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Two hundred years have passed since Bunclody shook to the sound of cannon ball and grapeshot as the King's troops dislodged the Insurgent forces from the town on 1 June 1798. It was not called Bunclody then, but Newtownbarry and if you are searching history's pages looking for a reference to the battle, you must, of necessity, look for it under the latter name.
The sacrifice of the poorly armed but highly motivated Insurgents was enormous and will always remain part of local memory. It was a sacrifice that bonded the people together; no matter how historians may write or raconteurs may argue about the details of who was there and how many were killed in the town Square or at the Slaney Bridge, one thing is certain, the tragedy of that day is deeply engraved in our folk memory and will not go away. The recollection is in sorrow rather than in anger. Sacrifice made a strong and lasting bond.
It was beside the Slaney Bridge that the remains of many Insurgents killed on that day found their first resting-place. This spot, though unmarked and unconsecrated, became a cemetery to the many families whose loved ones perished there. Seventy-seven years later, during the process of widening the bridge, their bones were unearthed and transferred for re-burial in the local cemetery at Chapel Road. They were deemed at the time to have been all Roman Catholics, though that is by no means certain. Many Protestants fought on the Insurgent side in those dark days. Nationalism and Patriotism was not and is not confined to any one creed. The poor are normally those who are oppressed; it is their oppression that makes the rich and powerful. The British Ascendancy class was ever demanding and even cruel to the peasant in the homeland as well as in Ireland. The religious dimension came from the ascendancy distrust of those who did not give both civil and religious allegiance to George 111. Allegiance to Rome was see as disloyalty to the king and, by extension, a threat to their own survival as a privileged class. There was a religious dimension to the 1798 insurrection.
There is more than a suspicion that these factors were deliberately introduced by the hard-line element in "His Majesty's Castle at Dublin" in pursuance of a policy of divide and conquer. As an appeasement to the clergy, Maynooth college had been established to prepare Catholic boys for the priesthood. Bishops and most priests, certainly the senior ones, were now inclined to come out against rebellion and to pursue a policy of attaining freedom through peaceful means. This and other relaxations in the Penal Laws from 1783 onwards, helped to appease the more liberal minded, reducing further the numbers of influential people who might otherwise display militancy.
By 1796 Camden, the Lord Lieutenant, Cooke, the Under Secretary and Foster, the Speaker of the House, represented the hard-line faction of the Ascendancy class at Dublin Castle. They were skilfully driving a wedge between the Presbyterian rebel element in the North and the mainly Roman Catholic organization in the Leinster counties. They relied on a number of young and tough landlords to implement their programme. Lord Castlereagh, the Chief Secretary was also involved but, like Prime Minister Pitt, he for many years had been plotting for the Union of the two nations.
The newer breed of the landlord Ascendancy class like John Maxwell-Barry in Newtownbarry, Robert Cornwall in Myshall and John Hunter Gowan in Mount Nebo, Gorey, were ready hard-line votaries. The real battle was between the powerful privileged class on one side and on the other, those who wanted civil and religious liberty under a new order of Republicanism. Next