Vinegar Hill looms high over the Wexford town of Enniscorthy. The 1798 battle fought out on its slopes is one of the most famed in Irish history, creating a legacy that has reverberated around the globe. Today the site continues to offer the same spectacular views of the Wexford countryside that made it so important in the summer of 1798. A visit to the battlefield and the town of Enniscorthy offer the best opportunity to engage with the landscapes and history of Ireland’s 1798 Rebellion.
If you decide to explore Vinegar Hill today, the primary point from which to view the battlefield is from the hill’s summit. The carpark there can be accessed via a small laneway that runs from west to east up towards the high point. Archaeological works conducted here as part of the recent Longest Day Archaeological Research Project have shown that this lane was present on the day of battle, and was used by the Government column under Dundas to align their assault. The fields immediately to the south of the lane, in the “saddle” of the ridge, witnessed some of the hardest fighting. Here the archaeologists found evidence for firing lines, as well the remnants of hand-to-hand fighting. Terrifyingly, their results also indicated that the Government forces advanced in step with their artillery, firing the pieces directly into the faces of the United Irishmen sent to repulse them. It is worth making the short walk from the carpark down the lane to see this area of fighting.
Another must is the short climb from the carpark up to the hill’s summit, and the ruined windmill that was there on the day of the battle. It is depicted in many of the contemporary illustrations. From here you can look out at the panoramic view that was the reason why Vinegar Hill was selected by the United Irishmen.
Looking east, you can see the town of Enniscorthy, and the bridges over the Slaney where such desperate fighting took place on the day of the battle. Looking north, and especially west, keep an eye out for the original field boundaries that survive. They also lined the battlefield in 1798, positions that the United Irishmen made use of as defensive lines during the engagement. It is not hard to imagine what a sight it must have been here on the day of the battle.
After a trip up the hill, it is worth making the journey back across the Slaney and into Enniscorthy town itself. There you can pay a visit the National 1798 Rebellion Centre. Through a series of displays, artefacts and audio-visual presentations, it tells the story the 1798 Rebellion in an engaging and informative way, and it has plenty to offer both children and adults. Enniscorthy is also home to Enniscorthy Castle, another visitor attraction worth exploring. For those who catch the 1798 “bug” at Vinegar Hill, the county is unusual in having installed memorials and car-park facilities at a number of other battlefields, such as Oulart and Three Rocks, two sites where the United Irishmen met with early success. As with Vinegar Hill, they enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding countryside— a common feature of Wexford’s battlefields!
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Vinegar Hill, overlooking Enniscorthy • Wexford
The Battle of Vinegar Hill
The events of 1798 had their origins in the 18th century revolutions that erupted in the American Colonies and later in France. The French Revolution in particular proved inspirational to a body of Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian Irish leaders who in 1791 formed themselves into the Society of United Irishmen. The organisation was committed to attaining equal representation for Irish people through the formation of a national government. Driven underground in 1793 when they were made illegal, the United Irishmen became ever more radical as the years ticked by. Things finally reached a crescendo in the summer of 1798, when they launched a republican revolution.
The pre-emptive arrest of key United Irish leaders had a devastating impact on the rising, which struggled from the off. These early problems meant that rebels only rose sporadically through the country. But it was most spectacularly and effectively executed in Wexford, where the United Irishmen quickly established control over most of the county during late May and early June. Having taken Enniscorthy following a bloody engagement on 28 May, Vinegar Hill became the major United Irish encampment in the county. It wasn’t long before if became a heaving mass of people, with tens of thousands of men, women and children congregating on its slopes. However, despite their early success, the days of the Wexford rebels were numbered. Government forces quickly crushed the rebellion outside Dublin before turning towards the south-east, penning the United Irishmen inside the county. Then they moved on Vinegar Hill. A number of military columns began to advance slowly, purposefully and seemingly inevitably towards the Enniscorthy encampment from numerous directions. Finally, on 21 June 1798, all was in place. In the early morning hours, they unleashed hell onto the slopes of Vinegar Hill.
The 21 June found between 20,000 and 30,000 people camped at Vinegar Hill. Many, perhaps most, were non-combatants. The majority of those who did bear arms were from Wexford and South Wicklow. They had set up a defensive perimeter far out from the hill’s summit, aimed at protecting those in the camp behind them. Facing them were between 10,000 and 15,000 redcoats. The majority were drawn from the Irish Militia, but their number included some others units, including regular infantrymen and artillery.
The landscape of Vinegar Hill with views over Enniscorthy • Wexford
At 4am in the morning, the British commanding general, Gerard Lake, ordered his big guns to open fire. For hour after seemingly endless hour they pounded the hill, spreading death and terror among those trapped on its slopes. Lake’s guns also took aim at the United Irishmen’s outer line, blasting huge gaps in their ranks. Finally, after three hours, Lake ordered the advance. While three columns began the disciplined, deliberate march towards the summit, a fourth column surged forward towards Enniscorthy town from the west. Desperate fighting soon erupted everywhere.
As the hours drew on, the Government’s western column under General Johnson slowly pushed the United Irishmen opposing them back through Enniscorthy. Eventually the fighting there reached the bridge over the Slaney, directly in the rear of the Vinegar Hill encampment. Somehow the defending United Irishmen held on. Meanwhile the columns under General Duff, Dundas and Loftus set their sights on the hill itself. The United Irishmen there did not sit passively by. They launched a series of counter-attacks from the ditches that formed their main defensive positions, but their position seemed increasingly hopeless. Eventually the Government troops gained a foothold on the ridge of Vinegar Hill itself.
With the end near, some of the defenders threw themselves into the fight, sacrificing themselves to act as a rearguard. Their actions allowed most of those still on the hill to escape, moving south towards Darby’s Gap and the only remaining route of escape. It remained so due to the tardiness of yet another Government column, under General Needham, which had not yet arrived to seal the road. While the majority of the United Irishmen force (and civilians) escaped Vinegar Hill, the death toll was frightful. Those whose bodies lay scattered about were buried in mass graves, and the war moved on. But the rebellion in the south-east was all but crushed, and petered out in the weeks that followed. Although a small French force that landed in Connacht a few months later briefly rekindled the United Irishmen hopes, it was too little, too late. The cause of revolution that flourished in the summer of 1798 appeared all but extinguished. Nowhere paid a bigger price than Wexford, which counted her dead in the tens of thousands.
Upper left: aerial view of Enniscorthy • Lower left: Vinegar Hill in the wider landscape • Right: the famous windmill on the summit of Vinegar Hill
Top: aerial view of Enniscorthy • Middle: the famous windmill on the summit of Vinegar Hill • Bottom: Vinegar Hill in the wider landscape
Vinegar Hill Visitor Information
The site of one of Ireland’s most significant battles in its history, Vinegar Hill offers the opportunity to engage with the landscape of the 1798 rebellion.
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