Vinegar Hill

low aerial view of Vinegar Hill, with a partial view of Enniscorthy, Wexford

Vinegar Hill, overlooking Enniscorthy • Wexford

The Battle of Vinegar Hill

low aerial view of Vinegar Hill overlooking Enniscorthy, Wexford

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