Holt, Joseph (1756?–1826), United Irishman, was born at Ballydonnell, Wicklow, one of six children of John Holt, a protestant farmer, and his wife, Mary. While the headstone on his grave records his year of birth as 1756, he was baptised in July 1759 in the Church of Ireland parish of Castlemacadam, Avoca, Co. Wicklow; the Holts were settled in this mining district by the 1780s and lived at Ballymoneen. As a youth Holt trained as a gardener at Bray and in the north of Ireland and he was briefly a member of the 32nd foot during the American war of independence. On being called home by his parents, Holt joined a Volunteer unit at Arklow, where his penchant for military affairs was refined. In 1782 he married the widowed Hester Long (née Manning) and took over her small farm at Mullinaveigue near Roundwood, Co. Wicklow. He worked primarily as a cloth assessor in the flourishing local textile industry, but became known as a baronial constable, capturing the infamous Patrick Rogers in August 1794.
Holt had joined the Society of United Irishmen by mid 1797 at latest, as did his three brothers. His knowledge of his county's geography was reputedly unrivalled and he utilised this to great effect as a recruiter for the society in 1797–8. Thomas Hugo, a former business associate and local ‘active’ magistrate, directed the Fermanagh militia to burn Holt's farmhouse on 10 May 1798. He was consequently on the run when the rebellion broke out two weeks later and immediately became prominent as an insurgent leader in north Wicklow. Holt's men took part in a number of minor skirmishes, but failed to meet up with those repulsed from Newtownmountkennedy on 30 May. They moved south to Wexford and temporarily joined the sizeable rebel army repulsed from New Ross on 5 June. A second heavy defeat at Arklow on 9 June wrong-footed the Wicklow men, who were awaiting a breakthrough in the north of the county; on the 14th, under Holt, they razed loyalist properties from Roundwood to Glenmalure. Several days of fighting ensued, during which Holt established his bona fides as a skilled mountain guerrilla leader. On 25 June combined Wicklow rebel forces devastated Hacketstown, where Holt distinguished himself under fire. He then laid the most successful ambush of the rebellion at Ballyellis, where almost fifty British cavalrymen were killed on 30 June compared with light insurgent losses. Ballyellis and his good conduct at Ballyrahan Hill on 2 July cemented Holt's reputation, and his faction was the main element in northern Wicklow when the remnants of the north Wexford army arrived at Whelp Rock in early July. Against his better judgement, Holt participated in the disastrous foray into Co. Meath where by 14 July the rebel forces were threatened with total defeat.
In the aftermath of successive reverses, Holt was the most significant commander to refuse amnesty terms and fight on in the Wicklow mountains. ‘General’ Holt's hard core of approximately 2,000 men created major political and economic problems for the government within 20 miles of the capital. Liberal inducements and costly military sweeps proved ineffective in neutralising the last substantial body of United Irishmen in the field. Holt, despite multiple wounds, intensified his efforts when the French expedition landed at Mayo in August 1798 and he fought a series of skirmishes across the county. The Wicklow men burned Blessington when troops were redeployed against the French, and drove a yeomanry garrison out of Aughrim as late as 19 September.
By late September, however, Holt realised that the defeat of the French in Connacht boded ill for the future. Having liaised in person with the United Irish leadership in Dublin, he decided to accept an offer of indemnity from prosecution in exchange for exile. The bulk of his command was stood down before he surrendered himself to Lord Powerscourt on 10 November. Holt was then the most notorious United Irishman in Ireland and his real and alleged exploits were reported in the British and French press. When questioned in Dublin Castle, Holt was at pains to dissociate his rebel main force from the criminal acts of opportunists. His cooperation fell short of the expectations of his captors and Holt was obliged to seek financial assistance from the La Touche family of Bellevue, Delgany, Co. Wicklow, to pay for his family's deportation to Australia. Marianne, his young daughter, was left in the care of Ann La Touche and his second son, Joseph Harrison, was born at Cobh before the Minerva put to sea in mid 1799. Although implicated in seditious activity en route for Australia, Holt enjoyed privileges that enabled him to assist the less fortunate convicted United Irishmen.
In January 1800 Holt reached Sydney and took work with Captain William Cox at Brush Farm, while Hester Holt obtained a 100 acre land grant. Holt's legal status as a free man unnerved Governor Philip King, who correctly suspected that the Wicklow man would become the main figurehead for the comparatively large Irish republican community. Intelligence implicated Holt in a series of ‘Irish plots’ between September and December 1800, and it was widely believed that he would assume a leading role if circumstances were favourable. A hunger strike in Sydney gaol secured Holt's release on one occasion, and in December 1803 he was cleared of a plot to assassinate Judge Richard Atkins. Holt was fully involved at the start of the Castle Hill revolt of March 1804 but he withdrew when he realised that a breach of security threatened to scupper the conspiracy. He rebuffed an insurgent effort to co-opt him at Brush Farm on 4 March 1804 and was not present when the rebels were defeated by the New South Wales Corps the following day. Nevertheless, Holt's complicity led to re-transportation to the harsh penal outpost of Norfolk Island. After a period of less rigorous incarceration in Tasmania, Holt was permitted to return to New South Wales in March 1806.
Holt received an absolute pardon in January 1811 which enabled him to return to Ireland. The Isabella was shipwrecked on East Falkland in February 1813 and it was not until April 1814 that the Holts reached Dublin. Enduring loyalist enmity prevented them from resettling in Wicklow, but Holt opened a public house in Kevin Street, Dublin. Harassment by Major Henry Charles Sirr (qv) and others encouraged Holt to abandon the trade in 1819 in favour of work in the building industry. He moved to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), where he died on 16 May 1826. A friend and neighbour, Sir William Betham (qv), arranged publication of Holt's memoirs, which appeared in two volumes in 1838, edited by Thomas Crofton Croker (qv); editorial revisions by Croker, including several unaccredited interpolations and censorship, severely damaged Holt's reputation among nationalists by misrepresenting him as an apologetic, reluctant United Irishman. Far from being venerated, Holt's grave in Carrickbrennan cemetery, Monkstown, was neglected until the 1980s, when a thorough reassessment of his life and times began.