Rebelling against the rebellion

Folklore, song, and verse dedicated to the rebellion of 1798 usually relay the romantic image of an heroic, clandestine, French army joining forces with a willing and equally heroic band of Irish rebels. Bound by a thirst for liberté, égalité and fraternité, the Franco-Irish forces grew in strength as they progressed through the county, bravely securing victories over the might of the British Crown. But one rebel's contemporary account of the Franco-Irish campaign challenges the notion of international solidarity among equals that has dominated the narrative of the events of 1798. 

The Last Speech and Dying Words of Martin McLoughlin is an account of the rebellion by a reluctant croppy of the same name which was recorded the day before his execution on September 10 1798. McLoughlin was sworn into the Society of United Irishmen in October 1797 and was admittedly living a comfortable life when the French landed at Kilcummin in August 1798. Fear of losing his living standards and thoughts of his wife and children initially stalled his joining the rebels but his superiors convinced him that defeating the British would result in more property and livestock for everyone. Promises of promotion within the ranks of the rebels and religious freedom were also guaranteed. The combined package was irresistible and McLoughlin made his way to Ballina to join up with the French camp. According to McLoughlin, the fraternal greetings were short lived as the French officers set about drilling and enforcing the camp’s strict code. The Irish rebels were, McLoughlin writes, beaten, deprived of sleep and degraded. Summary executions of rebels for disobeying orders were carried out in full view of the camp. McLoughlin’s account continues with tales of rape and abuse as rebels were harnessed like horses and forced to pull heavy French cannon from Ballina to Castlebar. One of the first orders from the French was to direct the Irish recruits to fan out across the countryside around Ballina and seize supplies from local farms for use by the camp. Animals were taken and stores emptied as the day-long operation left the plundered locals with nothing. When the Franco-Irish forces reached Castlebar in late August, the trained French element pursued the British while the Irish contingent looted the town. Writing to his executive directory on August 28 from Castlebar after it was taken, French General Jean Joseph Humbert gave his own account of the campaign so far. Humbert poured praise on his French officers and barely referred to the Irish, who received little credit from him for their part in the successes.

McLoughlin’s account may well have stemmed from his frustration at how the French treated their Irish comrades and his resultant anger at having to pay the ultimate price for the rebellion’s failure. McLoughlin was the son of a schoolmaster and so we can presume he was literate and could have recorded his own thoughts. But his account was also an important propaganda weapon for the British who rightfully feared a return visit from the forces of the French Republic. Rebellion, the Mayo elite read in The Times, ‘is not dead, but sleepeth’. McLoughlin's account was printed in Cork and sold by printer Richard Cole of 16 Trinity Street in Dublin. That address was also noted as the offices of the Freeman's Journal newspaper of which Cole was partly responsible for through the 1790s and following the 1798 rebellion. Cole's time with the paper coincided with Francis Higgins’ term as editor. During Higgins' editorship, the paper took a very pro-British stance. McLoughlin's account must also be viewed in that context. McLoughlin finished his account by lamenting his foolishness in being tempted by the devil in the shape of avarice and ambition. Following the decisive Battle of Ballinamuck in County Longford on September 8, McLoughlin and 200 other Irish were taken prisoner by the British and hanged at Ballinalee in a site known as Bully’s Acre.

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