Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Holt, Joseph

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HOLT, JOSEPH (1756–1826), Irish rebel, born in 1756, was son of John Holt, a well-to-do farmer of Ballydaniel, in the parish of Castlemacadam, co. Wicklow. In 1782 he married Hester Long the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, at Roundwood, and became a small farmer on his own account. His farm prospered, and to the profits arising from it he added considerably as chief barony constable, overseer of public works in the parish of Dirrelossery, deputy billet-master, and deputy alnager for the counties of Wicklow and Wexford under Sir John Blaquiere. His position shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion was one of comfort. He was a protestant, and he had no thought of rebellion. Unfortunately he had incurred the hatred of his landlord, who, in order to revenge himself, denounced Holt in 1798 as a United Irishman and a rebel. A troop of yeomanry soon visited Holt’s cottage with the intention of arresting him. Holt himself happened to be absent, but a few letters addressed to him were found, and these being construed into treason, his cottage was fired. Exasperated by this treatment, Holt became a rebel, gathered round him a number of men similarly circumstanced, and with them retired to the neighbourhood of Glendalough. The numbers of his followers increased daily, but with the exception of some Shelmaliere marksmen the majority of them only possessed pikes. Constant drill, however, did much to counterbalance this defect, and Holt’s little army soon presented a formidable appearance. His want of ammunition compelled him to manufacture his own gunpowder, but in this respect he relied chiefly upon the good services of a woman attached to his camp, who, moving freely among the British troops, seldom returned to him without two or three hundred cartridges concealed about her person.

It was the middle of June 1798 before Holt was ready to take the field. On the 20th he moved in the direction of Wexford, and at Ballymanus he fell in with a body of the Wexford rebels under Edward Roche [q. v.], who were escaping from the rout at Vinegar Hill. A joint attack on Hacketstown and Carnew followed, but a considerable force of cavalry having been despatched from Gorey, the rebels were compelled to act on the defensive. At Ballyellis they obtained a complete victory over the troops, which was entirely due to the tactical arrangements adopted by Holt. It was the first affair of any importance in which he had been engaged, and it gave him a considerable military reputation. But he was dissatisfied with the conduct of Roche, and withdrawing with his contingent, he retired to his old quarters in co. Wicklow. Crowds of starving rebels flocked to his standard, and before long he estimated that he had more than thirteen thousand men under his command. His intention was to march on Newton Mount Kennedy, to seize the guns there, and then to attack Wicklow. Seeing that the rebellion was practically at an end, he intended, after accomplishing this, to make terms with the government. His plans, however, was overruled by the influence of Father Kearns [q. v.], and it was determined to march through Kildare and Meath in order to gather fresh recruits and spread the flame of rebellion elsewhere. The scheme, as Holt foresaw, failed. Desertion thinned their ranks, drunkenness and disorder did the rest, and at Castle Carberry they were utterly routed. Holt himself managed to escape, and, choosing with characteristic boldness the road that lay directly through Dublin, he succeeded with difficulty in reaching his old quarters. He was soon joined by a number of his old followers, but his position was one of difficulty and danger. It was the end of August, the cold weather was setting in, provisions were growing scarce, the rebellion elsewhere had come to an end, and the troops were closing in upon him from all sides. The government had offered a reward for his capture, his protestantism exposed him to suspicion among his followers, several of whom were ready, if the occasion offered, to sell their leader. Holt’s knowledge of the country, however, and his resourcefulness enabled him to elude capture for more than two months, but after many miraculous escapes he surrendered on 10 Nov. to Lord Powerscourt. On the following day he was sent to Dublin and confined in the Castle. He was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. On 1 Jan. 1799 he was conveyed by sea to Cork, and transferred to the convict ship Minerva. Great inducements were offered him to turn informer, but this he honourably refused to do. Nevertheless, during his detention in the Cove of Cork he thought it his duty to convey to government certain information that had come to his knowledge of a projected rising in the neighbourhood of Cork (Castlereagh Correspondence, ii. 186). The Minerva sailed on 24 Aug., and on 14 Jan. 1800 Holt, accompanied by his wife and family, landed at Sydney. He was allowed to remove to Parramatta, and on 1 Feb. he settled down at Brush farm as farm bailiff to Captain Cox. The prominent part he had played in the Irish rebellion necessarily rendered him an object of suspicion to the government of New South Wales, and though nothing seems to have been further from his thoughts, he was more than once arrested on a charge of attempting to overthrow the government. Among those who knew him, however, his character was excellent. His farming operations prospered, and he was soon in a position to acquire land on his own account. In March 1804 the peace of the colony was seriously disturbed by an Irish insurrection. Suspicion fell on Holt. He was arrested, and though his innocence was past all reasonable doubt, he was banished to Norfolk Island. The island was shortly afterwards abandoned as a convict settlement, and Holt was allowed to return to New South Wales. Shortly after his return he was convicted of illicit distilling, but the offence was considered a venial one, and he was admitted to bail on promising, in accordance with the law, not to distil for a year. During the political revolution of 1809 Holt obtained his pardon and a grant of land from Governor Paterson. On the restoration of order both were confirmed to him by Governor Macquarie, and on 1 Jan. 1811 he received a free pardon. He was now in easy circumstances. His farm prospered. His eldest son, Joshua, had married and settled down on his own farm. But Holt resolved to revisit Ireland, and, having sold his land and stock, embarked with his wife and youngest son for England on 1 Dec. 1812.

Misfortune still dogged his path. On 8 Feb. 1813 the ship in which he sailed was totally wrecked on Eagle Island, one of the Falkland group. The calamity called forth all Holt’s best qualities. He built cabins for the shelter of the shipwrecked passengers; he instituted hunting and fishing parties, and provided provisions for the future. In April the Nannina, an American vessel, arrived at Eagle Island. The commander, a United Irishman, and well acquainted with the exploits of ‘General Holt,’ showed much kindness to the castaways, offering, notwithstanding the war between England and America, to convey them to a port of safety. Meanwhile, however, an English cruiser appeared on the scene, and, having captured the Nannina, sent her as a prize to Rio Janeiro. At Rio Janeiro Holt exerted himself successfully to obtain the liberation of the Americans belonging to the Nannina. On 23 Oct. 1813 he embarked on the Venerable brig, and landed at Liverpool on 22 Feb. 1814. On 5 April he arrived in Dublin, and having presented his letters of freedom to Major Sirr, he set up business in the metropolis as a publican. After losing considerably in the business, he disposed of it and retired to Kingstown. There he lived for the remainder of his days upon the rent of a few houses he built there, never ceasing to regret his folly in leaving New South Wales. He died on 16 May 1826. After his death his youngest son joined his brother in Australia.

An engraved portrait of Holt, taken from a picture painted in 1798, and some time in the possession of Sir William Betham, is prefixed to his autobiography (edited by Crofton Croker). He was five feet ten inches in height, well built, of a dark complexion, and of great physical strength. He possessed great natural ability, and considerable aptitude for military affairs, and was probably the most skilful, as he was certainly one of the bravest and most humane, leaders on the rebel side during the rebellion of 1798. He was moved by resentment for private wrongs, and he showed no interest in the political questions at issue. His history was long afterwards kept alive in the memory of the peasants of Wicklow by various popular songs, especially one entitled ‘The Victim of Tyranny.’

[Holt’s autobiography was admirably edited by Crofton Croker, London, 1838. Written in 1818 at his dictation, from notes made by him during his life, it is truthful on the whole, though Holt often exaggerates his own importance, and glosses over some episodes. See also Lecky’s Hist. viii. 236 sq.]

R. D.