Rebellion is one of the keystones of Irish history. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the commemoration of the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion. Communities in towns and villages throughout the eastern part of Ireland where the 1798 rebellion had been concentrated, walked, talked, wrote and published the places, people and events of their areas during those troublesome times.
Just a few years after the 1798 rebellion had been put down and following the passing of the Act of Union another rebellion was in the planning. This time it was largely the work of one man assisted by veterans of the 1798 campaign. Robert Emmet had been expelled from Trinity College Dublin in a purge of radical students prior to the 1798 rebellion and spent two years in France in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain military aid for another rebellion in Ireland. He returned to Dublin in October 1802 and with the help of 1798 veterans Thomas Russell of Co. Down, Myles Byrne of Co. Wicklow, Michael Quigley of Co. Kildare and Nicholas Gray of Co. Wexford began preparing for another tilt at the might of the British empire.
Emmet planned to seize important buildings in Dublin city following which men from the adjoining counties were expected to march into the city to reinforce the rebels’ control of the capital. One of the key players in that plan was Nicholas Gray who despite being one of the more senior Wexford rebels of the 1798 campaign, had escaped execution. Gray was secretary of the Rebel Council of Wexford and acted as aide-de-camp to Bagnal Harvey at the battle of Ross on 5th June 1798. Bagnal Harvey who was a popular Protestant landlord and a barrister had been a member of the United Irishmen in Dublin before the organisation was proscribed. He was not a military man but despite this and his apparent reluctance to get involved in the rebellion he was put in control of the Wexford rebels. Jonah Barrington, a relation of the Barringtons of Athy writing of the 1798 rebellion and the Battle of Ross noted “Harvey and his aide-de-camp, Mr. Gray, a Protestant attorney, remained upon a neighbouring hill inactive during ten hours successive fighting.” Harvey was executed after the rebellion was put down. Nicholas Gray was arrested but was freed on being discharged at the assizes in Wexford in November 1799. Gray was 25 years of age and because of his involvement with the Wexford rebels he was removed from the roll of Attorneys and thereafter could no longer practice his profession. He had married Eleanor Hughes of Ballytrent, Co. Wexford in 1795. She was a sister of Henry or Harry Hughes who, like Gray, sided with the Wexford rebels in 1798 and was later arrested and released the following year with his brother-in-law.
Gray came to live in the Athy area after his release in 1799. Various written references to “Nicholas Gray of Rockfield” have been noted. He lived there with his wife and his two children, Nicholas and Sophia. Gray’s involvement in rebellious activity did not end in 1798 for in 1803 we find Robert Emmet appointing Nicholas Gray of Rockfield, Athy as General in charge of the Co. Kildare rebels who were to march to Dublin to assist Emmet and his men. On 24th July 1803 Gray and his gardener, William Murphy, set out for Dublin. Having reached Johnstown, news was received of disturbances in Dublin where about 50 men, including Lord Kilwarden, Lord Chief Justice had been killed in Thomas Street. Gray immediately returned to Athy, reaching Rockfield on the Sunday evening. His brother-in-law and fellow rebel Henry Hughes who had stayed in Gray’s house on the night of the 23rd had left for Wexford that morning. Murphy was dispatched to bring Hughes back. Overtaking him at Tullow, both the men returned to Rockfield. Gray and Hughes then left for Dublin.
In the meantime Robert Johnston, an Athy resident who had been in Dublin during the disturbances of Saturday, 23rd July, returned next day to the town. Acting on what authority it is not now known, Johnston attempted to put all gun powder in the town under requisition for sale to the “loyal men that want it”. Johnston, writing to Dublin Castle on the 26th noted, “The rebellion in Dublin was well known by the shopkeepers (papists) before I came home and an officer of yeomanry had applied to get powder from the shops and was told they had not any. I feared they had it secured for improper purposes”.
Within days an anonymous letter was sent to Dublin Castle advising a watch was to be kept on Gray and Hughes. Both men were arrested in early October, as was William Murphy who was Gray’s gardener and Michael Cummins, his man servant. The four men were lodged in Athy Gaol which was then located in the basement of White’s Castle where the accommodation on the admission of Thomas Rawson, the leading loyalist in the town made “the removal of Messrs. Gray and Hughes a matter of justice”. The prisoners were separated under direct orders from Dublin Castle and later transferred to Dublin. Neither Murphy or Cummins who made statements were able or willing to implicate either Nicholas Gray or Henry Hughes. Both men were still incarcerated in Athy Gaol on 1st April 1804 when Thomas Rawson sought warrants directed to the jailer in Athy to ensure their continued detention. The application was refused and Murphy and Cummins were discharged within days.
Gray and Hughes had been sent in the meantime to Kilmainham Gaol and Gray was eventually transferred on health grounds to lodgings under custody at 3 Buckridge’s Court off Ship Street in Dublin. From there he wrote a memorial on 4th March 1805 petitioning for better living conditions and he appears to have been freed sometime thereafter. Hughes appears to have been released before Gray and on gaining his freedom he sold his property at Ballytrent in Wexford and emigrated to America. Following his own release Gray returned to the Athy area and was residing, according to a deed which was signed in 1808, at Woodbine which is in the same area as Rockfield. Gray and his family emigrated to America sometime prior to October 1809 and eventually settled near Natchez, Mississippi. There he died in or about 1819.
The events of 1803 are of interest to us here in Athy because of Gray’s involvement and on Tuesday, 25th November Seamus Cullen will give a talk in the Town Hall commencing at 8.00pm on the topic “Robert Emmet’s Rebellion with particular reference to Athy”. Admission is free and anybody interested in Irish history should make an effort to come along and hear what promises to be an interesting talk illustrated by slides.