21 June 1798: The Battle of Vinegar Hill/Cath Chnoc Fhíodh na gCaor was fought on this day. The engagement was fought near the town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford. While not the last battle of the Rising of that year it was the most decisive - for after that date there was no real hope that the Insurrection could succeed without Foreign Intervention.
After the outbreak of the Rising in May under the United Irishmen forces were organised to try and break out of County Wexford and spread the Revolt. These attempts though were repulsed and eventually the Insurgents main force fell back on Vinegar Hill for a final stand.
Here perhaps 20,000 men women and children had gathered in a huge makeshift camp to escape the depredations of the Military. They were in a blood lust against those who they considered to be ‘rebels’. Massacres and atrocities had been committed by people on both sides but the general consensus is that the Yeomanry and Militia were the worst and the hapless peasants of the Countryside the chief victims.*
A number of columns of the British Army under General Lake advanced upon Enniscorthy from various points on the compass. His intention was to completely surround the town and hill and force a capitulation. Lake divided his force into four columns to accomplish this; three columns, under Generals Dundas, Duff and Needham were to assault Vinegar Hill, while the fourth column, under General Johnson, was to storm Enniscorthy and its bridge.
The battle began at dawn with an artillery bombardment by the British. This had a devastating impact on the masses of people gathered on the hill and it can only be expected that many took any opportunity they had to flee to safety. As the day wore on the net tightened and despite two charges by the pikemen it was hopeless against such a well armed force. Eventually those that could made a break for it as General Needham was unable to close in on his assigned position in time and a gap was open to which to escape. Through it flowed a mixture of fighters and peasants who had the incentive to get out while the going was good.
But many others were either too tired, shocked or plain terrified to risk it and remained to await their fate. It was not to be a good one. When the hill fell many were put to the sword or shot out of hand. Recent archaeological scanning of the site indicates large pits on the north side of the hill that are believed to be mass graves of those who were captured on that day. Though the graves have not yet been excavated perhaps the remains of 1,000 to 2,000 unfortunates are believed to be buried under the soil of Vinegar Hill.
* I am very much afraid that any man in a brown coat who is found within several miles of the field of action, is butchered without discrimination.
Marquis Cornwallis to the Duke of Portland 28 June 1798.