A Night with the Rapparees by Edmund Leamy

(From the Memoirs of an Officer of the Irish Brigade.)

It was towards the end of October in the year before the Battle of Fontenoy, and a few months before I joined one of the flocks of “the Wild Geese” in their flight to France, that I fell in with the experience which I am now about to relate. I had been staying for a few days with a friend in the west of the County of Cork, and I had started for home in full time, as I had hoped, to reach it before nightfall. My shortest way, about five miles, lay across the mountains. It was familiar to me since I was a child, and I felt sure I could make it out in dark as well as in daylight. When I started a light wind was blowing. Some dark clouds were in the sky, but the wind was not from a rainy point, and I was confident that the weather would keep up. When, however, I had traversed half the way, the wind changed suddenly and a light rain began to fall. I pushed on more quickly, yet without misgiving, but before I had gone a half-mile further the mountain was suddenly enveloped in mist that became denser at every step. I could scarcely see my hand when I stretched it out before me. The mossy sheep-track beneath my feet was scarcely distinguishable, and now and again I was almost tripped up by the heather and bracken that grew high at either side.

I found it necessary to move cautiously and very slowly; yet, notwithstanding my caution, I frequently got tangled in the heather, but succeeded in regaining the path. I continued on until I judged that I had made another half-mile from the spot in which I was first surrounded by the mist. How long I had been making this progress it was difficult for me to estimate, but I became aware that the night had fallen, and I was no longer able to distinguish anything even at my feet. I began to doubt whether I was on the proper path, for sheep tracks traversed the mountain in all directions. It occurred to me to turn into the bracken and try to make the best shelter I could. The bracken here grew to a height of nearly three feet, and some of the stalks were thick and strong. I had often amused myself when a child twining the stalks together, and making them into a cosy house, and often escaped thereby from a heavy summer shower. The mere recollection of my childish efforts lightened my heart, though I was conscious enough that the experiment I was about to make was not likely to be very successful. But I set to, and tore up some of the bracken, and began to twist it around the standing clumps so as to form a roof, but when I had gone on a few feet from the track I felt the ground slipping from my feet. I caught hold of a clump of bracken only to pull it from the roots, and to find myself sliding down I knew not whither. Stones were rumbling by my side, but fortunately none of them touched me, and quicker than I can tell it I was lying prone on the earth. I stretched out my hands, and found level ground as far as I could reach on either side. I struggled till I regained my feet. I was dazed for a while, but when I fully recovered myself I was utterly perplexed as to what I was to do. After the experience which I had had I was afraid to move either to the right or left. I stood still, and I am not ashamed to say that I could distinctly hear the beating of my heart. The mist still enveloped me, so I was unable to see anything. Suddenly I thought I heard the sound of voices, but set that down to my imagination, for I knew there was no house within miles of me. I listened, however, with the utmost eagerness, and again I heard the voices.

I was about to shout when the mist a little in advance of me was brightened, as if a light were thrown on it. Instinctively I advanced in the direction of the luminous haze, when I felt myself caught by the neck by a firm grasp, and I was flung forward. My feet slipped on some projection, and I fell headlong.

When I managed to raise myself I saw I was in a dwelling of some kind, partially lighted by the blaze of a turf fire. Several men were present, and I distinctly saw the flash of firearms. There was at once a confusion of voices, and I was pulled to my feet by one of the men, who presented a horse-pistol at my head.

“Shoot him! He is a Sassenach spy!” came in a hoarse chorus from the men around the fire.

“No Sassenach am I,” I answered back, endeavouring to shake myself free from the grip of the man who held me.

“And who are you? And whence come you?” he asked, fiercely.

“Frank O’Mahony,” I said, “the son of Shaun O’Mahony, of the Glen.”

“Let me look at him,” cried an old woman, whom I had not previously noticed, and she shook off the grip of my captor and brought me towards the fire.

With a corner of her shawl she rubbed my face, and then she caught me in her arms.

“Ah, then, ’tis Frank—Frank O’Mahony,” said she. “Shure I nursed your mother, avourneen, on my knee. But ’tis no wondher the boys didn’t know you, for your own mother wouldn’t know you with the wet clay of the mountain plastered over your face, and ’tis you are welcome, Frank avourneen, in daylight or in dark, and shure no true Rapparee need close the doore again your father’s son.”

When the old woman had done speaking, the man who had seized me clasped my hand.

“Frank, my boy,” said he, “you’re welcome—welcome as the flowers of May. Make room for him there, comrades; don’t you see the boy is cowld and wet.”

And they made a place for me, and the old woman brewed a steaming jug of poteen, and she said to the others that I wasn’t to be asked a question until I had taken some of her mountain medicine.

Hardly had I taken the medicine when I felt pretty comfortable, and then when I got time to look about me I saw I was in something like a cave of large dimensions, half of which was in shadow owing to the imperfect light.

About half-a-dozen men came in shortly after my arrival, and then the whole force numbered thirty.

When all who had been expected had come, the captain, who was the man who had seized me said—addressing me:—

“Help and comfort we always got from your father, Frank O’Mahony. Ah, and if the truth were known, my boy, he spent many a night on the hills with the Rapparees. May Heaven be his bed to-night. You are over young yet, but still not too young to strike a blow for Ireland. There isn’t a man here who wouldn’t die for you if necessary.”

“I hope to strike a blow for Ireland,” I said, “but word has come from my uncle, Colonel O’Mahony, that he wishes me to go to France and join him.” “God bless the Colonel, wherever he is,” said the captain, “he’ll never miss the chance, but would to God he was with us at home. The best—the best and the bravest have gone away from us.”

“What are you saying, man,” said the old woman, suddenly confronting him. “There’s not a colonel nor a general in the whole French army a bit boulder or braver than our own Rapparees.”

“We do our best, Moira asthoreen,” said the captain, laying his hand on her shoulder, “but the men who are gone away are winning fame for the old land, God bless them all. For sure their thoughts are always with poor Ireland, and every blow they strike they strike for her, and their pride in the hour of victory is because their own old land hears of it.”

“Ay, and every blow the Rapparees strike, they strike for her, too,” said Moira, “and ’tis no living there would be no living at all at all for poor people here at home if it weren’t for the boys, and—come there now, Jem Mullooney, and give us a stave about my bowld Rapparees. Yes, you can do it when you like, and I bet Master Frank here never heard it.”

I admitted I never had, and I cordially joined in the chorus which followed, and endorsed Moira’s demand.

Moira, apparently delighted to hear me backing up her demand, said:

“Musha, good luck to the mist that brought you here, Master Frank,” said she, “and sure that same mist has often proved a great friend to the Rapparees.”

The men had seated themselves around the cave as best they could, some on bunches of heather, some on sods of turf, some on roots of trees roughly shaped into a seat. The captain, a few others and myself, were sitting close to the fire.

Jem Mullooney was nearly opposite me. The firelight flashing in his direction, enabled me to catch a full view of his face, and a fine face it was, though a little too long. You knew at a glance you could trust your life with him, but he looked like a pleased boy when he was importuned to give us the song.

Clearing his throat with the least taste of Moira’s medicine, he struck out in a rich voice, to a rattling air, accompanying himself occasionally with dramatic gestures, the following song:—

“THE RAPPAREES.

“Thirty troopers in the glen,
Thirty, stalwart fearless men;
All alert and cool and steady;
Sabres loose and carbines ready,
But who are moving through the trees?
Bang! Bang! they are the Rapparees!
Chorus:
Bang! Bang! they are the Rapparees!
“Twenty troopers in the glen——,
That volley emptied saddles ten?
Twenty troopers gain the hill——,
‘Halt,’ their captain cries ‘until
We breathe our horses.’ ‘If you please,
You’ll first ask leave of the Rapparees.’
Chorus:
 ‘You’ll first ask leave of the Rapparees.’
“The heather seems alive to-night;
Muskets flash a-left, a-right.
Troopers ten are scurrying fast
As clouds before the winter blast,
And empty ten more saddle trees.
’Tis you can shoot, my Rapparees.
Chorus:
‘’Tis you can shoot, my Rapparees.’”

The applause which followed the song had barely ceased, when a low whistle was heard from outside.

“Open!” cried the captain of the Rapparees.

The barrier closing the entrance to the cave was removed, and a man covered with perspiration, and almost fainting for want of breath, rushed in.

“Two troops of infantry left Adamstown Barracks three hours ago. Shaun-na-cappal was with them.”

“Shaun-na-cappal!”

“Yes! They made for the red lanes, and ought to be in the glen by this.”

Another low whistle was heard, when the door was again opened, and a lad burst in.

“The sojers are in the glen, captain, and the clouds are going and the moon is coming.”

“Well, my lads,” said the captain, “our retreat is discovered. They think they will catch us here like rats in a trap. Perhaps we can set one for them. Bar the entrance. Pile up everything; make it as firm as you can.”

The men set to work with a will, and their task was soon completed. The captain, having surveyed it, said:

“That will do, men. They won’t burst in that in a hurry. We have a means of escape, which I have hitherto kept to myself. Get a few picks and loosen the hearth stone. That will do. Lift it up now, boys, and leave it in the centre of the floor.”

The men did as they were bidden, and when the stone had been set down, the captain, catching up one of the flaming brands, held it over the opening discovered by the removal of the hearth stone. It was large enough to allow a man to go down through it.

“Nine or ten steps,” said the captain, “lead to a narrow passage, through which by stooping a man can make his way. It is not more than fifty yards long. The outlet is blocked by a bank of earth; but just there the passage is wide and high enough to allow two men to stand abreast and erect. A hole can easily be cut or dug through this bank.

“You, O’Donovan,” he said, turning sharply to one of the Rapparees, “will know, once you are outside, where you are—close to the stream that runs down to the glen. Take a dozen men with you, turn to the left, and five minutes will bring you to the heathery height above the left of the track leading to this cave. And you, Mullooney,” said the captain to the singer of “The Rapparees,” “take a score of men with you, and make for the right. You’ll have a bit of climbing at first, but in ten minutes you should be able to get down to the right bank of the track. Be all of you as wary as foxes, and let not a sound escape from any of you, even if you see the enemy coming right up to the door of the cave, and none of you are to fire a shot until you see a flaming brand flung out by us who will remain here to defend the cave against assault, but when you see the lighted brand, blaze away! If they waver, down on them like thunderbolts. When you beat them off, you will find us here, if not, we shall be at the sally gap two hours from this. Now go!”

“Would you like to go or stay, Frank?” said the captain, turning to me.

“I should like to go,” I replied.

“All right, my lad. Look to him, O’Donnell, and take this Frank,” said he, handing me a musket, “it has never missed fire.”

The two bodies of men descended in single file. The air of the passage was remarkably pure, and we made our way without difficulty. Then there was a halt of a few minutes while the foremost men were forcing a passage. One by one we passed out, and found ourselves knee-deep in the heather. A brawling stream ran down a few feet below us. O’Donovan and his men crept along by the stream. We, with O’Donnell at our head, clambered up through the heather, and in about ten minutes we were lying snugly concealed within fifteen yards of the rock in which was the cave entrance.

We were lying at right angles to it, and about twelve feet above the open space in front of the rock. It was from this very height I had fallen an hour before. Opposite us the ground was about the same elevation as ours, and in the cover of the heather which crowned it, O’Donovan and his men were to ensconce themselves.

The moon was shining, and for about twenty yards we had a full view of the pathway leading to the cave. At that distance it took a sharp turn. I had barely time to make these observations, when we saw the moonlight glint on the level arms of the advancing troops. In a few seconds they were against the face of the rock. With the soldiers was a tall, wiry-looking man, dressed in a long frieze coat that went to his heels.

“Where is the entrance?” cried the captain of the troops. “I can find none.”

“There,” came the answer in a hoarse whisper.

“There, behind those furze bushes.”

“Come, my lads,” said the captain, “clear away those bushes.”

The soldiers began to work. Our fingers were impatient. The desire to fire grew upon me, when suddenly from the cave came a flash, a report, and the tall man in the frieze coat fell without a moan. Another shot and another and two soldiers were struck down.

“Quick, my lads, quick! Bring a canister, and we’ll blow the door in or out.”

The soldiers advanced with the canister, and were about to set it down at the cave’s mouth. Only then was hurled out the red brand, the signal for firing.

We poured a volley into their midst, O’Donovan’s men firing at the same time, while single firing was kept up from the cave.

The troops were staggered; their captain was shot dead. They paused for a moment; then, as they turned to run, a second volley laid low more than half their number.

“Down on them!” cried O’Donnell.

We hurled ourselves down into the path. O’Donovan’s men as eager, but with a view to cutting off all hope of retreat, had rushed down on the other side so as to meet them retreating. Caught between the two forces, the soldiers clubbed their muskets and fought desperately. Not more than four or five escaped. Desisting from the pursuit, we returned to the cave.

Our captain and the men with him had, in the meantime, removed the barrier and were standing outside. We were all curious to see the opening through which the captain fired, and through which he threw the lighted brand. No one except himself had known of it. It was a fissure in the rock which had been closed up with clay and moss, and which the captain, when we left the cave, dug out with a bayonet.

In the meantime some of our men were examining the fallen enemy, and found five that were wounded only. These were borne into the cave and placed under the charge of the old woman, the captain saying that a large body of troops were sure to come out next day who would take them away.

There was one object that attracted universal attention—the corpse of Shaun-na-cappal. He had fallen on his back; a bullet had pierced his throat; from the round hole the blood was still flowing. His mouth grinned horribly, and we felt it a relief when a dark cloud covered the moon, which had been shining down on the upturned face and open eyes. The captain having given his orders, and having arranged for the next meeting with his followers they dispersed, and he, having given some instructions to Moira with regard to the wounded, set out, taking me along with him. We found shelter that night in a little shebeen about two miles away from the cave.

And that is the story of my first night with the Rapparees.