Deaglán de Bréadún: Remembering those who died on Vinegar Hill

The site of the Battle of Vinegar Hill near the town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, which resulted in some 1,200 deaths on the Irish side in 1798
The site of the Battle of Vinegar Hill near the town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, which resulted in some 1,200 deaths on the Irish side in 1798

THE longest day of the year, June 21, also happens to be the anniversary of an historic battle that was fought just a short distance from where I was born. The encounter took place on Vinegar Hill, overlooking the town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford.

A lot of time has elapsed since 1798, but we on this island have famously-long memories, whether it is of the confrontation at the Boyne in 1690, or Clontarf in 1014.

On a lighter note, when I visited Denmark for the first time over 20 years ago, I mentioned to some people I met that one of the few battles we Irish had ever won was our victory over the Danes (more precisely, Vikings) in the year 1014. To my surprise, nobody I met in Copenhagen had ever heard about the Battle of Clontarf!

Living close to Vinegar Hill in my childhood years, it was impossible not to become aware of the fierce confrontation that took place there in '98, which resulted in some 1,200 deaths on the Irish side and about a hundred among the victorious British forces led by General Gerard Lake, who deployed long-range artillery in the engagement.

Anthony Perry, one of the Irish leaders, was an interesting character: born into a Protestant family in County Down, he lived a comfortable and prosperous life as a farmer at Inch, in north County Wexford. Having been converted to the United Irish cause, he was arrested by Crown forces, who brutally tortured him for a 48-hour period to reveal the names of some of his revolutionary comrades.

On release, he joined the rebels at Vinegar Hill and helped lead an attack at Tubberneering, a townland 14 miles away, where significant casualties were inflicted on the British. His habit of yelling at the enemy as he led an assault earned him the nickname of "The Screeching General".

Another, better-known leader on Vinegar Hill was Father John Murphy, who features in ballads about the rebellion, most notably Boolavogue.

When the battle went the wrong way, he managed to escape from the hill but was captured within a fortnight, then publicly flogged, hanged and decapitated and, as the song says, "they burned his body upon a rack". Perry was also captured and hanged, another two weeks later.

Commemorations of the battle continue to be held and the latest one took place just a week ago today.

It is quite a walk to the top of Vinegar Hill. The last stage is a narrow lane that was used by participants in the battle and you end up on a plateau which gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

The day was bright and sunny and the event began at 6pm, featuring members of the Enniscorthy Historical Re-enactment Society dressed in the costume of the time and carrying pikes, with music from the Ballindaggin Pipe Band, also suitably attired.

Read more: Patrick Murphy: We've been celebrating the anniversary of the wrong '98

Read more: Israeli historian Guy Beiner on his book about northern Protestants' relationship with the rebellion of 1798

Councillor Barbara-Anne Murphy, who acted as MC, said: "Vinegar Hill is not simply a battle site, it's a graveyard, the final resting place for those slain here, 225 years ago today. There may not be tombstones here, but we ensure that those who died in 1798 are not forgotten."

She cited Seamus Heaney's "poignant poem" Requiem for the Croppies which refers to barley growing out of rebel graves on Vinegar Hill and, when you look around, you can't help wondering how much of the foliage originated amid the remains of those who were killed.

Recalling the men, women and children on the rebel side who perished in the battle, the chairperson of Enniscorthy Municipal Council, Aidan Browne, said: "They are buried in mass graves on the northern side of this hill." A prayer was read by Reverend Nicola Halford from the Church of Ireland.

As the event proceeded, numerous local children were playing happily in the background, no doubt unaware of the historic and indeed tragic dimension of the location where they were having so much fun. Atrocities were committed on that fateful day 225 years ago and indeed elsewhere in County Wexford by both sides in the conflict.

The legacy of 1798 had an influence on future generations. My family moved to a new location a few miles outside Enniscorthy in the late 1950s and I still have a vivid recollection of a republican funeral making its way through the village of Oylegate one November evening on the road to Wexford town.

The deceased was 27-year-old Patrick Parle, who had died along with four others, including a 29-year-old from Enniscorthy, George Keegan (descendant of a rebel hanged in 1798), in a premature landmine explosion at a cottage overlooking the Border at Edentubber, Co Louth. The IRA's Border Campaign was underway at the time and victims of the explosion became known as the Edentubber Martyrs.

Little did my boyish mind realise how many more funerals arising from the conflict over the north I would witness and indeed report on in times to come.

Happily such events are rare nowadays and that will hopefully continue to be the case. The peace process has set out a non-violent path to achieve the aims of the leaders of 1798 through the unity of "Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter", not to mention other denominations and none.