France, in 1802.
Aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow
The 1798 Rebellion in Wicklow left deep impressions. Rebel leaders, such as Billy Byrne, were commemorated in statues and songs. Locations of important events, such as the cottage where the Dwyer-McAllister siege occurred, have become historical landmarks for visitors to see today.
Less dramatic, but just as important, was the Military Road built throughout the Wicklow mountains in the aftermath of rebellion. The Sally Gap and Wicklow Gap roads built by the British military are still the main roads through the Wicklow Mountains. The network of military barracks that they link are still there to be seen at Glencree, Laragh, Glenmalure, and Aughavannagh. Intended to stop local unrest, the Military Road is today a scenic reminder of the dramatic and bloody events of the late 18th century.