Joseph Holt (rebel)

Joseph Holt (rebel)

Joseph Holt (1756–16 May 1826) was a United Irish general and leader of a large guerrilla force which fought against British troops in County Wicklow from June-October 1798.


Holt was a son of John Holt, a farmer in County Wicklow. The Holt family were Protestant loyalists in [ Ballydonnell] or Ballydaniel who arrived in Ireland as Elizabethan planters.

Holt, upon marrying Hester Long (her mother was of a Oranger Manning family) in 1782, set himself up as a farmer in the vicinity of Roundwood. He joined the Irish Volunteers in the 1780's and held a number of minor public offices such as an inspector of wool and cloth but became involved in law enforcement as a sub-constable, billet master for the militia and, ironically, a bounty hunter.


Despite Holt's apparent loyalism, he became a member of the Society of United Irishmen in 1797 and gradually began to attract suspicion until finally in May 1798 his house was burned down by the Fermanagh militia, instigated by the local landlord Thomas Hugo who owed Holt a sum of money. Holt then took to the Wicklow mountains, gradually assuming a position of prominence with the United Irish mostly Catholic rebels. Avoiding set-piece battles, Holt led a fierce campaign of raids and ambushes against loyalist military targets in Wicklow, striking at will and reducing government influence in the county to urban strongholds. The defeat of the County Wexford rebels at Vinegar Hill on 21st June saw surviving rebel factions heading towards the Wicklow Mountains to link up with Holt's forces. Emerging to meet them, Holt was given much of the credit for the planning of the ambush and defeat of a pursuing force of 200 British cavalry at Ballyellis on 30 June 1798. However the subsequent midlands campaign to revive the rebellion was a disaster and Holt was lucky to escape with his life back to the safety of the Wicklow Mountains. He rallied the remaining rebels and continued his United Irish guerrilla campaign as before allegedly even solving gunpowder shortages by inventing his own concoction known as ‘Holt’s Mixture’. Eluding a number of large-scale sweeps into the mountains by the army following the collapse of the rising, Holt together with Rebel Captain Michael Dwyer tied down thousands of troops and his forces were augmented by a steady supply of recruits, a significant proportion of whom were deserters from the militia.


Holt had largely held out in expectation of the arrival of French aid but news of the defeat of the French at Ballinamuck together with his ill-health brought about by the hardships of his fugitive life prompted Holt to initiate contact through intermediaries with the authorities with a view to a negotiated surrender. Dublin Castle was eager to end the rebellion in Wicklow and allow him exile without trial in New South Wales.


He went out on the "Minerva" (along with Henry Fulton) and on it met Captain William Cox who had been appointed paymaster of the New South Wales Corps. The ship arrived at Sydney on 11 January 1800, and shortly afterwards Holt agreed to manage Captain Cox's farm. He always claimed in Australia that he was a political exile and not a convict. In September 1800 he was arrested on suspicion of being concerned in a plot against the government, but was soon afterwards released as no evidence could be found against him. He was successful in his management for Cox, and afterwards bought land for himself which eventually yielded him a competence. In 1804 he heard that an insurrection was about to break out and told Captain Cox of it. Holt was again informed against, and although the evidence was of the flimsiest kind in April 1804 he was sent to Norfolk Island and put to hard labour. After he had been there 14 weeks Governor King sent instructions that he should be recalled to New South Wales, but delays occurred and it was not until February 1806 that he arrived at Sydney again.


In June 1809 Holt received a free pardon, but as this had been given after the arrest of Governor Bligh, it had to be handed in to the government when Governor Macquarie arrived. Holt, however, was officially pardoned on 1 January 1811 and in December 1812, having sold some of his land and stock, with his wife and younger son took passage to Europe on the "Isabella"; also on board was Henry Browne Hayes. The ship was wrecked on one of the Falkland Islands, and Holt showed great resolution and ingenuity in making the best of the conditions on the island. He was rescued on 4 April 1813 but did not reach England until 22 February 1814. He retired to Ireland where he lived for the rest of his life, but regretted he had left Australia. He died at Kingstown now Dún Laoghaire near Dublin on 16 May 1826. He was a man of great courage and force of character, a good leader of men. His elder son Joshua Holt married and remained in New South Wales, and the younger son Joseph Harrison Holt also went there after his father's 1826 death.


*Dictionary of Australian Biography|First=Joseph|Last=Holt|Link=
* [ Holt Family Fellowship]

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