24 June 1798: The Battle of Castlecomer on this day. The picturesque County Kilkenny town of Castlecomer was burnt to the ground as the Army of the United Irishmen from Wexford clashed with the Crown Forces in the streets of the town. Major General Charles Asgil of the British Army had about 1,400 men in total to oppose the 5,000 or so under Father John Murphy. In the wake of the defeat at Vinegar Hill on 21 June it was decided by the Insurgents to leave County Wexford and advance on Castlecomer where it was hoped the militant colliers there would join them. In the event quite a few did but were of limited fighting value. Asgil himself had advanced from Kilkenny City with about 1,000 men to relieve the troops defending Castlecomer. He sent ahead some 100 men to augment the 300 or so already there. Walter Butler, a local Bigwig and the future 18th Earl of Ormonde commanded the garrison within the town.
The Insurgents advanced upon the town in two columns, one under Father Murphy himself and the other under Miles Byrne. They eventually joined forces within the town and drew up plans to assault by storm Castlecomer House that still held out. But the appearance of Asgil’s relief force on the heights outside the town meant that the Wexfordmen had to turn their attention to that quarter. The British General opened up with artillery to cover the retreat of the trapped garrison. Asgil held his ground long enough for his trapped soldiers & supporters in the town to get out and then he marched away.
Early in the morning of the 24th the rebel troops diminished by desertion to about 8,000 descended from the heights and advancing towards Castlecomer defeated a body of about two hundred and fifty men at a place called Coolbawn a mile and a half from that town which they entered with the slaughter of about fifty Loyalists. The town was set on fire – and of this conflagration each party accuses the other. The General arriving at length with his army, fired with his artillery on the streets and houses not knowing that many Loyalists were still in the place who were making a desperate defence to prevent their families and friends from falling into the enemies hands. This firing however determined the rebels to retire from the town about four O’Clock in the afternoon, which furnished an opportunity to Protestants there assembled to retreat with the general to Kilkenny, but they were obliged to leave their good s a prey to the enemy who took full possession of the place as soon as the Royal Army retreated.
Musgrave’s History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798
The forces Loyal to the Crown had a lucky escape as the Loyalists within and the troops without would have been overwhelmed had the relative numbers been known in the Insurgent camp. But an early morning fog and the smoke of the buildings alight within the town along with the firing of the guns masked the weakness of the Loyalist position. In the event Murphy decided that it was no use proceeding into areas where the prospects of revolt were so poor and after a brief foray into County Laois it was decided to return to Wexford and fight it out there.