“Who dares to speak of ’98,
Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate
Who hangs his head in shame”
These are the opening lines of one of the best know poems written about the 1798 Rebellion. The Rebellion took place against the back drop of revolt in other countries. The American War of Independence (1775) and the French Revolution (1789) had struck fear into monarchies throughout Europe. The possibility of a rising in Ireland with the potential of French support was just too tempting for many and prompted the founding of the United Irishmen made up of Irish Catholics and Ulster Presbyterians.
It is in this world of unrest that the story is set. Martial Law had been declared and the army and Yeomanry ‘given their head’. By late 1797 Ulster and North Leinster had been singled out. The focus then switched to Carlow and Kildare. Terror stalked the country, fear, pain and death were everywhere.
The leaders of the United Irishmen were still hoping for assistance from France but time was running out. It was now or never. The Rebellion started in Kildare on the 23 May 1798 and continued through to the 15th of September. During the 10 years of the French Revolution it is estimated that 25,000 were killed. During the five months of the 1798 Rebellion 30,000 were killed such was the ferocity of the fighting.
While the main rebellion ended by September 1798 some of the rebels refused to surrender and continued to take the fight to the enemy. One of these was Michael Dwyer.
Dwyer, a Wicklow man, was born and reared in the town land of Camera at the head of the Glen of Imaal in West Wicklow. He was born in 1772 so he was only 26 years old when the rebellion started. A man in the prime of his life.
The Glen of Imaal was owned by several prominent Ascendency families of whom the Howards were the largest. The young Dwyer would have grown up in this environment. Educated in a hedge school he would have experienced the struggles of his father as a tenant farmer eking out a living on a small holding of very marginal land within the Glen.
The people from Imaal are different from other people. They are a race apart. The mountains of Co.Wicklow are a rugged place and the Glen of Imaal perhaps the most rugged.
We all have a ‘native place’. It is that small part of the world we usually call home where we can navigate from place to place without even thinking. A place where were know and are known. A place where we are most comfortable. A place we can pull on with the same comfort of an old well-worn pair of shoes.
The Glen of Imaal was Michael Dwyer’s native place. This is where he retreated to after the main action of the 1798 rebellion had failed. He knew he would find support and assistance here among his clansmen and among the extended glen’s people. It is from here and the Wicklow Mountains that he and his men agreed to continue the Rebellion.
It was here in the Glen that one of the most famous escapades of Dwyer’s life took place. The winter of 1999 was a harsh one. On the 15th February 1799 Dwyer and his men took shelter from heavy snowfall in the townland of Derrynamuck – The Oak Wood of the Pigs located on the south-eastern side of the Glen. Dwyer was accompanied by 11 comrades and they put up in a clachan of three cottages – Patrick Hoxey’s, The Toole’s
Dwyer billeted two of his men with Hoxey, six with the Toole’s while himself and three others stayed with Miley Connel at the third of the cottages, the one furthest up the hill.
An informer, probably Patrick Lynch of Derrynamuck conveyed news that Dwyer was in the Glen to the Glengarry Highlanders in their garrison at nearby Hackectstown. Capt. Roderick McDonald quickly left for Derrynamuck with his Highland troops. Unfortunately on this occasion Dwyer’s look out system failed. Without a shot being fired the first house, Hoxey’s was surrounded and both Dwyer’s men were taken. Similarly the six men in Toole’s surrendered. Now all that remained was the big prize Michael Dwyer himself and his companions in Miley Connell’s house. With Dwyer there was Sam McAlister an Antrim man, Pat Costello and John Savage.
Dwyer insisted that Miley Connell and his family be allowed to leave the cottage before he would discuss anything with Capt. McDonald. He told McDonald that “These people did not invite us here, we forced ourselves upon them”. It was agreed and O’Connell and his family were given safe passage.
As soon as they were clear of the area Dwyer and his comrades opened fire on the complacent Highlanders killing one Corporal and mortally wounding another soldier. It was clear that surrender was out of the question. A fierce fire fight ensued with the thatch roof of the cottage soon being alight. However because of the heavy snowfall the thatch was wet and the roof burned but slowly at first. However the cottage did begin to fill with smoke. Pat Costello became increasingly agitated and began to dig a hole under the table to get away from the fire. He played no useful part in the defence of the cottage
Before long the fire of over one hundred muskets began to take their toll. John Savage was first to be killed and shortly after the deranged Costello. Now there were only two men in the cottage. The fire in the roof was beginning to catch firm hold and apart from the acrid smoke the falling embers of burning straw made it ever more dangerous and difficult for Dwyer and McAllister to reload their weapons.
The turning point in the exchange came when Sam McAllister took a musket ball in the arm shattering the bone rendering him useless for further fighting. This was when McAllister made his heroic gesture. He told Dwyer that he would draw the fire of the single shot muskets which might just give Dwyer the chance to escape. It was his only hope. The two friends embraced and McAllister rushed from the building shouting and brandishing his musket.
The startled Highlanders all fired their weapons in one terrific volley that killed McAllister instantly. In the confusion few noticed the crouching figure of Michael Dwyer dash out of the burning cottage and down a laneway leading to a nearby field. He was barefoot and ‘naked with the exception of a drawers and flannel inside waistcoat’. As he ran he slipped and stumbled on some ice near the cottage. This saved his life because as he fell a fresh volley of shots rang out from the reloaded muskets.
Capt. Roderick McDonald gave chase and it is perhaps because of Capt. McDonald that Dwyer made good his escape. McDonald was in the line of fire and his men were afraid to shot at Dwyer for fear of hitting him. However one shot did graze Dwyer’s arm as he ran helter skelter down the slope and away from Derrynamuck.
The troops did pursue him but while Dwyer managed to cross the swollen Little Slaney River it proved too much of a barrier for the Highlanders in their full marching kit. Dwyer first went to the home of his granduncle Thady Dwyer of Seskin. He obtained a horse and rode to the less obvious refuge of John Cullen at Knockgorragh. According to Cullen he was in a pitiful state when he reached the house. His feet were lacerated and he was suffering from hypothermia. It took him several months to recover in Cullen’s so weak was he from his escape.
Dwyer continued his fight until 1803 when he finally realised that he could no longer evade capture with the ever increasing numbers of soldiers stalking the hills. However he did not want to surrender unconditionally. He made overtures through his wife to Lord William Hume of Humewood. The military commander wanted Dwyer to surrender “upon the mercy of the Government” – unconditionally. While Hume said the surrender would have to be unconditional, he gave some assurances to Mary Dwyer. The most important one was that they would both be given free passage to America. Capt. Michael Dwyer walked through the gates of Humewood on the 14th December 1803 to meet William Hoare Hume.
Hume was unable to deliver his promise of Dwyer going to America as a freeman. Instead he was given a choice of banishing himself for life to New South Wales in Australia or to face trial for treason. Dwyer was allowed take his wife with him but his four children were left in Ireland under the care of Dwyer’s parents.
The colony that Michael and Mary Dwyer were sent to was commanded by one William Bligh, the same Capt. Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame! Irony of ironies Dwyer went on to be appointed a Constable and bought a tavern called the ‘Harrow Inn’. This latter may not have been a good move as Dwyer, a man known for his fondness of liquor became his best customer. He eventually lost the Inn, ended up in debtor’s prison and died of dysentery on 23rd August 1825. He was 53 years of age.