The Battle of Ballynahinch
Marcas Mac Ruairi chronicles the battle which ended the United
Irish Rebellion in Ulster 200 years ago next week
THE Battle of Ballynahinch was the desicive encounter which put
paid to the rebels' plans for a successful rising in Ulster in
On 29 May that year, a meeting of the Provincial Directory had
denounced and ousted the Ulster Executive of the United Irishmen.
A new and more militant Executive was appointed under Henry Joy
McCracken who set about planning a Rising in Antrim and Down
which would, he hoped, trigger a more widespread revolt.
It was at this stage that McCracken observed, ``The rich always
betray the poor.''
But, tragically, the position of two key informers would throw
into disarray the plans for a Rising in Down. One member of the
Directorate was Nicholas Magin from Saintfield who had been
working for the Government for over a year. A second informer was
John Hughes from Belfast who was in the key position of contact
between Down and Antrim.
In Down the Reverend Steel Dickson, a Presbyterian Minister from
Portaferry was elected General. A committed Republican, he once
alluded to the contradictions of a colleague in the Irish
Volunteers: ``The gentleman has declared himself an admirer of
unqualified freedom in France, while he is the partial and
temporising advocate of liberty at home. He would admit his
Catholic fellow country men by degree to participation in our
civil rights, and extend those blessings from time to time which
God and nature have decreed the immutable inheritance of man.''
But as the date for a Rising drew near, there was a price on
Dickson and with the movement successfully infiltrated by
informers he was not destined to play a part in the fighting.
Jemmy Hope was to meet with him with details of the plans but
Hughes sent Hope to the wrong rendezvous point and had Dickson
arrested in Ballynahinch by the Castlewellan Yeomanry as he tried
to buy a horse.
When word filtered through of the fighting at Antrim the
Unitedmen rallied at Saintfield. Led by James Breeze of
Killinchy, they attacked and set fire to the home of Hugh McKee,
a well known loyalist and informer, burning him, his wife, five
sons, three daughters and housemaid to death.
Henry Munro, a linen merchant from Lisburn, was elected leader of
the Down forces in Dickson's place.
Crown forces stationed in Newtownards, led by Colonel Stapelton,
marched against Saintfield with a body of cavalry and two pieces
of cannon. Aware of his intentions, the rebels hid behind hedges
on either side of the road in his line of march. When half of
Stapelton's forces were between the hedges, an ambush was
launched, succeeding in forcing his retreat to Comber.
Elsewhere the rebels attacked Portaferry, only to be repulsed.
But the garrison there felt its position somewhat precarious and
abandoned the town to retire to Strangford. On 10 June, an attack
led by Samuel Rankin was made on Newtownards but it too was
repulsed. When a second attack was made later with
reinforcements, the garrison had already retreated to Belfast.
The rebels from Ards then made their way to Saintfield where an
estimated 8,000 Unitedmen had gathered. With the intention of
preparing an attack on Downpatrick the rebel force proceeded to
Ballynahinch where they drove out the Yeomanry.
Camp was established at Montalto, on a commanding eminence
skirted by a thick wood. Munro stationed a strong force at Creevy
Rocks under the leadership of Francis Walsh and Joseph Clokey to
oppose Crown reinforcements from Belfast and preserve
communications with Saintfield.
General Nugent was in charge of the British forces. He had
quickly and mercilessly put down the Rising in Antrim and now
turned his attention to Down. The Unitedmen were in complete
control of the the north east and the middle of the County.
On 11 June Nugent issued a proclamation that if the rebels did
not desist from their activities he would ``proceed to totally
destroy the towns of Killinchy, Killyleagh, Ballynahinch,
Saintfield and every cottage and farmhouse in the vicinity of
these four places; carry off the stock and cattle, and put
everyone to the sword who may be found in arms.''
On 12 June 12 he marched out of Belfast. When he reached
Saintfield he found it abandoned, many of the residents having
fled. Setting it alight he continued to Ballynahinch. To Munro's
eight small cannon, Nugent was heavily armed.
That evening there was a great deal of skirmishing and much of
Ballynahinch was set on fire as soldiers and Yeomanry engaged in
drinking and revelry.
Munro was urged to use the chance to attack but refused, feeling
that the men were not yet well enough trained for night fighting.
Divisions over strategy in the rebel camp were compounded by
terrifying and misleading stories carried in the Belfast
newspapers about a religious war in the south. As the night wore
on many left, including the Killinchy men who wanted to attack
immediately and the Defenders from Loughinisland who were
aggrieved that power among the rebels was monopolised by
Despite this, Munro still had strength in numbers with pikemen.
In the open they would be mowed down by guns, but in street
fighting they could win the day.
eyewitness reported on the scene as dawn broke: ``A mixed and
motley multitude met the eye. They wore no uniforms, yet they
presented a tolerably decent appearance, being dressed no doubt
in their Sunday clothes, some better and some worse. The only
thing in which they all concurred was the wearing of the green,
almost every individual having a knot of ribbon of that colour,
sometimes intermixed with yellow in his hat.
``In their arms there was as great a diversity as in their dress.
By far the majority of them had pikes which were truly formidable
instruments in close fight, but of no use in distant warfare ...
others wore swords, generally of the least efficient kind, and
some had merely pitchforks.''
Munro opened the fighting with a discharge of cannon.
To the consternation of the rebel contingent on Windmill Hill,
which had successfully repulsed Nugent's forces with heavy
losses, Munro ordered the vacation of the Hill. He had realised
they were being surrounded and isolated.
He concentrated his attack on the centre of the town and led the
attack against incessant artillery fire. As the battle
degenerated into house to house fighting, by 7.00am Nugent was
forced to retreat. In his rush to leave Belfast, the wrong size
of cannon ball had been brought. However, the sound of the bugle
signifying retreat was misunderstood by the insurgents to mean
the arrival of reinforcements.
Panicking, they turned and fled, a mistake which sets the Battle
of Ballynahinch apart in military history. As the rebels fled the
Yeomanry and the soldiers, quickly realising their mistake,
pursued them. Many of the rebels were mowed down in the flight.
A detatchment from the garrison in Downpatrick had arrived under
Colonel Stapelton and circled the town to attack Montalto.
The rebels were pounded by grapeshot. In the open fields they
suffered the heaviest losses. All who were caught were done to
One of these was Betsy Grey, whose name ranks among the heroes of
the period. She had refused to leave her brother and lover as
they joined the Unitedmen and had stayed with them through the
thick of the fighting. It is said that her presence and bravery
in the field of battle was an inspiration to all the rebel
In retreat her brother and lover in turn had refused to leave
her, though they might otherwise have outrun their pursuers. All
three were shot down by the Yeomanry at Annahilt. According to
folklore in the area, Betsy was put to the most terrible of
deaths, suffering rape several times before dying.
Much of Ballynahinch was left in ruins, the killings and
destruction continuing for three days.
Munro pursued and tried to rally the men on the heights of
Ednavaddy, but Nugent's men surrounded the hill, leaving but one
passage for escape.
The 150 or so men left fled to the Mourne Mountains. Munro
himself was betrayed and captured, to be hanged opposite his own
front door in Lisburn. Other hangings were conducted in
Downpatrick and Newtownards.
It was in the predominantly Presbyterian middle and north-east of
Down that the Rising occured. There had been a second mustering
of Unitedmen at Annaclone in the west and a band of men had
assembled in Newry to march to Ballynahinch, but with the swift
arrest and execution of leaders, enthusiasm waned.
With the failure of the Rising in Down, so passed the possibility
of any success for the 1798 rebellion in Ulster.
The Battle of Ballynahinch occurred on 13 June 1798, two hundred
years ago next week.