Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Remembering Betsy: the short-lived memorial to Betsy Gray, the Heroine of the 1798 Rebellion

Betsy 1939


Above: a newspaper photo from 1939, over 40 years after the memorial was destroyed.

Betsy Gray of Six Road Ends* is a heroine who keeps coming back - her name comes up all the time. Just last week an elderly farmer brought her up in conversation with me. WG Lyttle’s book Betsy Gray and the Hearts of Down (serialised in 1885; first compiled as a book in 1888, frequently reprinted ever since) was one of those handed down to me by my aunt. Tragically, Betsy's reputed homeplace at Six Road Ends, which is on private property, is today collapsing in on itself. Perhaps that is emblematic of how ill-fitting her tale became among the rapidly-changing Ulster politics of the 1800s and 1900s, yet it is also a tale which has remained deep in the hearts and minds of rural County Down folk ever since.

Her reputed burial place is at Ballycreen near Ballynahinch where she, her brother and her boyfriend were killed and buried on 13 June 1798. A tradition developed that each year locals would visit the grave and lay flowers. The site of the grave was just a field, which a century later in the 1890s was owned by a farmer called Samuel Armstrong, and of which a newspaper report said ‘has always been preserved and not put under cultivation both by the present owner of the farm and his predecessors’. These simple commemorations seem to have been low-key, as a local community thing, and with no issues.

• Plans for a Memorial
In September 1895, at Rosemary Street Lecture Hall in Belfast, Alice Milligan delivered a lecture for the Henry J McCracken Literary Society. In the audience was Rev Richard Lyttle of Moneyrea Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church who, in the remarks at the end of the lecture, proposed that a statue be erected in Betsy Gray’s memory.

Other people were having similar thoughts; a John Clarke regularly gave a lecture at the time entitled ‘The Neglected Graves of the ’98 Ulster Patriots’. Rev Lyttle and some ladies from Moneyrea, on behalf of the Charles J Kickham Society, laid a floral cross on Betsy’s grave in June 1896. That same month the ‘Moneyrea Irish Women’s Association’ organised three car loads of their members to place wreaths on 1798 graves at Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Castlereagh and Moneyreagh. When they arrived at Ballycreen Mr Armstrong ‘received them with sympathetic courtesy’. They installed eight wooden stakes around the reputed grave location, to which they fixed light wire, and then added flowers and garlands. On the grave were laid: a wreath of pansies (by a Miss Macauley), a cross (from Misses Milligan and Johnston), and a wreath and a cross of unusually large dimensions made of blue and white flowers (from Moneyrea Irish Women’s Association). Mr Armstrong was thanked by Mrs McCullough of Moneyrea and Mrs Murray:

‘for his goodness and that of his family in guarding the grave so well for 98 years, and for his kindness in permitting the decorations. He replied that any man, no matter what his politics might be, who could not honour such heroism and unsullied patriotism as that displayed by the victims who fell and were buried on his farm would be dead to all sense of humanity and nobility’. – Newry Telegraph, 4 July 1896

• Memorial Installed
In the middle of August 1896 a formal memorial stone was installed on the site, which was paid for by a James Gray from London. This was described as ‘native granite, a polished oblong block, with margined sides resting on a chamfered plinth, and surmounted with peaked terminal’. The inscription read ‘Elizabeth Gray, George Gray, William Boal, 13th June 1798’ and on the back ‘Erected by James Gray, grand-nephew of Elizabeth and George Gray, 1896’. Wrought-iron railings were also installed. The work was carried out by S & T Hastings of Downpatrick and Newtownards Monumental Works, costing £50. Some pics are shown below.

This new landmark attracted wider attention to the site - it was said to have been ‘visited by a good many people out of curiosity’. In September 1897, another group of visitors including James Murray and Mrs Murray, Rev Lyttle and Alice Milligan were once again at Ballycreen to pay their respects. A gap had been made in the hedge to facilitate access, and at this gathering it was resolved to fund the installation of a turnstile.

• Memorial Destroyed
Momentum was building on the run-in to the 1798 centenary. Ballycreen seems to have become a focus for visits by increasingly large groups of Nationalist-minded visitors who ‘placed on the grave a number of wreaths and emblems bearing offensive and seditious mottoes’. Eventually a large gathering was advertised in the Nationalist-inclined Belfast newspapers, to take place on a Sunday afternoon, 1st May 1898, under the auspices of the Henry J McCracken Literary Society. The first that Mr Armstrong knew about this proposed gathering was when the police sergeant from Ballynahinch called up to the farm to let him know; Armstrong was concerned that a large visit was to take place at all, but especially on the Sabbath Day. He decided to refuse permission for the proposed meeting. There are competing accounts of what actually took place, which vary depending on the editorial stance of the newspapers. You can imagine.

After the gathering had laid floral wreaths and had dispersed, such was the stir in the Ballycreen community that that same night a group of local men visited Armstrong’s farm, equipped with sledgehammers, and smashed the granite memorial to pieces. 

The Irish Independent summarised the events as 'Decorated by Nationalists, and Desecrated by Orange Scoundrels’. The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph said that the police had allowed ‘Armstrong’s rights to be trampled upon, the law broken, and the law breakers protected and encouraged’.

Willie Redmond asked questions in the House of Commons about the incident, which was widely reported in newspapers across Ireland.

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* there is a competing claim that Betsy was from Tullyniskey near Dromore.

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Betsy memorial

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