Republican News · Thursday 27 November 1997

[An Phoblacht]

The United Irish in South Ulster


The 16th Annual Fearghal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture was held in Monaghan on Sunday 23 November with 150 people present. The proceedings were chaired by local Sinn Féin chairperson Seán Conlon who welcomed the attendance. He noted the multi-denominational and cross-party nature of the audience, as appropriate at the first of a series of Sinn Féin events to mark the 200th anniversary of the United Irish Revolution of 1798.

The keynote speaker was Monaghan historian Brian MacDonald. He was formally thanked for his learned address by Councillor Pádraigín Uí Mhurchú, sister of Volunteer Fearghal O'Hanlon who died with his comrade Sean Sabhat at Brookeborough on 1 January 1957.

We carry here extracts from the lecture showing the growth of the United Irish movement in South Ulster and the counter-revolution against it.

Just as the 1840s was a watershed in the social history of Ireland with the enormous consequences of An Gorta Mór, so too the 1790s can truthfully be described as pivotal in the political history of the Irish nation. Republicanism, loyalism, organised Orangeism, modern Catholicism, unionism and separatism, all can trace their origins to this period. Yet if we read our histories, it is as if South Ulster remained untouched by the events of this decade.

The fixation of traditional histories with the machinations of political leaderships and with great battles, has reinforced a tendency to look at the United Irishmen as an east coast phenomenon, encompassing Antrim and Down, Dublin and south Leinster, with the occasional nod to Humbert's advance and Killala to Ballinamuck and the insurgents' stand at Tara. For the rest of the country, it is as if little of note occurred.

Yet, if we are to understand the full significance of the United Irishmen and to this epoch in our history, then it is essential that we look beyond the narrow view of revolution and see that the 1790s were primarily a contest between diametrically opposed ideologies - on the one side the hierarchical notion of society in which individuals and nations were subject with a `social order'; on the other, the democratic analysis which argued that people are created equal and that the idea of subjection, whether of the individual or of a people, is anathema. In this war of ideas, south Ulster was in the front line and so long as the national structure remained intact, the United Irishmen of this region constituted a formidable threat to the social, political and military establishment.

There seemed to be no stopping the momentum that had been created by the United Irish. Worse still was the dawning realisation that the women were as bad if not worse than the men.

Throughout the 1790s, the authorities were bewildered and alarmed at the speed with which news spread, and the degree to which the people were developing political views. This was achieved through the barrage of information being circulated by the United Irishmen. In addition to the United Irish paper the Northern Star, radical books, magazines, sermons, ballads and even radical interpretations of prophecies, were used to influence people.

From Clones, the agent of the Lennard-Barret estate observed that the Presbyterians of Stonebridge were much given to reading Thomas Paine and had imbued a dangerous democratic spirit. And when the United Irish leader Thomas Russell was visiting his sister in Fermanagh in April 1793, he encountered a Methodist preacher who told him that people were informed of political events even in places `where you could not conceive that any news could reach', in the mountains and bogs of Cavan, Fermanagh and Leitrim.

Linen merchants and the carmen who transported goods across the province carried with them concealed compartments packed with radical literature. In 1796 we find John Shaw, a linen merchant of Lisburn, a Quaker and a United Irishman, staying amongst the Quakers of Cootehill. In the same period, Barney McMahon, a Catholic United Irishman, was acting as an emissary from Belfast to the remote areas of Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Fermanagh, establishing contact with the Defenders.

Furthermore, merchants and others who spent time in Belfast were liable to return home imbued with United Irish sentiments.

Given all of these factors, it is hardly surprising that the authorities regarded Belfast as the source of the democratic contagion and were especially delighted when soldiers of the Monaghan Militia destroyed the printing presses of the Northern Star in the summer of 1797. By then, however, the damage had been done and a revolutionary movement was in place which, even a decade earlier, nobody could have anticipated.

In his narrative of the period, the Templepatrick weaver and United Irish activist, Jemmy Hope describes how in the year 1796, he set about his work as an organiser in South Ulster and parts of Connacht:

``Having assisted in forming the Co Monaghan Committee in Castleblayney on a market day, when several very respectable linen merchants were there, we planted the union at Maguiresbridge, Clones, Enniskillen, Ballinamore, Cashcarrigan, Carrick-on-Shannon and Strokestown... and on our return home, formed committees in Ballyhays, Butlersbridge and Newtownhamilton.''

There seemed to be no stopping the momentum that had been created by the United Irish. Worse still was the dawning realisation that the women were as bad if not worse than the men.

Henry Clements gave an account of developments in Cootehill, County Cavan in mid-April 1797:

``It is not possible to conceive the change that has taken place in the sentiment of the people of this country within the last month. I had then a list of 40 men of Ashfield anxious to join us, I shall not find it difficult to make out eleven fit to carry arms. Every man and woman are now united; I almost doubt whether there is one in forty that is not. They publicly declare themselves and such people as wished to be well effected were obliged to join them out of fear. They constantly wear the badge of their order, the men a green stock and a bit of green riband in their breasts and such as have watches, of which there appears numbers of the linen merchants in Cootehill, a green watch string. The women [wear] a green handkerchief and riband with shoe knots of the same.

They have of late given the supporters of government a new title, that of Loyalists. The houses for swearing in those UI are as public as whiskey houses, particularly one at the end of the bridge of Cootehill. Stewart the Presbyterian parson... or his daughter constantly attend for that purpose. All the people that quit our corps were his heres [hearers] and it is not supposed there are more than five or six people in Cootehill that are not united.''

The counter-revolutionary strategy adopted by the authorities had two objectives: either `to lance the boil' by forcing the United Irishmen into outright insurrection, a contest which they felt confident they could handle; or to break the union by sowing the seeds of sectarian animosity between the denominations.

The strategy had several elements; the first, proposed by Lord Belmore of Castlecoole as early as mid April, was to proclaim an amnesty for anyone who came forward, renounced the United Irishmen, handed in whatever weapons they held, swore an oath of allegiance and, depending on their economic circumstances, gave security for their future good behaviour; the second was to launch a campaign of state terror in which tactics proposed by Lord Blayney were to play a major part. As part of this strategy, the normal legal process would be suspended when dealing with suspected political offenders. The third element was to encourage the Orange Order, arm loyalists generally and persuade the clergy and individual congregations of various denominations to publicly declare loyalty and disassociate themselves from the Untied Irishmen.

This period of intense repression began for the people of south Ulster at Leysborough about half a mile from Newbliss on the road to Swann's Cross on 20 May 1797. hearing reports that `numerous body' had assembled `under the pretence of setting potatoes', Alexander Kerr led his troop of Yeomanry and a party of the North Lowland Fencibles to the place. He described what happened next.

``When I got within sight of them I walked the troop to give them time to disperse, and when I came up to them I halted for a considerable time from the same notion; however, finding they were determined to stand their ground, I made part of my troop get into the same field and form in front of them, while I proceeded with the remainder to flank them; they let me ride quite close to them and when I desired them to disperse took no notice. I then fired a pistol over their heads and ordered the troop to charge them; some fled, while others made resistance with their spades (for it appeared they had not any firearms, which from their keeping their ground so confidently I was induced to think they had). From every information that I can get six of the deluded wretches were killed, several severely wounded and fourteen made prisoners. There were about three hundred of them in the field exclusive of great numbers upon all the adjacent hills...''

This is the official version of events and from Henry Clements, we get further details.

``He [Ker] ordered the men to fire which killed five. The rest made off but were pursued by both infantry and cavalry who cut them down wherever they could catch them. They took to a swamp at Lessbrough and were pursued by the infantry, but what number were killed I did not hear. One of the cavalry men told his relation who came to me that he saw one man wanting an arm and another a hand...

``A person who I sent to now the particulars of what happened at Newbliss in this instant returned. He says there were eleven killed, that the number of wounded is very great. They were bringing them to Cootehill all yesterday evening and this morning to an O'Donel to be dressed. The prisoners he has taken to Monaghan.''

Having embarked on a repressive strategy, and heartened by reports that the United Irishmen had had a setback (presumably word from their leadership that the French expedition had been indefinitely delayed), loyalists began to take heart, Clements stating that `numbers of Orangemen who had joined them are ready to come to us and the spirit of the United men seems entirely lost'. What neither Clements, nor other pro-government correspondents realised was that in addition to being told of the postponement of the French invasion, the United Irishmen were getting word from their leadership to calm the situation down and to cease overt activities that would expose themselves in advance of a general uprising.

In the eyes of the establishment, however, the sudden tranquility was misinterpreted as a sign of weakness.

In late 1796 Lord Blayney, a Lieutenant Colonel Major in the 89th Regiment, returned to Ireland from foreign service and immediately set about establishing a Yeomanry corps in Castleblayney. Although a member of the aristocracy, he was at first regarded as a reformer both by the radicals and by the administration which was deeply suspicious of him. When Henry Alexander wrote to the Dublin Castle authorities from Armagh reporting the dejection of the bar following the outcome of the Spring Assizes in Monaghan, he described Blayney as being `by no means amicable to your administration', but added significantly that it as the same Blayney who now opposed the notion that a parliamentary reform might be introduced as a means of making the people `peaceable and sweet'.

Clearly, Lord Blayney had undergone a change of heart since his return to Castleblayney, `in consequence', he said, `of reports to his Excellency of great disturbance being in that neighbourhood'. Pointing out that `the country round about wrote me an address saying it as their object and wish to puruse good order', he suggested in April that the constables in the locality had the situation under control'. Within a month, Blayney was pursuing a more active role and was in contact with Lord Carhampton and with the Chief Secretary, Thomas Pelham, outlining his plan for a `flying camp' or mobile military force. The government, desperate for whatever help it could get, gave its support and on 22 May, Blayney and his mobile force launched an offensive on the United Irishmen in the Glaslough district. In a letter to government, he wrote:

``Nothing can be really effectual but retaliation in point of destroying property, burning houses and setting the inhabitants to the mercy of the elements, by which means you will either force them to action or make them surrender the arms.''

While precise details of his attack on Glaslough are unclear, beyond the known fact that there were multiple arrests of suspected rebels, Alexander indicated that an iron-glove strategy had been adopted and that this would strengthen the government's hand:

``The Glaslough business had had the best possible effect as a proof of the celebrity and secrecy with which government can act. The fellows apprehended treat trial as a mockery and expect the honour of martyrdom without being exposed to the sufferings. Many of the more desperate in Aughnacloy and Caledon sleep away from their homes. If Lord Blayney wavered before he offered his services, nothing can be more decided than his now exertions... I have been through the fair today and never knew a better effect produced than by the Glaslough business.''

Pelham gave Blayney the go-ahead for further similar actions, describing his exertions as `laudable'. Replying to Alexander, Pelham made an intriguing comment which suggests that Blayney's tactics in Glaslough were especially brutal: `I only hope that you will temper his zeal without checking it,' he wrote.

Much of Blayney's efforts were concentrated in Armagh and Tyrone. In the Creggan area of south Armagh around the town of Forkhill, he boasted of the steps he had taken against the local population. Writing to Lord Glentworth in early June, he said:

I was told I could not go wrong; had information of three drills that night. Impossible to come across them ut no person was in their houses at 3 o'clock in the morning so I burned 22 houses and one man I had strong reason to suspect saw returning from those associations so rode up and cut him down. I burned the house and property of a leading man named Donaldson... I found a man had been attempting to corrupt a man of the Cavan Militia on parade... I sentenced the man to be flogged round the town [Forkhill]; suppose he received 300. It is useless crowding the jails. Advice - If you are disengaged and will take a trip down, you may see some amusement with those native and I can give you a tent. Our quarters are uncertain.''

There is every reason to believe that similar tactics were employed in mid and south Monaghan and we can safely assume that it was Lord Blayney who was responsible for the destruction of the village of Blackstaff in Farney which prior to this period had up to 200 houses and more than 1,000 people.

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