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The story of the 98 Rebellion

The 1798 Rebellion in Ulster

In Ulster the 1798 rebellion, occurred in the Presbyterian heartland of Antrim and Down. Presbyterians provided the leadership. Presbyterian tenant farmers and labourers provided the movement's rank and file. More than a score of Presbyterian clergy were directly implicated in the rising, and of these, four were executed, most notably the Revd James Porter of Greyabbey, hanged in front of his own meeting house, and the rest, like the Revd Thomas Ledlie Birch, were banished to France and America. This is not to suggest that all Presbyterians supported the United Irishmen. Many did not.

Originally an open organisation with aims that were perfectly constitutional, driven underground by Government repression, in May 1795 the Society of United Irishmen met secretly in Belfast and reconstituted itself as a clandestine revolutionary and military organisation. Many Presbyterians stepped back. Others recoiled as a result of events in France, especially after the onset of "The Terror".

The brutal disarming of Ulster by General Lake from March 1797 onwards and the hanging of William Orr of Farranshane, a substantial Co. Antrim Presbyterian tenant farmer, in October 1797, however, had precisely the opposite effect on many others. Orr, who proclaimed that he went to his death "in the faith of a true Presbyterian", became a martyr. "Remember Orr!" was a potent slogan in mobilising support for rebellion in Antrim and Down in 1798 and of far greater value to the United Irish movement than all the idealism and ideology inspired by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Although normally regarded as a single event, there is much merit in regarding 1798 as a series of very loosely connected events, almost like the "Revolutions" of 1830 or 1848 in Europe. The rebellion lacked overall co-ordination and, as a result, varied enormously in character from area to area. The arrest of most of the United Irish leadership in Leinster in March 1798 and the arrest on 19 May of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of the few United Irish leaders with a military background, shaped the nature of the rebellion in south Leinster when it erupted on 23 May. It was disorganized incoherent and, ultimately, marred by sectarianism.

The rebellion in Leinster was broken by the government forces at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. However, the massacre of between one hundred and two hundred Protestants (and some Roman Catholic servants) in a barn at Scullabogue, Co. Wexford, coloured Protestant and Presbyterian perceptions of the rebellion and, indeed, continues to do so, occupying a place of greater prominence than the Battle of Antrim or the Battle of Ballynahinch.

The rebellion in Antrim and Down had none of the hallmarks of a holy war. The rising in Ulster was as uncoordinated as south Leinster and for similar reasons. On 5 June the Revd Dr William Steel Dickson, almost certainly the United Irish leader in Down, was arrested by the authorities. Four days previously Robert Simms, whose brother had been the first secretary of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen, resigned as adjutant general of Antrim because he refused to rise before the arrival of French help.

Henry Joy McCracken, a humane and gentle man who had been the founder of Belfast's first Sunday school, replaced Simms in Antrim. Dickson was replaced by Henry Monro, a Lisburn linen draper and a direct descendant of Daniel Monro who in turn was a cousin of Robert Monro, the commander of the Scottish army in Ulster in the 1640s. Although of Ulster Scots ancestry, Monro was an Anglican.

In Antrim 4,000 United men under Henry Joy McCracken captured Randalstown and Ballymena on 7 June. Without realising it the insurgents were initially successful at the Battle of Antrim. However, when they mistook fleeing dragoons for an attacking force, the Army of Antrim dissolved into a mob. The last insurgents to leave the town was the force, known as the "Spartan Band", commanded by Jemmy Hope, a working class United Irishman of Covenanting stock.

After the Battle of Antrim the dead were brought from the town in blockwheel carts and buried by the cartload close to the shore where the Sixmilewater flows into Lough Neagh. "Where the devil did these rascals come from?" the officer in charge of a burying party asked the driver of one cart. An unfortunate wretch in the cart feebly answered: "I come frae Ballyboley." He was buried along with the rest.

Having defeated the insurgents in Antrim, General Nugent was able to turn his attention to the United men of Down who had swung into action after two days procrastination. On 9 June the Co. Down men gained a victory over the York fencibles and some yeomanry at Saintfield. On "Pike Sunday", 10 June, the Revd Thomas Ledlie Birch allegedly preached to the insurgents at their camp at Creevy Rocks, taking Ezekiel 9:1 as his text: "Cause them that have charge over the city to draw near with his destroying weapon in his hand." That same day the yeomanry at Portaferry repulsed a large body of insurgents but others succeeded in capturing Donaghadee.

On 11 June the insurgents captured Ballynahinch. On 12/13 June Ballynahinch was to be the scene of an unequal contest which would bring the week long United Irish revolt in eastern Ulster to an end. Nevertheless, Henry Monro's force of 7,000 fought bravely and well. The insurgents, by the sheer ferocity of their attack, repulsed the Monaghan Militia, despite their superior firepower. The turning point in the Battle of Ballynahinch was an incident almost identical to the insurgents' mistake in Antrim: the United men assumed that a bugle call signalled the arrival of Government reinforcements. In reality, the bugle call signalled a retreat. Both sides began to retreat but the army realised more quickly than the United men what was happening and the tide of battle started to flow in the Government's favour. The deaths of Betsy Gray, her fiancee, Willie Boal, and her brother, George, immortalised in W.L. Lyttle's novel, Betsy Gray, or the Hearts of Down (1886), are emblematic of the harsh treatment meted out to some of the insurgents after the battle.

Both McCracken and Monro escaped from their respective battlefields but were subsequently captured by the authorities. Monro was hanged beside his home and business premises in Market Square, Lisburn on 16 June. McCracken was hanged outside the Market House (at the corner of Cornmarket and High Street) in Belfast on 17 July. Both men faced their ordeal with courage.

In both Antrim and Down Presbyterian tenant farmers and agricultural labourers put on their Sunday best and made their protest in arms against what they saw as a venal and corrupt parliament in Dublin. In both counties the Presbyterians largely stood alone. There was very little Roman Catholic support for the rising. Indeed, it was Roman Catholics serving in the militia and Protestants serving in the yeomanry who largely suppressed the rebellion in Ulster. Paradoxically the United Irish ideal of fraternity was most closely realised in the forces of the Crown.

The rising in Connaught was prompted by the arrival of General Humbert's French force at Killala Bay on 22 August. The United Irishmen were weak in Connaught and the local peasantry rallied to support Humbert in the mistaken belief that he was a crusader on behalf of the Pope and "the blessed Virgin". After a brief but rather impressive campaign, Humbert surrendered on 8 September. There were few Protestants in Connaught and Humbert imposed strict discipline on his followers, so although the trappings of sectarianism were in evidence, there were no sectarian massacres.

The final act of the 1798 rebellion was played out in October when Wolfe Tone arrived belatedly with a French squadron which was defeated off the coast of Donegal.

The rebellion of 1798 was radically different in character from what was envisaged and desired by the United Irishmen. The Society of United Irishmen was a largely middle-class movement, largely Protestant (and mainly Presbyterian in Ulster) and anti-clerical in tone. Yet, the course of events was heavily influenced by passions and elements antipathetic to the ideals inspired by liberty, equality and fraternity.

The most important consequence of 1798 was the Act of Union which abolished the Irish parliament. Ironically, many of the reforms sought by the United Irishmen were realised by the Union itself,although many did not live to see




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