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1798 Rebellion in County Clare
by Tony Downes, Clare Local Studies Project

In 1797 the United Irishmen actively recruiting in Clare, even attempting to recruit from the ranks of army. 'Emigrants' from Dublin and Northern Ireland came to Clare on recruiting missions. A number of locals were also actively recruiting new members, including Martin Devitt, a carpenter from Lackamore; Michael Mulqueeny, a blacksmith from Torr; and Michael Murphy, a labourer from Tullygarvan, Lahinch.

Clare was regarded as being of utmost importance. A French landing, advocated by Wolfe Tone, was seen as practicable by the river Shannon and on coastal bays.

In the summer of 1797, it was discovered that many men had joined the United Irishmen. The Yeomanry was formed from the ranks of the landlord and planter classes to counteract the spread of sedition. The Yeomanry searched the country for anyone sympathetic to the rebels or United Irishmen, and meted out cruel and instant punishment if the desired co-operation was not forthcoming. Whipping, transportation and hangings were the usual punishments.

The Kilrush Yeomanry was installed in May 1797. On 24 June, 1797, the City of Dublin Militia took up quarters at Clarecastle and Ennis.

During 1798 Clare was represented at the meeting held in Dublin to make the final plans for the rebellion and Claremen fought in the major battles of the uprising, and on both sides.

Fireball McNamara fought with the rebels at Vinegar Hill (21 June, 1798). Denis O'Duffy of Clooney led a considerable number of men in the same battle.

The Clare Militia, which had been recruiting heavily, lost 5 dead, 10 missing and 3 wounded at the Battle of New Ross (5 June, 1798). Major Vandeleur, Clare Militia, took Irishtown, in New Ross. Control of the town swung back and forth between the army and the rebels for several hours until the army finally took firm control.

In the winter on 1798, rebellion broke out in western Clare, but was quickly dealt with by the Kilrush Yeomanry, officers and seamen of His Majesty's gunboats and some strong detachments of dragoons.

By early January 1799, reports were reaching Dublin of a series of 'outrages' in several parts of Clare. These seem to have been triggered by the recent switch to grazing on the part of the landlords, which deprived tenants of badly needed land for tillage. Tenants reacted violently, attacking the stock and estates of their landlords - houghing cattle, cutting down trees, etc.

Among the first targets were Edmond Armstrong of Lemenagh, Bindon Blood of Applevale, Edmond Powell of Roughan, Kilnaboy, and Thomas Crowe, J.P., Ballyvaskin, who between them had some 17 animals houghed and stabbed. As the attacks increased in number and severity, large rewards were offered for information leading to the conviction of the culprits.

It was becoming clear that the government was losing control, and the area between Miltown Malbay, Ennistymon and Corofin was virtually in a state of rebellion. Members of the United Irishmen now began to raid the houses of the gentry and Yeomanry and carried off whatever arms they could find. Indeed, many of the Yeomanry were sympathetic to the cause, and handed up their arms with little or no resistance. Among those whose houses were raided and whose arms were plundered were Thomas Moroney of Miltown Malbay, Lieut-Colonel Christopher O'Brien of Ennistymon House, Robert Kean of Ballyvoe, other houses near that town, and most of the houses in Corofin. Most of the Janesborough, Corcomroe and Miltown Cavalry also had their arms plundered.

As conditions deteriorated, the Courthouse in Ennis (then in the Square) was converted into a barracks to house the Longford Militia. The Ennis Cavalry was put on permanent duty, and several families, women and children in particular, were sent to Ennis, where it was felt they would be safe.

On January 6, 1799, Clare's magistrates met, and, concluding that many parts of the country were "much disposed to insurrection and riot" demanded that a strong military force be sent into Clare. The Clare Journal of January 11, 1799 reported that strangers, some of whom were suspected of having escaped from the 1798 rebellion, had got among the insurgents and were leading them on.

Meanwhile, the raids continued and intensified. The homes of Andrew Lysaght of Ballyvorda, above Liscannor Bay, and Hugh Floyde of Moher, were both raided and whatever arms they contained carried off. The insurgents were actively recruiting new members in Liscannor, while the Protestant church in Ennistymon narrowly escaped being completely destroyed. Fears were growing that the insurgents, gaining in strength, and now numbering some 5,000 according to some reports, were sufficiently strong to march on, and capture, Ennis, where only a detachment of the Longford Militia blocked their path to Limerick.

On the night of January 11, a meeting was held in a field in Lisnagoneeny, a short distance from the home of Francis (Frank) "Rua" Lysaght, a member of the prominent Lysaght family of Kilcornan, near Ennistymon. It was the practice of the insurgents to enlist the gentry and appoint them as officers whether they liked it or not. Men like Martin Devitt, and Hugh Kildea, a schoolmaster who lived near Lysaght, were prepared to use whatever persuasion was necessary to make the gentlemen co-operate. The meeting was attended by a large crowd, armed with guns and scythes. The men were formed into ranks and sergeants were appointed. Kildea collected 1s. per man to buy ammunition.

The next day, Saturday, 12th January, was market day in Ennistymon, and a large number of rebels gathered in the town to put on a demonstration of their power. Described as being "in a belligerent mood, and armed for rebellion", they paraded up and down the town, forcing many of the locals to march with them. After some time, a group left the market place (then at the bottom of Church Hill), and marched to Woodmount House, the home of George Lysaght, from where they had previously plundered arms and forced George Jr. and his brothers to take the oath. They now took George Jr. hostage, and held him for four hours while they cut down some 4,000 trees. George estimated that there were some 4,000 rebels in the town, some of whom were armed with French muskets. They remained in the town practically all day, and were still patrolling the streets late that night.

During that night, news reached Ennistymon that the army were on their way, burning, ravaging and destroying all before them. It was decided that now was the time to oppose the enemy. On the morning of Sunday, 13th January, well over an hour before day-break, the blowing of horns could be heard summoning the United Irishmen to action. Armed with guns and pistols, scythes and pitchforks, bayonets and hatchets, all were bound for Ennistymon. Some 200 came from Miltown Malbay; these were augmented by many more along the way, including many who came down from Mount Callan. On reaching Moy, their leader, Kildea, ordered them to destroy Ennistymon Bridge upon their arrival in the town. They stopped just above Bogberry, on the south side of the river, but apparently made no attempt to destroy the bridge or obstruct the approaches to the town.

On his way to Ennis that morning, George Lysaght met a group of some 20-30 men; on speaking to them he discovered that they were not in the least bit interested in establishing a republic or in promoting the idea of the "common name of Irishmen". Their concern was for the immediate relief of their intolerable misery and the alleviation of the vile conditions under which they lived. They were, they said, grievously oppressed, land was too dear, and they believed that the landlords were ready to send the soldiers to fight, and evict them. They would fight for their rights and were ready to take on any opposition.

The United Irishmen gathered in Ennistymon now numbered six or seven hundred. When the army had not arrived, after about an hour of waiting, the crowd began to disperse. Although a formidable force numerically, they were not a fighting force. They were a mob, full of enthusiasm, but untrained, ill-equipped and without officers to lead them. At Miltown Malbay, the remnants of the crowd attended a huge meeting, at which the town crier, Tom Ryan, was instructed to proclaim that every man worth from 10 to 2,000 should come out when called on, and that blacksmiths should engage in no work, other than the making of pikes. Thus, it would seem that the idea of resistance had not yet been abandoned.

On Sunday night, General Meyrick, General of the District, with a strong detachment of the Longford Militia and the Roden Cavalry, marched to Ennistymon from Ennis. Troops from Limerick and Galway also set out for Clare. The arrival of the troops and their raids throughout the county brought to an end the possibility of a large scale insurrection, as no large groups were prepared to fight them. Nonetheless, a few days later, the Lord Lieutenant, acting on the advice of the Clare Magistrates, declared the county to be in a state of disturbance.

By January 21st the insurrection was considered suppressed. According to contemporary reports, 300 insurgents had been shot down, and the others had retired in the face of the army.

The arrests now began. Upwards of fifty prisoners were taken, and it was said that the "most culpable" would be hanged. They were detained in the Guard House at Ennistymon. Thirty-two were later released; the other eighteen were held on capital charges. Rumours were circulating about the army in Ennistymon, of whom it was said that they were prepared to march through the countryside in defiance of the rebels. There was great consternation among the people. Meanwhile, the Ennis Cavalry brought in sixteen prisoners from Miltown Malbay, while arms raids in Ennis, Corofin and Ennistymon yielded muskets and pikes, and led to many arrests. Two smiths, both named Marlborough, were charged with making pikes. The parish priest of Corofin, Rev. Colman Hynes, was lodged in Ennis Gaol. By the end of January, there were over 80 prisoners awaiting trial in Ennis.

On the 18th of January, the Clare magistrates met again in Ennis, and imposed a curfew. Anybody found out of doors between one hour after sunset and sunrise was liable to be handed over as a recruit to the British Navy, as was anyone taking an unlawful oath or found assembled in a public house after 9 at night or before 6 in the morning. Persons found distributing seditious handbills and pamphlets were liable to have similar penalties imposed on them.

The round-up continued in February, but there were still occasional outbreaks of violence, with livestock being houghed, mangled and stabbed in separate incidents near Gort and near Crusheen.

March saw the beginning of the trials at the Clare Assizes. Both Hugh Kildea and Michael Murphy were found guilty and sentenced to death. Francis Lysaght was sentenced to transportation, to serve in the Prussian army. Others were sentenced to gaol, whipping or transportation. All of the seven sentenced to death were brought back to their own towns to be executed. The executions drew huge crowds, and both Kildea and Murphy were left on the gallows for three hours as an "awful warning to the spectators".

Some of those acquitted at the Assizes were rearrested by the military after they had been released; they were then tried by court martial, which began in late March.

Once the court martials had finished their business, the story of the rising in Clare comes to an end. The United Irishmen in the county were not yet finished however, and in 1800 it was considered advisable to station a detachment of soldiers in Ennistymon, where it was felt their presence would awe the disaffected and reassure the loyalists. 

In 1803, a spy in the county reported that he had found men giving an oath which they called the "finisher", each known to the other by a special handshake. The grievances which led to the disturbances remained, and continued to trouble the county until the final resolution of the land question almost a century later.

Kieran Sheedy, The United Irishmen of County Clare (Ennis, Clare Education Centre, 1998).
Francis J Litton, 'Reluctant rebel: the story of Francis Lysaght, Esq., United Irishman' in Dal gCais (1982) pp.5-12

Copyright Clare Local Studies Project

List of Insurgents in North West Clare