On a recent trip to New Ross in County Wexford, I took a diversion through Old Ross where I observed a signpost pointing towards the ‘Scullabogue Memorial’. This was, as far as I could see, the only signpost on any public road to an especially significant and poignant memorial. Yet, after two hours of driving around the rural hinterland of New Ross, my wife and I still could not find the memorial and only upon searching Google using an iPhone did we discover that the memorial is located in the picturesque graveyard of St Mary’s Church of Ireland church in Old Ross. (Frustratingly, this was located merely a stone’s throw from the ‘Scullabogue Memorial’ signpost which we drove past numerous times on this search!) In a county covered with numerous monuments pertaining to the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion, the poor signage to the Scullabogue Memorial was striking. A read through the memoir of UCC Professor Emeritus Tom Dunne, Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (2004; new ed. 2010), provides an insight into this relatively hidden memorial.
Firstly, a quick note is necessary on the Scullabogue Massacre, which occurred on the same day as the Battle of New Ross. On 5 June 1798 in the townland of Scullabogue, which lies just six miles from New Ross, a barn which was used by rebels to detain men, woman and children, mostly local Protestants who were considered loyalists, was set on fire, killing all those inside. In his account of the massacre, its wider context and its aftermath, Tom Dunne provides a listing of the names, residence, sex, occupation and religious affiliation of 126 known victims. 116 of the 126 were identified as Protestants, and of the men who were killed, they were typically tenant farmers, servants, labourers and artisans. Dunne suggests that traditional sectarianism, which became acutely heightened at that time, combined with local agrarian grievances to influence those who carried out the massacre. Many of the victims were believed to have been buried in a mass grave in the churchyard of St Mary’s, where the memorial now stands.
Caption: George Cruikshank’s infamous and sensationalised portrayal of the Scullabogue Massacre.
Dunne’s memoir paints a critique of the manner in which the bicentenary was marked in his native County Wexford, where, he argues, contemporary political agendas resulted in the promotion of particular historical interpretations of the rebellion. It is in this light that Dunne examines the decision to erect a memorial to the Scullabogue Massacre during the bicentenary commemorations in 1998.
The inscription on the memorial reads:
In this place the people of Wexford
remember the victims of Scullabogue Barn
interred here and at Templeshelin,
used to detain some one hundred
men, women and children.
The barn was set on fire on 5 June 1798,
the day of the Battle of Ross.
The remorse of the United Irish
at this outrage, a tragic departure
from their ideals, is shared
by the people of Ireland.
IN IOTLAINN DÉ GO DTUGTAR SINN.’
The ‘men, women and children’ were, in an earlier version of the text, referred to as ‘prisoners’ but this wording was subsequently dropped. According to Dunne, the inscription suggests that the real trauma of the Scullabogue Massacre was experienced by the United Irishmen and not those persons killed. The emphasis is on the ‘remorse’ and ‘ideals’ of the United Irishmen and not the suffering of the victims.
The Scullabogue Massacre sits uneasily within the nationalist version of Irish history. In a rebellion supposedly driven by the ideals of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, and which played a large role in shaping modern Irish nationalism and republicanism, the Scullabogue Memorial – ‘this modest stone, hidden away in a quiet corner of the little Church of Ireland churchyard’, as Dunne writes – serves as an uncomfortable, and regrettably lonely, reminder of this tragic and ugly event. The failure to satisfactorily commemorate the killing of more than 100 men, women and children in a massacre in which sectarian hatred played a part says as much about modern attitudes as it does about events more than two centuries ago. As we progress through the Decade of Commemorations, the case of the Scullabogue Memorial reminds us to be cautious in how we mark significant events in Irish history which are open to contentious and varied interpretations, and the influence of modern agendas.
Tom Dunne, Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798 (2004; new ed. Dublin, 2010): this book contains Dunne’s analysis of the massacre as well as an outline of his subsequent debate with local historians as to the manner in which the massacre has been remembered.
Daniel Gahan, ‘The Scullabogue Massacre, 1798’ in History Ireland, iv, no. 3 (Autumn 1996), pp 27-31 (http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/the-scullabogue-massacre-1798/).
Daniel Gahan, ‘New Ross, Scullabogue and the 1798 Rebellion in south-western Wexford’ in The Past: the Organ of the Uí Cinsealaigh Historical Society, no. 21 (1998), pp 3-33.