Gibbet Rath and the Priest’s Grave

(excerpt from The Curragh – A Lifetime of Memories 1997)

By Jim Kavanagh

The United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798 was strongly supported in the Kildare area, and it was on the Curragh of Kildare that the worst atrocities and suppression of the rising were witnessed.

The rebels took over a number of towns in the Kildare area and having held the government forces at bay for over a week they negotiated favourable surrender terms with Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Dundas, Commander of the Midland District Militia. They were to proceed to the Gibbet Rath on the south-west plains of the Curragh on May 29, where they would hand over their arms and would be allowed to return to their homes unharmed.

Large numbers of rebels gathered at the Gibbet Rath to meet General Dundas. Unfortunately for them Dundas was called away before he could accept their surrender. Instead General Sir James Duff, a ruthless English officer, arrived with his army which included a regiment know as Roden’s Foxhunters led by Viscount Jocelyn, a leading racing man whose father - the Earl of Roden - was one of the original founders of the Turf Club in Kildare Town. General Duff had been informed that a soldier from Romney’s Fencibles was knocked from his horse and killed on The Curragh. He was outraged and vowed to avenge the death. Reports from Kildare Town on the eve of the massacre stated that several of Roden’s Foxhunters in a riotous and drunken state, marched through the streets with fixed bayonets swearing loudly “we are the boys who will slaughter the croppies tomorrow at the Curragh”. This behaviour deterred many rebels from proceeding to The Curragh thereby saving many lives.

On the fateful day, May 29 1798, the rebels assembled at the Gibbet Rath where they handed in their weapons. They were immediately surrounded by General Duff and his forces which, besides Roden’s Light Dragoons, included the Monasterevin cavalry along with other militia. Duff ordered his army to “charge and spare no rebel”. Over 350 men were slaughtered as they fled in panic, many more were badly injured but feigned death until calm prevailed. It was reported that in one street in Kildare alone that night 85 widows were counted. Within a 10-mile radius of the Curragh there was hardly a house or cottage that didn’t have a father, brother or son killed. Some of the rebels were buried in Kildangan and their names are recorded there. Other were buried in Grey Abbey in Kildare and some in Nurney.

A priest, believed the be Father O’ Farrell of the Carmelite Order Kildare Town arrived to intercede for the rebels only to be sabered by mounted soldiers of the Black Horse Regiment. Two local women, believed to be Hoolihan and Casey, along with a youth, carried the body from the scene and hid it in the furze bushes. They returned the next day and buried the priest in a shallow grave. The grave was marked by a stone and was known only to local people. When the gallops were being laid out, the grave was disturbed. Some trainers tried to have the stone removed but the stable lads dismounted from their horses and refused to work in protest.

In 1937, on the instigation of Eamonn Moran and Martin Cuddy, the National Graves Association erected a cross to mark the grave. The exact spot was pointed out by Dan McDonnell who was a ranger on the Curragh for over 40 years and knew every inch of the Curragh plains. He took his bearings from certain landmarks which had been handed down to him by his forefathers. Later, the late Commandant Guiney erected a concrete cross on the same spot. This was about 1943/4.

In 1948 Bishop Keogh laid the foundation stone of a statue of St Brigid on The Curragh. Later the County Council regarded the statue on the proposed site as a traffic hazard. It was then decided to erect the statue in Market Square, Kildare. It was executed by Desmond Broe, the well-known Dublin sculptor. The statue is 12 feet high and inscribed:

“In memory of about 350 men from Kildare who died at Gibbet Rath, Curragh 1798.”

It is situated at the edge of the square alongside the main Kildare- Dublin road. On Sunday June 6 1976 it was blessed by Bishop Patrick Lennon in the presence of Kildare clergy and a large congregation of people.

On April 12 1967 during repairs to the grave John Darcy, Lourdesville, Kildare and Jack Hanlon, French Furze, found a human skull and other bones a few inches below the surface verifying the local stories. The National Museum verified the skull as that of a young adult.

The cross that is at present situated at the priest’s grave was rededicated by Rev Monsignor Miller PP VF, Newbridge on Sunday May 25th 1967. He was assisted by clergy from Kildare, The Curragh, Suncroft and Carmelite Fathers Kildare.

The original stone which covered the grave lay undiscovered in the furze until 1996 when it was discovered due to a new all-weather gallop being constructed. The stone is now in the care of Reggie Darling who lives close by.

Jim Kavanagh