Wexford in 1798: A Republic Before Its Time

Over recent years historical research into 1798 has opened up a reassessment of events in Wexford and their relationship to those elsewhere. It is no longer tenable that the huge events occurring there did so without any political framework or objective or that they took place as an isolated anomalous phenomenon unconnected with United Irish activity in the rest of Ireland.

Late eighteenth century Wexford was a relatively sophisticated polity which had enjoyed the influence of a radical press in the early nineties and was quite exceptional as a county, in that as much as a third of its ruling Protestant establishment favoured full political inclusion of Catholics. Indeed it was with their help that Wexford had played a frontline national role in the franchise campaign in 1792 and the Fitzwilliam campaign in 1796.

Contemporary assumptions in Dublin Castle that no United Irish organisation existed in Wexford in 1798 were gravely mistaken. On the contrary, the county was comparatively well prepared to participate in the general United Irish plan to overthrow the sectarian aristocratic regime in Dublin Castle and replace it with a pluralist democracy free of English interference.

The interpretation that Wexford in ‘98 was nothing more than a maelstrom of uncontrollable insurrectionary or sectarian impulses is misleading and inadequate. This is not to to say but that a significant insurrectionary element must be factored into in the course of the Rising there, and as for sectarianism, it is difficult to see how the dismantlement of a sectarian state could avoid having a sectarian dimension to it, once that dismantlement was opposed. Nevertheless the fact is that these matters were peripheral to the central drama — namely the effort to raise the individual from the position of subject to the rank of citizen in Ireland’s first republic.

Unlike other counties the campaign in Wexford opened with a string of victories at Oulart Hill, Enniscorthy and The Three Rocks. These forced the military and civic authorities to evacuate Wexford Town on 30 May and thereby afforded the revolution that critical respite in which to consolidate and establish.

Hectic improvisation and hurried meetings followed. A historic assembly of the principal inhabitants of town and county was convened on the night of 31 May which, acting in the name of the people, took civil and military power in county Wexford and they authorised bodies and personnel to exercise these powers on their behalf. Thus began the Wexford Republic. Though some no doubt harboured deep misgivings about the ultimate success of the revolution on a national basis they held their peace and Christopher Taylor, who printed the various proclamations circulated under the Republic, caught the popular contemporary atmosphere when he had ‘Printer to the Wexford Republic’ emblazoned in gold lettering on his printshop door in Main Street.

Reverend George Taylor of Ballywalter, a Methodist minister, wrote the first Wexford history of 1798 and came very close to the meaning of these events. Taylor says that:

“No sooner had the rebels entered the town than they immediately began to reorganise the state. A Grand National Committee was set up and a Committee of Five Hundred and a Council of Elders; the premises of Mr. Cullimore was commandeered and was known as the ‘Senate House’.”

Given Taylor’s references to the Senate House and also to ‘the rebel senate’ elsewhere in his text, and because the term ‘Senate’ succinctly conveys the revolutionary dimension to what was taking place there, the name ‘Senate’ is used in this article to describe these meetings where the leading citizens were brought together in numbers to legitimise decisions of the Republic in the name of the people.

The first meeting of the Wexford Senate took place on the evening of the 31 May and continued the following day. General Tom Cloney, victor of The Three Rocks on 30 May, records (1830) how he “received the thanks of a very general meeting of the principal inhabitants of Wexford on the following night, on which occasion the celebrated Captain Keugh presided.”

The historian Edward Hay, himself a key United Irish leader in the county and subsequently an architect of Catholic Emancipation under O’Connell, wrote in 1803:

“These circumstances produced a general meeting of the principal inhabitants on the first of June, wherein Mr. Harvey was called on to act as Commander‑in‑Chief, and various other appointments and regulations took place for the maintenance and supply of the country” [read ‘were made’ for ‘took place’].

When we examine these appointments and regulations we find ourselves at the birth of a popular revolution as the people formally assume military and civil power in the county.

1. A ‘Council of Elders’ or ‘Committee of General Regulation’ as Hay calls it, was formed as an executive committee to act on a day to day basis in the name of the Senate. It was the supreme committee under the Senate. It was ultimately responsible for everything including courts and prisons. The Commander‑in‑Chief was the President of this Council, thus linking the all-important Army with civil administration which was minimal anyway in the late eighteenth century. Its remit was countywide and on the few occasions that the sparse records provide us with a glimpse of their activities we see it managing to impose its will in Enniscorthy and indeed as far north as Gorey.

This committee met in Lett’s house in George Street. The Letts were republican and closely related to Bagenal Harvey. This committee was altered on 13 June to become ‘The Council for Directing the Affairs of the People of the County Wexford’. In the histories it is often referred to, perhaps deliberately, as ‘The Committee’. The reference in Mrs. Brownrigg’s Diary refers to it properly as ‘The Council’ which she visited on 2 June. It is interesting as a glimpse inside the Council Chamber:

“I arrived at Mrs. Letts, where Centinals were placed, colours flying and all proper dignity preserved. The Centinals stopped me so I asked for Mr. Harvey. He immediately came out and took me into a parlour where sat Keugh and Fitzgerald with various papers on a green table before them… Harvey wrote an order for my trunks and I departed. So ended my visit to the Council.”

2. The Wexford Army. Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey was appointed Commander in Chief of the Wexford Army. Other officers were also appointed. By this act they made official the establishment of the Army itself. It comprised some 20,000 men at maximum, including a substantial number of Protestants. It was set up in two divisions, each comprising men from one side only of the river Slaney which roughly bisects the county. Both armies functioned as separate field‑armies and in fact never fought together. Their main contact with the Republic was through the Commissariat and through the Council. Many Senate members would have been serving in the Armies.

3. The Wexford Navy was established. It comprised four oyster boats each with a twenty five man crew. John Howlin, former privateer in the American War of Independence, was appointed Admiral. Next day, 2 June, the navy captured a ship carrying Lord Kingsborough, Colonel of the North Cork Militia, at the harbour’s mouth. He was to play an important part in the Republic’s capitulation three weeks later. For his capture John Scallan, who seized the ship, was later made Admiral. Scallan died at sea about 1835 as Captain of a West Indies freighter. The capture of three barrels of gunpowder on a Guinea cutter was an extremely critical contribution from the Wexford Navy to the Republic’s arsenal. One barrel was all that could be spared to the Northern army for the Battle of Arklow. Cargoes of various foodstuffs were also captured and brought into the town.

4. A Committee of Public Safety was established in place of the sectarian Corporation. A Protestant, Matthew Keugh, was appointed Chairman of this high‑powered committee. A thoroughgoing revolutionary, he was ex‑officio Commandant of Wexford town. Under the Committee each ward raised its own company of soldiers: the John St. Corps; the Selskar Corps and the Faythe Corps. These elected their own officers and carried out regular guard duty in the town day and night. They had a remarkable record in the protection of persons and property until the Republic began to collapse. Their temporary absence from the town during the Battle of Horetown permitted others to open the prisons and execute some seventy prisoners on Wexford Bridge. The Committee carried out two executions during the life of the Republic. Both were Catholic and both informers who had been tried and convicted by courts of the Republic.

A similar type committee operated in Enniscorthy of which very little is known. Its record is very different to that of Wexford. A tribunal was set up to try loyalists and many executions took place on Vinegar Hill. The relationship between the Enniscorthy Committee and the Council in Wexford is unclear but a very weak control is the most that can be claimed for the Council in this case.

5. A Commissariat was established to supply the Army and Navy with matériel and Wexford town [Pop. 10,000] with food. It had two representatives in every parish in the county who tried to oversee the supply of foodstuffs from the countryside. This committee became very large during the three weeks of the Republic and performed various functions through its network. It was chaired by Cornelius Grogan of Johnstown Castle who was later executed. A few rationing coupons used for the houses in the town have survived. Many of Wexford’s leading businessmen served on the Commissariat and some suffered, like Grogan, on Wexford Bridge after the rising.

These were the principal proceedings of the first meeting of the Senate. There was no formal proclamation of the republic like the proclamation of the Republic of Connacht in Castlebar two months later by General Humbert. This may reflect the expectation of the formation of a national revolutionary government in Dublin. It may equally reflect a longheaded caution — the formal declaration of the de facto republic then existing offered no material advantage; but in the event of defeat such a declaration when read at the courts martial that would inevitably follow could cost many lives on the scaffold.

Reverend George Taylor’s reference to a Grand National Committee being formed can reasonably be interpreted as a resolution declaring allegiance to future revolutionary government in Dublin. Any attempt to launch the Grand National Committee from Wexford, with Wexford acting in ‘loco Dublinensis’ (on behalf of Dublin) seems far‑fetched, and had this been so, then we should surely expect a much quicker advance on Ross and Arklow by the republic’s armies.

For those involved in the Senate the reality was that they were architects, however doctrinaire, of a new political entity which derived its legitimacy from the people assembled. It was their own: taking its power from themselves. In the turmoil of the times it is easy to miss this point, especially as in time of war much of an executive nature was carried out on the march by the army. The source of authority is the point at issue. They sanctioned these ‘appointments and regulations’ by the authority of a popular Senate acting in the name of the people in June 1798, and in this event the age of the citizen arrived in Ireland.

On repeated occasions the Council and the Army had recourse for authority to this Senate of principal inhabitants – whom indeed we should now style ‘principal citizens’. It is this recourse to the people for authority that made it a Republic as distinct from a mere military government. The preciously few items of correspondence surviving from the Republic show some of the leaders addressing or referring to themselves as “Citizen”. The first meeting of the Senate was probably the high point of the Republic. Alas, very soon the military and political weaknesses became visible and developed inexorably, and in a real sense we see the reason for the title of this essay: Wexford in 1798: A Republic Before its Time.

The first Senate meeting was over when on 2 June the arrest of Lord Kingsborough already mentioned brought confirmation that things had gone badly wrong elsewhere. Kingsborough’s information soon caused a fundamental change in policy in Wexford with New Ross and Arklow now becoming regarded as prime targets through which the Revolution must spread westwards into Munster and northwards to revive Dublin.

New Ross on 5 June was a bloody day with brave Unitedmen charging cannon belching grapeshot. Thirty per cent of the Southern Army fell in the fierce attacks. In Arklow on 9 June the Northern Army was also repulsed. There the fighting was equally fierce around the barricades in Main Street. Losses were not so heavy as at Ross, but as both sides hung on by their fingernails the shortage of powder forced the Unitedmen to withdraw and the town was held for England.

Repercussions were inevitable after these two major defeats. With the revolution hemmed in and the prospect of a revolutionary government in Dublin evaporating, cracks appeared in the unity of the Republic’s leadership. Poor discipline and insubordination, ever a problem, now deteriorated to the point that the Southern Army was almost dissipated and the Northern Army was becoming steadily estranged from the leadership in the Council in Wexford town.

Concerned at these developments, the Council moved to tighten their fragile hold on affairs. The Senate was convened on 13 June. Hay records the meeting with surpassing coyness saying: “On 13th of June several persons from the different encampments, led by the most benevolent motives, as if by preconcerted agreement, waited on the Commander‑in‑Chief in Wexford to consult on the best mode of keeping the unruly rabble in some order.”

After meeting with Harvey they went to the Senate to do things democratically. The restoration of discipline generally was the main purpose for this meeting but the development of a capability to engage in negotiations in the name of the whole county seems to have been the other unspoken half of its inspiration. The survival of the Republic or its ability to negotiate from a position of cohesiveness, if not to say strength, depended on discipline. The Council’s attitude to acts of indiscipline was now made clear when they ordered a public inquiry into the burning of Scullabogue Barn. (This atrocity involved the firing of a barn, full of loyalist prisoners – Ed.). In the event the Republic did not survive long enough to implement it. However, the fact that it was made means that pogrom was not policy, and, on the contrary, shows their abhorrence and remorse. This was then followed by the establishment of The Council for Directing the Affairs of the People of the County of Wexford.

In its name the new Council made it clear that it claimed the allegiance of the whole county. Comprising eight men, four Catholics and four Protestants in a county of 90% Catholics, it was the essence of United Irish philosophy. Its cross–denominational composition was a statement to the whole country that the new order would not be the other side of the coin of the Penal laws. Instead, it was a call to Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter to unite as Irishmen. All three were represented. The Catholics were: Edward Hay, Ballinkeele; Robert Carty, Birchgrove; Robert Meyler, Gurteenminogue; and Edward Kearney, Wexford town. The Protestants: Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey – Bargy Castle; William Hatton – Clonard; Matthew Keugh – Wexford town and Nicholas Gray – Whitefort, the one Presbyterian on the new council. Harvey, who had lost the command of the Southern Army after New Ross and had been replaced as Commander‑in‑Chief by Fr. Philip Roche, retained the Presidency of the new Council, with Nicholas Gray as its Secretary.

From the outset the new Council was beset with difficulties. Consensus within the Republic on the outcome of the war was breaking down and not unreasonable suspicions appear to have developed between elements of the Northern Army and the Council on the issue of secret negotiation of an end to hostilities. On the supply side the gunpowder factory set up in Wexford town was not successful, its powder lacked force and was no match for that of the enemy. Pike production and repairs were satisfactory but muskets damaged by inexperienced usage were not always reliable. Huge efforts were made to improve supply to the armies.

On 14 June the new Council met a delegation from the prisoners in Wexford at the prisoners’ request. Thirteen enemy officers held at Wexford expressed the view that if crown forces continued to shoot rebel prisoners then nothing could save themselves in time. Moves were made for a deal on prisoners with Dublin Castle which might open contacts for wider negotiations. The effort failed when the Dublin‑bound emissaries were stopped at Enniscorthy by men who were determined to fight and felt betrayed that an ulterior motive pertaining to capitulation was secretly involved.

This type of suspicion partially undermined the authority of the Republic once victory became doubtful, especially in the Northern theatre. Obedience to superior officers in the Army and obedience to authority generally was paramount if the Republic was to survive or treat with the enemy from strength. To reinforce their authority by fastening the obedience of the Army the new Council issued United Irish Oaths to be taken by every officer and private not yet sworn, and a general United Irish Test to be taken by the public at large.

The new Oaths issued by the Council had good effect. As crown forces gathered on Wexford’s borders for the showdown. Gray, Secretary of the Council, wrote on 16 June to Fr. Philip Roche, the new Commander‑in‑Chief, desperate for reinforcements for his Southern Army, which had almost melted away since the Battle of Ross:

“Dear Citizen,

We have, however, now issued orders, desiring all unmarried men to repair to camp immediately: we did so before, but they were not fully obeyed: at the present time particular obedience will be enforced, and we trust you will shortly find at your camp a number of fresh young fellows, as well appointed and provided as our best efforts can accomplish…”.

Gray’s words were no empty claim. Obedience was enforced with such effect that four days later this army was back in shape sufficiently to fight the Battle of Horetown which lasted four and a quarter hours when the shortage of gunpowder again forced the Wexfordmen to withdraw. The Southern Army was back in business as Gray had predicted. The Republic’s writ still ran.

On 19 June as events moved inexorably towards the great encounters of Horetown and Vinegar Hill, crown forces advanced from Waterford, New Ross, Bunclody, Carnew, Tullow, Tinahely and Arklow. General Needham’s advance from Arklow towards Oulart left a trail of devastation for a mile on either side of him. No prisoners were taken. The people fled before him on the clogged roads and ended up in the sea between Oulart, Enniscorthy and Wexford town. The situation was wildly unstable and open to manipulation.

Very late that same day, the 19 June, an order came from the Three Rocks camp for all armed men in Wexford town to appear there by daybreak. Committee of Public Safety companies were then stripped from the town to further strengthen the Southern Army against General Moore for the looming Battle of Horetown to the south west.

This left Wexford town open to the many nameless people who had demanded swifter retribution for the lawless oppression of the days and weeks prior to the Rising. The houseburning, whippings, pitchcapping and the executions of some hundreds in their own doors before their families tends to be forgotten because the victims have no names. But their dark, harrowing experience provided the insurrectionary impulse which may well have forced the outbreak of the Rising, and it remained the main reason for an incessant demand for retribution from the Republic and resulted in recurrent challenges to the authority of the Council during the lifetime of the Republic. Pressure was maintained on Harvey and Keugh to have the guilty punished. Harvey, a barrister, stood firmly for due process against such demands.

Many executions had taken place in Enniscorthy where the local committee in charge of the town took a very different attitude to that in Wexford, perhaps because the north of the county had suffered much worse in the pre‑Rising period. As early as 7 June General Edward Roche of the Northern Army issued a strong exhortation to his own men for discipline and urged them to remember the cause for which they were sworn and united. It is the finest document from the Wexford Republic [see below]. This was followed with the despatch by the Council of a special guard of 130 gunmen from Wexford to Enniscorthy which ended the executions on Vinegar Hill.

In Wexford town executions of loyalists were avoided until the situation was exacerbated by the behaviour of Needham’s forces. Then the worst happened. Harvey’s policy of due process was finally overborne. Some seventy loyalist prisoners were brought before a hastily constituted tribunal and were put to death on the bridge, the innocent among the guilty. The manner of their deaths was gratuitously cruel and constitutes in themselves a human and political tragedy.

It was an evening of intense drama. The town was traumatised by the executions on the bridge. The like had not been seen in the town since Cromwell. A great battle was in progress at Horetown and another preparing for the morrow on Vinegar Hill: two of the biggest battles in Irish history. English gunboats hung off shore. The light of democracy was flickering to extinction when about ten at night the first men brought back news of the indecisive field of Horetown. In The Cape of Good Hope Inn an anxious Kingsborough sent for Edward Hay to discuss terms of capitulation to be sent to General Lake, the commander of the English forces. Hay, a member of the Council, insisted that the matter be put to the people and agreed to assemble as many members of the Senate as he could. Those he gathered, however, would naturally not dare agree anything till the outcome of Vinegar Hill was known.

They stalled for time. Hay tells us that they agreed to meet again the following morning “at Captain Keugh’s house, where the subject would be taken into consideration by a general assembly, which could not be formed at that time of night”.

At 3.00 a.m. on the fateful 21 June, Kingsborough had Hay roused again. Hay again insisting on the need to have the concurrence of the people if the capitulation on terms was to carry. This meeting was protracted and before it ended Hay could hear the opening salvos of Lake’s cannon at Vinegar Hill. That made it 7.00 a.m. A meeting of the Senate then took place in Keugh’s house. The windows rattled as English gunboats guarded Rosslare Fort. The Senate ruled that three deputations should be sent, one to each approaching army, and that Kingsborough should remain in the town and assume military authority while the former Mayor Jacob should resume office. Because their numbers were depleted the Senate decided to put these proposals to the armed corps of the town assembled on Common Quay for the purpose. To save the town the people approved the terms by acclamation.

A deputation then communicated this to Kingsborough who, on accepting the military authority of the town, asked Captain Keugh for his sword. Keugh, regretting that it could not be surrendered to the approaching armies, presented the sword of the Republic ‘with the greatest formality’. The former Mayor Jacob, who had joined the Republic as a medical doctor, agreed to reassume his former office of Mayor. Thus, with the sword and mayoralty returned to those who held them prior to the revolution, the Wexford Republic had come to an end.

The Northern Army, which had seen the worst of the oppression prior to the revolution, now arrived, having extricated itself from Vinegar Hill. They rejected the terms. Lake, still at Enniscorthy, also rejected them. Wexford town was occupied by General Moore (of the poem: The Burial of Sir John Moore – Ed.) before Lake left Enniscorthy. The Northern Army of the Republic moved out of Wexford as Moore approached the town. They then split in two, with Father John Murphy going north‑east as far as County Laois and Anthony Perry’s force going north as far as Ardee. Between them they fought as many battles after Vinegar Hill as were fought before – ten in all. Their heroic deeds in that sad dénouement are only now beginning to be researched and written as is the case with the Wexford Republic itself. The work is only beginning, encouraged by the bicentenary.

The Wexford Republic remains a tantalising image not yet quite clear in its full detail. It must rank as one of the great legacies of that exciting generation and era which produced the United Irishmen. If it was unsophisticated, it was the first. If ineffective betimes, it was beset. If there was vengeance, there was outrage. If it was in fact premature, it had a modern vision: and if that vision continues, it will come to pass.

©: Brian Ó Cléirigh.

This is a shortened version of the keynote lecture delivered during a Study Day, ‘Visions of National Identity’, at the Temple of Peace, Cardiff, on Saturday 28 February, 1998. The author, from County Wexford, is a translator attached to Dáil Éireann (The Irish Parliament) in Dublin.

Note: The text of the exhortation from General Roche referred to above is as follows:


Countrymen and Fellow Soldiers!

Your patriotic exertions in the cause of your country have hitherto exceeded your most sanguine expectations, and in a short time must ultimately be crowned with success — Liberty has raised her drooping head; thousands daily flock to her standard; the voice of her children everywhere prevails — let us then, in the moment of triumph, return thanks to the Almighty Ruler of the universe, that a total stop has been put to those sanguinary measures, which of late were but too often resorted to by the creatures of government to keep the people in slavery.

Nothing now, my countrymen, appears necessary to secure the conquests you have so bravely won, but an implicit obedience to the commands of your chiefs; for, through a want of proper subordination and discipline, all may be endangered.

At this eventful period, all Europe must admire, and posterity will read with astonishment, the heroic acts achieved by people, strangers to military tactics, and having few professional commanders. But what power can resist men fighting for liberty!BR>
In the moment of triumph, my countrymen, let not your victories be tarnished with any wanton act of cruelty; many of those unfortunate men now in prison were not your enemies from principle, most of them, compelled by necessity, were obliged to oppose you; neither let a difference in religious sentiments cause a difference among the people. Recur to the debates in the Irish House of Lords of the nineteenth of February last, you will there see a patriotic and enlightened Protestant bishop (Down, and many of the lay lords) with manly eloquence, pleading for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, in opposition to the haughty arguments of the Lord Chancellor, and the powerful opposition of his fellow courtiers.

To promote a union of brotherhood and affection amongst our countrymen of all religious persuasions, has been our principal object; we have sworn in the most solemn manner, have associated for this laudable purpose, and no power on earth shall shake our resolution.

To my Protestant soldiers I feel much indebted, for their gallant behaviour in the field, where they exhibited signal proofs of bravery in the cause.

Wexford, June 7, 1798.


Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998