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"Those who know not their past are as children": Cicero

November 30th 2005


Lieutenant 'Walking Gallows' Hempenstall was in charge of suppressing the 'United Irishmen prior to the rebellion of 1798. A 'Goliath in stature', if he met a peasant he didn't like he poleaxed him with a blow of his fist, put a rope around his neck and hung him off his back, 'tongue protruding, until death at last put an end to the torture'.

At a later inquiry the infamous judge,Lord Norbury, complimented him as having done no act, 'which was not natural to a zealous, loyal and efficient English officer.'

In 1800 he was afflicted with morbus pedicularis and his body literally devoured by vermin. After twenty one days suffering, he died in excruciating agony.

Just over two hundred years ago the light of freedom burned fiercely in every Irish heart. Carricknagat, Vinegar Hill, Castlebar, Collooney and Killala: these names are etched in history’s pages.

But what of Mullaghmore? Look where you will and the name is nowhere to be found. Yet, here in North Sligo, men dared to struggle one more time for freedom too; their hearts beat in unison with the hopes, the promise, the dream of Irishmen and women everywhere for a free Irish nation. But it was not to be.....

French attempt a landing at Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo
Part of the original invasion plan was to land some of the French fleet with munitions and soldiers at Mullaghmore harbour. The plan of action was to march southwards, take Sligo town, and crushing all resistance in their path, join up with Humbert’s troops marching northward from Killala.

The English, anticipating just such a move, had planned well. They impounded all the horses and asses in Mullaghmore and surrounding villages. Without draught animals to draw the carts, transport of any kind was impossible.

When the French ships, so anxiously awaited, eventually appeared off Mullaghmore Head three local men went out in their fishing boat to the man-o’-war. Their mission was to explain to the Frenchmen that there was no way to transport munitions and supplies because of the seizures. The captain of the French boat, taking the three men aboard as volunteers, decided to sail for Killala to join up with the main invasion fleet.

French marine’s head blown off by a cannon ball
On their way south, near Inishmurray Island, an English cutter coming from the direction of the Donegal shore, intercepted them. Following a fierce engagement the French boat, pounded with canon and musket fire, was captured.

In later years, when recounting their adventures, the Mullaghmore men recollected in vivid detail the events of the day. They recalled that early in the fight, one of the ships officers, assessing their situation as hopeless, attempted to fly the white flag of surrender. After a fierce argument with his superior officer, whose orders were to fight on, the junior officer was shot dead where he stood.

In another incident during the fierce struggle, the top of a French marine’s head was blown off by an English cannon ball. It landed at the foot of the gangway to the hold where the three men, being unarmed, had taken refuge. Describing the event later they recalled that the skull looked like a bloody red bowl.

When the fight was over the French captain was forced to surrender his ship and all hands were taken prisoner. The Mullaghmore men’s position was desperate. It was English practice at that time to give honourable surrender terms to the French and treat them as prisoners of war. The fate of the Irish, being British subjects, and as such regarded as traitors, was to be tortured and executed out of hand.

On arrival in London the Frenchmen were released and given safe passage to France but our three friends were tried, sentenced to death and brought to the Tower of London to await execution. Sitting in their grim cell we can imagine that the sentence of death echoed in their ears, disturbing their days and haunting their sleep. Darkness increased their terror. The judge’s pitiless face and his black cap of death burned in their brain. They remembered his macabre sentence word for awful word: ‘You are to be hanged by the neck, but cut down before you are dead, your bowels shall be taken out and burnt before your face, your head shall be cut off, and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of as his Majesty pleases’.

Looking at the comfortless steel door and iron bars they wished for the daub floor and thatched roof of home, for the warmth and comfort of neighbours who must by now have given them up for dead.

Reprieve for the Mullaghmore Men
On the eve of their execution the governor of the jail, as was customary, paid the Mullaghmore men a last visit. During the course of the discussion that followed they discovered that the governor was a good friend and old schoolmate of Colonel Dickson of Tullaghan, a townland in the neighbouring county of Leitrim . Moved by their plight he granted the three men a stay of execution telling them that he would contact Dickson. If the colonel replied with a reference of good conduct for the prisoners, they could go free.

Another month went by. The three men, buoyed now by a glimmer of hope, waited for, dreaded the fateful answer. In time Colonel Dickson responded to the Governor’s inquiry with the word that the men were indeed hard-working fishermen from Mullaghmore. On the strength of this testimony they were set at liberty and given free passage to Derry quay.

From there the men walked home where they told and retold their fantastic story of ‘98 for many a year. The names of the three men, whose story I now tell, were: Barry, Mc Cannon and Kelly.

Copyright: Joe Mc Gowan

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