#OTD in 1798 – United Irishmen Rebellion: Battle of Arklow and Battle of Saintfield.

A force of United Irishmen from Wexford, estimated at 10,000 strong, launched an assault into Co Wicklow, on the British-held town of Arklow, in an attempt to spread the rebellion into Wicklow and to threaten the capital of Dublin. The rebel army that formed for attack on the afternoon of 9 June was a combined force of Wexford and Wicklow rebels led by Billy Byrne, Anthony Perry, Conor McEvoy, Edward Fitzgerald and Fr. Michael Murphy. The British in Arklow consisted of ~1000 militia from Amtrim and Cavan and 150 regular cavalry supported by 250 Yeomanry, they were joined by 315 Durham Fencibles arriving an hour before the rebels.

The main assault was quickly launched but at all entry points the Irish were thrown back by the musket fire of the well-trained and disciplined militia and volunteers, and Cannister shot from the 3 pounder battalion gun brought by the fensibles. An attempt by the British to turn the Irish failure into a rout was defeated when pikemen and sharpshooters drove a cavalry charge back across the Avoca River, but an attempt to force a way into the town through the outlying fishing port was bloodily repulsed. The defeat at Arklow marked the third failure to extend the fight for Irish independence beyond the borders of Co Wexford following the other bloody repulses at New Ross and Bunclody. The Irish strategy now changed to a policy of static defence against the encroaching British armies.

The Battle of Saintfield was a short but bloody clash in Co Down. A rebel force, over a thousand strong, converged on a large house owned by the McKee family. The McKees were a family of loyalists, who were unpopular in the region: one year before, they had provided information to the authorities leading to the arrest of a radical Presbyterian minister by the name of Birch and some members of his congregation. The McKees knew that they were unpopular and were thus armed to the teeth. As the house was surrounded, shots were fired from the fortified house, hitting some of the attackers. Gunfire held the insurgents back for a short while, until one of them, a fiddler by the name of Orr, managed to sneak around the back of the house with a ladder, and thence set the roof alight. The house was destroyed, and all eight members of the family inside killed. News of this quickly reached the British forces in the area, and a 300 strong force under Colonel Granville Staplyton, consisting of Newtownards Yeomanry cavalry and 270 York Fencibles, as well as two light cannon, marched to the region.

The rebels, however, had anticipated the move and were waiting in ambush. The battle of Saintfield was largely regarded as a victory of the United Irish rebels. Long after, in the 1950s, two skeletons and a sword and bayonet of the York fencibles were found in the area. The rebellion in Down would prove short-lived, however, only a few days later the rebel army was slaughtered at the Battle of Ballynahinch.

Photo: United Irishmen plaque Saintfield, Co Down

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