The Story of the Kinnitty Pikemen

The 1790s marked an exceptional time in Irish history owing to the formation of the United Irishmen, a secular organisation with significant support both among Catholics and Protestants. Initially the United Irishmen, founded, mainly by Presbyterians in Belfast in 1791, campaigned merely for reform, lobbying for the vote to be extended to Catholics and to non-property holders. The United Irishmen had a determinedly non-sectarian outlook, their motto being, as their leading member Theobald Wolfe Tone put it, ‘to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman’. At this time in Ireland, Catholics could not vote, attend university, serve in the military or civil service or hold public office.

As 1798 approached, the winds of change and revolution swirled across Europe and beyond, the United Irishmen had concluded that the connection with Great Britain needed to be permanently severed and an Independent Irish Republic established based on the principles of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

In Offaly, then known as Kings county, secret preparations were ongoing to forge weapons and munitions in advance of a planned national rebellion during the summer of 1798. In Kinnitty at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, local blacksmiths, Johnny Daly, Jimmy Scully and Tom Curley were working to forge pikes and other weaponry at great risk due to their proximity to Kinnitty Castle aka Castle Bernard, at the time, home to Thomas Bernard, High Sheriff of Kings County. Strikingly, less than one kilometre from his front door and right under his nose, preparations were in full swing for the planned United Irishmen rebellion.

The rebellion began in May 1798 when United Irishmen rose in arms primarily in counties around Dublin; Kildare, Wicklow, Carlow and Meath, but also in Ulster. The authorities in Dublin had rounded up the leadership thus preventing a rising in the capital, while in Ulster, rebels led by Henry Joy McCracken only just failed to take Antrim town.

Alas, all over Ireland, the insurgents who lacked the military training and weaponry of their opponents were defeated by British forces aided by local militia and Yeomanry troops. In many cases, captured or surrendering rebels were massacred by vengeful opposition forces.

However, in Wexford, the United Irishmen meet with success. There, after rising on May 27, the insurgents defeated some militia and Yeomanry units and took the towns of Enniscorthy and Wexford. The leadership of the Wexford rebels was both Catholic and Protestant (the leader was the Protestant Harvey Bagenal), but also included Catholic clergymen such as the famed Fr. John Murphy. The rebels in Wexford held most of the county for a month before being defeated at Vinegar Hill.

Back in Kinnitty, the High Sheriff had learnt of the activities Johnny Daly, Jimmy Scully and Tom Curley via local informers and the three men were captured, tied and flogged from horseback resulting in horrific injuries. It is their bravery and the seeds of rebellion sown by the rebels of 1798 that we remember through our beers at Slieve Bloom Brewing