The Scullabogue martyrs

A S H Smyth remembers his Quaker ancestors killed June 5, during the Irish rebellion of 1798

Artillery Row

I  Scullabogue

“Few events in modern Irish history”, wrote the (Irish) historian Daniel Gahan, “haunt the imagination like the massacre that took place in the townland of Scullabogue in southern County Wexford on 5 June 1798”.

Now, I’m no expert on the history of Ireland and its violence (a grim tautology, some might already argue), but I do have a connection to the massacre at Scullabogue: namely, that two of my ancestors were murdered there.

The timeline is blurry, numbers on each side variable, precise motivations unclear, and it is the nature of the beast that few of the sources even attempt to be non-partisan

On the morning of June 5, 10 days into the rebellion of the ‘United Irishmen’ (a short-lived union of Catholics and Presbyterians, founded in Belfast: ah, the irony!), two things happened. The first was that an army of Wexford rebels, led by the barrister and liberal Protestant Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, attacked the nearby garrison town of New Ross and was repulsed with considerable loss of life, retreating back along the Wexford road to their camp at the hill of Carrickbyrne, nine miles east. The second was that somewhere in the region of 150 ‘loyalist’ men, women and children (the sources do not agree) – all of them civilians – were systematically shot or burned to death in a barn outside the home of a Mr King, at Scullabogue, less than a mile from the rebel headquarters.

The two events may or may not be as related as they first appear. (The sources do not agree on that either, or even on such basic things as the spelling of place names – and perhaps it will save time, from here, just to accept they never will.)

My great-great-great-great-grandfather Samuel Jones, and his older brother John, were two of the approximately 35 men (and only men, it seems), to have the great good fortune of being ‘merely’ shot. The family view, in fact, has hitherto been that this was essentially a ‘kindness’, extended on the grounds that they were decent, law-abiding Quaker types. But we’ll come back to that.

The timeline is blurry, numbers on each side variable, precise motivations unclear, and it is the nature of the beast that few of the sources even attempt to be non-partisan. But – as aggregated from the written records I can find – it goes something like this.

The local rebels set up camp on June 1, and over the following days rounded up all known/suspected ‘loyalists’ in the area (perhaps a 5-mile circle), which frankly seems only sensible, as, despite their early successes (capturing Wexford itself, recruiting experienced military officers and swelling their ranks to about 10,000), from the start things had gone badly for them almost any time or place that intelligence could be leaked to government forces.

Many of the Joneses’ Protestant neighbours fled to New Ross, and advised them to as well; but they did not, and so were taken from their home at Kilbraney to Scullabogue, where they were interned in the manor house, and guarded by the ‘Rosegarland Corps’ (John Murphy of Loughnageer commanding), an ominously over-experienced fighting unit to have been left behind to watch a gathering of old people, Quakers, and kids.

Harvey’s emissary into New Ross – some say sporting an under-advertised white handkerchief – was immediately shot by the garrison. The rebels accordingly attacked at dawn on the 5th, and having almost taken the town (albeit slowly, and at cost), they then ran out of ammunition, the garrison was reinforced, and so the rebels had to flee. There are convincing stories of atrocities committed before, during and after by the government yeomanry, including the burning down of a building containing 70 wounded rebels. ‘God knows’, wrote Harvey presciently, ‘where this business will end; but end how it will, the good men of both parties will be inevitably ruined.’

The shootings began at Scullabogue at around 9am, an orderly four at a time, by Murphy’s squad of probably less than two dozen men. I have not seen this so clearly stated, but I get the impression that the 35-40 men who were all shot were, so to speak, named targets. At any rate, the executions were somewhat performatively carried out, in front of a larger group of camp-followers, many of the fallen prisoners then being finished off with pikes, either because the musketry was inefficient or to assuage some broader bloodlust (the pike, it is widely noted in these accounts, being also an inefficient and grisly instrument, little better, in many cases, than a carving knife stuck on a pole).

At some point – to give events the most generous interpretation – things got out of hand (the historian Tom Dunne, in his prize-winning history Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798 records a domestic servant blurting out, years later, to her astonished mistress that, ‘It was I went for the lighted turf’), and the barn containing as many as 100 wives, children, parents, and other unfortunates was set alight, Murphy and his men preventing anybody from escaping, by shooting them, bayoneting, and allegedly piking babies who were desperately held out out to be saved.

Cruikshank Illustration

George Cruikshank’s illustration of this ‘moment’ (which, gruesomely, lasted one or more full days, not least since the stone barn proved resistant to burning) has been called ‘notorious’ and accused of sensationalism; but while it is probably true that there was no Jacobin-type revolutionary mob as such, I’m inclined to feel that Cruikshank has sinned only in the letter (cramming the whole atrocious tale into the one frame, simultaneously), rather than in the spirit. I also find myself not wanting to look too closely at the dead men in the foreground.

Local Protestant men and women travelled to the barn in the days afterwards, to try to find their family and friends. Needless to say, the bodies were burned beyond recognition, clinging together, still standing upright they had been packed in so tightly, some missing heads, and many with their intestines hanging out. The corpses, nonetheless, had been gone over for items of value.

There were only three or four survivors of the entire business – one of whom was my great-great-great-great-grandmother, whose name, ridiculously (if only in the light of what is now to come), we do not know.

II  The martyrdom of John and Samuel Jones

What happened to her and to the Jones brothers is detailed principally in Thomas Hancock’s The Principles of Peace Exemplified: in the conduct of the Society of Friends in Ireland, during the rebellion of the year 1798 (publ. 1825). Dr Hancock (1783-1849), a Quaker, Ulsterman, poet, and graduate (medical) of Edinburgh University, based his book avowedly on oral reports from witnesses of the rebellion, and, against a backdrop of stern-to-the-point-of-cruel rebukes for Quaker men who got themselves in trouble, he makes a big deal of the ‘affecting narrative relating to two brothers, John and Samuel Jones.’

Their father had married out of the Society, apparently, and so their membership, per se, had lapsed. Samuel, though, nonetheless attended Quaker meetings right up to the weeks before his death, and certainly did not profess to be a member of any other religion. He was ‘an innocent young man, much beloved by his neighbours’ and ‘a meek and tender spirit… remarked for the benevolence of his disposition.’ He also appears to have seen the trouble coming, but consciously (or conscience-ly?) decided to stay put and ride it out.

Everyone knew everyone else in this event (which is how they were so easily rounded up to start with), and on their arrest, the three Joneses were kept in the Scullabogue house, which seems a step up from the barn, at least. Apparently, a ‘rebel officer’ in charge – Murphy? – had been to school with Samuel, and on at least one night of his captivity they slept in the same bed (one wonders where Mrs Jones was expected to sleep). Hancock even narrates that Jones gave the officer his watch and money for ‘safe keeping’, which seems more an indication of naivety than anything else. But they were essentially not fed, someone stole the bread that Mrs Jones had managed to procure, and there was general taunting as to their condition. To Hancock’s pious approval, they were sustained by reading from the New Testament.

To be clear: the standard test knocking around for Catholicism in these benighted times was the ability to say the ‘Hail Mary’

On the day of their executions Hancock mentions a ‘peculiar smell, like burning animal matter’, about which Mrs Jones enquired and which she was told was merely ‘some beef steaks’ the guards were cooking for their breakfast. Given the distance to the battle of New Ross, and the timeline of the day at Scullabogue, it can probably be assumed this is just Hancock portentously alluding to what is to come, and/or impugning the humanity of the rebel soldiery. But when Mrs Jones then asked about the sound of gunfire, and is told ‘“’Tis some criminals we are shooting.” “And will they shoot us?” said the poor woman. “Oh! may be, they will spare you till the last,”’ I really hoped this did not presage what I feared it might.

But about five minutes later all three of them were taken outside, and Samuel was advised to ‘conform and turn to the Roman Catholic profession’, and indeed to have his children (including Ellen, b.1791) immediately baptised as such; but Samuel said no: “My children are innocent, and I will leave them so.” Then they were brought round to the lawn in front of the house, whereupon, throwing them a remarkable lifeline, ‘some person said, “They were Quakers.” It was replied that “if they could make it appear they were Quakers, they should not be killed.” As they were not in reality members of the Society, this was not attempted to be done.’

To be clear: the standard test knocking around for Catholicism in these benighted times was the ability to say the ‘Hail Mary’. I can say the ‘Hail Mary’, and I’m an atheist. Not only could the Jones brothers have made it ‘appear they were Quakers’, they really were Quakers, in all but paperwork. In death, they have been listed as Quakers, they were buried as Quakers, and their families went uncompensated by the government as Quakers. And yet, when invited to state for the record that they were Quakers, they turned the offer down. It’s utterly incredible. And the measure of how astonishing it is, is that for this act of suicidally unbending probity, the po-faced, propagandist Hancock wrote them up (or one of them, at least) as paragons of Quaker saintliness (not his term, obviously), despite the fact that with their dying breaths they abjured Quakerism.

The bystanders were quite clearly as dumbfounded by this as your present correspondent. They took Samuel aside and, ‘on certain conditions’, once again offered him his life. But whatever those conditions were (conversion, presumably), Samuel ‘firmly rejected them’, and when they tried approaching him with holy water ‘he turned his back upon it.’

Rather unfairly, I feel, Hancock suggests that John was more susceptible to the idea of turning Catholic, if only in order to see his brother spared. John, he says, ‘lamented his situation and former manner of life, signifying that he was ill prepared to die,’ but Samuel tried to bolster his spirits by quoting Scripture (I have two younger brothers, NB. I strongly advise neither of them to take this line with me, should the time come).

The rebels shot John first, his brother steeling him with Bible verses all the while. Samuel then ‘took an affectionate farewell of his wife’, and ‘desired his love to be given to different Friends.’ His last words were, of course, from the Scriptures – behaviour which, says Thomas Hancock, ‘could entitle anyone to the name of martyr.’ He had to be shot – or at least fired upon – as much as five times.

And where was Samuel’s wife at this moment? Quite horrifyingly, standing between them, holding their hands as they were executed. At least one source says she then requested to be killed as well, ‘as an act of mercy’ – and not once but twice, as after she’d been told to leave, a group of rebel women brought her back, also demanding she be put to death – but that the rebels refused, John Murphy saying that it would make the Virgin Mary ‘blush’ (so much for being shot as ‘kindness’). It did not, apparently, trouble the Virgin’s cheeks to see the dead men stripped and their possessions looted.

Mrs Jones was permitted to take her husband’s and her brother-in-law’s corpses back to Kilbroney on a wagon, whereupon she buried them, coffin-less, in the garden. Their ‘aged’ father died the following month, ‘probably hastened by the untimely death of his two only sons’, and six months later or so, all three bodies were taken to the Friends’ burial ground at nearby Forrest.

III  A sectarian massacre

The 1798 rebellion was, according to Roy (RF) Foster, ‘probably the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history,’ and Scullabogue – the only instance in the whole uprising of the killing of women and children – immediately became its goriest emblem, at least from the loyalist viewpoint. By the height of that summer, the government was using it to split northern Presbyterians away from Catholics within the now rather less-United Irishmen. Later, the event even secured a mention in Finnegans Wake (although what didn’t?), ‘skullabogue’ deploying simultaneously the place name, the obvious, and, perhaps most grimly, the Irish word scealbog, or ‘kindling’.

As Tom Dunne elaborates in his Rebellions, a certain amount of Irish nationalist effort has been put into viewing the massacre as just an aberration, describing it as a ‘shared tragedy’ within the community, and emphasising the high degree of ‘social familiarity across the bitter sectarian divide’.

It certainly occurred in a political and geographical environment where it’s possible to be quite sympathetic to the rebels’ cause in general, which prominent members insisted was purely political and not an issue of religion. But what liberal, landowning types in their political society meetings may have thought, and what the facts on the ground in rural Wexford may have been, need not bear much relation to each other.

If it’s fair to say that Scullabogue was not sectarian in plan, it certainly was in its outcome

Old/New Ross was an area of prominent Protestant colonies, with a history of sectarianism, state terror, and political grievances, and there was a pervasive atmosphere in the wider Ireland of the time of a ‘“great fear” of sectarian massacre and reprisal’, replete with spear-licking, baby-sticking Catholics on one side, and ‘Cromwell’s crew’, ‘Orange dogs’, and brutal ‘Hessian’ mercenaries on the other. These tropes aren’t buried history, either. In living memory, Dunne’s uncle told him, ‘as a fact’, that the barn at Scullabogue had previously been used by Cromwell to burn Catholics.

In any case, there’s no clear evidence that Scullabogue was in revenge for any particular atrocity (Dunne says ‘the tide didn’t turn decisively’ in the battle for New Ross until after midday, and even the burning of the houseful of wounded rebels did not occur until about 10:30am); but even the English historian Thomas Keightley (History of England… 1843) acknowledged, ‘We fear, if a fair balance were struck of the bloodshed, the cruelties, and the other enormities committed during these unhappy times, that the preponderance would be greatly on the side of the royalists.’

From the top down, the UI generals (and subsequent Catholic historians) have stressed that the rebellion as a whole was the inevitable consequence of a sectarian state which persecuted Catholics; but that as far as Scullabogue was concerned, it was a) not premeditated, and b) involved ‘no person of superior condition.’ The Catholic ‘general’ Thomas Cloney himself condemned ‘the highly criminal and atrocious immolation’, and blamed ‘cowardly ruffians’ who ran away from the Ross battle.

But though the gentlemanly Bagenal Harvey was so mortified by what had happened that he issued general orders instituting the death penalty for anyone caught murdering prisoners, he was, for his pains, promptly replaced as rebel commander by a Catholic priest, whereupon he lamented – like every good enlightened liberal before and since – ‘that the war unexpectedly turned out to be purely religious.’

And if it’s fair to say that Scullabogue was not sectarian in plan, it certainly was in its outcome: the correlation of Protestantism and loyalism/neutrality on the victims’ side at Scullabogue is 100%. The few (perhaps a dozen) Catholics who died were all loyal employees of Protestant masters. And the only two Protestants involved in the shootings were later acquitted on the grounds that they’d been coerced on pain of death.

Whether or not Cloney’s ‘few bad apples’ excuse holds up, the long and the short of it is that John and Samuel Jones, along with many others, were cold-bloodedly murdered for religious and/or political affiliations they almost certainly didn’t even hold, for (perhaps rather pridefully) minding their own business, and/or simply for being ‘in good circumstance’ while others were in agrarian ferment against the powers that be. If there’s an argument that Scullabogue was not sectarian, I don’t think my ancestors are good proof of it.

More pertinently, in the history of an extended family that remains overwhelmingly not Quaker, my father suggests the episode was nonetheless generally considered to have marked the onset of a certain ‘Gaelic gloom’ down through the generations. As well it might.

In a landscape heavily monumented in commemoration of the United Irishmen (a statue of/to the Wexford Croppie Pikemen stands beside the road to New Ross, which passes straight through Scullabogue), there is, these days, a small memorial to the victims of the Scullabogue massacre, in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church of Ireland, Old Ross, where many of the victims are understood to have been communally buried. Undramatic and, one visitor reports, not easy to find, it bears the somewhat stiff inscription: ‘The remorse of the United Irish at this outrage, a tragic departure from their ideals, is shared by the people of Ireland.’

The next (and final) section of Wikipedia’s entry on Scullabogue reads: ‘SEE ALSO: list of massacres in Ireland.’

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