General Humbert and the United Irishmen
General Humbert leads a force of French and Irish through Fenagh on Friday September 7th 1798 hotly pursued by 30,000 British and Government forces. What were the circumstances which led Humbert to Fenagh? Where was his army intending to go? What effect had his March and Battles have on the native Irish and on Fenagh? What was the attitude of Government forces?
In order to answer these questions we take a brief look at the United Irishmen – their suppression by Crown Forces – the arrival of Humbert and his march which took him through Fenagh and to conclusion at Ballinamuck.
1798 – United Irishmen – Humbert lands at Killala – his march through Leitrim and Fenagh – ends in Ballinamuck
Towards the end of the 18th century there were many attempts made in Ireland to organize a rebellion and gain national Independence. In 1791 an organization known as the United Irishmen was formed. Its aim was to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter and form a revolution to break the link with England. They were lead by the Charismatic Wolfe Tone, a barrister, the son of a protestant coach maker. If well organized and with military support from France the United Irishmen could have been successful but Dublin Castle knew their movements. They also knew they had to act quickly as they estimated the United Irishmen could mobilize 278,896 armed men. Outnumbering Government forces by more then 5 to 1. They had informants who infiltrated the leadership and quickly the bulk of the leadership were arrested. One top ranking informant was given a lump sum of �5,000 and a life pension of �1,000 to appear as a witness in the treason trial of Leinster Executive of United Irishman.
The British now had arrested the bulk of the leadership of the conspiracy. Now they concentrated on disarming the rank and file of the movement. Abercromby commander in chief in Ireland planned to use collective punishment troops would be sent to live at “FREE QUARTERS” in the disturbed areas with powers to requisition food, stock fodder and use whatever terror tactics thought necessary to gain information and disarm the rank of the United Irishmen. Troops plundered indiscriminately and before long the arms began to come in.
Abercromby was now replaced by General Lake as commander in chief. Lake believed in more shock tactics and prompt punishments. It seems the landed gentry did not approve of Abercromby’s tactics of “FREE QUARTERS” as they discovered that their own property could be damaged by this approach. All they wanted was prompt punishment of the disturbers.
Wooden triangular scaffolding appeared in the streets of many towns. They were designed for securing a person while he was flogged with a cat-o-nine tails. It was used as a form of torture. There were right handed and left handed floggers who applied the whip on to the bareback of its victim simultaneously. When they got tired they would be replaced by fresh floggers. Needless to say many would die as a result of this brutality. Half hanging was another form of torture. The victim was hung on a special makeshift traveling gallows, when close to death he would be let down, revived questioned for information if not forthcoming the procedure was repeated many times. Usually this process ended in the victim left hanging until he died.
Pitch Capping another infamous torture was the pitch capping. The pitch cap took the shape of a conical cap. It was made of the nearest materials to hand – hard brown paper, cloth etc. Into this cone was poured boiling pitch and the upturned cone was pressed down on the victims head. The boiling liquid ran down the face and into the eyes and mouth.
The victim was on occasion held and when the pitch had cooled the militia wrenched the pitch cap off, it was accompanied by the hair and most of the scalp. Suspects whose hair was long had their hair cut by shears, with sometimes ears frequently cut off in the operation.
In some parts of the country in Ulster and Leinster risings did take place but were quickly put down. They would have some success in Wexford under the leadership of Father John Murphy of Boolavogue. They had some initial success but his soldiers known as Croppies were poorly armed with mostly pikes. The British under the command of General Lake finally suppressed the rising. At Enniscorthey he took no prisoners. He sought and killed every wounded man in field, street roadway and ditch. His troops killed everything that resembled a countryman in their follow up operations. The courthouse which had been turned into a temporary hospital filled with eighty wounded insurgents, was burned to the ground with all its patients. Their corpses still hissed in the embers the following day. By July of 1798 the rising in Ireland was virtually at an end. General Lake his militia and Yeomen (they protected the landed gentry) had by their ruthless tactics quelled any hope of much further resistance. Up until now Connacht had virtually escaped from the pillage and suffering and rape of General Lake. The arrival of General Humbert from France with a force of over 1,000 men and military equipment brought an unwelcome change.
General Humbert Lands at Killala on the 22nd August 1798
The arrival of General Humbert was a disaster. It was too late. If he had landed at Wexford earlier in the year where there was more support the Irish would have a had a better chance. It was doomed for failure but despite this many Irish joined him on his march from Killala Co. Mayo to the inevitable massacre at Ballinamuck Co. Longford.
Humbert’s men landed in Killala under the disguise of an English flag. Indeed little notice was taken of them. They met no resistance and easily took the town. The French were amazed and some of them disgusted at the impoverished state of the Irish poor. Captain Jobit one of the French officers wrote an account of what he saw and how he felt.
“We were astonished by the extreme poverty which appeared everywhere before our eyes. Never has any country presented such an unhappy perspective, the women and children are practically naked and have as their only shelter a small bad cottage which barely covers them from the ravages of the season. Moreover they share this primitive habitation with everything from the farmyard. Their daily food is potatoes and sour milk, practically never bread and rarely meat”.
He contrasts this extreme poverty with the easy life lived by the Protestants who possessed wealth and lived in grandeur.
Captain Jobit was not impressed with the religious sentiment of the Irish
“When we pass in front of their disgusting hovels where we would never enter except to glance at as one would glance at a repugnant object, they throw themselves in front of us and recite long prayers for our success. All men and women wear suspended around their necks, large dirty, ugly scapulars and rosary beads”.
In France during the period 1792-1794 there was a reign o great terror when over 40,000 Frenchmen were executed just holding fast to the Catholic Faith. The blood lust of the years staggers the imagination even in the retelling, and the campaign against the Church was as diabolical as it was cruel. These French soldiers now in Ireland would have privy to what happened and were not impressed with the Irish religious display of rosary beads and scapulars. Remember at this time the Penal laws were in operation and all Catholic religious display was forbidden. Given what the French had done in their own country one wonders if they had succeeded in Ireland would the same intolerance against the Catholic Church have been perpetrated here, a church already oppressed by the Penal Laws.
August 24th 1798 – Humbert takes Ballina. Leaves small garrison in charge and returns to Killala.
August 27th 1798 – After a 15 mile march through the previous night arrives in Castlebar. Defeats a larger army headed by the notorious General Lake. Some of Lake’s retreating army committed atrocities on the inhabitants. Commander in chief General Cornwallis and his troops travel down the grand canal and reached Kilbeggan Co. Westmeath.
August 31st 1798 – Humbert sets up the republic of Connaught and appoints. John Moore as its President Humbert remains at Castlebar. Buoyed by the great victory groups of Irish rebels join him. A James McDonnell from Castlebar was appointed Colonel. George Blake from Galway was appointed General. Humbert has two rebels shot for breach of discipline.
September 4th 1798 – Cornwallis and Lake with 25,000 troops were at Hollymount 12 miles from Castlebar. Lake especially was keen to attack and gain revenge for his earlier humiliating defeat.
Humbert – Moved his troops early in the morning of the 4th September. Humbert had left Castlebar under the cover of darkness and moving very quickly he was a days march ahead of Government forces but he was better equipped for flight than fight. They had left behind a considerable amount of ammunition and guns. He had a force of about 850 French and 1,000 Irish.
Cornwallis divides his forces. General Lake was ordered to pursue Humbert and harass his rear. Cornwallis decided to lead the larger force onto Carrick-on-Shannon.
September 5th Humbert Reaches Tubbercurry Humbert army joined by a considerable number of Irish under the leadership of James O’Dowd. Yeomen tried to shoot at them by sniper fire but French succeed in killing two of Captain O’Hara Coolavin Yeomanry.
Midday 5th September Humbert reaches Collooney now have traveled 45 miles without rest since leaving Castlebar. Colonel Charles Vereker in charge of garrison at Sligo advances to meet the French troops at Collooney.
3 p.m. 5th September Humbert’s forces taken by surprise and only for the brave action of Bartholomew Teeling in killing one of the Gunners which turned the fray in favour of Humbert. The English retreated but Humbert had suffered casualties.
10pm 5th September Humbert leaves Collooney and marched into the night towards Dromahaire.
5:30am 6th September Lake’s troops have reached Collooney only 71/2 hours behind Humbert.
Thursday morning 6th September 1798 Humbert leads his troops through Ballintogher and across the Sligo border and into Leitrim. If only he had known that Sligo was practically left unguarded he could have taken the town and fled North. They headed on to Dromahaire where they had a short rest and drank some wine in Villiers castle.
About Mid-day travel through Drumlease and cross the river Bonet and discarded the last of their artillery pieces they had captured into the river.
At Ardvarney wounded French soldier from battle at Collooney dies and is buried at Ardarney. Come to Manorhamilton – Drumkeerin road. Send an advance guard a short distance towards Manorhamilton. This was to give the impression to the British Forces that they were going North. Humbert instead brought his main body of men towards Drumkeerin.
Cornwallis reaches Frenchpark in Roscommon and has over 25,000 men under his command.
General Lake’s army who are resting in Collooney sends an advance guard led by Colonel Robert Crawford to pursue and Harry Humbert’s rearguard. They come on sight of Humbert on his advance to Drumkeerin. They successfully harassed Humbert’s men from the rear all the way to Ballinamuck. Some were caught sleeping in fields, exhausted by the long march. No mercy was shown, and they were hung from the nearest tree.
7pm Humbert camped on the high ground in front of Drumkeerin village. The local people brought them milk meat and potatoes, they were very impressed with the hospitality of the people of Drumkeerin and all along the route to Ballinamuck Humbert could have surrendered at Drumkeerin but refused a request a to do so from Colonel Crawford. Four French soldiers who had died from wounds in skirmishes with Crawford’s advance guard were buried at Drumkeerin.
General Lakes army now in Ballintogher, only a few hours behind Humbert.
Thursday night Humbert leaves Drumkeerin and passes through Tarmon, he knew if he did not cross the river Shannon at Ballintra near Drumshanbo. He would be easily cornered by the river Shannon, Lough Allen and Lake coming up on his rear and Cornwallis could be in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Morning Friday September 7th reach Ballintra Bridge Humbert forces succeeding in routing 100 troops who guarded the bridge. Humbert’s desperately tried to destroy the bridge to slow down General Lakes army but Crawford’s men were sniping from the other side of the river as a result the bridge remained passable for Lake’s forces.
Mid-day Friday Humbert’s forces rest in Drumshanbo. It is thought where lairds had their Jam factory. They repulsed attack by their pursuers.
Cornwallis’s large army was now thought to be at Carrick-on-Shannon dangerously close with Lakes army coming up behind.
Humbert quickly moved his army up the hilly road leading from Drumshanbo – across Dristernan hill – to Drumbollogue cross and through difficult terrain at roscarbin along Lough Scur and into Keshcarrigan. It is thought a skirmish took place near Lough Scur with Crawford’s pursuing force and a number of this forces killed and buried near the Lake. William Brady a United Irishman and local leader joined Humbert at Kesh. He rode a horse armed with a pistol. Reach Castlefore Humbert continued his march from Kesh to Castlefore – a clear indication that the now road linking Kesh with Gorvagh was not in existence.
At Castlefore it is told that exhausted French soldiers took cover and hid there for awhile before rejoining.
Battle at Cloodrumin-mor from Castlefore Humbert’s forces passed through townlands of Kilmacsherwel, Leamonish and at some point along this route it is thought most likely at Cloodrumin close to the crossroads at Derrinkip the British forces led by Crawford opened sharp fire on Humbert’s rearguard. Humbert’s forces at once halted and turning suddenly faced its pursuers a lot engagement took place and ended with Crawford and his forces retreating at full gallop after losing a considerable number of his men. Following this engagement Crawford followed at a safe distance and did not engage with Humbert’s forces until Lake joined up with them at Ballinamuck.
Following this major battle Humbert was now conscious that Lake’s forces were now close and he discussed the idea of waiting somewhere on the high ground of Cloodrumin-Lemonish where his forces would have a good view of the advancing vanguard of Lake’s army coming from Castlefore. It would have been an ideal vantage point for an ambush as Lake’s forces would have difficulty in attacking. Humbert could have places his gunners on the hills overlooking the Castlefore to Derrinkip road. Lake’s forces would have great difficulty getting through and would have been very much exposed. If Humbert had enough Gunner’s and equipment he knew he could have decimated Lake’s forces as they passed under him, but with Crawford’s forces close by the element of surprise would be lost even if Humbert’s forces managed to ambush Lake’s forces. He then would have to deal with Cornwallis who was in Carrick-on-Shannon with an army of over 25,000 men. It would not have taken Lake too long to send his messengers to Cornwallis as at Castlefore is only about 15 miles away. Humbert decided it was better to try to get to Granard where he thought he would be joined by thousands of United Irishmen from the midlands.
Battle of Granard
Humbert was not to know that over 2,000 United Irishmen had been defeated at the Battle of Granard which took place as Humbert forces now considered their next move. The United Irishmen armed with pikes were no match for heavily armed Yeomanry and British forces and at Granard suffered heavy casualties. When the Battle of Granard was over the English set about teaching a horrific lesson to all croppies. Countless numbers were taken to the site of the present church at Granard. There they commencing hanging croppies. One of the hangmen from Wicklow, called “The Walking Gallows”. With a rope around the victims neck, he threw him over his shoulder and jumped around until the victim was dead. When they got tired of the sordid business of hanging, the prisoners who were not hanged were tied up and left lying on the street of Granard overnight. In the morning a herd of cattle was driven over them and anyone not killed by the cattle was shot.
In the days that followed an orgy of burnings floggings and shootings began. These were terror tactics to deter anyone who might have thought of joining up with Humbert’s forces.
Back with Humbert’s forces: Humbert at Cloodrumin split his forces. This a ploy he tried before at Manorhamilton. He wanted to keep Blake’s forces confused of his intentions.
One division from Cloodrumin passed through Drumkirwan. Michael McCartin of Cloodrumin Beg who died in 1973 aged 85. He would have been born in 1888 always related that a contingent of French forces passed this way. They crossed the steep hill of Clai Bui through Aughaboneil around Laragh Lake through aroddy. Emerging on the summit of what today is known as Fenaghville hill in the townland of Glostermin, down the sharp decline into the townland of Shruhan. Opposite the old Fenaghville site they turned left into Sallyfield. They then turned towards Drumroosk South. At Drumroosk they turned left towards Cornagher where they probably met up with another division of Humbert’s forces.
2nd Division: There is some confusion to the direction of this force. One theory suggests they traveled through the townlands of Derrinkip, Drumany, Drumroosk North turning right on the tram road (Kiltubrid-Ballinamore road) through Ballyduff and entering the village of Fenagh from the Ballinamore direction. The easier route would have been to continue on to Fenagh through Drumlaheen past St. Mary’s church Foxfield and enter Fenagh through the townland of Fenagh Beg.
Yeomanry attack at Fenagh: Tradition tells us that Humbert was attacked by a section of Ballinamore Yeomanry as they entered Fenagh. They were repulsed and there are no records of casualties. At Fenagh from whichever direction they came we know they turned into Knockmullan going between Flynn’s pub and Muireadach Walsh’s house past the old forge of Johnny Hetheringtons. There they turned right into Drumharkin. Many people on seeing the sight of such forces fled they would not have known that they were friendly forces. They would have heard of the terror tactics explained in previous chapters i.e. hangings, pitch capping etc. and if they knew and co-operated with Humbert’s forces retaliation would be reattributed by the advancing infamous General Lake. No doubt Lakes terror tactics were well explained by the local Yeomanry it is thought a Morley Wrynn joined up with Humbert forces at Drumharkin – could be related to Pat Joe Wrynn. ******( will need to check this out and indeed if many locals joined Humbert – would have been very brave or had reckless disregard for their own lives)*******
At this stage many locals would have realized it was pointless joining up – word would have filtered back of the atrocities at Granard – Lake was probably just hours behind – with Cornwallis’s large force in Carrick-on Shannon.
Humbert continued along what is locally called the old French road and met up with the rest of his forces. Humbert’s army were now faced with the daunting task, the negotiation of the very steep graphy hill. It is thought they were attacked by local Yeomanry of Carrigallen. But they were repulsed with two of them who were hiding behind a clamp of turf in Cornulla bog shot dead.
Friday evening 7th September 1798 reach Cloone
It was a weary and tired group of forces who reached Cloone. Once in the village, Humbert ordered a complete rest of two hours. However, these instructions were not followed and sentries allowed the men to rest for 4 hours. A French General Sarrazin would later on hint that Humbert may have been bribed to stay at Cloone and that he received gold as the price of surrender. He goes on to say “We arrived very late at Cloone, a little village on a low hill. An Irish chief named Robert came to us there, who said that he was sent by the patriots of Dublin. I had ordered the departure for midnight so that we might begin our march for Granard to my great surprise, Humbert came and told me that our departure must not take place till 5 in the morning because the troops were very tired. Sarrazin then remarked that a delay would imperil our safety by furnishing Cornwallis with the opportunity of overtaking us. Humbert who was the commander in Chief disagreed “My orders are that our departure will not take place until daybreak.” The stranger Robert agreed with Humbert declaring that the roads were very bad for a night march. There is speculation that the stranger Robert was a spy sent by Cornwallis to delay Humbert and it would not be beyond reason that a lucrative bribe was offered by the British.
Another version of a story told why Humbert waited until morning comes from another French Officer General Fontaine. He states they arrived in Cloone with great difficulty in bringing their canon, As they had to be carried along the marshy and difficult road (a clear reference to Graphy hill). He says the British now had stopped harassing them as they were now waiting the arrival of reinforcements. He goes on to say that Humbert received a deputation from some of the local United Irishmen who promised him 10,000 recruits if he could manage to wait till the following day.
Friday 10pm Cornwallis leaves Carrick with his troops for Mohill. Is now confident that all will soon be over. Has obtained information that Humbert is staying the night in Cloone. Sends orders to General Lake to proceed to Cloone. Lake is now somewhere close to Keshcarrigan and gets orders to march through the night.
At Cloone Humbert’s men ate and rested. Tradition had it that they cooked meat using the graveyards gates as a grill. It is also said that during their stay in Cloone the chains that used to haul the artillery pieces and ammunition went missing. Humbert’s march was dogged by lack of adequate horses and harness to haul their provisions over bog roads. The loss of the chains at Cloone was a significant factor in the their quick defeat at Ballinamuck.
Saturday morning 8th of September: It was a sunny and warm morning as Humbert’s forces left Cloone. The French and Irish took the road towards Ballinamuck leaving Keeldra lake going into Catton and Fearglass in the parish of Gortletteragh.
Cornwallis army now in Mohill. Knew that Humbert was heading for Ballinamuck and Granard. Directed his troops to go ahead of Humbert and cut off any chance of advancing – could have directed them to Ballinalee in Longford.
General Lake who had marched following the route of Humbert through Kesh, Fenagh was now in Cloone just as Cornwallis was in Mohill. It is thought their combined force was 35,000.
Humbert’s forces: it was now only a matter of time before Humbert’s forces were caught and at Ballinamuck Lakes forces caught up with them Humbert’s forces something short of 2,000.
Battle of Ballinamuck
The battle of Ballinamuck took place on a warm Saturday morning 8th September 1798. Humbert and his forces were completely outnumbered and only put up a token resistance. The French soon surrendered and were taken prisoners of war but no quarter was given to the Irish with lakes charging into the rebels killing all they could. One of his Militia wrote “We ran for four miles before we could get into action; the men forgot all their troubles and fought like furies. We pursued the rebels through the bog – the country was covered for miles round with their slain.”
12 noon: over 500 Irish dead. It is thought that Government forces had about 15 casualties. Many rebels who were taken prisoners were hanged. Others were sent under escort to prisons in Cavan, Granard, Longford and Carrick-on-Shannon.
Sunday 9th September 1798: many curious people visited the battle-site at Ballinamuck on Sunday the day after the battle. Among them was a man from Killeshandra who described what he saw. “There lay dead about five hundred. I went with many others to see them. How awful! To see that healthy mountain covered with dead bodies, resembling at a distance flocks of sheep – for numbers were naked and swelled with the weather”.
Battle of Ballinamuck – In the days and weeks following the battle Yeomanry corps from the counties of Leitrim, Longford, and Cavan scoured the country looking for rebels who had escaped the battlefield.
Man hanged at Fenagh: Tradition handed down tells us that a fleeing rebel was caught at Fenagh and hung from a tree outside the late Jimmy Joe McKiernan’s (local Sculptor) House. He could have been from Cavan as there were reports that many rebels came from Belturbet to join up with Humbert.
William Brady from Keshcarrigan who was with Humbert was caught helping some fellow rebels to escape across a bog some miles from Ballinamuck. He was brought to Cavan tried and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, afterwards his head to be severed from his body and placed on the most conspicuous part of Cavan town.
Death lottery at Carrick-on-Shannon: The prisoners brought to Carrick-on-Shannon were not court martialled; some of them were quickly hanged a field officer described what happened.
“After the action at Ballinamuck the regiment marched to Carrick-on-Shannon where in the courthouse there were collected a couple hundred rebels an order arrived from Cornwallis directing a certain number of them to be hanged without further ceremony – and a number of bits of paper were rolled up with the word “Death” being written on the number ordered; and with those in a hat the adjutant captain Kay entered the courthouse and the drawing began. As fast as a wretch drew the fatal ticket, he was handed out and hanged at the door. I am not sure of the exact number thus dealt with, but seventeen were actually hanged. It was a dreadful duty to devolve upon any regiment”.
Another account has “19 hanged with remaining prisoners to another regiment to follow our example”. At this time it is thought 2 places of execution were existence in Carrick-on-Shannon.
1. At the Old Courthouse i.e. beside Co. council offices.
2. Summerhill – Beside E.S.B. headquarters. Indeed known as Gallows Hill until changed to the more Fashionable Summerhill title.
Other prisoners were exported to as slaves to the colonies. Others to Tasmania, Australia. The French were well treated as prisoners of war and all returned to France. An exchange of British prisoners held in France ensured their safe return.
The executions, punishments and reprisals went on for weeks after the battle of Ballinamuck. During the first two weeks of September 1798 more soldiers and bigger armies than ever the local inhabitants had seen before marauded across Leitrim and the Fenagh countryside and “free quarters” was fully exploited. The harvest of oats and potatoes were in many places destroyed and the domestic fowl and animals were killed by troops requisitioning food for themselves and their horses.
Adelia M. West wrote in her memoirs “My mother told me that the autumn of 98 was the finest she ever saw, it was like Summer through November, and on Christmas she cut a large bunch of roses in the garden at Annadale (Kiltubrid) but though flowers were unusually plentiful food was scarce�. And the poor misguided, ignorant people were in many place starving.
The people were starving and their hopes were destroyed. The French invasion had shattered their hopes of liberation and its consequences had only increased their poverty and oppression.
Life in Fenagh during the years 1798 – 1799 must have been a test of great endurance and survival. Staying and keeping your family alive would be the priority. There would be no more talk of rebellion for some time to come.
More detailed information on this period of our history can be got from the following;
A Flame Now Quenched Rebels and Frenchmen in Leitrim
By Father Liam Kelly
Leitrim and the Croppies 1776 -1804
By Gerard McAtasney
Leitrim and Longford 1798 “Undaunted by Gibbet and Yeos”
By Des Guckian
The Year of Liberty The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798
By Thomas Pakenham
The last Invasion of Ireland
By Richard Hayes
Information supplied by local people now deceased to Folklore Dept. in Ballinamore library.