I culled the following information from a publication by John S. Powell called 'Portarlington & 1798'.
The Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791 by an urban group of liberal Protestants in Dublin and Belfast who sought to bring about reform of the Irish Parliament and to lessen the influence of the English establishment over Irish affairs. Spurred on by the events in France and America, the Irish movement rapidly gained the support of the rural Catholic population. By 1798, when almost the entire country descended into complete revolt, the aims of the United Irishmen had evolved to include the demand for a complete severance of the Irish link with Britain.
The rural areas of the country had been in a volatile state for decades before 1798 - the Catholic farming population rightfully resented the control of their affairs by a small Protestant elite; there was fierce competition for farm lettings and land tenancies amongst the impoverished farming population. The rural Catholics fought back against the injustice of landlordism and the tithe system by forming secret societies such as the Whiteboys or the Defenders, who sought to ‘punish all obnoxious persons who advanced the value of land, or hired farms over their heads.’
It was from the ranks of these secret societies that the United Irishmen would receive much of their support in 1798.
In the days before the existence of a police force, much of the country in the late 18th century began to form their own military groups by way of self-defence - in Portarlington town, even the pupils of Thomas Willis’s school had their own colours and imitation muskets.
Under threat of revolution, full martial law was declared on 30th March 1798 and the government demanded the surrender of all arms, threatening to send the army to live at free-quarters in suspect areas.
The rebel attack on Portarlington occurred on 25th May 1798. Following a failed attempt to capture the neighbouring town of Monasterevin, the surviving rebels, who were ill-organised, advanced on Portarlington. They were met by the 5th Dragoon Guards and the yeomen who killed some of them and dispersed the rest.
In 1824, the schoolmaster, Thomas Willis, wrote a report about the attack on Portarlington but limited his account to the fact that many of his privileged pupils had been taken away under escort for their own safety. His daughter-in-law, Deborah Charlotte, daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Newcombe and granddaughter of David d’Ully, Vicomte de Laval, gave better details, which she recounted to her daughter, Frances Willis, in the 1850s.
She told how the schoolboys took to drilling in imitation of the military, and that John Wilson Croker, a fellow pupil, “procured for them wooden muskets, not broom handles such as the Kerry millitia are learning their drill with.” A semblance of uniforms was acquired. “So perfect did they become in drill that they have been seen on parade by officers and soldiers of the line….but though they paid such regard to their colour they placed no faith in their muskets, when from the proximity of the rebels the boys were expecting to be called on to act, but every night upon retiring to rest they took care to have their pockets full of stones, then as now the most efficient weapon schoolboys can handle.
“Nor was Portarlington at the first much better defended than it would have been by these youthful warriors for when the rebels were pressing along scarcely a mile from the town, the gentry assembled in the market square armed as best they could with pitchforks, pokers and such like firearms, there not being a round of ammunition among them, nor any military in the town…in this extremity providentially the rebels got word that the town was well armed and they did not feel disposed to test the accuracy of the information. Had they come in they would have found at the large schools in the town the sons of gentlemen of high standing in the country, to prevent whom from falling into the hands of the rebels and being kept by them, as hostages, the government immediately sent down coaches under military escort to convey them to Dublin.”
Deborah Charlotte recalled that about 100 boys in this convoy were pupils at Thomas Willis’s school.
“…the following were of their number, the sons of Sir Matthew Blackstone, of Commissioner Beresford of the Customhouse, of Sir John Blaquiere, of Mr. Worthington of the Customhouse, of Mr. Needham of Merrion Square, of Mr. Conyers of Castletown Conyers, and of Mr. Massy of Glenville both in the County of Limerick, of Mr. Studdert, Killishen House County Clare. There were also the present Marquis of Westmeath, and his brother since dead…John Wilson Croker, 2 Sheridans relatives of R. B. Sheridan, Chas Lyons connected with Sir Levinge of Westmeath….” (Letter from Frances de Laval Willis to Sir Erasmus Borrowes, 23 April 1854/5/6. Private Collection.)
(In October 1798, Mary Philips wrote a letter home from Portarlington to her mother, Mrs. Philips of Mount Philips, Newport, Tipperary, in which she mentioned that the town was quiet; she also made mention of the Miss Penefathers (sic) who were very well and who sent their love to their aunt.)
Following the failed attack on Portarlington, the yeomanry and the English militia rounded up the insurgents and put them into the stocks in the town square. Four local men were tortured on the rack before being made to walk along a plank projecting from the second floor of the Market House with a rope around their necks; once dropped, the victims were disembowelled by the butcher. The four men who died were Darby Hyland, Robert Foster, Costello and Dempsey. Three others were executed in Dublin - Charles Fennell, Peter and John Bannon. Retribution by the English militia following the rebellion in the area was harsh and unforgiving, the innocent being executed along with the guilty. For many years afterwards, the country was still in a feverish and volatile state.
In 1804, Thomas Rawson, Captain of the Athy Light Infantry, wrote to Alexander Marsden, the government under-secretary in Dublin Castle:
“My youngest boy who is at school in Portarlington writes to me that one of the school…is constantly dropping expressions looking to rebellion. He lately returned after a week’s absence, appears in high spirits and has let fall, ‘that in nine days after the camp breaks up at the Curragh, the Roman Catholics will see the dawn of freedom’. I should not trouble with the expressions of a boy, but that I am convinced something desperate is meditated. Under this impression, I feel it my duty to communicate.” (National Archives, 3 Sept 1804.)
Following the events of 1798, Portarlington’s fortunes began to wane. Following the Act of Union in 1800, which did away with the Irish Parliament in Dublin, Portarlington lost one of its M.P.s. Thomas Willis recorded that many of his 500 pupils failed to return to the school following the rebellion. Once these wealthy children deserted Portarlington, the town lost its prestige and status and began to decline economically.