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The Rising (& Falling) of Vinegar Hill

Of the many rebel groups that took hold in the late 18th century, the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791, was most ahead of its time. Led by Wolfe Tone, it welcomed Catholics, Protestants, and dissenters alike in its effort to free Ireland from England's yoke. The British were deeply suspicious of the group's motives, not least because Tone was not shy about involving the French, England's enemy. In fact, in 1796, the French government sent 14,000 soldiers to join a United Irishmen uprising, but poor weather forced the boats back.

In 1798, the group tried again. Battles were fought in Kildare, Carlow, Wicklow, and Meath, and quickly won by English forces. In Wexford, though, feelings were very high, and the rebels were victorious. A detachment of 100 English-led soldiers was cut down at Oulart, and the city of Wexford burned. Wexford became the center of the battle in part because of the behavior of English-led forces. Throughout that spring there had been fury in Wexford because of torture of residents, and house burnings conducted by the loyalist North Cork Militia. Once the rebellion began, Wexford residents heard of summary executions of suspected United Irishmen in Wicklow and at the edge of Wexford. In the end, they knew they were fighting for their lives.

On May 29, led by Father John Murphy, a priest who reluctantly agreed to take over the leadership of the group, insurgents headed to Wexford Town. The group, armed with muskets and pikes, gathered size as it moved, and by the time it reached the town it had 15,000 fighters. The town fell quickly. Exhilarated, the group attempted to take the entire county, but its efforts to take other towns failed in places like Arklow and New Ross.

The English were shocked by the rebels' success at Wexford Town, but were soon emboldened by their subsequent failures, and they marched out to take them on. The troops arrived at the rebel encampment, on Vinegar Hill at the edge of Enniscorthy, on June 21. The rebels knew they were coming, and they prepared to take them on. Battle began at dawn, and lasted less than 2 hours. The rebels were mercilessly shelled, and their poor weapons were no match for the English artillery. More than 500 died in the battle, but that was nothing compared to what happened next.

Weeks of murder and atrocities followed, as loyalist troops raped and pillaged ruthlessly, killing an estimated 25,000 men, women, and children. Protestant leaders of the rebellion were beheaded, and their heads mounted on spikes outside the courthouse in Wexford Town. Father Murphy was stripped, flogged, hanged, and beheaded. His corpse was burned in a barrel. His head was spiked outside the local Catholic church, and Catholics in town were forced to open their windows so that they could smell his body burn.

The horrific massacre became a rallying cry for all subsequent Irish rebellions, and Wexford is forever associated with sacrifice and violence.

Vinegar Hill is at the east end of Enniscorthy, and although there's little there to memorialize the rebellion, it's a peaceful place with beautiful views. You reach it by crossing the bridge in town, and taking the first right after Treacy's Hotel, then following the signs. There's also an excellent hour-long walking tour that includes the 1798 history, with lots of fascinating details. Contact Castle Hill Crafts (tel. 054/36800) for details.

Local Hero: JFK, Great-Grandson of New Ross

U.S. President John F. Kennedy was born in America, but Patrick Kennedy (1823–58), his great-grandfather, was a son of Ireland, raised in the small waterfront city of New Ross in County Wexford. That connection to the Kennedy family history draws thousands of visitors a year.

New Ross is a modest-sized working city, with rows of stone buildings leading down to a busy port that’s usually dotted with fishing boats. It was from this port that Patrick Kennedy sailed to England in 1848. After working for a time in Britain, in 1849 he boarded a packet ship in Liverpool, the Washington Irving, and travelled to the U.S. to begin a new life.

The house near New Ross where he lived until 1848 has been converted into a museum dedicated to the Kennedy family’s Irish history. The Kennedy Homestead (www.kennedyhomestead.ie; 051/388264) in the tiny village of Dunganstown, 8km (5 miles) south of New Ross, is a humble, one-story traditional stone building. John F. Kennedy himself visited the homestead in June 1963, meeting his cousins during what he reportedly called “the happiest four days of my life.” The story of that visit is one of the exhibits at the modern visitors’ center on the grounds, where you can see also rare memorabilia (some acquired through the Kennedy Library archival collection in Boston), and learn what the family’s life was like in the dangerous world of 19th-century Ireland, as well as the circumstances that led to Patrick Kennedy’s decision to emigrate. It’s open daily, 9:30am to 5:30pm (last admission 5pm); entry costs €8 adults, €7 seniors, €6 students, and €22 families.

Another nearby JFK site of interest is the JFK Memorial Park and Arboretum (www.heritageireland.ie; 051/388171), a beautiful lakeside garden and wildlife haven dedicated to the late President. It’s purely a memorial—there’s no strong connection between the family and the park—but it’s a popular stop for those visiting the area. It’s signposted from R733, about 12km (7 1/2 miles) south of New Ross. Opening times are: May to August, daily 10am to 8pm; April and September, daily 10am to 6:30pm; and October to March, daily 10am to 5pm. Entry costs €4 adults, €3 seniors, €2 students and children, and €10 families.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.