The 1798 Rising in County Mayo
By Neil J. Conway
The famed Irish Rising of 1798 was led by a man with what many might consider an unlikely resume for Irish nationalism; that is, a Presbyterian lawyer from Ulster named Theobold Wolfe Tone. Known as Wolfe Tone, he and the leadership of The Society of United Irishmen met in the town of Rouen, France to solicit French support for an Irish rebellion against Britain.
They eventually succeeded in procuring arms, soldiers and transportation across the English Channel to spearhead the bold, but tragic 1798 Irish Rising. Wolfe Tone assured the French Directory that the French invaders would be supported by a dispossessed, indigenous population, ready for revolt. It would also act as a diversion to the immediate task of the British armed forces in Egypt against a French Army Commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte.
A snowstorm on the English Channel diverted the primary landing, described by Tone himself as “an invasion defeated by weather.” Several disjointed attacks in the Southeast of Ireland lead to the simultaneous collapse of the military campaign, and with that faded the hope of an independent Irish Republic.
Eventually, the Irish and French insurrection was defeated, and Wolfe Tone himself was taken prisoner. With no modern modes of communication available, this was unknown to the troops under General Humbert’s command landing in the West Coast in Mayo.
Their venture and brave march across Mayo and the midlands were initially a success. Their actions also paved the way for the formation of Napoleon’s Irish Legion (See Ohio Irish American News, Illuminations, Mike Finn January 2020).
County Mayo is the ancestral home of many Cleveland Irish Americans. Located on Ireland’s West Coast, it comprises a stunning, timeless countryside along the ocean, unchanged by time. Imagine the appearance of three French sails on the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean and the effect on a local population schooled by hedge school masters waiting for the legendary myth of freedom and deliverance from second class citizenry to unravel.
The three French ships landing in Ballina carried one thousand French soldiers under the command of General Humbert, including lieutenant Bartholamen Teeling of Belfast. Their plan was to enlist the native Irish in a revolt against a regime depriving Irish citizens of the United Kingdom jobs, and the right to education and property.
The French vessels pulled into the tiny seacoast village of Ballina in Killala Bay. After a brief encounter with yeoman (Loyalist Police) they overcame local resistance, who were caught by surprise by the unannounced invaders. Soon the French were joined by a youthful Irish peasantry, armed almost entirely with a farm implement known as a “pike.” This is a long pole with a hook on the end, carried into battle by the Irish Volunteers. Together, the French and Irish achieved the first military victory of the so-called Army of the Gael, in 1798.
The Castlebar Races
There is no real talisman for predicting victory in battle. In Castlebar this was proven when a vastly outnumbered contingent of French Soldiers and Irish patriots arrived on the battlefield after a 16-hour forced march. There they encountered British General Lake and his occupying army. Vastly outnumbering the French/Irish army, the British had every expectation of crushing the rebel forces.
But not so. The French soldiers, armed with muskets, flanked the British, and the Irish recruits, armed with pikes, attacked the center in a wild charge, though sustaining heavy losses. The British were apparently caught by surprise. The Crown forces withdrew, and what began as a hasty retreat turned into a route –hence a footnote in history known as the “Castlebar Races.”
The victory for the newly acquainted French and Irish companions was followed by a forced march at night, attributing to a second piece of Mayo folklore; the legend is known as the “road of straw.” Cabin dwellers along the mountain road came out of their homes at night and guided the iconic rebel forces by lighting up blazing straw in front of their homes. The French lead ranks swelled with the addition of another 5,000 native Irish during the march.
The relatively small force under General Humbert’s command had grown in size and confidence. In their next encounter in the village of Collooney, they met a segment of the British Army reinforced with artillery. Deadly cannon fire reigned in on the French and Irish forces, taking heavy casualties.
In a moment of desperation, Lieutenant Bartholomen Teeling distinguished himself with a rare act of courage. He mounted his horse, and rode across the battlefield, heading straight for the enemy lines. With a single shot he eliminated the British “curricle gunner,” thereby disabling the relay of information from a key post located above the battlefield.
Once the artillery was neutralized, the invigorated French and Irish army rallied to victory. A moment in Ireland commemorates this battle to this day.
With little or no information about Wolfe Tone’s capture, or the rest of the ill-fated 1798 rising, Humbert chose to march towards Dublin. The decision was in part to evade Lord Cornwallis and a British Army of 26,000 men stationed in Ireland. Humbert eventually hoped to hook up with other French regulars joined by the Irish, who were at this time already defeated.
The Irish were forced to leave their homes and communities in support of this desperate venture. The small army marched in unfamiliar territory to the town of Ballinamuck, and there met their ultimate defeat by the overwhelming numbers of the regular British Army.
Eventually the French and Irish surrendered on the battlefield of Ballinamuck. The French held their caps high on their swords to signal surrender and were afforded prisoner of war status in accordance with practices prevalent in Europe at that time.
Not so for the Irish volunteers, many of whom were executed en masse on the battlefield. The conflicting details of Wolfe Tone’s subsequent death in a Dublin prison are also still a mystery.
For the Irish, the rising was tragic, but confirmed the need for resistance to British rule. For many it reestablished the need for independence or immigration, and a struggle to be relived again in 1916.
*Neil’s grandparents, Neil Conway and Bridget Campbell, immigrated from Ballycory, County Mayo in 1919. His wife Maureen Dolan’s family hail from counties Kildare and Offaly. Her ancestry includes a French soldier from the 1798 Rising who never went back to France.