St Patrick's Day - The Irish Rebellion

In Military History

Our St Patrick's Day celebrations continue with a look at the armies of the Irish Rebellion, 1798. The extracts below are taken from Men-at-Arms 472: Armies of the Irish Rebellion 1798 by Stuart Reid.

Artwork by Gerry & Sam Embleton

Men-at-Arms 472: Armies of the Irish Rebellion 1798 by Stuart Reid

Irish Insurgents, 1798

Back Left and Back Right: Insurgent pikemen, Antrim

Authentic contemporary images of the Irish rebels are virtually non-existent, and modern reconstructions are generally too reliant on Cruickshank’s caricature illustrations from a generation or so later. These are therefore necessarily based on contemporary depictions of typical working men’s clothing – in this case, those by William Pyne, of a Smithfield drover and a bill-poster. (Indeed, it is entirely possible that Pyne’s drover was in fact an Irishman.) The cropping of the swallow-tailed coat skirts to turn the garment into a jacket was a practical and common practice in both town and country. Pyne’s drover was wearing a white jacket, but like his bill-poster both our subjects wear the indeterminate brown shade sometimes referred to as ‘country grey’. As with Scottish ‘hodden grey’ and Confederate ‘butternut’, this was a woollen material that was dyed grey as part of the finishing process, but when exposed to sunlight rapidly turned brown. So universal was this colour that one British officer complained that Irish Yeomanry and Militia wantonly murdered anyone in a brown coat, on the assumption that if he was a countryman he must also be a rebel. The headgear worn by the figure on the left is a fairly shapeless slouch hat, but the figure on the right's ‘flowerpot’ style is also familiar from Cruickshank’s caricatures. Note the green cloth bands worn as field signs; in the Antrim army these were apparently normal, while a Wexford force are described with white hat bands and green cockades (the latter possibly a sign of officer status). Some of Gillray’s caricatures also show bunches of green leaves worn on hats.

Front: Insurgent officer, Antrim

While some rebel commanders simply turned out wearing a decent suit of clothes embellished with the obligatory green cockade and a sword of some description, a surprising number were described as wearing ‘regimentals’ or proper military uniforms. Lord Edward Fitzgerald had apparently intended to wear a specially made hussar-style suit in bottle-green, but the majority were old uniforms from Volunteer days. The green coat depicted here – which survives – is associated with Henry Joy McCracken, but generally red or blue coats predominated. For example, a party of United Irishmen who invaded Baltinglas in search of arms shortly before the rebellion were reported to have been led by men in blue regimentals turned up with red. One oddity was the rebel commander at the Hill of Tara; said to be the son of a local innkeeper and a deserter from the Kildare Militia, he wore a white uniform, so was popularly believed to be a French officer. While at first sight unlikely, there may actually be an element of truth in the story; the last of the old Brigade Irlandaise were ordered to exchange their red coats for white ones faced with blue on being absorbed into the French Line.

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