Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Republican History: Michael Dwyer, The Wicklow Chieftain

In the latest instalment of the republican history series, a recount is given of the life and times of Wicklow republican Michael Dwyer and the Battle of Doire na Muc.

Michael DwyerMichael Dwyer, 1798 rebel and guerrilla warfare strategist, was born into a tenant farming family in the Glen of Imaal in County Wicklow in 1772.

The Glen of Imaal is located on the western side of the scenic rugged Wicklow Mountains. Dwyer was educated in a hedge school like many other Irish children of the time and he would have also spent many hours working the family farm to put food on the table.

It is hard to say if the American and French Revolutions would have had such a dramatic effect on the peasant tenant farmers across Ireland were it not for the teachings of hedge school masters and scholars, who amplified the cause of the risen people of France and north America.

It is safe to say that the ruling class knew exactly what these revolutions spelled and all that was needed was a spark to ignite the masses to revolt. That spark was to come in 1791 with the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen. It was not until 1795, however, that the radical objectives of the society materialised. It was at Cave Hill in Belfast that Wolfe Tone, along with other leading members, swore an oath to Ireland and declared the following:

“To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country, these were my objects.

“To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, these were my means.”

When Michael Dwyer joined the United Irishmen in 1797 what was against him and his comrades was the entire British war machine, equipped with battle hardened troops backed by local yeomanry corps, who were headed by the sectarian Orange Order, as well as paid spies and informers.

Many leaders of the United Irish movement suffered immense torture at the hands of the British regiments and yeomanry; the torture triangles, walking gallows and pitch caps were the normal terrorising techniques reserved for the rebels who were captured by the British. It is well known that many United Irish Societies were smashed by these tactics.

In Dunlavin, near the Glen of Immal, in May 1798 when the Irish rebellion erupted, the British garrison officers, having learnt that the United Irishmen in the west Wicklow area had infiltrated the yeomanry, massacred 36 captured prisoners and hung 11 suspected rebels.

Dwyer, who was on the run by this stage, moved directly to meet up with the other Wicklow rebels in the North Wexford Column of the United Irish Army. The Wicklow contingent was under the leadership of general Joseph Holt and Billy Byrne of Ballymanus. Dwyer fought courageously in many battles, including the devastating loss at Arklow on June 9, which signalled the end was near for the impressive Wexford United Irish Army. That end came at Vinegar Hill on June 21 when the republican forces finally broke and fell back to different parts of Wexford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Kildare and Wicklow.

Skirmishing became the new battle plan as the rebels who organised themselves under Garreth Byrne moved closer to Dwyer's own backyard of the Wicklow Mountains. It was here where the ‘Master of the Mountains’ Dwyer came into his own and held out for five years in a guerrilla war against the British army.

Many battles were recorded at this time but the Battle of Doire na Muc is the most legendary.

Dwyer's cottageOn February 15 1799, Dwyer along with 11 companions were given refuge in three houses in a place called Doire na Muc. In the first house were Ned Lennon and Thomas Clerk, the second housed Walter McDaniel, John Ash, Patrick Toole, Darby Dunne, John Mickle and Hugh Byrne and the third billeted Michael Dwyer, Sam McAllister, John Savage and Patrick Costello. Like many times throughout Irish history, a spy was watching and informed the British troops stationed several miles away at Hacketstown.

Over 100 British soldiers under captain Roderick MacDonald moved to ambush Dwyer’s men. The first two houses were taken and all inside were arrested, which left the house Dwyer occupied. Realising he was surrounded, Dwyer asked that the civilians in the house be let leave unharmed and, while this happened, Dwyer made it clear that he and his men would fight to the death. The battle commenced with the house set on fire and two of Dwyer’s comrades, Costello and Savage, shot dead and Sam McAllister injured.

McAllister, fearing the worst for his friend, told Dwyer to make a run for it while he opened the front door to take the full shots of the enemy’s fire. Dwyer objected and wanted to remain with his comrade in arms but McAllister held firm and the plan went ahead. Dwyer escaped and made his way to a relative’s home but the soldiers were not far behind and Dwyer once again had to run, his pursuers gave one final volley before he disappeared through a river. The British soldiers found it too dangerous to cross and Dwyer made good his escape.

Of his surviving captive comrades, all but Hugh Byrne were hung by the British. Byrne turned informer and was spared.

Dwyer held out for a further four years in the Wicklow Mountains and continued to wage a perilous guerrilla campaign, but it was in December 1803 a few months after Emmett's failed rebellion that Dwyer offered terms of surrender, which consisted of a full pardon for him and his men and safe passage to America. The terms, as we know, did not materialise and Dwyer was imprisoned for high treason in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. In 1805, with family members including his wife Mary and his cousin Hugh Vesty Byrne and close comrades, they were all transported to the penal colony of Australia.

Michael Dwyer never saw the Wicklow Mountains or Ireland again and died in exile in Australia on August 23 1825.

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