The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir

We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand
To burst in twain the Saxon chain, and free our native land!
The Boys of Wexford, RD Royce 1898

Glory-o, Glory-o to her brave men who died
For the cause of long down-trodden man.
Glory-o to Mount-Leinster’s own darling and pride
Dauntless Kelly, the boy from Killane.
Patrick Joseph McCall, 1898

It was on this day in 1798, during the first great Irish rebellion against British dominion, that the Battle of Vinegar Hill took place at Inis Córthaid, now the second-largest town in County Wexford.

The Rebellion of 1798 (Éirí Amach) also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion, was an uprising against British rule in Ireland during the summer of ‘98. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, were the drivers of the rebellion. It was led by Presbyterians irate at being shut out of power by the Anglican establishment whilst Catholics became increasingly involved. Plans called for significant French support, which never eventuated. The uprising was poorly organized, uncoordinated, and quickly suppressed by much more powerful British forces. Both sides indulged in bloody reprisals. Between 10,000 to 30,000 souls perished, most of them Irishmen and women of all denominations.

The rebellion raged Ireland-wide, but County Wexford was its heart. Overlooking the town, Vinegar Hill was the site of the largest camp and the headquarters of the Irish rebels who held County Wexford for thirty days against vastly superior English forces; and it was there, after inflicting several defeats upon the insurgents that the English sought to finally destroy the rebel army. Battle raged on Vinegar Hill itself and in the streets of Enniscorthy with considerable loss of life among both rebels and civilians. It marked a turning point in the rising, being the last attempt by the rebels to hold and defend ground against the British military.

The famous statue in the market square of Enniscorthy shows the doomed Father Murphy, a leader of the ’98, pointing the way to Vinegar Hill for a young volunteer, ‘The Croppy Boy’.

Father Murphy and The Croppy Boy

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy

History – and indeed, our lives – have a way of echoing across the world and down the years. In 1804, Irish convicts in the far-away penal colony of New South Wales, raised the flag of rebellion against the British soldiery and the colonial masters they served. It was the only convict rising in Australia. Many of those convicts would have been involved in the ‘98, and transported to Botany Bay for their part in it. Their quixotic Intifada was crushed at a place they called Vinegar Hill after the Wexford battle. In 1979, having migrated to Australia, I visited what is believed to be the site of the convicts’ revolt, the Castlebrook lawn cemetery on Windsor Road, Rouse Hill, where a monument commemorating the revolt was dedicated in 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, New South Wales

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oftimes forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consquences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

And ponder Seamus Heaney’s poignant Requiem for the Croppies:

The pockets of our greatcoats, full of barley
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people, hardly marching on the hike
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

Father Murphy and me

I’ve always felt a connection with Vinegar Hill and “the boys of Wexford” who fought there.

In Birmingham, back in the early fifties, we lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. Her family had lived through Ireland’s war of independence and the civil war that followed, and she carried with her the memory of those times when she migrated to Birmingham before the Second World War  – after her husband had run off “with another woman” (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). She lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road which were destroyed with considerable loss of life. When her sister died and daddy Paddy had decamped – he’d found a new Love – Mary brought their six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy one by one. I never met nor learned what became of my grandfather. My aunt and mother would say that if Paddy Whelan died, the devil himself would come and tell us. Old Nick never did.

I was born in Mary’s house. She had a friend who had once given birth so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, the National Health Service had kicked in, and they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life-threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, Aunty Mary, three uncles, two aunts, a dog called Monty, named for the famous field Marshall, and a cat. Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown-ups went down to The Baths). Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; a bathroom with hot water heated in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down in the garden. A big garden it was too, for winter and spring vegetables, snowmen and summer camp-outs.

There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.

In 1956, my uncle took me “across the sea to Ireland” to meet our family – my mother’s, that is. Dad was a proddie from County Tyrone, and we didn’t talk about them. We stayed in the tiny terrace house in Patrick Street where my mother was born in 1928, a crowded place with an outside toilet and a whitewashed back wall that looked out onto windswept fields beyond. Uncle Sonny (Philip, really, but knicknamed for Al Jolson’s famous song), took me to the top of Vinegar Hill, and it’s lonely ruined round tower, used then as a shelter for cattle. We visited the statue of Father John Murphy and the young volunteer, and I learned the story of The Croppy Boy. Today, the term “croppy” is used derogatively to refer to a country bumpkin. Back then, it also referred to the young patriots who answered to the call “at the rising of the moon”. Their name came from their cropped hair – interpreted by some at the time as symbolic of the rejection of the powdered wigs of the gentry and also of the style popularised by French revolutionaries. Sonny took me to The Bloody Bridge on the outskirts of town where Father Murphy was tortured and executed by the English soldiers, the ‘yeos’ (or yeomen). I put my fingers in the groove in the  bridge’s stone parapet, said to have been made by the dying priest himself. We walked across the bridge in Wexford Town where so many martyrs perished at the hands of the foe – and, alas, so many innocents were murdered by the rebels. Little matter that the bridge we now trode was the third built there since those fateful days.

History was alive, and it was black and white. People remembered, as if it was yesterday, how Oliver Cromwell cut a bloody swathe through Catholic Ireland and massacred the innocents of Wexford town. It was said that people hung Cromwell’s picture upside down in their living rooms, and turned his face to the wall for good measure. Relatives would recount how the Black and Tans, the English paramilitaries raised to terrorise the populace, held their bayonets to women’s throats demanding “where’s your husband?”…or father…or son…Even the English teachers at my English grammar school would remark that the ‘Tans were war veterans who’d survived carnage of the Western Front and wanted more.

In the summer of 1969 my brother and I and an old chum spent several weeks in an Enniscorthy that looked and felt felt like it had not changed since Aunty Mary’s day – so well portrayed in the academy award nominated film Brooklyn. Dressed as we were in hippie garb and sporting long locks, we cut incongruous figures in the pubs and at the local hop, and were so unsuccessful hitchhiking around the county that we walked many a long Irish mile. We hiked to Killane, Sean Kelly’s country, and inspired by the song, climbed upwards though heath and hedge to the top of Mount Leinster. We stayed at 13 Patrick Street, and spent a lot of time sitting up on Vinegar Hill, beneath its round tower, looking down on the River Slaney and the town beyond. My brother was a keen photographer, and he took the following pictures:

The Croppy Boy 1969

Enniscorthy from atop Vinegar Hill August 1969

Enniscorthy Sunset August 1969

Fast forward into another century, and I was “on the Holy Ground once more”. Adèle and I attended the wedding of an old pal and cosmic twin (born on the same day as me at about the same time, in English town beginning with B) we were the only Brits in a seminar at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Back then, SOAS was known to many Arabs as the school of spies, a status I was reminded of by the owner of our hotel when we all visited Damascus in 2006. But I digress. The wedding was held at an old pub in right in the heart of Ireland, and in getting there, we did a whistle-stop tour of the south, including Enniscorthy, Wexford and Ross, the heartland of the ‘98 rebellion. When I first visited Enniscorthy, you could lie down in the middle of the Main Street and not be disturbed by traffic. This time, you could still lie down in th middle of Main Street – we were stuck in a traffic jam as we wound up the hill past Saint Aiden’s Cathedral to Patrick Street, which was no longer on the edge of town. The old house was still standing, as the song goes. Clean and crisp and pebble-dashed. As we stood outside number thirteen, a young goth girl in a multicoloured hoodie with tattoos and piercings opened the door. I told her how my mother and her brothers and sisters were born in this very house a long, long time ago, and that we’d come all the way from Australia to see it. “You don’t say!” she said.

13 Patrick Street, August 2004

Vinegar Hill August 2004

I was best man at that wedding, and in a speech largely devoted to the groom and our mutual, lifelong appreciation of Bob Dylan, I was able to relate to guests young and old tales of my Irish childhood, taking us all “down the foggy ruins of time”, and sang extracts from songs I actually did learn at my mothers knee.

When I was little, mother Mary would march us up and down the parlour as she sang Enniscorthy’s songs of rebellion: Kelly the Boy From Killane, Boulavogue, and the eponymous Boys of Wexford. We were told that such songs were banned in Britain, and that we must never sing them in public. There’s nothing so tempting as forbidden fruit. A relative brought us over Irish Songs of Freedom, sung in a sweet tenor by Willie Brady – a daring deed indeed, listening to it was,   and perhaps my first act of rebellion. We know now that this was all a cod. The Clancy Brothers were singing those rebel songs to packed houses the length and breadth of the British Isles and North America. And today, of course, you lose count of the collections and anthologies of Irish songs of freedom, rebellion or resistance, sung with vim, vigour, and nostalgic gusto from the Clancy Brothers and Dubliners back in the day to Sinead O’Connor and Celtic Woman.

In true men, like you men – songs of ‘98

So, on this, the two hundredth and twentieth anniversary of Vinegar Hill, let us remember the patriot men with a few of those old songs.

At Vinegar Hill o’er the pleasant Slaney
Our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burnt 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 tomorrow
In another fight for the green again
Boulavogue Patrick Joseph McCall 1898

The song commemorates local parish priest Father John Murphy, he of the statue in he market place, who led his parishioners into battle in Wexford. Father Murphy and the other rebel leaders were captured and executed. He was hanged, decapitated, his corpse burnt in a barrel of tar, and his head placed on a spike as a warning to other rebels.

Enniscorthy is in flames and old Wexford is won
And tomorrow the barrow will cross
On the hill o’er the town we have planted a gun
That will batter the gateway to Ross
All the Forth men and Bargy men will march o’er the heath
With brave Harvey to lead in the van
But the foremost of all in the grim gap of death
Will be Kelly, the boy from Killane
Patrick Joseph McCall 1898

Sean Kelly was one of the leaders of the ‘98, celebrated for his role in then Battle of Ross, where he was wounded. After the fall of Wexford on 21 June, he was dragged from his sick bed, tried and sentenced to death and hanged on Wexford Bridge along with seven other rebel leaders. His body was then decapitated, the trunk thrown into the River Slaney and the head kicked through the streets before being set on display on a spike as a warning to others…Bad times for brave men.

Some on the shores of distant lands
Their weary hearts have laid,
And by the stranger’s heedless hands
Their lonely graves were made;
But though their clay be far away,
Beyond the Atlantic foam,
In true men, like you, men,
Their spirit’s still at home.
Who Fears to Speak of ‘98, John Kells Ingram 1843

See also, Irish Rebel Music, and A Selection of songs of ’98.

And in In That Howling Infinite, see Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody

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