1798 Battle of Tara

The Battle of Tara, 1798

On 26 May 1798, at the beginning of the United Irishmen's Rebellion, a force of Meath's United Irishmen & Defenders were heavily defeated by government forces at the Hill of Tara outside Navan.  Around 4000 rebels had camped here, because of its symbolism of ancient Gaelic sovereignty and also due to its strategic position overlooking the Dublin-Ulster road. The counterattack began in the evening, government forces assembling on the southern slopes of the hill. Three companies of Scottish fencibles & one 6lb cannon were joined by six local yeomanry cavalry corps & two infantry corps. Captain Blanche of the Reay Fencibles commanded the c.300 men, which included Lord Dunsany and Lord Fingall, commanding their respective yeomanry corps.

The government forces advanced up the hill from the south and the enthusiastic (but untrained) rebels charged down, abandoning their superior position. Trained musketry inflicted heavy casualties as did point blank cannon fire. The rebels retreated to the ruined church (later rebuilt in 1822) but the Reays' grenadiers drove them out. Blanche suffered only 41 casualties & 9 fatalities. It is said that c.400 dead rebels were buried in a mass grave in the Forradh monument and the Lia Fáil stone was moved there (from its original location near the Mound of the Hostages) to mark the spot. The two gravestones on the Hill commemorate the battle.

See also: Insurgency and Counter-insurgency in Royal Meath, by Ciarán McDonnell in Navan, Its People and Its Past, Vol. 4


History of the Grand Insurrection or Struggle for Ireland,

by Alexander Stephens, (1805)

Read this item with: Insurgency and Counter-insurgency in Royal Meath: the Battle of Tara, 1798, by Ciaran McDonnell, Navan Its People and its Past, Vol. 4, page 333

Kells, 14 August, 1799:


On receipt of your first letter, it was my determination to state, for your publication, the particulars of the engagement you so much desired, from the journal I kept.  They will be found perfectly accurate, and are as follow —

In the month of May, 1798, Captain Molloy, of the Upper Kells infantry, held the arduous situation of commanding officer at Kells, in the county of Meath.  On the 24th he received the following letter by express from Navan.  The History of the Late Grand Insurrection, Or, The Struggle for Liberty in the County of Meath.

Tholsel of Navan, May 24, 1798, 5 o'clock:


A private soldier of Captain George's yeomenry, came here about an hour since, and gave us the following account — "That an escort conveying baggage to Dublin, were met on the road leading to Dublin and near Dunboyne, by a body of insurgents — that an attack commenced between them, in which the military were worsted, and every man of the escort killed.  It is generally apprehended that the insurgents are on their march to this town, having planted the tree of liberty at Dunshaughlin; it is therefore requested that you will be pleased to send immediately such a detachment as you can spare here, to assist and protect us.  We are, Sir, with much respect, your most obedient servants.


PHILIP BARRY, Lieut, of the Navan cavalry,

F. D. HAMILTON, Portrieve.

On receipt of the above, the yeomen - cavalry and infantry immediately marched off to Navan.  There being no appearance of disturbance at that time in the neighbourhood, Capt. Molloy thought it prudent immediately, to return to Kells, where there was no protection for the inhabitants, and also a depot of ammunition in the town, which particularly demanded his attention.  The force in Navan was very inconsiderable, consisting only of the Navan troop.  A council of war was called, wherein it was determined that the Kells cavalry, with a detachment of the Navan troop, should go forwards toward Dunshaughlin, and reconnoitre the country.  On the 25th, the following express arrived from Navan at Kells;

Navan, May 25, 1798:


Prepare your yeomenry immediately, as an insurrection has appeared from Dublin to Dunshaughlin, and numbers have been murdered.  Communicate this to all the other officers.

Yours, &c. THOMAS BARRY, Lieut.

Captain Molloy, KELLS.

This evening two of the Kells cavalry came in express, and brought an account of their seeing the rebel army near Dunshaughlin, on the Dublin side, in great force.  Capt. Molloy ordered the men who came express, to return to their corps, and keep up the communication with Kells, and at the same time sent express to Captain Tatto, of the Bally-james-duff yeomen-infantry, who arrived in Kells at two o'clock, the morning of the 26th, with his corps.

Precisely at three o'clock the same morning, the Upper Kells infantry marched off their parade, resolved to conquer or die — they passed early over Tara.   Near Killeen they overtook a party of the Reay fencibles, on their route to Dublin, commanded by Captain Scobie, and also the Upper Kells Cavalry, commanded by Lieut. Rothwell, with other corps of yeomen-cavalry — this body arrived at Dunshaughlin about eight o'clock in the forenoon.  The country seemed alive with rebels — individuals running from one point to another, but so cautiously, and at such a distance, that they could not be intercepted — at that time it was not known where the main body of the rebels were.  Two days preceding this, they entered the town of Dunshaughlin in great force; and in the house of the Rev. Mr. Nelson, murdered him, his brother-in-law Mr. Pentland, and a gardner who was a protestant.  They also made a prisoner of Mr. Kellet, of the King's-arms; Mr. Ambrose Sharmen, attorney, with others; one of whom they also murdered (Mr. Fletcher) — the remainder escaped.

The yeomen's spirits were this day differently affected — at one time elated, hoping to be led on to action — at another depressed; as Capt. Scobie determined not to look for the rebels, but should he meet them on his route would attack them, but not otherwise — his orders were to proceed directly for Dublin. For which purpose, he did actually move out of Dunshaughlin, and Captain Molloy resolving not to remain in an enemy's country with so small a body as his corps, determined to return to Kells that day; and had returned out of Dunshaughlin a quarter of a mile for that purpose, but being followed by a friend, was advised not to proceed, as there was a report that the rebels were then encamped on Tara-hill in great force, which induced Captain Molloy to form the resolution of overtaking the Reay fencibles, and accompanying them to Dublin; but as the yeomen had advanced to the upper end of Dunshaughlin, they had the happiness to see the Reay fencibles returning, with whom they marched and took the field without the town, where the whole regiment remained on their arms till three o'clock that evening; when an officer, who proved to be Captain Blanch of the above regiment, on his return from Dublin, entered the field, with orders it was said to fight the rebels where they could be come up with.

On his appearance, the men gave three cheers, and were highly animated: they were ordered refreshment, of which the yeomen equally partook.  Three companies of the Reay regiment only, and captain Molloy's yeomen corps, not amounting to more than one hundred and ninety infantry, with one piece of artillery, were ordered on this expedition, with six troops of yeomen-cavalry: these troops were placed equally on the right and left of the infantry, in which order they marched from Dunshaughlin to Tara, about five miles.

Before they arrived at Mr. Lynch's house of Tarn, they perceived the rebel videts, both horse and foot, who immediately wheeled off to their main body, when they perceived the army advancing.  On arriving at the large fort at Mr. Lynch's, the army got in full view of the rebel camp on the hill of Tara; the fields around appeared black with rebels. - On perceiving the army, they instantly got into motion —their chiefs mounted, and in about ten minutes formed their line, which was extended very far, and very deep, with three pair of green colours.

The rebels availed themselves of a most excellent position, — the church-yard of Tara, surrounded by a wall, which commanded the Dublin road.  At this period, that spirited officer, Capt. Blanch, called the yeomen infantry officers to him, and informed them he had no orders to give, except to lead on their divisions with courage to the action.


And now, commenced an engagement, as eventful for the county of Meath as ever took place therein, and perhaps for the kingdom at large; for had the rebels succeeded, their numbers would from partial advantages, have increased, and in the end, very many would have fallen victims to those sanguinary tribes. — But the divine disposer of all human events conducted our army to, and secured us victory in this battle.  It is our part to return him our continued thanks for the fate of that day.

The rebels, upon the approach of the infantry, put their hats on their pikes, the entire length of their line, and gave three cheers.  A person now advanced from their line towards the army (who seemed to assume the command), made a very pompous salute, and returned back with great precipitation — he was dressed in white, was a deserter from the Kildare militia, but imposed himself on many of the rebels for a Frenchman, which gave the deluded wretches great spirits.

It was half past six o'clock when the action commenced — immediately some of the army lay dead from the fire of the rebels.  The six-pounder was on the right, from which there were many discharges, but impeded by obstacles between the road and church-yard — to obtain the church-yard was the grand object — the little Loyal Party advanced, regardless of danger, notwithstanding the frantic impetuosity and number of rebels who attempted to turn them on each flank, and incessantly came down in strong parties, from the church-yard, to the muzzles of their pieces, pike in hand; but they instantly experienced the result of their temerity, with the loss of their lives — not one of the royalists flinched, though his brother in arms and dearest friend fell by his side.

From concurring accounts it appears, that the rebel plan was uniformly adhered to viz. to annoy the royal troops by driving among them such cattle, etc as they could collect — by endeavouring to dismay them by meant of their shouts, and their hats placed on their pikes, also, when engaged, by exertions to seize the cannons but what stratagem, what

force could have succeeded in such a cause?

Tile conflict continued from the period above mentioned (half past six), until dark, when they gallantly entered the church-yard!  The rebels now fled from their strong post, and were pursued with great slaughter.  At this time the cannon was unemployed at the church-yard gate, when a large column of the rebels appeared on the road, with intent to surround and cut off a small party of the yeomen who had taken possession of the church-yard: Captain Molloy commanded three artillery-men, who remained with the gun, to take it to the road; but he was informed their gunner was killed — upon his assisting they immediately obeyed.  The gun was no sooner placed, than the rebels were at the muzzle; a number actually had their hands on it — the gun being fired made very great carnage.  The unexpected discharge gave them a very great check — they still persisted to seize it; for which purpose they collected from all points, and made a lodgement behind a wall adjoining the road, which turned to Mr. Brabazon's, from whence they commenced a heavy fire, but providentially without effect.

Captain Molloy had now ordered that the cannon should not fire till he gave the word. — This encouraged the rebels to advance (supposing the ammunition was exhausted)— they were permitted to come forward in prodigious force, greatly elated; but Captain Molloy here evinced both the wisdom, coolness, and valour of an experienced general, and patiently waited till he had the enemy in such a situation as to do great execution; when he ordered the cannon to fire.  This being a few times repeated, determined the fate of the day.  In a few minutes not a rebel was to be seen. — Their loss was very considerable.  Twenty-six of the Reay-fencibles were killed and wounded — one of the Upper Kells infantry killed, and five wounded.  The cavalry had not an opportunity of acting this day (except individually), the country being so close, and the rebels so strongly posted:  Lord Fingall behaved with great spirit, and acted as bravely as circumstances would admit, having led on the Navan troop; as also Captain Barnes, who commanded the Lower Kells troop, etc.

The army retired to Dunshaughlin without further interruption, amidst the joyful acclamations of the loyal inhabitants.

Next morning there were some troops sent out to reconnoitre the field of battle, who on their return reported there lay dead on the field, three hundred and fifty of the rebels; many car loads of arms were found, of different descriptions, viz. pikes, musquets, fowling-pieces, pistols, swords, sythes, and reaping hooks on poles, spits, pitchforks, &c. also three boxes of ammunition, taken from a party of the Reay regiment two days before at Clonee bridge; of whom they killed seven, and took the remainder prisoners, (twenty in number), and all the baggage they were escorting to Dublin — the prisoners were taken at Tara.

Upon the return of the yeomenry to Kells, they were met by a multitude of the loyal inhabitants welcomed, embraced, the tear of joy sensibly trickled down the cheek of the parent, the sister, the, friend - the commanding-officer was presented with a laurel wreath ornamented with ribbons, prepared by the principal people in the neighbourhood — on entering the town of Kells, a groupe of ladies surrounded Captain Molloy, one of whom crowned him with laurel — the windows were decorated with emblems of victory — the bells rang — an elegant collation was laid out opposite the boarding-school, under the shade of some large sycamore trees — the evening was devoted to mirth and joy — age and youth vied in loyal and convivial harmony.

Were I to recount the brave conduct of each yeoman individually, it would no doubt be grateful to the reader; but time and circumstances not permitting, oblige me to decline it.  The officers of the Kells corps deserve every compliment this country can give; Lieutenants Keating and Warner, conducted themselves with that spirit and bravery which ever distinguishes the brave soldier — and as for Captain Molloy, the result of that day will ever keep him in the recollecion of his friends and acquaintance.

P. S. To the memory of the brave men who fell in the field, the corps are erecting a handsome monument at Kells, with a suitable epitaph.

Thus, Sir, have I particularized everything I supposed in any wise interesting—and am with great respect,

Yours, 8cc. &c


Source: The History of the Grand Insurrection, or Struggle for Liberty in Ireland: To Which Is Added, a Short Account of the Insurrection, by Emmett, With His Famous Speech Made to the Court Before Judgment; Also, the Substance of the Celebrated Pamphlet Which Has Been Lately Published in England by Alexander Stephens