The United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798 was strongly supported in the Kildare area, and it was on the Curragh of Kildare that the worst atrocities and suppression of the rising were witnessed.
The rebels took over a number of towns in the Kildare area and having held the government forces at bay for over a week they negotiated favourable surrender terms with Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Dundas, Commander of the Midland District Militia. They were to proceed to the Gibbet Rath on the Curragh on the 29 May where they would hand up their arms and would be allowed to return to their homes unharmed.
Large numbers of rebels gathered at the Gibbet Rath to meet General Dundas. Unfortunately for them, Dundas was called away before he could accept their surrender. Instead General Sir James Duff, a ruthless English Officer, arrived with his army which included a regiment known as Roden’s Foxhunters led by Viscount Jocelyn, a leading racing man whose father the Earl of Roden was one of the original founders of the Turf Club in Kildare town. General Duff had been informed that a solider from Rommey’s Fencibles was knocked from his horse and killed on the Curragh. He was outraged and vowed to avenge the death. Reports from Kildare town on the eve of the massacre stated that several of Roden’s Foxhunters, in a riotous and drunken state, marched through the streets with fixed bayonets swearing loudly “we are the boys who will slaughter the croppies tomorrow at the Curragh”. This behavior deterred many rebels from proceeding to the Curragh thereby saving many lives.
On the fateful day, 29 May 1798 the rebels assembled at the Gibbet Rath where they handed in their weapons. They were immediately surrounded by General Duff and his forces which, besides Roden’s Light Dragoons, included the Monasterevan cavalry along with other militia. Duff ordered his army to “charge and spare no rebel”. Over 350-500 men were slaughtered as they fled in panic, many more were badly injured but feigned death until calm prevailed. It was reported that in one street alone in Kildare that night, 85 widows were counted. Within a 10 mile radius of the Curragh there was hardly a house or cottage that didn’t have a father, brother or son killed. Some of the rebels were buried in Kildangan and their names are recorded there. Others were buried in the Grey Abbey in Kildare and some in Nurney.
Photo: The statue of Saint Brigid at the Market Square of Kildare is dedicated to the memory of the victims at Gibbet Rath.