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  • Writer's pictureBridget Walsh

The Irish Rebellion of 1848. #amresearching #irishhistory

I’ve spent this week researching the failed rebellion in Ireland in July 1848. I used Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book, ‘The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845 -1849’ as my main reference. Mrs Woodham-Smith spent years researching and writing the history of the Irish Famine. It has given me a lot of good information to use in my historical novel trilogy about the Famine.

Young Ireland Leaders and the British Empire

In Chapter 16, Woodham-Smith traces the steps of the Young Irelander leaders as they tried to raise a citizen army, much like France had done.

Unfortunately, Dublin, Cork and Waterford and other major towns had been locked down by the British government. Army and navy reinforcements were sent in following persistent rumours of, and calls for, an armed rebellion.

The Young Ireland leaders, including Thomas Meagher and William Smith-O’Brien, seemed to have no clear understanding of what was needed for a citizen army to rise up against a powerful colonial government. For example, arms and provisions and training were needed if a rebellion was to succeed against the powerful British Empire.

Tipperary was starving.

The volunteers, according to Mrs Woodham-Smith, had joined up in the hope of getting fed. ‘In Mullinahone . . . it was estimated that six thousand men had gathered.’ (p353). Smith-O’Brien told them they would have to provide their own provisions and the crowd reduced to five hundred, overnight. ‘Tipperary was starving.’ (p353). I can only imagine the dismay of the volunteers when they heard these demands from their leaders.

I find it really surprising that the Young Ireland leaders were so unaware of the impact of the suffering of the Irish poor when the potato crop first failed in October, 1845 . Many of the rural population had starved and also had lost members of their family to starvation. Many had been evicted from their land and cottages. Typhus and relapsing fever was rife in the country. Workhouses were full, and some had gone bankrupt.

Those who had the money to buy tickets emigrated.

The Rebellion.

On Saturday, July the 29th, 1848, the rebellion began in earnest outside the town of Ballingarry in county Tipperary, when news came of ‘a large body of police, arriving at Ballingarry.’ (p357)

The police mistook the small numbers of rebels for a group of three thousand or more and retreated to a farmhouse on a hill about a mile away. (p357)

The rebels, by now reduced to fifty or so in number, chased the police across the fields and watched as they took refuge in the farmhouse. This was the home of the Widow McCormack and her five young children. She had left the house earlier and the constabulary took over the house with the children inside.

Mrs McCormack's house is now the Warhouse Museum.

The constabulary waited for reinforcements to arrive. In the meantime, they wrecked the interior of the widow’s house. ‘Tearing down her mantlepieces, pulling her doors from the hinges and her dresser from the kitchen wall.’ (p358)

Then the rebels attacked and tried to burn the house down, at which point Mrs McCormack came back home and was naturally enough 'in a state of frenzy' about her children inside the house. (p358)

Smith-O’Brien went to speak to the police and shooting broke out. One man was killed and another severely wounded. ‘The rebel force fled.’ p358.

The leaders were arrested, including Thomas Meagher and William Smith-O’Brien. This time there would be no getting away. The rebellion was over.

Legacy of failure

When writing my novel about the Irish Famine, I wanted my main character, Jane Keating, to volunteer and take part in the fight for freedom.

Thankfully, she saw what a futile gesture the whole thing turned into and eventually managed to escape without being arrested.

The rebellion was one of those seminal moments that would be remembered. The freedom fighters, the Young Irelanders would be remembered, too.

The lesson was a hard one, but in years to come, new leaders would be better prepared in their fight for freedom.



The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845 - 1849. Cecil Woodham-Smith. First published in 1962, Penguin Books


Thank you for reading this article. While you're here, please take a few minutes to:

1. Click on the Contact page on Say hello, and I’ll send you a free pdf of the first chapter of my latest novel.

2. Buy 'Daughters of the Famine Road,' on Amazon in paperback or Kindle e-book.

3. Look out for the next novel in the trilogy:'Daughters in Exile' coming soon.


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