An account of the battle which ended the United Irish Rebellion in Ulster, 215 years ago this week, by Marcas Mac Ruairi.
The Battle of Ballynahinch was the decisive encounter which put paid to the rebels’ plans for a successful rising in Ulster in 1798.
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 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 Presbyterians.
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.
An 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 death.
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 fighters.
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.