by mariocorrigan on September 1, 2007

Kildare Voice 22 June 2007

1798 Kildare’s Vinegar Hill.




Eoghan Corry

Without the mythologising that went on in the south east through the work of Patrick Kavanagh and PJ McCall, the Battle of Ovidstown on June 18 1798 might have a big a place in Irish history as the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
At first sight Ovidstown does not seem significant. There were bigger battles. The battle of Ross was the bloodiest of the entire rebellion. More people died on Gibbet Rath than at Ovidstown.
Kildare had its own sequence of about a dozen skirmishes and encounters and a march through the bogs by a rebel army that seemed to keep its shape for two months even when the odds were stacked against it.
Until Ovidstown on that midsummer evening, the rebels still had a chance of victory.
At first things went well for the rebels in Kildare. Two days after the first shots of the entire rebellion were fired at either Naas or Prosperous in the early hours of May 24th, they held a huge swathe of South Kildare and most of  the towns apart from Naas and Athy.
But over the next ten days they lost most of what they had gained and suffered sever casualties, including one of the greatest atrocities in the history of Irish warfare, the massacre of 350 prisoners who had surrendered at the Curragh.
When Prosperous, their last urban stronghold, was retaken and Kildare rebels were defeated at Kilcock by James Duff on June 2nd, all seemed lost for the rebels.
Not so. As Seamus Cullen says “there came a development that changed the entire course of the rebellion.”
William Aylmer, who had come out of hiding and taken command of the rebels camped in the bog at Timahoe- Hodgestown. He managed to regain momentum and take Maynooth.
The camp moved to Ovidstown, just six miles from Cloncurry, where Lord Edward FitzGerald’s grand plan had envisaged Kildare rebels were to assemble before taking Dublin.
The United Irishmen of Wicklow, Meath and Kildare would encircle Dublin, march on the capital and then appeal for French and American assistance (as well as the patriotism of Irish officer and sailors in the British navy) to resist the inevitable invasion.
Except it was not FitzGerald who was now in charge, it was William Aylmer of Painstown.
It was not to be. Aylmer’s rebel camp of Ovidstown was disrupted and their threat to the capital rendered void by a surprise attack on June 18-19. Edward Whiteman says there were 5,000-6,000 rebels there. Army commanders say there were 3,000.
The battle didn’t last long, snipers failed to stop the British/loyalist advance and steady bombardment from two pieces of artillery broke the ranks of the pikemen. They lost 200 men before they retreated to Timahoe.
The Battle of Vinegar Hill took place three days later. Both the rebel force (20,000) and the casualties (500) were greater than Ovidstown but both battles had the effect of finishing the rebel momentum.
But while Wexford’s rebellion was by then a purely local affair, Kildare’s rebellion was the last remnant of a grand plan to capture Dublin and secure political independence.
As Liam Chambers, historian of the Rebellion in Kildare, concluded “the rebellion in Kildare was United Irish in its origins, timing and leadership and remained focused on Dublin throughout.”
Ovidstown was where the agenda of the war turned back from national to local objectives. Aylmer believed the cause was doomed and started suing for peace.
Maybe it was, maybe not. The American cause looked doomed after the Battle of Long Island in 1776. America’s rebels recovered and carried on to victory. Ireland’s did not.
Kildare’s rebels held out for another month before their surrender on July 21st. There was even another massing at Timahoe on July 10th, when the arrival of Wicklow and Wexford insurgents brought rebel camp numbers back to 4,000. This was the largest encampment of insurgents in Kildare throughout the rebellion. But Aylmer had lost heart and they were not to take part in another engagement.
Unravelling the significance of Ovidstown is a difficult task. Historians have had great fun picking through the debris and propaganda in search of what really took place in 1798.
Even the bicentennial of the rebellion in 1998 was to become a battleground in its own right, where new fights were fought with old allegations.
The disadvantage is that historians have precious little material about what happened in 1798 from the rebel side.
Instead they have handwritten confessions of dozens of penitent rebels and exuberant army victors.
There is just one account of a Kildare rebel, Patrick O’Kelly’s “General History”, published after his return from exile in 1842. It may have been self-serving given the politics of the 1840s. He depicted the whole affair as heroic but ideologically unsound and ill-led, more a reaction to Yeoman atrocities than a strike for freedom.
After his surrender William Aylmer was allowed to go into exile and took a commission in the Austrian army. His “confession” to the authorities is less informative than it might be. A memoir written under less duress, should it exist, would be an interesting read.
But does one exist and is there more? Did Aylmer and other exiles commit further thoughts to paper? And we can be sure there are treasures in chests of drawers throughout Kildare: the equivalent of the Elmes papers of Wexford.
When local historian King Milne uncovered them in his family attic and unveiled them in a series of articles, they revealed a contributory factor in the rebellion no-one had thought of before: the collapse in the price of grain and its effect on the local farming community.
Those local letters with local gossip and sentiments can take on national significance.
Liam Chambers: Rebellion in Kildare 1798-1803.
Seamus Cullen and Hermann Geissel editors, Fugitive Warfare, 1798 in North Kildare.
Key dates:
May 23 1798 Outbreak of rebellion: Prosperous captured
May 27 tahangan retaken. Surrender of most of the rebels arranged
June 2 William Aylmer takes command, rebels regain initiative
June 19 Battle of Ovidstown end of threat to Dublin prosperous retaken
July 21 Final surrender of rebels

An article from the Kildare Voice by Eoghan Corry which analyses the Rebel defeat at Ovidstown during the 1798 Rebellion in County Kildare. Our thanks to Eoghan.

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