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The Battle Of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch

The year 1848 – the Year of Revolutions. First, revolution in Sicily. Then, revolution in Naples. Next, on 23rd February in Paris, as Victor Hugo recalls: 'A shot rang out, from which side is not known. Panic…and then a volley. Eighty dead on the spot. A universal cry of fury…Vengeance!'

King Louis Philippe takes flight. France becomes a republic. Vienna falls to the revolutionaries in March. So does Berlin and Budapest and Munich: here mad King Ludwig runs off with an Irish dancing girl. The Pope is chased out of Rome. Every single city in central Europe, with a population of 100,000 or more, has a revolution in 1848: the old order is shaken to its foundations.

And what about Ireland? Here the Young Irelander, Charles Gavan Duffy, declares: 'Ireland’s opportunity, thank God and France, has come at last! We must die rather than let this providential hour pass over us unliberated!'

John Mitchel, a Presbyterian solicitor from Co Down, is convinced that, though God had sent the potato blight, the British created the Famine. In his newspaper, the United Irishman, he preaches revolution.

But this is no time for a revolution in Ireland. Hundreds of thousands have died. And starvation and fever will kill many more before the year is out. Mitchel is arrested in May, convicted of treason-felony and transported to Tasmania. Charles Gavan Duffy is arrested in July. Other members of Young Ireland, planning rebellion, are in chains. William Smith O’Brien, a Protestant landlord from Limerick and an MP, agrees to raise the standard of revolt.

At first the prospects look good. Enthusiastic Young Ireland meetings take place in the counties of Meath and Limerick and 50,000 assemble on the mountain side at Slievenamon in Co Tipperary. O’Brien tours the counties of Wexford and Kilkenny and by the time he reaches Mullinahone in Co Tipperary he has 6,000 men armed with pitchforks, pikes and fowling pieces.

But O’Brien has made no arrangements to feed his rebel army. He tells his followers to go home and get enough food for four days and ‘oatmeal, bread and hard eggs’. These people cannot do that. Soon, though he is joined on 27th July by Terence Bellew McManus, a Fermanagh man with volunteers brought over from Liverpool, O’Brien has no more than 40 men following him.

As they march towards Slievenamon they confront a force of police at Ballingarry on Saturday 30th July. The constables take refuge in Widow McCormack’s house, a two-storey stone farm house standing in a cabbage garden.

The police barricade the windows using Mrs McCormack’s mattresses and furniture, tearing down her mantelpieces and taking doors off their hinges.

Then Widow McCormack comes up the road: she is frantic – her four young children are inside. O’Brien calls a truce to get the children out. He and McManus open the garden gate, walk up the path and O’Brien climbs onto a window-sill, shakes a constable’s hand and says that it is not their lives but their arms they want.

Then some insurgents begin throwing stones. The police fire two volleys. A man falls dead; another is severely injured; O’Brien gets a bullet in the leg; and the rebels flee from the scene. The Young Ireland rebellion is over.

The Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch is Ireland’s sole contribution to the Year of Revolutions. The English historian Thomas Carlyle writes: 'Ireland is like a half-starved rat, that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.'

The government has rushed special repressive legislation through Parliament and flooded the island with troops. But, showing remarkable restraint, the authorities do not ‘squelch’ the Young Irelanders. Not a single person is executed. O’Brien is arrested and condemned to be transported to Tasmania. One of the earliest photographs taken in Ireland shows him sitting proudly in a good suit with his gaolers holding an enormous key. He and John Mitchel are treated as ‘gentleman felons’ and given separate cabins on board their prison ships and supplied with books and a servant each.

That summer the potato blight returns with deadly force. News of the rebellion causes charitable contributions from Britain to dry up. Hundreds of thousands of starving have no choice but to become inmates of the workhouses. Officially the Famine is over but people continue to die. As late as June 1851 there are as many as 263,000 men, women and children in the workhouses.

1851 is a census year. The terrible toll of the Famine is revealed. The population of Ireland in 1841 was given as 8,175,124 in 1841. In 1851 it is 6,552,385. The Census Commissioners, taking into account the normal rate of increase, reckon that a loss of at least two and a half millions has taken place.
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