independent

Tuesday 21 October 2014

'Arm, arm,' he cried...and now you can experience exactly what that meant!

Published 11/02/2014 | 05:38

The 1798 Centre Enniscorthy

No need to join a republican dissident group or take up with the jihad in Afghanistan.

No need to buy a licence or enlist with the Army reserve. Anyone wishing to handle firearms and other lethal weapons has only to roll up to the National 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy, early any Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon.

The staff at the centre in Arnold's Cross have genuine guns for visitors to handle, along with some authentic ordinance and actual bayonets.

The centre caters for those who drop in for a buttered scone or a bowl of soup – before moving on after a cosy cup of tea for a practical exploration of man's inhumanity to man.

The thrice-a-week weapon session is conducted in the area normally reserved as an informal children's crèche. After lunch on the specified days, the toddler stuff is put away in favour of big boys' toys. Our guide Rory O'Connor dons his green United Irishman jacket and reaches into the '98 Centre arsenal to bring the bloody past to life.

The intention is to give visitors a different slant on the history of Ireland by letting them see up close the hardware which wreaked such havoc on the population of Wexford 216 years ago. Some of the weapons laid out on the table are replicas, but many are genuine antiques and may well have been fired or wielded in anger during the rebellion.

Rory picks up a cannonball with all the casual ease of an accomplished shot putter. He tells his audience this rusty lump of metal was propelled with such force that it could pass through the body of an opposition soldier without losing any noticeable momentum. It was similarly capable of removing a leg or arm in a trice.

When the battle of Vinegar Hill was fought in June of 1798, the artillery of the Crown first pounded the rebels for three hours.

They not only fired such cannonballs but also let fly with a deadly hail of shrapnel, comprising smaller scraps of metal. Many of the insurgents must have perished during the bombardment or squared up to the advancing Redcoats already carrying horrendous injuries.

Moving up to closer range, Rory introduces tourists to sharply pointed bayonets. He notes the three-sided design deliberately intended to cause wounds which would be difficult to repair with stitches. Victims of such bayonets were thus more likely to suffer later infection and lasting disfigurement as well as on-the-spot discomfort.

He also explores the evolution of the pike, a device so well thought of in Ireland that it was still very much part of the street fighting scene in 1916, more than a century after Father Murphy and his crew first made it popular. Apparently, the authorities collected more pikes than they did guns after the dust of the GPO settled down and Pearse's revolutionaries surrendered.

The typical 1798 version was fixed to a wooden pole, anything from eight to 14 feet long. Apart from its sharpened tip, it was likely to have a little curl of a side-shoot, ideal for hauling a cavalryman from his horse in an ambush. The North Cork militia learned all about the effectiveness of pikes the hard way in Oulart.

The real stars of the show are the guns, including an officer's pistol. The way Rory tells it, this was a fairly ineffective piece of kit as it was practically impossible to re-load in the heat of combat, especially if mounted on a steed at the time. It was a case of making the one bullet count before grasping the gun by the handle and then bludgeoning enemy with the hefty brass butt of the pistol.

A more reliable weapon was the Brown Bess musket. At the time of the great conflict in County Wexford, the smooth bored musket was already beginning to make way for the more accurate rifle, which had groves along the barrel to set the bullet spinning on its way to the target.

Such improved technology was largely reserved for the military elite in '98, so most of the donkey work was still done by the Red Coats with good old Brown Bess. The example passed from hand to hand for examination by the curious during the afternoon sessions in Arnold's Cross was probably made in London. In the days before mass production, versions were made in many workshops across Britain and Ireland.

Like a seasoned drill sergeant, Rory goes through the routine of readying the musket for fire in a flurry of gunpowder and ram rod. This now redundant routine has left its legacy in the English language. Soldiers literally used to 'bite the bullet' as they waited to insert it down the barrel. They sported hairy 'sideburns' to protect their cheeks from the flash of flame that followed when they fired.

An accomplished musketeer could re-charge and shoot every 15 seconds when hostilities were at their height. The bullets were about the size of a malteser, deadly at 100 paces.

The world has moved on. By the time the mass slaughter of the Great War came around, Brown Bess was a museum piece. The three-sided bayonet had been outlawed, though such niceties hardly mattered much as it was considered within the rules to mow down infantry with machine guns and blind them with poisonous gas. It seems that the hardware is always one cruel step ahead of Geneva or whatever other convention applies.

Rory O'Connor's colleague Kieran Costello reports that, though we are fortunate to live in peaceful times in Ireland, tourists and school groups love learning about torture, for example. They cannot hear enough about pitch capping and half hanging.

There is a dark side to mankind. Explore the heritage of this dark side in civilised company any Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon in Enniscorthy, 2 p.m. And it's free.

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