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The Battle of Oulart Hill

The Battle of Oulart Hill, as depicted in a supplement to the "Shamrock" magazine of January 8th, 1887.

Intelligently led by Morgan Byrne, Edward Roche, George Sparks and Father John Murphy of Boolavogue, the United Irish army achieved a shattering victory over the North Cork Militia on Oulart Hill, in County Wexford, on Whit Sunday, May 27th, 1798. Publicly "Orange", and recruited from converts on the Mitchelstown estate, they were led by the arrogant sexual predator Lord Kingsborough. The North Corks were much hated, especially after they introduced "pitchcapping", by which an inflammable mixture of pitch and gunpowder was jammed onto the victim's head and set alight. The rebels' victory was a stunning vindication of the pike's effectiveness against a cavalry charge on well-chosen ground. The enclosed Wexford countryside was dangerous for cavalry who could never get a clear sight of the enemy, and who were therefore extremely vulnerable to well-executed ambushes such as this one, by rebels who were very familiar with the locality. Of the one hundred and ten red-coated Yeomen who marched so confidently up the hillside that day, just five survived the slaughter which lit the flame of rebellion whose light illuminated the pathway towards Ireland's eventual and long-fought-for liberty.

On hearing of the news of the mid-Wexford rising, a 110-strong force of the North Cork Militia had marched from Wexford town, determined to put down the insurgency with a swift strike. The arrival of this militia outfit was every Catholic's nightmare. The North Corks were certain that mere "croppies" -- many armed only with stones -- would not stand against fully equipped troops. Nonetheless, the notorious militiamen approached the battleground leaving burning cabins in their wake, a cruel attempt to frighten the assembled peasants off Oulart Hill. But although Father Murphy's rag-tag army, now grown to over a thousand, could clearly track the approaching militiamen by the smoke, the insurgents calmly stood their ground. Armed with pikes, scythes, hay-forks and about forty muskets, they quietly awaited the arrival of the living embodiment of their most fearsome dreams. By three o'clock in the afternoon the North Corks could be seen on the roadway below Oulart Hill, spreading out in line-of-battle across the fields. As the militiamen advanced on the hill, Father John pointed out the red-coated cavalry and infantry units and gave his men their orders: "They will wait to see us dispersed by the foot troops, so that their cavalry can fall on us and cut us to pieces. Remain firm, together! We will surely defeat the infantry, and then will have nothing to fear from the cavalry."

Moments later, red-hot musket balls were whistling among the Irish ranks. A rebel rushed forward, armed only with stones, and killed a reloading militiaman. The rebel muskets roared. The militia advanced across the field, heading for the direction from which the fire had come. At that instant, led by Father John, a mass of hidden pikemen leapt from behind the ditches on the North Corks' left flank. The militiamen were soon completely overrun, and must have seen their fate written in the pent-up hatred on the rebels' faces. They turned and fled for their lives, spilling down the slopes from where they had come just a few minutes before. Some ran for miles before being overtaken, impaled and gutted. They begged for mercy in both Gaelic and English. They blessed themselves and shouted out prayers, since many of their number were themselves Catholic, but received absolutely no pity from the rebels. To the insurgents, the men begging for their lives were the same ones who had so recently burned out and murdered their neighbours and friends. The merciless pikemen offered no quarter, and the detested North Cork Militia disappeared forever on the bloody slopes of Oulart Hill.

Some hours later, Colonel Foote, a sergeant and three privates staggered back into Wexford town, all that was left of the command. There might have been a sixth survivor but for a local woman who felled a fleeing militiaman with a single blow from an iron skillet. The effect of the action at Oulart Hill on the surrounding countryside was electric. Father Murphy and his men had set up an intricate and highly effective ambush, and had annihilated the most hated military unit in all of County Wexford, at the cost of only six rebel dead, and had given the insurgent Irish what any rebellion badly needs at its outset -- an early victory. New volunteers in their thousands, armed with sickles, slash-hooks, and pitch-forks swarmed to join the rebel priest and his peasant army.

The references to "people" in the sequence of pictures above illustrates the fact that many family members, including children and the elderly, chose at the time to follow their men to the scene of battle, rather than stay behind and have their homes burned over them when the military discovered that the man of the house was a rebel, and absent on other business.

Today, on the summit of Oulart Hill, a stone monument stands to commemorate the first victory by that valiant band of United Irishmen who went on to win many other battles during that warm, dramatic summer of 1798, and whose last remnants were finally vanquished, not for any want of courage or valor, but by superior discipline and quantity of arms, on a small roadway called Drishogue Lane, near the village of Ballyboughal, in north county Dublin, many hundreds of miles from their native Wexford.

"Shame! Shame! Are you afraid of me because I wear the red coat of a cavalryman?
No! You are not! It is not the man that you are afraid of. It is the red rag that frightens you.
If you met them there below in a fair man-for-man fight, would their caps and red coats frighten you?
Not at all. You would soon decide it with them."

(Morgan Byrne, to the wavering insurgents, as some of them began to retreat before the advance of the
North Cork Militia up the south-easterly side of Oulart Hill. As can be seen from the battle plan above, his
exhortation to stand and fight had the desired effect of re-grouping the pikemen, who went on to decimate
the hated Yeomen in the first major rebel victory of the 1798 Rebellion.)

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