"What's the news? What's the news? O my bold Shelmalier...." The singer is told how the rebels of Wexford, led by Kelly and others, at first triumphed over the British -- but at last were defeated and Wexford "stript naked, hung high on a cross."
This is one of those songs that sadly ignores the inept handling of the Wexford rebel army.
By early June, with Enniscorthy and Wexford in Rebel hands (the former captured by Father John Murphy's forces on May 28, the latter abandoned by loyalists on May 30 after the Battle of Three Rocks, for which see "Sweet County Wexford"), the rebels were moving generally from Wexford north toward County Wicklow; could they capture Arklow and Wicklow in that county, the road to Dublin would be wide open (hence the line that they marched "from the south toward the north").
Other rebel forces, though, were trying to expand from Wexford into Kilkenny to the west and Waterford to the southwest.
The thing stopping them was the garrison of Major General Henry Johnson at New Ross. The Irish commander, Bagenal Harvey -- who was Protestant despite being a United Irishman -- determined to clear out the garrison.
Unfortunately, Harvey -- called "Brave Harvey" in the song -- had no military training, and it showed. He ordered an ill-coordinated attach, exercised no control over the battle, made no real use of his captured artillery, and was unable to rally his troops when they fled.
John Kelly's part in the battle was brief. Harvey ordered him and his 800 men from Bantry to clear some loyalist outposts. They instead went straight for the Three Bullet Gate to New Ross. (The gate came to be known as "The Grim Gap of Death.") They broke in, but Kelly was wounded in the thigh and disabled. His troops continued on against orders, ran into the defenders and their artillery, were routed -- and fled the town, dragging undefeated soldiers with them. The notes on the Clancy Brothers "Irish Songs of Rebellion" record say Kelly was executed after the battle, though of course they don't cite a source.
Robert Kee, in _The Most Distressful Country_ (being Volume I of _The Green Flag_), p. 118, doesn't mention Kelly's death either. According to him, "a young United Irish colonel, who led the first rebel assault, was John Kelly, a blacksmith from Killan. He was to become the hero of a popular ballad... when these bloody events acquired the rather fusty veneer appropriate to the drawing-room heroics of purely political warfare."
The United Irish might still have won the battle (indeed, they almost did), but when their last push petered out, there was no reserve, which cost them the battle; the flight of Kelly's forces thus contributed greatly to the defeat.
As the song implies, wounded and defeated United men were killed on the field; this was sadly not unusual for the period. Harvey himself, who apparently had not wanted his command, gave it up and headed back into Wexford. He was eventually caught and executed.
Let no one say that the atrocities were one-sided, however. The United men burned much of New Ross deliberately. What is more, while the battle was shaping up, a force of United guards burned alive an estimated 90 loyalists, including women and children, in Scullabogue. This was in response to an unsubstantiated (and false) report of loyalist atrocities at New Ross. (For more information on this, see the notes to "Father Murphy (II) (The Wexford Men of '98).")
East and West Shelmalier were holdings in County Wexford. - RBW