Friday, June 05, 2020

Drawing upon 1798 - the Battle of Antrim, the Barn of Scullabogue, and the Bard of "Donegore Hill"

The anniversary month of June is upon us again, marking the Battle of Antrim (7 June), the Battle of Saintfield (9 June) and the Battle of Ballynahinch (12 June), as well as many local events and skirmishes around these dates. Two slightly different illustrations of the Battle of Antrim are below, by J.W. Carey, in one of which a flag bearing the word Liberty can be clearly seen. They're fairly romantic heroic artists impressions, from 1895.

• James Orr of Ballycarry
Also below is the Bard of Ballycarry James Orr's Old Testament reference-laden intro to his poem Donegore Hill about the events preceding the Battle of Antrim and the aftermath. Published in 1804, his account is far more realistic than the two visualisations by Carey. The rage in Orr's pen is evident. Why did so few "turn out"? Why does Orr rage at those who were "laith to lea the rigs"?

• Who Dares to Speak of Scullabogue?
Part of the answer might well be found two days earlier and 220 miles south in County Wexford at Scullabogue, on this day, 5 June, in 1798.

The illustration below is George Cruikshank's famous drawing of the burning of the barn at Scullabogue in Wexford, where the United Irishmen insurgents imprisoned almost 200 civilians, overwhelmingly Protestant, into a barn and set it on fire. It is as grisly as Carey's are heroic, with echoes of the engravings of Portadown bridge in 1641 and the barbaric images in early volumes about "The Killing Times" in 1600s Scotland. You can read more about Scullabogue on Wikipedia here.

It's widely accepted that news of the horrors of Scullabogue had a major effect on diminishing support for the Rebellion in Antrim and Down, although in Ireland: The Politics of Enmity (link here) Professor Paul Bew asserts that the reports hadn't come north before the Battle of Antrim - but that there was a further sectarian massacre on the bridge of Wexford just over a fortnight later on 20 June.

• Claims, allegations and invoking the memory
It was said that it was done in response to rumours that some of the United Irishmen who had been captured at New Ross were being executed. In later years, it was alleged that the barn atrocity at Scullabogue had in fact been carried out by agents of the Dublin establishment to purposely –

"palsy the efforts of the North at that more critical period of the people's cause ... that massacre was concocted in the Castle of Dublin ... the object was gained by this infernal scheme. The Northern Presbyterians, believing the story, gave up their arms ... national independence had been superseded and has merged into a religious warfare."
Yet in November 1869 in County Cavan, the Ribbonmen movement revelled in the power of the folk memory when they threatened local opponents with a proclamation they posted in public places around the county. It advocated the sectarian boycott of a miller named William Matchell of 'Killyconnell', and ended with "remember Scullabogue Barn and tremble".

The barn site was cleared in the 1990s; a memorial stone stands nearby today, with this message within the inscription –

The remorse of the United Irish at this outrage, a tragic departure
from their ideals, is shared by the people of Ireland.

This blog has more details. An ecumenical memorial service was held at St Mary's Church in Old Ross in 1998.

• The Two Henrys
Also, compare the memorialising of the two Henrys of Antrim and Down. Belfast Presbyterian United Irishman leader Henry Joy McCracken and his role the Battle of Antrim (as well as his public hanging but not beheading in Belfast) is a celebrated figure. Yet the Lisburn Church of Ireland United Irishman leader Henry Munro and his role at the Battle of Ballynahinch (as well as his public hanging and beheading in Lisburn) is nowhere near as well known. Maybe his Church of Ireland dimension just confuses the Presbyterian-heavy narratives which are so commonly told now. Or maybe Belfast sets the storytelling agenda.

• The Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian divisions, Inter-National and Ulster-Scots
1798 is very complex. There is much to learn from 1798, and how we remember matters. I think much of the remembering is well-intentioned but is not always well-informed. People are keen to find an era of heroic cross-community co-operation, a shining moment, and edited versions of 1798 provide that. Often the attraction is to what 1798 represents, rather than to what actually happened. Here are just a handful of examples –

• The Portaferry and Ballyhalbert Presbyterian minister William Steele-Dickson's account in his 1812 memoir Narrative shows that the Church of Ireland dimension was very significant - of the 20 leaders he listed by name and denomination, 4 were Catholic, 6 were Presbyterian and 10 were Church of Ireland (link here).

The "Presbyterians = all of one mind" or "Presbyterians = good" or "Presbyterians = pro-Rebellion" simplifications that you come across today just aren't true. The Preface of Steele-Dickson's book shows that the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster had gone to war with him and had "laboriously struggled to prevail on Dr Dickson to degrade his character".

• There were atrocities in Ulster too carried out by United Irishmen. In a Scullabogue-like horror, a family called McKee were infamously besieged and burned to death in their farmstead home at Craigy near Saintfield - a family account of the event is online here. One of the wider family circle, Joseph McKee, went to Nashville and became a pioneer in educating African-American freed slaves (previous post here). The minister of St Mary's Comber, Rev Robert Mortimer, was shot dead in cold blood while travelling towards Saintfield and his body reportedly sent back home tied onto his horse.

• The connections with similar movements in Scotland and England are usually overlooked due to the limitations of concepts of nationality. The United movement was in a sense an 'inter-national' movement, with United Scotsmen and United Britons. Dickson made frequent visits to Scotland to develop those links and to propose a simultaneous rebellion there.

• That the language of the Antrim and Down rebellion was Ulster-Scots (weaver poets, WG Lyttle, Samuel Keightley, etc) doesn't sit comfortably with many.

• that so many of the thinkers and leaders were Freemasons hardly gets a mention these days, because it’s not socially or politically useful to do so. Yet culturally and historically that’s a pretty significant dimension

But complexity matters because convenient simplifications can be dangerous. The Presbyterian poet Francis Boyle lived in Granshaw, in the hinterland of Comber where so many United Irishmen were from and returned to. Published in 1811 his poem 'The Colonel's Retreat' ends with –

My friends, be admonished no more to rebel,
Its dreadful effects there's no Poet can tell,
It desolates countries, proves nations' o'erthrow,
Brings men to the scaffold like General Munro.


• A History of the Rise, Progress and Suppression of the Rebellion in the County of Wexford (1829 edition) by George Taylor of Ballywalter in Wexford, is online here. Taylor had escaped from the massacre on the bridge of Wexford on 20 June 1798. It is a fascinating primary source and ends with his horrific personal testimony dated 18 July 1798. The illustration below is another by Cruikshank, a depiction of a murder taking place on the bridge.

This review of Professor Tom Dunne's 2004 book Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798 looks like a fascinating critique of the 'official' bicentenary commemorations in Wexford in 1998. Local councils in Northern Ireland were criticised in 1998 for not doing very much at all to mark the Antrim and Down events*, with some critics alleging that this was due to the mostly Unionist makeup of those Councils. Well it looks like the Wexford events can be viewed with an equivalent skepticism.

Remembering 1798 by Professor Roy Foster is a strong read (link here).

* PS - I think there's a hint of conspiracy about this theory. In my experience, in general, local councillors have little influence over policy and sadly very few are passionate about local history anyway. But they are busy – they have day jobs, they are expected to be across multiple briefs, with various committees to attend in evenings and functions at weekends, and unlike the swarms of 9-5 public servants who are salaried to daily craft policies and yet more red tape, councillors just don't have comparable time to devote.

But the booklet that Ards Borough Council published in 1998 (previous post here) is an important one as it contains information not available elsewhere. The Mayor that year was George Ennis. He grew up in my area. I first met him around 1999 when he was trying to prevent bad planning policy wrecking Ballyhalbert, but he was a lone voice in that effort. I have always found him to be a quiet, straightforward and community-minded man with a genuine interest in local heritage. He didn't stay long in politics; I like bumping in to him when out and about and he always has a kind word to say about my own efforts. His preface to the booklet is below.