Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor held its first meeting in its new venue, the North Down Museum, on 10 December 2015. Linda McKenna gave us a very detailed and interesting illustrated talk on the 1798 rebellion in County Down. Linda works for the Downpatrick Museum and she referred to exhibits there such as uniforms and weapons from the time.
The museum is housed in the county gaol which opened in 1796. It was intended to house debtors and other prisoners and was based on the ideas of the prison reformer John Howard, who advocated teaching prisoners skills including reading, writing and a trade.
As disaffection spread, more people were arrested and the gaol became grossly overcrowded by 1798. Prisoners had to sleep in the yard, while rebels were housed in the cells.
One of the most famous prisoners was Thomas Russell from Cork, who had followed his father into the British army and fought in the American War of Independence. In the 1780s he was retired on half pay and returned to Ireland. In 1790 he met Wolfe Tone and shared his desire to do something to improve social conditions in Ireland. When he was called back to the army he was stationed in Belfast where he met members of the newly formed United Irishmen in 1791, such as Henry Joy McCracken.
In the early 1790s the United Irishmen was more of a liberal talking shop, often composed of former members of the Volunteers, especially in Ulster. A famous County Down member of the Volunteers and later of the United Irishmen was Archibald Rowan-Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle. He and Napper Tandy were accused of publishing a seditious address. He was eventually jailed in Dublin, but escaped and went to France. He became disillusioned by how the French Revolution had descended into bloodshed. He went to America, but returned in 1803 after receiving a pardon.
Another prominent person was the Presbyterian minister of Saintfield, Thomas Ledlie Birch. He sympathised with the conditions of the ordinary people and formed the local branch of the United Irishmen in 1792.
By 1796 the United Irishmen had become a mass movement. The government started to proclaim martial law at the end of 1796. Lord Downshire advocated the formation of yeomanry to disarm and repress the rebels. The members often were Anglican and opposed the Presbyterians and Roman Catholics of the United Irishmen.
By 1798 the government was receiving information on the rebel activities from Nicholas Mageean, a rebel Colonel, who reported to John Cleland. When the rebellion did break out in County Down, it had no clear overall leader. Early in June David Bailie Warden led his men to Newtownards, but was unable to break the York Fenciblesí control of the town. The success of the rebels in a battle at Saintfield encouraged more people to join and they now headed for Ballynahinch. On 10 June Henry Munro of Lisburn became the rebel leader and tried to impose discipline on his forces. The Battle of Ballynahinch began late on 12 June and ended in victory for the government.
Hugh McCullough, a grocer from Bangor, who had joined to rebels, was hanged immediately afterwards. Among those said to have been involved in the battle was Betsey Gray supposedly from the Six-road-ends in Ballygrainey.
Most of the rebels were allowed to go home if they laid down their arms, unless they had a leading role or committed a crime such as forcing others to join the rebellion. The speaker gave examples of particular rebels. Among those who suffered extreme penalties was
Thomas Russell who took part in Emmetís 1803 rebellion and was hanged at Downpatrick Gaol.
Heather McGookin of the North Down Museum told us about a plan to commemorate local connections with the First World War in the Ards and North Down Council area and asked for individual stories.