The Reverend McGhee's house successfully defended against the Rebels for History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 (1845), — Cruikshank's thirteenth illustration, 10 cm high by 14.7 cm wide, framed. The image is one of twenty-one which Cruikshank completed for the 1845 revised edition of the 1803 historical work. Source: McLean, p. 78. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Passage Illustrated

On this occasion, in effecting a retreat, they lost their commanding officer and a few men, while the infantry fell back to the barrack, and prepared for an obstinate defence. A house * that looked upon the main street, and commanded a flank of the building occupied by the troops, was occupied by a clergyman named McGhee and nine private individuals. This was indeed a dangerous post; for though the lower part was tolerably secured, a thatched roof seriously endangered its gallant defenders. The town was immediately entered by the rebels, who fired it in a dozen places, and with the exception of the barrack, and a few houses that were detached, Hacketstown was speedily in a blaze. Beside an enormous number of pikemen, the insurgents mustered a thousand musketeers. To oppose them, one hundred and twenty royalists occupied the barrack, and ten determined allies garrisoned the house which formed an outwork.

While the conflagration was at its height, the loyalists were sadly inconvenienced at the dense smoke, which entirely concealed the movements of their assailants. At noon however, the roofs of the burning houses fell in, a brisk breeze dispelled the smoke, the royalists could clearly see their enemies, their exertions were redoubled, and their musketry plied with fatal effect.

The flanking position of McGhee's house, at once shewed the rebels that the barrack could not b attacked successfully, until the covering building was reduced. On the outwork, accordingly, their efforts were directed. To cover their people from a fire steadily maintained from the windows, they attempted to mask their advance, by pushing forward cars loaded with feather-beds. This breastwork, however, proved unavailing — twenty-eight of the assailants were shot down — and the rest after a trial of twenty minutes, retreated in confusion.

On the barrack the rebels made no impression, and in their vain attempts sustained a heavy loss, besides cart-loads of dead and wounded which were carried off, many were thrown into the burning houses and consumed. This was not an unusual practice with the rebels — the dead were gotten rid of to conceal the extent of their loss — the wounded, not unfrequently, to prevent their giving information to the loyalists.

The defence of McGhee's house was truly gallant, but the daring party he commanded would not have been able to defend themselves for want of ammunition, had not Lieutenant Fenton of the Talbot's-town cavalry, been accidentally prevented from attending elsewhere, by a severe contusion occasioned by a fall from his horse. Seated between two windows and protected by the pier, he continued to make cartridges for his companions — while his lady, insensible to the danger, boldly continued to visit the marksmen, and supply them with refreshment. When the stock of bullets began to fail, she melted pewter plates, cast them into bullets, and her husband formed them into cartridges.

This affair commenced at six in the morning, and terminated at three in the afternoon. . . .

* "The family of Mr. McGhee, all the Protestant women in the place, and even the wife of General Byrne (whom, it was said, he wished to get rid of) took refuge in it. Mr. McGhee barricaded the lower part of the house, placed four men in the rear to prevent it being burned, and the five in front, not only for its defence, but to cover the side of the barrack which was exposed" — Musgrave. — Chapter 16, "Attack on Hacketstown — Affair at Barryellis — Repulse at Ballyraheen — Rebels driven from the White Heaps — and afterwards defeated and dispersed at Barrygullen," p. 172-173.


[Cruikshank's twenty, full-page steel engravings] depict actual historical events, but must be regarded as jingoist propaganda. Despite their obvious bias, the illustrations have artistic merit for their rich detail and effective depiction of various characters from all strata of society. — "The Irish Rebellion — Propaganda as Art."

Whereas the book's narrative of the barricaded house outlines the clergyman's strategic defence of his house, Cruikshank shows his cool demeanour as the badly outnumbered Protestants of Hacketstown, with but a single soldier (seated at the table) for professional military leadership, defend the second storey of the minister's house. Here, Cruikshank does not denigrate the Irish rebels, showing only the determined resistance of seven defenders (one apparently a mere youth, and one a woman at the fireplace, making bullets from the pewter plates before her on the floor. Of a more genially humoristic order are his well-known book illustrations, now so deservedly esteemed for their inimitable fun and frolic, among other qualities, such as the weird and terrible, in which he excelled. But here, without hyperbole, distortion, or embedded symbols or texts, Cruikshank only implies the opposition without by the bullet-holes in the shutters and the smoke of the burning buildings blowing into the windows and mingling with the gunpowder smoke. Billowing white and darker smoke rises dramatically as one man, kneeling, discharges his weapon, two reload, and one prepares to fire. Cruikshank has made several noticeable changes: although there are two windows, as in the text, he has reduced the number of defenders from ten to six, and has the wounded lieutenant rather than the clergyman making cartridges at the table, throwing the focus onto the middle-aged man in waistcoat and white breeches whom we may assume is the owner of the house, the stalwart Reverend McGhee.

A few additional titles will suggest the extent and varied nature of Cruikshank's commissions as a book illustrator during his later career. In 1845, he achieved one one of his most remarkable successes in the twenty-one plates he made to embellish W. H. Maxwell's History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 (Cohn 541). There is nothing in the artist's work to prepare one for the brutal savagery of this picturing of the horrors of civil warfare; indeed, to match the stark ferocity of such etchings as "Murder of George Crawford and his Granddaughter," "The Rebels executing their Prisoners, on the Bridge at Wexford," or "Rebels destroying a House and Furniture," one would have to go to Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra. Totally different in character are the artist's thirty etchings on steel for Frank Fairleigh: or, Scenes from the Life of a Private Pupil. . . . — E. D. H. Johnson, p. 19.

This grim, new realism in his work comes after his collaborations with novelists Charles Dickens and William Harrison Ainsworth; as with The Bottle and The Drunkard's Children. Here Cruikshank deals with the horrors of reality rather than of fiction; but his method is much the same: those with whom we should identify are touchingly human, whereas the villains are insensitive brutes, their faces distorted and animalistic.

The 1798 rising occurred in the spring and summer and involved between 30,000 and 50,000 insurgents and around 76,000 government troops. There were two main centers of rebellion: in Eastern Ulster, where the insurgents were decisively defeated at Antrim and at Ballynahinch, and in South Leinster, where the critical rebel defeat occurred at Vinegar Hill (Co. Wexford) on 21 June. A French landing, at Killala (Co. Mayo) in August, came too late to assist the Irish insurgents, and was defeated at Ballinamuck (Co. Longford) within a week of arriving. The rising cost perhaps 30,000 lives. — The Oxford Companion to British History.

Bibliography "Cruikshank." "The Irish Rebellion — Propaganda as Art."

Burton, Anthony. "Cruikshank as an Illustrator of Fiction." George Cruikshank: A Revaluation. Ed. Robert L. Patten. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1974, rev., 1992. Pp. 92-128.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Part One, "Dickens and His Early Illustrators: 1. George Cruikshank. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1980. Pp. 15-38.

"The Irish Rising of 1798." The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford, New York: Oxford U. Pr, 1997.

Maxwell, William Hamilton. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798; with memoirs of the Union, and Emmett's insurrection in 1803. Illustrated by George Cruikshank and E. P. Lightfoot. London: Baily Brothers, Cornhill, 1845. [Cruikshank, not mentioned on the title-page, provided etchings; he is more prominently mentioned on the title-page of the George Bell edition of 1884.]

Paulson, Ronald. "The Tradition of Comic Illustration from Hogarth to Cruikshank." George Cruikshank: A Revaluation. Ed. Robert L. Patten. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1974, rev., 1992. Pp. 35-60.

Kitton, Frederic G. "George Cruikshank." Dickens and His Illustrators. London: Chapman & Hall, 1899. Pp. 1-28.

McLean, Ruari. George Cruikshank: His Life and Work as a Book Illustrator. English Masters of Black-and-White. London: Art and Technics, 1948.

Last modified 16 July 2017