The King’s culprits: what became of the prisoners of 1798?

Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 saw thousands take up arms against against British rule. But though it would inspire future generations of republicans, the rising was quickly crushed and many of the rebels were taken prisoner. Patrick Mercer looks at what happened next.


Today, in the spruce little village of Ballinamuck in County Longford, a stone rebel stands, pike in hand, louring at the long-gone British forces just as his flesh-and-blood forebears might have done in 1798. The villages and hamlets around here are flecked with memorials, plaques, and statues, for it was in these now-quiet fields – about 80 miles north-east of Dublin – that Irish rebels and their French comrades chose to roll the dice for one last time against King George III.

And around the village you can still see the Croppy Pits. ‘Croppies’ was the nickname given by the King’s men to the Irish rebels fighting for independence from Britain – a reference to their hair, which was cut closely and crudely in imitation of the French revolutionary coiffure. After the insurgents were defeated outside Ballinamuck on 8 September, many of those taken prisoner were hacked or shot down, thrown together into pits and covered over.

Massed construction of pikes was undertaken by local blacksmiths. During Crown counter-measures, many such craftsmen were arrested and detained rather then let them continue as de facto armourers.

The rebels wore whatever clothes they stood up in when the fighting started. The unusually fine weather meant that heavier clothes were not necessary, although coats and hats would have been taken.

A typical Wexford rebel at the time of the 1798 Rebellion. Thousands of such men were captured under arms during the Rebellion and were fortunate to avoid execution, yet many went on the serve their former enemy – King George! Reconstruction: Patrick Mercer.

The homemade Irish pike became a symbol of the Rebellion and remains emotive in Republican circles even today. A fairly short ash pole – about 12ft was typical – had an iron head riveted to it, of which there were a number of designs. Typically, there would be a slender spear point about 14in long, with a simple hook attached with which riders could be pulled from their mounts or, using the sharpened inner surface, reins cut.

Skill at arms
A number of treatises were written about the employment of the Irish pike that suggested not just massed charges with the weapon levelled, but also more complex fencing moves to counter an opponent with a sword or bayonet. In reality, pikes were often used for brutal executions where the victim was lightly spiked and then lifted aloft to die slowly as his own body weight impaled him more deeply.

Many rebels fought barefoot. The shoes and stockings of the Crown Forces became prized possessions, and it’s fair to say that any casualty was soon stripped of his shoes and hosiery.

The dreadfully poor and scarcely organised rebels took whatever they could from their cabins or anything they could find on the line of march. To sustain them, though, most resorted to handfuls of barley in their pockets and bottled water or – if they were lucky – poteen (a homemade spirit). It is said that patches of barley grew over the graves of fallen rebels.

There are other poignant mementoes in the surrounding pastures, for they are dotted with little patches of barley. It is said that the rebels had nothing else to eat save raw corn, and that when they were cut down in mid-flight, their bodies lay where they fell, decomposing over time and fertilising the grain in their pockets. Two centuries later, each September, the barley still rocks in the wind in silent salute.

A cartoon by James Gillray, in which the failure of Hoche’s Irish expedition is caricatured.


The rising of 1798 had been a long time coming, as Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) and other leaders of the Society of United Irishmen – the republican-revolutionary group, inspired by the American and French revolutions, which was founded in 1791, first in Belfast, and then in Dublin and across rural Ireland – sought to persuade the Directory, the committee which governed the French First Republic from 1795 to 1799, to send troops to support their comrades in the fight to drive out the British.

In December 1796, one French expedition in support of the rebels saw 16,000 men under General Lazare Hoche defeated by storm-swept seas. In total, 12 French ships were lost or captured, and thousands of sailors and soldiers drowned. The following February, a Spanish fleet that was to combine with French ships to hold the Channel open, was thrashed off Cape St Vincent; and a number of other raids designed to lure the Royal Navy away from intercepting invasion fleets also failed. Eventually, however, with the tension mounting and sensing that a rising must happen before the Crown could pinch it off entirely, the insurgents struck in fine May weather.

Thousands of poorly armed, hungry, often shoeless peasants rose up and won some early victories. But courage was not enough: within a few weeks, the United Irishmen’s risings in Dublin, Kildare, Down and, ultimately, in Wexford (with the final battle at Vinegar Hill on 21 June) had foundered. Inexplicably, with the rebels crushed, it was only then that the Directory chose to dispatch its long-promised expedition to carry out an amphibious landing near Killala, on the north coast of County Mayo.

A soldier of the 89th Regiment of Foot.

Fewer than 1,100 troops with three light guns came ashore on 22 August under General Jean Humbert – long after the United Irishmen had hoped for it, and in an area where the rebellion had had little impact. Nonetheless, about 3,000 local men with homemade pikes and a few muskets rallied to the French standards and enjoyed some success – most notably at the Battle of Castlebar, on 27 August. But two weeks’ later, as they headed inland towards Dublin, they met a pincer movement at Ballinamuck.

The troops made short work of the rebels. The Armagh Militia took a French Colour, and all the enemy guns were captured before Humbert’s regulars and his local confederates surrendered wholesale. While the French were treated with the honours of war, however, the Irish were either shackled and sent for trial or simply butchered where they’d thrown down their pikes. It is around a clutch of these victims that this article revolves, for some of the men executed were serving British soldiers.


It is hard to understand, but three men of the 89th Foot (later nicknamed ‘Blaney’s Bloodhounds’ because of their Colonel’s zeal in hunting down insurgents) were captured after Ballinamuck – probably still wearing their uniforms – before being tried and executed in November. But just how did three Redcoats end up fighting for rebels and Frenchmen against their own comrades? Well, it is a complicated story.

With revolutionary fervour mounting among the United Irishmen, clashes with the Loyalist Orange Order and the agrarian Protestant association known as the Peep o’ Day Boys increasing, and civil disobedience, arson, and murder commonplace, the authorities had become more ruthless. A counter-insurgency operation begun in 1795 became bloodier and grew even more repressive when General Gerard Lake took charge in early 1797 after Hoche’s failed landings. Then a steady stream of rebel prisoners turned into a flood, very quickly overwhelming an already struggling penal system.

The question was: what to do with healthy young men who had taken up arms? Some of the lesser offenders were pardoned, others paroled and released, while yet others were sent to hulks (decommissioned ships used to house convicts) or to the already-crowded prisons. One such was a recently built barracks which, fascinatingly, had been erected on the site of a proposed ‘utopia’ for Swiss craftsmen, who were fleeing the depredations of their own French-dominated Jacobin government following the Geneva Revolution of 1782. A site was prepared near the sea in County Longford, but the Swiss eventually declined, and the buildings were adapted for barracks, and then as a ‘political’ gaol. New Geneva, as it was called, quickly lost any utopian air – with one of its inmates describing it as ‘the filthiest, most damp and loathsome prison devoid of any comfort’. It was, however, conveniently close to a port.

General Gerard Lake, who became commander-in-chief of British troops in Ireland in April 1798.

The ultimate solution for these tricky prisoners was to be deportation, principally to New South Wales. But, as Britain was at war, ships were at a premium, and so were soldiers. A strong guard was needed to prevent the captives hijacking the transports, while precious warships were needed to protect convoys. For all these reasons, significant numbers of captive rebels did not start to flow abroad until late 1800, when another plan was already in hand.

In the meantime, Britain’s expanding fleets needed manpower and disaffected Irishmen found themselves very quickly pressed into the Royal Navy (although that was an illegal practice that required indemnifying legislation). One Guards officer, when viewing the prisoners held at New Geneva, put his finger on it. ‘Many of them were uncommon fine fellows,’ he said, before adding that they were too dangerous to be trusted. ‘Wherever we send them, we send emissaries,’ he warned.


It seems extraordinary that the Navy, the pride and principal defender of the realm, should have previously sworn enemies of the Crown serving in it – and it has been suggested that the Guardsman’s worries came to fruition in May 1797 when the fleets at The Nore (an anchorage in the Thames Estuary) and Spithead (near Portsmouth) mutinied, further raising concerns that revolution was in the air.

Now, I’m not suggesting that those momentous risings by sailors were simply another form of Irish revolt, but Valentine Joyce, one of the ringleaders at Spithead, was certainly a United Irishman. And in April 1797 – before the mutinies – the prominent Irish politician Sir Edward Newenham wrote to the Chief of the Admiralty, warning that:

A contemporary cartoon by Cruikshank showing the delegation of sailors who devised the settlement terms for the Mutiny of Spithead, 1797.

My two friends… had conversed with several of the United rebels, who had been tried and sentenced to be put on board ship, and that their common declarations were that they would be of more service to the cause on board a man-of-war than they could be at present on land for they would immediately form clubs, and swear every man to be true… I submit to your lordship that no more of these rebels should be sent on board the fleet, for one of them would poison seven-hundred men… [they] were sworn to that purpose of poisoning the minds of the sailors.

After the mutinies, fewer prisoners were sent to sea, but other schemes were tried. As the 1798 Rebellion was at its zenith, Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess and 2nd Earl Cornwallis, was appointed Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland, and would spend much of his time dealing with the question of prisoners. The flood of captives from September onwards needed a new approach, so a policy of ‘qualified leniency’ was designed to allow those under arms to surrender in safety. This worked especially well in County Kildare, where large numbers of rebels laid down their arms after negotiations and simple pikemen were allowed to return quietly to their cabins once they had taken an oath of allegiance. In parallel, rebel leaders and those involved in murder and robbery became the authorities’ main focus.

Cornwallis, though, was both humane and canny, and he fully realised the potential for further trouble if his retribution were too bloody. Accordingly, many capital sentences were commuted either to transportation or – and here’s the rub – to forced enlistment into the Army. In the autumn of 1798, Cornwallis told the District Commanders: ‘Prisoners concerned in the present Conspiracy and Rebellion, who have not been leaders therein and may be anxious to atone for their past crimes… should be permitted to enlist in His Majesty’s service in order that they may be offered to such regiments as may be most expedient.’


Popular fiction has it that King George’s army was full of ne’er-do-wells – and that impression is not helped by several overused quotes supposedly from the Duke of Wellington, including that ‘we have in the service the scum of the Earth as common soldiers’. The truth is that most recruits were of good character. They may have been lured by generous bounties, but, on the whole, they took the shilling out of a sense of adventure combined with patriotism at a time of extreme danger to the realm. Yet, just as in the Navy, here were enemies of the state who were pressed into service alongside (for the most part) wholesome lads who willingly expected to face danger and hardship. Worse still, these Irishmen were not impressionable youngsters who might have been swept into rebellion on a whim; these were the most serious offenders.

Charles Cornwallis, who dealt with the question of prisoners with cynical pragmatism.

There was a cynical degree of pragmatism about their enlistment, though.

Throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the West Indies remained important, vulnerable and often fatal for the British troops garrisoned there: between 1793 and 1801, more than 45,000 troops died, a mortality rate of around 50%. Large numbers of troops were required to protect the islands, so the government resorted to using foreign émigré units, local levies, and, finally, topping up the Line, regiments which rotated through this station, with Irish rebel prisoners.

But it was not quite as simple as that. Regular units could expect to spend several years in these unhealthy climes before moving back to, probably, a home posting. Yet commanding officers were required to keep their reformed rebels back to reinforce incoming battalions. In other words, the only way out of the Caribbean for the sons of Eire was to be discharged – broken in health – or to die. In either event, serving the Crown would obviate any further threat from these men.

There were some exceptions to the West Indies norm, though. The 30th (Cambridgeshire), the 89th, and the Prince of Wales’s Fencibles regiments were all warned for service in the Mediterranean in 1799 and found themselves receiving drafts of newly ‘loyal’ prisoners. It is fascinating to see a Fencible battalion (wartime-only units that would not normally be expected to serve outside the British Isles) being asked to take such men.


Not all rebels were sentenced to serve the Crown, however, for some volunteered in order to avoid trial for serious offences. For instance, James Clements, who on 7 June 1798 had fatally piked the county governor, John O’Neill, 1st Viscount O’Neill, at the Battle of Antrim, escaped by enlisting, eventually fighting in the ranks of the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment during the Den Helder expedition in 1799. Similarly, Gilliam and Peck, two notorious offenders who had murdered two Protestants in Wexford, eluded capture for many months by ‘having foisted themselves into Major F…’s recruiting party and being active in enlisting men themselves’.

Contemporary watercolour plan of the Battle of Ballinamuck, showing the position of the English and French Armies before the surrender of the French, 8 September 1798. Image: Wikipedia.

There were also suggestions that prisoners should be drafted into the East India Company’s European regiments or proffered to the Tsar of Russia as serfs in Siberia: neither worked. Also, curiously, the Prussian chargé d’affaires in London offered, in early 1799, to take a draft of the most suitable Irishmen into his own army. Keen to draw Prussia into the Second Coalition against France, Britain agreed to send 500 prisoners who were otherwise due to be transported, but one Captain Schouler only selected about 350 of them. This arrangement ceased, though, when Prussia remained decisively neutral during the fighting of 1799.

Clearly, those men of the 89th who had turned their coats and been captured at Ballinamuck were irreconcilable, but many of the ‘culprits’ (as they were first called after enlistment) developed into very capable soldiers and, indeed, non-commissioned officers.

Lieutenant Colonel Rufane Donkin pointed out that some of his men were guilty only of ‘a simple fault of which they repent and attempt, by an attentive discharge of their duties, to atone for their former misconduct’. He and other commanding officers were keen to retain such men’s services and, from April 1803, the rules changed to allow those men with seven years’ service and a certificate of merit to remain with their regiments once they left the West Indies.

Returns for 1802 show former rebels serving in 11 regiments, most numerously in the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment. We shall never know, but I wonder how many of those lads who shouldered a pike at Vinegar Hill helped to propel their Regiment to glory 13 years later, during the Peninsular War in Spain, on the blood-soaked field of Albuera? •