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Old 07-12-2021, 02:44 PM   #131 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Before I close out what has turned out to be a much longer article than expected, there is one further aspect of the 1798 rising I want to investigate. I think it may very well be a unique one.

Holy Warriors: Ireland’s Rebel Battle Priests

I know English lords were often made bishops and archbishops and led armies, and of course the Pope and his various cardinals too, but more back in the early part of the millennium; however I have never, up to this, heard of bog (almost literally) standard priests not only fighting but leading men into battle, and yet when I look at the list of commanders of the rebels it’s littered with Father this and Father that. So I’d like now to look at these, and see what led to such men of the cloth taking up arms and standing up for their country, actually fighting alongside the men of their flock rather than just praying for them. Most, of course, would also die in Ireland’s cause for freedom.


Father John Murphy (1753 - 1798)

Perhaps the most famous of the “rebel priests”, his name preserved in the old Irish ballad “Boolavogue”, Fr. Murphy was a native of Ferns parish in Wexford, where almost all of the priests who took part in the rebellion would come from. Like all Catholic priests at the time, he was subject to the Penal Laws holding sway in Ireland, which forbade priests studying or being trained there, seminaries outlawed, and so he had completed his education in Spain.
Returning to Ireland in 1785 he was given the curacy of Kilcomuc, more usually known as Boolavogue, under the parish priesthood of Fr. Patrick Cogley. Fr. Murphy’s family was already involved with the United Irishmen, two of his brothers being in the society, but his bishop, James Caulfield, was a supporter of the Crown and against the idea of rebellion. Nonetheless, Murphy preached from the pulpit to his congregation that they were "better to die courageously in the fields than be butchered in their houses.” He was not exaggerating, as General Lake’s Yeomen swept through Leinster, killing, raping and burning as they went.

As Catholics, and not just Catholics but the leaders of the religion, the priests had a double dilemma on their hands. First, the obvious one: a priest was expected to be peaceful and promote the cause of peace and brotherhood and harmony (though this is hard to do when the enemy is slaughtering and burning all around you, and seems determined to wipe you out) and not supposed to take part in any sort of armed conflict. Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly for them, the Irish rebellion was founded on the notion, hope or promise of support from France. Since the Revolution, the leaders of France’s new republic were staunchly anti-religion, especially anti-Catholic, so if the French were to invade and “save” Ireland, where would the role of the priests be? Might not even those who had fought for the very freedom they would now have attained find themselves exiled, or worse - guests of Madame la Guillotine?

Nevertheless, they fought, and while he wavered between loyalty, both to his bishop and the English king, news of the massacre at Dunlavin and the insistence of his parishioners that he protect them and fight for Ireland made Fr. Murphy’s mind up, and he led an attack at the Harrow, killing two British officers and routing the small force. This led to the burning of many houses in his parish, including his own church at Boolavogue. Murphy’s small victory and subsequent success at Oulart Hill are immortalised in the ballad of the same name:

Then Father Murphy, from old Kilcormack,
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry;
"Arm! Arm!" he cried, "For I've come to lead you,
For Ireland's freedom we fight or die."
He led us on against the coming soldiers,
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight;
'Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Booky's Regiment how men could fight.”


(Booky refers to Lieutenant Thomas Bookey, one of the two officers of the Camolin Cavalry killed at The Harrow)

Fr. Murphy’s defeat and death at Vinegar Hill is also commemorated in the song.

“At Vinegar Hill, o'er the pleasant Slaney,
Our heroes vainly stood back to back,
And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burned his body upon the rack.
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open heaven to all your men;
The cause that called you may call tomorro
In another fight for the Green again.”


Murphy did indeed win a major victory at Oulart Hill, as already described, all but wiping out Lieutenant Foote’s command, As they marched to take Enniscorthy, Murphy’s regiment was reinforced by one led by another priest, and indeed another Murphy, Father Michael. They forced the retreat of the garrison there, and marched in triumph on to Wexford town, which they also took, but as we have seen, were unable to keep, Here they were joined by another priest, Father Mogue Kearns as they later marched to Vinegar Hill, preparatory to attacking Gorey. This was, of course, to be their last stand.

On the run from the defeat at Vinegar Hill and the later Battle of Kilcumey Hill, Fr. Murphy and his friend and bodyguard James Gallagher were captured by British forces and taken to Tullow in County Carlow, where they were tried, found guilty of treason and executed. Their deaths were not quick and they were not merciful. Both men were stripped, flogged, half-hanged several times (Gallagher first, as he was exhorted to identify the priest with whom he travelled, but refused, dying on the gallows) and Father Murphy, as both a Catholic priest and therefore mortal enemy of the British, and a rebel, was decapitated after hanging, his body put into a barrel of tar and burned and his head stuck on a spike.

Father Philip Roche

Another priest from the Boolavogue parish, his brother was involved in the attack at The Harrow, and seems to have been less (or more) than the traditional image of a priest; big and burly, given to great tempers and able to fight with ferocity, and given to drinking, he seems - despite his vocation - to have been the kind of man who would respond quickly and eagerly to the call to defend Ireland, and indeed it appears that he joined the United Irishmen before the rebellion began, again much to the disgust and disapproval of his bishop. He seems to have had the equivalent of a problem holding down a job, being moved from Gorey to Bantry, finally ending up in Poulpeasty in Wexford. As soon as the rising began he deserted his post and joined in the fighting.

He took part in the battle for Enniscorthy and was at Vinegar Hill, and secured safe passage for one “Mrs. M”, declaring that her house and that of her neighbour were not to be touched, by his order. He used the power of faith to motivate his troops, giving them religious scapulars and telling the men that they would be under God’s protection by wearing them. He was given command of the rebels after the Battle of New Ross when Bagenal Harvey, the previous commander, resigned, apparently in disgust at the atrocities perpetrated by rebels at Scullabogue. Father Roche was given the rank of general. This did not go down well with the Protestants who had joined the rebels, unsurprisingly.

Father (now General) Roche sent word to the parish of Horeswood that if their parish priest there, one Father James Doyle, did not join them then Roche’s forces would attack the town. He appears to have been something of an uncompromising leader, and you have to wonder if he had missed his calling. Doyle had no choice but to comply, but kept the letter which he used in his trial later to attain acquittal for himself and his men. Roche, meanwhile, despite the misgivings of Thomas Clooney and other Protestants in the ranks, proved to be more than an able commander, proved in fact to be something of a military genius, holding off the British forces by a kind of Beau Geste subterfuge while his men escaped, and later, after the defeat at Vinegar Hill, as the other leaders considered suing for terms to surrender Wexford Town, Roche would have no part of it.

His error though was to believe that General Lake would afford him favourable terms, or deal with him at all, and while Father John Murphy declared they should fight to the last - and every man agreed and stood with him - Roche travelled alone to Wexford. He was quickly disabused of his notions of a noble surrender and thoroughly abused as, entering the town he was recognised and pulled from his horse, kicked and beaten, dragged through the streets and finally imprisoned. When visited there by General Sir John Moore, he advised his adversary that his estimate of the numbers of the rebels was way off - Moore estimated about 5,000 to 6,000 but Roche told him there was three times that number, which there were.

Roche gained for himself in his lifetime as a rebel a reputation not only for battle cunning and planning but for mercy, often saving Protestants from the more vocal and violent factions of his own forces. This unfortunately did him no good when, after being tried and found guilty (duh) of treason, he, along with nine other rebels, was hanged at, and from, Wexford Bridge.

A strange dilemma shows itself in the above clemency shown by Father Roche, illustrated best in the example of the brothers Robinson who, taken by the rebels from their parish of Kilgeny for no other reason than that they were Protestants, and also both quite old and therefore both harmless and mostly unable to defend themselves, were rescued by Roche and given letters guaranteeing their safety. Sent home with these, they were later accused of collusion and treachery by the British for having accepted the pardon of the rebel general. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!
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