An Irishman's Diary

 

Did you know that the phrase "the Emerald Isle" was first minted by a Belfast Presbyterian, Dr William Drennan, a founding member of the United Irishmen?

Or that a man called James Trimble from Dundonald, Co Down was tried for treason and rebellion in July 1798 and sentenced to transportation for life? Or that of the 16 United Irish officers who started the rebellion in Down, 15 were Protestants (three were Presbyterian clergymen) and only one was a Catholic - Nicholas Mageean, who turned out to be a government spy and informer?

These snippets of information are culled from a fascinating book, 1798, Rebellion in County Down, published by Colourpoint Books of Newtownards. Its publication is a valuable contribution to the debate on the rebellion prompted by the 200th anniversary of the event.

Heroic failure

It comprises a series of 13 essays by local historians and comes with detailed maps and illustrations, a chronology of events and excellent indices of personal and place names.

The book paints a picture of heroic failure, of the courage of the army of tenant farmers and artisans and shopkeepers that rose against the civil power in the summer of 1798 in a vain attempt to transplant the tree of liberty to the fertile farmland of Co Down.

The revolt was fomented by local grievances and inspired by the revolution in France and by the noble aspirations of Wolfe Tone - the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter and the substitution of the common name of Irishman. But as one of the contributors points out, there is an irony in the fact that the real united Irishmen on the rebellion were the hated yeomanry who were truly composed of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. The rebel army was almost entirely composed of Presbyterians; whole villages and congregations went over to the rebels, while the Catholic Defenders, who had been expected to join the revolt, stayed aloof, for reasons that are still unclear.

There are other ironies too. Henry Munro, the linen draper from Lisburn in Co Antrim, commanded the rebel army at the main battle of the Down rebellion - at Ballynahinch, on June 13th 1798. Munro was a freemason and a member of the Church of Ireland congregation in Lisburn, where the rector was the Rev Snowden Cupples, a leading loyalist and prominent Orangeman who later served as grand master for Co Antrim. But this fundamental division of loyalties did not prevent Cupples from providing all of Munro's meals during his imprisonment.

This close confining of loyalists and rebels has led some commentators to suggest that the rising in Co Down was more in the nature of a civil war. But there is also evidence that the line between loyalty and rebellion was a thin one indeed. There are accounts of Orangemen meeting neighbours on the way to Ballynahinch and being prevailed on to join the rebel army.

Orangeman

There is the case of Thomas McKnight of Bangor Granshaw, who was sentenced to hang after witnesses claimed he had rallied the rebels at Ballynahinch by waving a sword and shouting "Hallo for Liberty". Evidence was given that McKnight had been an Orangeman two months before the rebellion.

There is the case of David Kennedy, charged with "acting as a traitor and a rebel and endeavouring to excite treason and rebellion in Ireland." Kennedy was found guilty and sentenced to 300 lashes and one year's imprisonment. He had previously been a yeoman.

It is this interplay of loyalties which might help to explain how the same townlands which had raised corps of United Irishmen in 1798 produced Orange lodges a generation later. In an excellent essay on the Battle of Ballynahinch, Horace Reid points out that, prior to the battle, the United army had assembled at Montalto Hill outside the town. Five years later, 41 Orange lodges assembled at the same hill for their July demonstration under the leadership of Lord Charles Fitzgerald, brother of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the rebel forces in 1798.

The overall impression of the Down insurgents is one of idealism, of men prepared to risk their lives to bring about a more just and democratic society. They were let down by some of their middle-class supporters fearful of the economic damage that rebellion might cause, an action that prompted Henry Joy McCracken's remark that the rich always betray the poor.

They showed remarkable valour at Saintfield and Ballynahinch, even though they were untrained, badly armed and without adequate leadership, and their cause had been betrayed by informers. In the main, they fought bravely and honourably.

Popular heroine

No history of the 1798 rebellion in Co Down would be complete without mention of Betsy Gray, who was killed by the yeomanry after Ballynahinch. For many people, Betsy was the heroine of the rebellion, her name forever linked with the event as a result of W.G. Lyttle's novel of the same name.

Popular folklore has Betsy Gray leading the insurgents at Ballynahinch on a white charger and waving a green flag. Alas, A.T.Q. Stewart demolishes this myth. He tells us that there is no evidence of women fighting in the United army. The most likely explanation for her presence is that Betsy was at the rebel camp to bring food and clean linen to her brother and to her lover Willie Boal, both United men, and was killed with them while fleeing after the battle.

1798, Rebellion in Co Down can be ordered from Colourpoint Books, Unit D5, Ards Business Centre, Jubilee Road, Newtownards, Co Down, Price £8.99p.