The Curragh
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The Curragh
Early History

St. Brigid’s pastures   From the Norman conquest to Essex    The Wars of theConfederation 

From theJacobite Wars to 1798   The Rebellion of ‘98   The French scare

St. Brigid’s pastures

   The history of the Curragh plains goes back to remote antiquity. The Curragh, at the present time, contains almost 5,000 acres but its ancient name of “Cuirreach Life,” or the Curragh of the Liffey, would seem to imply that long ago it reached that river’s banks; and since the Norman invasion has been encroached upon. It was the site, in pre-Christian times, of Aonach Lifé—a formal convening of all the people of the Kingdom of Leinster to a festival. The “aonach” lasted several days and had many functions : —laws were promulgated and administered; funeral rites per­formed; goods bartered; marriages solemnised and all forms of contests engaged in. The many raths and tumuli to be found on the Curragh date from this period.
    To the north of the Curragh is the Hill of Allen (Almhain) where the Fianna are said to have assembled in the latter end of the third century A.D. The deeds of the Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the commander, are preserved in folklore and legend.
    “Great was the number of one Dun of Almhain, of noble Fenians; there were twice six fires exactly in each house, and one man and one hundred at each of those fires.”
    About the year 480, St. Brigid, patron saint of County Kildare, settled at “Drumcree” (the Ridge of Clay). This place is now Kildare. Legend tells us that St. Brigid was granted as much land as her mantle would cover in return for having cured the King of Leinster of a deformity. It is said that when her mantle was spread it covered the present Curragh. A writer of the 12th cen­tury refers to the Curragh as “St. Brigid’s Pas­tures in which no plough was suffered to turn a furrow.
    In the year 777, “the battle of the Cuirreach, by the side of Cill-dara was fought on the sixth of the calends of September, on Tuesday, be­tween Ruadhri, son of Faelan, and Bran, son of Muireadhach.” Ruadhri emerged victorious.
The Danes passed across the plain as they raided and plundered the monasteries of Kildare on more than one occasion. The Irish sought their revenge and in 942 destroyed the Danish city of Dublin, “Braen, King of Leinster, to the destructive battle from the Hill of Almhain passed with his hosts.”

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From the Norman conquest to Essex

   The Norman invasion resulted in a change in ownership of the lands of Kildare. Maurice Fitz­Gerald was awarded the area south and east of the Curragh in recompense for his services in the conquest of Leinster. Meiler FitzHenry, whose father was the illegitimate son of King Henry I, founded Connell Abbey in 1202; dedicated the church to the Blessed Virgin and St. David; and brought in Augustinian Canons from Monmouth­shire. Meiler FitzHenry was Viceroy in Ireland for eight years and when he died in 1220 he was buried at Connell and we are told that his tomb carried the following inscription:
   Entombed are the bones of him they noble Meyler call,
   Who was the tameless tamer of the irish nation all.

       We can get some idea of the power struggle be­tween the Anglo-Norman Knights from an ac­count of an incident which took place on the Cur­ragh about this time. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, died in 1231 and bequeathed his large possessions, on both sides of the Irish Sea, to his brother, Richard, grandson of Strongbow. Henry III plotted with the Viceroy and Irish barons to have Earl Richard captured dead or alive. The Irish barons, claiming their spoils, invaded the lands of the Earl, their feudal lord, who, on hear­ing of their doing, came to Ireland :

“Earl Richard appointed a conference on theCurragh of Kildare with the barons. On the 1st of April, 1234, Maurice FitzGerald, the Viceroy, accompanied by Hugh de Lacy and Richard de Burgh, came with a body of soldiery to the place of meeting, while the Earl, with Geoffrey de Marisco and a few attendants, took up a position some distance away. The negotiations, carried on between the parties by Templars, ended by the barons refusing to com­ply with the earl’s demands for the restoration of some of his castles still in their possession; and, drawing their swords, they threatened to attack him at once unless he consented to the truce.

The earl, at this juncture, was basely de­serted by his false friend Geoffrey de Marisco; but, undaunted by superior numbers, and ac­companied by only fifteen followers who re­mained faithful to him, he charged into the midst of the barons’ troops, and for a long time fought bravely doing great execution on his foes. At last his horse fell under him, and while the earl lay on the ground he received a mortal wound in the back; he was carried off to one of his own castles, and on Palni Sunday, six­teen days after receiving the wounds, he breathed his last. His body was taken to Kil­kenny, and buried in the Dominican Abbey.”•
In the year 1406 it is recorded that “the Prior of Connell, in the plaine of Kildare, fought vali­antly, and vanquished two hundred of the Irish that were well armed, slaying some of them, and chasing others; and the Prior had not with him but twenty Englishmen.”
   When by Act of Parliament of 1537 the Abbeys of the Pale were confiscated, Connell Abbey was one of six monasteries excluded. The properties of the Abbey were considerable and extended, in general, from Kilcullen in the south, to Kildare in the west, and to Kilmeague in the north. The final suppression of Connell came in 1541 and portion of the confiscated lands at Tully and Rosberry passed to Sir William Sarsfield, Knt., Mayor of Dublin, in 1566.
   There is an interesting account of the Earl of
Essex as he camped on the Curragh in 1599 Henry Harvey, Secretary to Essex, kept a journal of the events and stated :

“The fourth day of May being come and the levies gathered together, the Lord Lieuten­ant rode forth from Dublin to the champion fields between Kilrush and Kilcullen, where he had appointed to meet him twenty-seven en­signs of foot and three hundred horse, which he proposed to divide into regiments, appoint­:ng colonels for the same . . . These champion fields are called by the natives “Curaghs

A better place for deploying of an army I never beheld....
That night, there’ being no town nearer than Naas, we were forced to lie in a village called Kilcullen, a sorry cluster of mean houses, and they so few that he who had a roof to lie un­der was accounted happy
   It being the first night of taking to the field since our coming to Ireland the’ confusion was great; there being as yet no tents, so that they that could not find shelter under a roof, must needs sleep under the’ open sky. In every direc­tion there were squires searching for their mas­ters; great Lords not knowing where to lay their heads; horses fastened with stanchions to the earth; cloaks of great price flung heedless upon the foul and muddy ground.

   The village of Kilcullen lies upon either side of a bridge of planks which crosses the river Liffey
. . . In number it contains perhaps twe’nty cabins, the owners of which had fled leaving them empty.. . My Lord’s own quar­ters were in the principal house in the village. When I went in to him he was sitting upon a great heap of straw gathered together in the middle of the room, with a light fixed above his head, and a letter newly writ upon his knee . . . Next day the army advanced towards Athy.”

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The Wars of theConfederation

“Parties on the back of parties, at war with the world and with one’ another.”—Thomas Carlyle on the Confederation of Kilkenny.

The 1641 Rebellion saw considerable military activity on and about the Curragh area. The castles and fortifications of the county were to change hands many times as the armies marched back and forth through Kildare. Ormonde led his army south from Dublin, in March, 1642, to victory near Ross. His army consisted of “two thousand five hundred foot and eight hundred horse, which number of horse and foot were never made full. There were two brass culverins and four brass field-pieces.” The army lodged at Newlands on the first night, 1st March; then to Naas for the second night; from “thence they passed over the Liffey, two miles beneath Castle-martin, in which there was a garrison of Rebels, under the command of one Fitzgerald. It was re­solved to take this castle, and if they stood out, to kill and burn the house.”

The garrison ‘surrendered and were allowed to depart. “From Castlemartin the army was dis­persed to lodge in the villages about the Curragh of Kildare and the’ Lord General’s regiment lodged in the town and castle of Kildare.”’

The area was retaken the following year when Lord Castlehaven, the Confederation’s General of Horse, led his forces into county Kildare in June, 1643. He states:— “Having mastered this place (i.e., Dollards­town, near Athy), in the evening I despatched a party of horse and foot to invest Tully, which they did before day. In the morning I arrived myself and having planted my guns, summoned the place and had it yielded . . . Having thus taken this castle and left a garrison to secure it, I encamped on a heath called the Curragh of Kildare, from whence I summoned all the castles there-abouts, and had them yielded.”
These actions by the Confederate General were the subject of Ormonde’s letter to the Lord Jus­tices and Council on the 7th of September, 1643, for he’ wrote:— “I understand that Tully is rendered to the Earl of Castlehaven and I understand also that their forces lie now before Lackagh and Rose­brye, and have summoned Castlemartin . .

Ormonde handed over the city of Dublin to the Parliamentarian Forces in July, 1647. At this time also we find the Leinster Confederate forces, commanded by General Preston, “after all neces­saries were provided for the advance of the army it was mustered in the Curragh of Kildare.”

    Preston advanced towards Dublin on the 11th of July; crossed the Liffey and missed an opportunity of inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, under Col. Jones, at Kill. Bellings, secretary to the Su­preme Council of the Confederation, tells us that this failure was caused “by the supine remissness of General Preston and the valour and good con­duct of Colonel Jones, the party under his com­mand retired with no great loss to Dublin, and the general returning to Naas, sent out a party that took in Harristown upon quarter.”

Preston later went on to defeat at Dungan’s Hill in August, 1647;

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From the Jacobite Wars to 1798

There is a description of Kildare, dated 1683, which refers to the Curragh and points out that upon any general meeting or rendezvous of ihe Army or Militia this is the place.” The Curragh “was the place” chosen by Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, to prepare his army for the cause of James II. Tyrconnell’s proclamation dated the 18th of July, 1687, was drafted “for the con­venience and better accommodation of the army at Kildare our headquarters during the time of the camp at Curragh” and instructed officers, amongst other things:
“to keep their soldiers to their duty, prevent their straggling abroad and oblige them to the observation of the strictest rules, articles and disciplines of war.”
In 1688 there was again a camp on the Curragh for “three regiments of horse, one regiment of dragoons and seven regiments of foot.” It is recorded that “Win. Spike was paid £38-I 1-10 for straw for use of the camp.
   King James II sailed from Brest on March 17, 1689, and landed at Kinsale on the 22d of March. His party of 83 persons included a number of French and Irish officers. James moved to Dublin while Boisseleau, one of the French officers, re­mained in the south “to perform what seemed the thankless and unpromising task of drilling Irish recruits.” His position was greatly im­proved by the arrival, in Kinsale on the 7th of May, of reinforcements and supplies from France. The 3,000 troops on board were English, Irish and Scottish—part of James’s army that had escaped to France from England. These troops were placed under Boisseleau’s command. Boisse­leau was a capable officer and as his new army from the south began to collect, “in the camp specially prepared near Dublin not far from the Curragh in Kildare,”’ a completely demoralised Jacobite force was falling back to Drogheda from its failure to seize Derry. The French officer, d’Escots, ordered to complete a muster roll of all the Jacobite Forces reported, on August 29, 1689, that nine regiments were on the Curragh with a total strength of 4,400.
   During the winter of 1689-90 the Jacobite forces were concentrated and trained and further French aid arrived at Kinsale on the 22d of March, 1690. This French force, commanded by Lauzun, numbered nearly 7,000 men and con­sisted mainly of Swiss, Flemish and Walloon troops. Lauzun hurried to L)ublin, “and the French regiments followed as rapidly as they could over bad roads to pitch the tents, with which they had come provided, on the Curragh of Kildare.”;’
   The Jacobite army subsequently moved north to defeat at the battle of the Boyne, and as James fled south to escape to France, it is recor­ded that “the Duke of Berwick and Tyrconnell went away as did all the rest to the Curragh of Kildare.”
   It was the end of the eighteenth century that saw considerable military activity on the Curragh. An interesting incident took place in 1795 on the plains between Lord Edward Fitzgerald and some dragoon officers following the Curragh races. Lord Edward attended the meeting with a friend and wore a green silk handkerchief round his neck
—a colour considered “too national” for many of the day. At the end of the races Lord Edward and his friend headed for home at a canter and
“they found themselves overtaken by a party of from ten to a dozen officers, who, riding past them at full gallop, wheeled round so as to ob­struct their passage, and demanded that Lord Edward should take off his green cravat. Thus accosted, Lord Edward answered cooly: ‘Your cloth would speak you to be gentlemen, but this conduct conveys a very different impression. Ato this neckcloth that so offends you, all I can say is, here I stand; let any man among you~ who dares, come forward and take it off.
   Taken by surprise the officers stood aside and allowed the two friends to continue. As to the conduct of the officers “a significant verdict was passed at a Curragh ball shortly after, when it was agreed, as I have heard, by all the ladies in the room not to accept any of them as partners.
   The reorganisation of the Irish Militia in the years prior to the 1798 Rebellion saw the force ex­perience growing pains. Discipline in the force left much to be desired and the example set by the regular troops did little to set the standard. The six regiments of cavalry assembled in camp at the Curragh in 1797 (Fig. 1), were found
   “perfectly ignorant of the new exercise; there were irregularities in most of these regiments with regard to feeding and buying of horses and the application of savings upon these two heads.

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The Rebellion of ‘98

Where will they pitch their camp’?
says the Shan Van Vocht,
On the C
urragh of Kildare,
And the’ boys will all be there
With their pikes in good repair,
Says the Shan Van Vocht.

The county of Kildare was witness to many of the events of the 1798 Rebellion. The United Army struck with surprise on May 23rd and after quick successes at Old Kilcullen, Clane and Pros­perous forced the Crown forces to withdraw to Naas. By May 26th an army of about 30,000 United men had occupied the towns of Kildare, Prosperous and Kilcullen and the villages’ of Rath­angan, Newbridge and Ballitore. For six days the rebel forces held the county and with the passing of their first flush of enthusiasm they sought terms from General Dundas. Dundas, who was not without critics in ordering the withdrawal of his forces to Naas, proved most adept in his negotiations with the rebels. He was prepared to offer generous terms and on Knockaulin, a rebel camp, he “personally received the surrender of the three thousand men there ... The pikes and guns were deposited in an enormous pile. . . the entire rebel army, leaders and all, were allowed to disperse to their homes.”

News of’ the actions of the upright and humane General Dundas spread to the other rebel camps in the county and like terms were sought. Little did the rebels, encamped on the Curragh, know that their negotiations were to end in a tragic event known as the “Gibbet Rath Massacre.” Dundas commenced his discussions with the rebel forces, some sx thousand, on the 29th of May at the Gibbet Rath. There is every reason to believe that Dundas would have concluded the negotia­tions as successfully as he had done the previous day on Knockaulin. However, early on the morn­ing of the 29th of May, General Sir James Duff arrived at Kildare town from Limerick with a military force. Duff had organised “a flying column of sixty dragoons, about 350 militia and six field pieces”’ and departing from Limerick on the 27th of May had so forced the pace as to arrive at Kildare on the 29th of May.

Duff found Kildare town in ruins and ordered his forces to advance to the rebel camp on the Curragh. Sources differ as to whether or not Duff was aware of the surrender being negotiated by Dundas at this time at the Gibbet Rath. The sub­sequent event is also disputed. One account states that as Duff’s forces approached the Rath the assembled “rebels fired on” them, whereas another source records how “one man in the crowd, saying he would not hand over his fire-lock loaded, blazed it off in the air.” All sources are agreed as to the results of the attack that fol­lowed. Duffs force attacked the crowd and by the time the yeomanry regiment, ‘Lord Roden’s fox-hunters,’ were recalled some 350 of the rebels lay dead, scattered over the Curragh. General Duff’s force suffered no casualties.

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The French scare

In 1804 the possibility of a French invasion saw an increase in the militia activities through­out Ireland. To meet training needs two camps were, approved, one at Killeady Hill, near Cork, and the larger at the Curragh. During August, 1804, some 13,000 troops were at the Curragh and included Cork, Donegal, Leitrim and Mon­aghan militias. The men were encamped “in light marching order and ready to move at short notice” but “water had to be brought by hand a distance of nearly a mile. This was the prin­cipal inconvenience.” One visitor to the camp was much impressed by the attentive manner of the men at divine service, their good conduct in camp, and their improved state of health. The Viceroy, the Earl of Hardwicke, reported to Whitehall that “the camp on the Curragh has been of great use . . . it has served to con­vince the lower orders of people that . . . troops can be moved to different points in a very short time.”

In 1805 the “camp at the Curragh was the military event of the year. The schemes provided for twenty-two infantry battalions being present, nine of which were militia. On the first, August, the troops destined to occupy this camp appeared on the ground in six divisions. The order to take up positions being given by signal, the different points allotted to the several regiments were im­mediately occupied; and the command to pitch tents being announced by another signal, the whole camp was formed in little more than two minutes.” The Cmnmander of the Forces, Gen­eral Lord Cathcart, had his quarters adjacent to the standhouse, and “having a great liking for the Armagh regiment” nominated this unit a’s his own bodyguard~ The camp broke up early in September.

It was 1808 before the next camp was opened on the Curragh where seven militia and six regu­lar regiments assembled. The camp lacked the spectacular opening of the 1805 camp and, apart from hard work, some time was found for gaiety. There were “camp balls every Thursday at the standhouse” and “a public ordinary every Sunday at three o’clock for ladies and gentlemen.” These events were calculated to relieve the tedium of camp life. The highlight of the year was the visit to the camp of Sir Arthur Wel’lesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington, as ‘he made his way ‘to Cork en route to the Peninsula Wars. As he “passed the line,” on the 4th of July, he was greeted with such enthusiasm that one observer expressed the opinion that “had it been permitted . . . the whole army on the Cur­ragh would have willingly accompanied the gal­lant general.”

    If 1815 is remembered by most as the year of Wellington’s victory over the French at Water­loo, on the Curragh it marked the victory of Dan Donnelly over George Cooper, the English cham­pion boxer. The fight took place on the 13th of December at the place that has since been known as “Donnelly’s Hollow.” A great crowd attended and a street-ballad recalls the action in the eleventh and final round :
   Donnelly rose up again, and meeting with great might,
   For, to surprise the nobles all, continued at the fight.
   Cooper stood on his own defence; exertion proved in vain.
   He soon received a temple blow which stretched him on the plain.”

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