ENNISCORTHY, Ireland -- The sign says "Feeling rebellious?" Below on coat-hangers are British Army "Redcoat" uniforms, as worn by soldiers in the 18th century, alongside smocks and hats like those worn then by the Irish peasantry. Between are long-barrelled muskets and 3-metre-long pikes (wooden lances).
Visitors to the National 1798 Rebellion Centre here in County Wicklow are invited to don a uniform or a smock and pose with a musket or pike.
The photo opportunity is a light-hearted way to draw attention to the events of 1798. But there was nothing light-hearted about what the museum commemorates, for 1798 is seared in the Irish consciousness as the most bloody year in the country's history.
"It was the first time the entire country had risen up to oppose English rule and strive for an independent Ireland," says Rory O'Connor, the museum's marketing and promotions officer.
The rebellion lasted only a month but it cost an estimated 50,000 lives, mostly rebels, who were hopelessly outclassed. For the most part the rebels -- all of them on foot -- were armed with pikes, wooden staves and even scythes. On the opposing side, the army and its ally (the yoemanry, a citizens' militia) had cavalry, muskets, sabres and cannons filled with grapeshot (shrapnel, nails and musket balls), which inflicted terrible damage on the rebels.
As the museum points out, it all came to a head on June 21 in pitched battles in the streets of Enniscorthy and a short siege on nearby Vinegar Hill, where many of the townspeople had fled for protection. The hill was the principal rebel camp in County Wexford.
I walked part of the narrow road leading to the top of the hill, recalling that O'Connor had told me how it played a pivotal role in the battle. With defeat looming, the rebels poured down this road -- then a mud path -- to escape. The British had the hill surrounded, except for this route, which was supposed to be held by a General Needham, but the general and his men were late for the battle.
Many of the rebels got away, but the civilians on the hill weren't so lucky. The army and yeomanry moved in and systematically killed men, women and children. The number varies between 500 and 1,200.
This wasn't the first atrocity. Earlier, at the town of Scullabogue, the rebels captured a group of noncombatant loyalists. They executed the men, then locked the women and children in a barn and torched it. More than 100 died.
The museum tells the story vividly in audio-video displays, artefacts, contemporary accounts, wallboards and the aforementioned "Feeling rebellious?" dress-up activity. It notes that, although after Vinegar Hill the rebellion was effectively over, there were sporadic skirmishes for several months afterward, including a landing on the west coast by French troops sent to aid the rebels. The French were routed.
-- Enniscorthy locals say on a quiet day you can hear the sounds of battle amid the ruins of the old windmill on Vinegar Hill. Others say it's just the wind.
-- Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney in his poem Requiem for the Croppies, writes of Vinegar Hill: "Terraced thousands died/Shaking scythes at cannon." (Rebels were called croppies because of their close-cropped hair.)
-- Ireland was a British colony in the 18th century, but the events of 1798 spurred Westminister to push through the Act of Union of 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with direct rule from London.
-- There were three more failed Irish rebellions -- in 1848, 1867 and 1916 -- before the country (except for the six counties of Northern Ireland) achieved independence in 1921.
-- In the Antique Tavern, a cozy half-timbered pub on Enniscorthy's Slaney Street, the walls are adorned with pikes, reportedly used in 1798.
NEED TO KNOW
-- For further information, check the website knightsandrebels.ie.
-- For tourist information on Ireland, go to visitireland.com.