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.