Diorama of The Races of Castlebar 1798

This diorama represents the "Races of Castlebar", a famous incident that occurred in the west of Ireland during the Irish rebellion of 1798. It was constructed in the town library in Ballina as part of the 1798 commemorative festival . The figures are from W. Britains, Frontline and Del Prado. Historians will note that the regiments represented are not strictly accurate. However it would be a good opportunity for people to see how such events can be represented in miniature. The diorama measures 172cms x 90cms wide and was built by Colmán Ó Raghallaigh with the help of Pat Gleeson. Photos are by Colin Barton.

The long-awaited French landing to assist the Irish revolution begun by Theobald Wolfe Tone's Society of United Irishmen earlier in 1798 took place on 22 August, when almost 1,100 troops under the command of General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert landed at Kilcummin Strand, County Mayo in the West of Ireland. Although the force was small, the remote location ensured an unopposed landing away from the tens of thousands of British soldiers concentrated in the east. The local town of Killala was quickly captured after a brief resistance by local yeomen. The larger town of Ballina was taken two days later following the rout of a force of cavalry sent from the town to oppose the Franco-Irish march. As news of the French landing spread, Irish volunteers began to trickle into the French camp from all over Mayo.

With a distinct sense of déją vu, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Cornwallis, of US War of Independence "fame", requested urgent reinforcements from England but in the interim all available forces were concentrated at Castlebar under the command of General Gerard Lake, also an unhappy veteran of the AWI. By dawn of 27 August the build-up of the British forces at Castlebar had reached 6,000 soldiers with dozens of artillery pieces and huge caches of supplies.

Leaving about 200 French regulars behind in Killala to cover his rear and line of withdrawal, Humbert took a combined force of about 2,000 French and Irish on 26 August to march on and take Castlebar. The obvious nature of his objective presented the reinforced British there with the apparent advantage of being able to deploy their forces to face a head-on attack from the Ballina road and their forces and artillery were accordingly arranged. However, locals advised the French of an alternative route to Castlebar through the wilds along the west of Lough Conn, which the British thought impassable for a modern army with attendant artillery train. This route was successfully taken and when Lake's scouts spotted the approaching enemy, the surprised British had to hurriedly change the deployment of their entire force to face the threat from this unanticipated direction.

The British had barely completed their new deployment when the Franco-Irish army appeared outside the town at about 6.00 a.m. The newly sited British artillery opened up on the advancing French and Irish and cut them down in droves. French officers, however, quickly identified an area of scrub and undergrowth in a defile facing the centre of the artillery line which provided some cover from the British line of fire. The French launched a bayonet charge, the ferocity and determination of which unnerved units of the militia stationed behind the artillery. The militia units began to waver before the French reached their lines and eventually turned in panic and fled the battlefield, abandoning the gunners and artillery. Some soldiers of the Longford and Kilkenny militias ran to join the republicans and even joined in the fighting against their former comrades. A unit of cavalry and British regular infantry attempted to stand and stem the tide of panic but were quickly overwhelmed.

In the headlong flight of the British soldiers, massive quantities of guns and equipment were abandoned, including General Lake's personal luggage, with some units fleeing as far as Athlone more than 60 miles away. The panic was such that only the arrival of Cornwallis at Athlone prevented further flight across the Shannon.

Although achieving a spectacular victory, the losses of the French and Irish were high, losing about 150 men, mostly to the cannonade at the start of the battle. The British suffered over 350 casualties of which about 80 were killed, the rest either wounded or captured, including perhaps 150 who joined the republicans. Following the victory, thousands of volunteers flocked to join the French who also sent a request to France for reinforcements and formally declared an Irish Republic.

Within a few weeks however the rebellion was crushed. The captured French soldiers were treated honourably and later repatriated but the Irish insurgents were massacred in large numbers as "rebels against the crown". Crops and cabins were burned across the country as General Lake sought to banish the memories of his ignominious defeat at Castlebar.

Article by Colmán Ó Raghallaigh