The Great Game Fairs of Ireland

Country Sports & Country Life

Follow Us On

Facebook      Twitter

The 1798 Rebellion

The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland was an uprising against British rule in Ireland lasting from May to September 1798 It was largely led by the Society of United Irishmen an organisation that had been set up in Belfast in October 1791. It drew its inspiration from the ideology of the American and French revolutions. It had its inspiration can be traced to the setting up of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791. The United Irishmen were led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken and William Drennan. They came together to secure a reform of the Irish parliament; and they sought to achieve this goal by uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in Ireland into a single movement.

The outbreak of war between England and France in 1793 and the perceived links between the French and United Irishmen cause the government in Ireland to view the potential for rebellion with grave concern and hardened attitudes against reform.

The 'rising' was greatly compromised by breakdowns in the organisation structure and poor communication largely caused by the government having an effective network of informers which resulted in key leaders being identified and imprisoned. Also there was a great deal of indecision allowing much smaller government forces to deal with individual risings instead of being stretched by a countrywide rising.

In the North one of the most important engagement was the Battle of Ballynahinch.

The Battle of Ballynahinch

The action in Ballynahinch in some ways was quite unique in that it largely involved Presbyterians against Crown forces who were largely made up of militia raised in Ireland. The politics and religious affiliations were also complicated in that the rebels' General , Henry Monroe ( Munroe) was an Anglican and quite a prominent member of that church in Lisburn. The rebels are thought to have included small Catholic contingents largely from Annaclone and Loughinisland ( who it is thought did not take part in the final action on Ednavaddy Hill) . Anphoblacht 1998 stated ' many left including the Defenders from Loughinisland who were aggrieved that power among the rebels was monopolised by Presbyterians'. The Crown forces included the Monaghan Militia ( mainly Catholic) and many yeomen recruited from Orange lodges in the surrounding townlands and towns like Clough, Inch, and Downpatrick.

The Battle of Ballynahinch  by Thomas Robinson
The Battle of Ballynahinch by Thomas Robinson

Horace Red being quoted on 'Your Place and Mine' puts the matter into perspective of why in Co Down the rebels were mainly Presbyterian : ' Looking back 200 years, this is probably hard for a modern audience to understand. Horace explains that during this time, 'the penal laws not only affected the Catholic population, but also their Presbyterian neighbours. While Presbyterians were well educated and generated a lot of the wealth in County Down, they were effectively excluded from the political system. Indeed they suffered varying degrees of political and religious discrimination including the fact that Presbyterian schools had to have special licenses to operate and that many Presbyterian marriages were deemed unlawful and their children illegitimate. Having put up with this kind of persecution, they decided to imitate their close relatives in America who had risen in rebellion to throw off the English crown and had installed the world's first working democracy. The result was a violent rebellion in County Down and County Antrim in 1798.'

Actual eye witness accounts of the battle are difficult to come by as most reports were not contemporaneous and many relied heavily on material written long after the battle and/or from works of a rather 'factional' nature such as Lyttle's 'Betsy Gray or the Hearts of Down.'

However The Belfast Magazine and Literary Journal published 'Recollections of the Battle of Ballynahinch by an eye witness' gives much detail on the rebels and their encampment and a colourful description of the action.

The History Ireland Magazine gives an excellent account of '1798 in the North' including the lead up to the Battles in Saintfield and Ballynahinch'


"Nugent had been lucky. Belfast was quiet and likely now to remain so. In County Down confusion had reigned in the United Irish leadership after the arrest of Steel Dickson on 5 June, but some of the younger officers, including several probationers for the Presbyterian ministry, took the initiative. David Bailie Warden, who was later to have a distinguished career as a scholar and diplomatist in America, made an unsuccessful attempt on Newtownards, and then went on to rouse north Down and the Ards peninsula. On Saturday 9 June, Colonel Chetwynd-Stapylton and a detachment of his regiment, the York Fencibles, were ambushed at Saintfield and forced to retreat after losing several of his officers, including his own cousin, Captain William Chetwynd, a circumstance which has misled some chroniclers.

This initial victory (the only one in the Northern rebellion ) put great heart into the County Down United Irishmen. After Nugent prudently withdrew all his outposts, most of east Down was at their mercy. A considerable force of the Ards men, equipped with cannon taken from ships in Bangor harbour, marched round the head of Strangford Lough and west towards the centre of Down, where they joined insurgents from the Saintfield and Ballynahinch area at the Creevy Rocks. Here on Pike Sunday they listened to a sermon preached by the Revd. Thomas Ledlie Birch, and next day they elected Henry Monro, a young Lisburn linen draper, as their commander. Nugent hoped to keep open his line of communication with Dublin through the centre of the county for as long as possible, but the rebels, pushing westward, occupied Ballynahinch and established their main camp at Montalto, the estate of the Earl of Moira.


On the morning of Tuesday 12 June, reassured by the favourable reports from Antrim, Nugent judged it safe to take the field against them with a large force accompanied by half a dozen six-pounders, two howitzers and ammunition wagons. The day was very hot and the progress of the column was slow, though soon to be traced by the smoke of burning farmsteads. Nugent found Saintfield completely deserted and pressed on to Ballynahinch, where he dislodged a rebel outpost on Windmill Hill, and established his headquarters there. He had ordered the Argyll Fencibles stationed at Downpatrick under Colonel George Stewart, to join him and cut off the probable line of rebel retreat. As darkness fell his artillery began the bombardment of Montalto and Ednavady Hill."

Both the History Ireland Magazine and the 'eye witness account ' describe an element of the battle in the streets of Ballynahinch and it is on this aspect the planned re-enactment in 2014 will be based .

re-enactors with cannon
Re-enactors with cannon

From the 'eye witness account' :

"Some time in the course of the morning, the most murderous part of the conflict took place on the streets of Ballynahinch. It is understood that General Nugent sent a strong body with part of the artillery, to pass through the town, and, if possible, to drive the rebels from their position by force. To oppose these, a party of pikemen were despatched, who were said to have acted with great gallantry, and at one time to have possessed themselves of one of the largest of the cannon, which, however, was shortly afterwards retaken. During this part of the engagement, which continued for a considerable period, we distinctly heard the cheers, the yells, and the shrieks of the combatants: thus having at a distance some specimen of the discordant and appalling cry of battle. What was the effect of this conflict on the fortunes of the day, I had no opportunity of learning : but however it might weaken or dispirit the rebels, it is certain that the King's forces did not, at that time, succeed in their intention. The rebel army, however, was suffering constant diminution by desertion ; and their fire was gradually slackening, and had almost entirely ceased, it is said, from want of ammunition, about seven in the morning. At this time the military passed without opposition through the town, and proceeded to clear the field of the few combatants that had still the courage to await their approach."

The History Ireland magazine stated:

"What happened there during the night is still unclear and a matter of debate among historians. Large numbers of the insurgents slipped away under the cover of darkness, many demoralised by the cannonade, but there was also a disagreement about tactics. The tired and hungry Monaghan Militia had looted the town and become very drunk. Some of Monro's officers argued for a night attack while the troops were in this state, but were over-ruled by Monro, who decided on an attack at dawn.

This was carried out with great courage and determination. The Monaghans were driven back through the streets, their adjutant was killed, and several of their field-guns were taken, but as so often happened in 1798, the insurgents were confused by their own lack of military expertise. Mistaking the bugle calls of the retreating infantry for a signal of the arrival of reinforcements, they faltered, and the British officers, realising what was happening, swiftly ordered the counter-attack .

Soon the United Irishmen were streaming away from Ballynahinch in all directions, only to be cut down by the pursuing cavalry. No quarter was given, and among those who perished in this way was Betsy Gray, a young girl who had accompanied her brother and fiance to the rebel camp. In time she became a figure of legend, an Ulster Joan of Arc, who was depicted as riding into battle on a white horse and holding aloft a green banner.

The battle of Ballynahinch was the most serious encounter of the northern rising, but it was not on the scale of New Ross or Vinegar Hill in Wexford. The battles of Antrim and Ballynahinch were followed by harsh retribution. McCracken and Monro were captured and hanged, along with scores of less prominent rebels. It was to a large extent a Presbyterian rebellion, and it marked the end of the Dissenters' sense of political exclusion which had strengthened their alliance with Catholics elsewhere in Ireland."

some of the re-enactors pictured at Montalto Estate
Some of the re-enactors pictured at Montalto Estate

A Lisburn Historical Society Booklet published in December 1978 gives further detail on the battle and its participants:

" Henry Monro once witnessed a public flogging in Lisburn. It is said that the remembrance of this spectacle hardened his heart against the powers of the authorities. So he accepted the offer to lead the rebels of Down, not realising the dangerous path he was taking or where it might end, especially as he had no experience as an Army General. As soon as he assumed power and counted his forces which numbered around 7,000 the remnants of the Battle of Saintfield, he gave orders to march and capture Ballynahinch whose inhabitants some 800 had all fled to Lisburn. The spearhead of his troops was led by a commander Townsend who encamped at Creevy Rocks. A writer in the Belfast magazine stated that his camp composed of a motley crew of men, women and children - people were able to visit the camp through curiosity hence the women and children.

On the 11th June Monro himself and the main body of his troops marched to Ballynahinch. He encamped at Edenvaddy. His camp seemed to be better organised. It being a very hot day many of his men lay on the ground. A lot of women mostly servants were present. They were all making preparations for the offensive. No uniforms were worn but all were tolerable welt dressed, some were in Sunday clothes but all contrived to wear something green. The leaders wore green coats with yellow belts. Monro's forces were armed mainly with pikes, a formidable weapon some seven to eight feet in length with a wooden shaft and afoot of pointed wrought iron. This weapon was very effective at close range. Other weapons included old swords, pitchforks, old muskets and pistols.

All eyes were now turned to Ballynahinch. A company of soldiers arrived just in time to prevent some rebels from hanging 3 helpless yeomen whom they had captured. On seeing the military the insurgents released their captives and fled. The soldiers orders were to await the arrival of Nugent's Forces to attack Monro's forces at Creevy Rocks. Nugent's forces arrived on Tuesday, 12th June. His forces consisted of 700 infantry, 150 cavalry, five field pieces, comprising the Monaghan Regiment, under Captain Leslie, 22nd Light Dragoons and the Belfast Cavalry under Captain Rainey. They were joined by the Magheragall Cavalry under Captain Wakefield. These men had been at the Battle of Antrim with Commodore Watson.

Major General Nugent commanding His Majesty's forces in the North of Ireland not wanting to put any more suffering on the rebels than was necessary issued the following statement:

"That if those unfortunate persons who by the acts of selfish and designing people have been seduced from their allegiance to their lawful King George III to become rebels and traitors to their country. If they return to their duties as faithful and peaceable subjects and to their respective homes and occupations the General positively and surely states to them that no one whosoever in the country shall be molested or their property injured as a proof of their return to Loyalty and good government and they must in the course of 24 hours after the date of this proclamation liberate all prisoners in their hands and send them to their homes and to hand over all kinds of weapons in their possession along with ammunition and also to deliver up all leaders in this Insurrection. Should the above injunctions not be complied with, then Major General Nugent will proceed to destroy the towns of Killinchy, Killyleagh, Saintfield, Ballynahinch and all cottages and farms in the vicinity".

The proclamation was not complied with and Nugent kept his word. Saintfield was in ashes and a smoke screen from burning cottages and farmhouses announced the approach of the Loyalists forces.

Monro was therefore warned of Nugent's advance. He sent a force of 500 men under a leader named Johnston to occupy a high position at Windmill Hill, Ballynahinch, to halt the Loyalist advance. This move was a failure on Monro's part, Nugent's army were now between the hill and the town itself. They opened fire at 6 p.m. in the evening. On two sides the battle raged from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. Monro's men on Windmill Hill were forced to retreat and the town by now was in flames. Many rebels were seen to run away and when darkness fell many more made their escape.

Wednesday the 13th the Battle resumed with all the horrors of war, the Monaghan Regiment (mostly Roman Catholics) and the Magheragall Cavalry (with some Orangemen) engaging the Pike men. The fighting lasted until 7 p.m. in the evening, when the insurgents retreated into the woods and fields in disorder. Thus 3 hours on Tuesday and 4 hours on Wednesday ended with the rebels being dispersed. The losses were reckoned to be on the rebel side - 500 killed and many more wounded. On the Loyalist side it was stated that their losses amounted to 30 killed and wounded. Amongst those killed was a Captain Evart

Betsy Gray

There are a number of characters remembered from the rebellion, but as Reid stated " perhaps the best known of these was 20 year old Betsy Gray. It's said she came from the Cottown or Granshaw near Newtownards and accompanied her brother George and her fiance William Boal, members of the United Irishmen, to Ballynahinch on 10th June 1798. While there were a lot of young females associated with the rebels, it seems that most of them were wise enough to return home before the fighting started. But not Betsy Gray. She stayed on and is reputed to have been involved at the frontline of the battle.

Ingrid Houwers creates the role of Betsy Gray
Ingrid Houwers creates the role of Betsy Gray

After the final defeat, many of the Newtownards contingent fled towards Lisburn, where they ran straight into the swords of the Hillsborough horse yeomen. Betsy, her brother and her fiancé were among those who lost their lives, ruthlessly murdered at Ballycreen by yeomen from Annahilt. Betsy was initially buried at Ballycreen, but it was said that her body was later interred and buried in a little churchyard called Garvachy."

As Aiken McClelland pointed out in a foreword to the Reprint of Lyttle's book Betsy Gray or the Hearts of Down originally published in November 1896 , some 100 years after the battle, that was a novel and probably a mixture of fact and fiction.

He stated : "Fact and fiction are intertwined in Betsy Gray. Did Betsy really live at the Six Road Ends, or did Lyttle simply alter the story of a Dromara girl who was murdered after the Battle of Ballynahinch to provide a convenient peg for his fictionalized history? The fact that such a controversy exists is proof that Betsy is firmly enshrined in local folklore.

Lyttle was writing for the children and grandchildren of former rebels - readers who, although loyal to the Crown, admired the struggle of their relatives against wrongs that were subsequently righted. This fact unconsciously coloured his writing - he saw everything in black and white. To him, the insurgents were dedicated men attempting to redress undefined wrongs, while the military and supporters of the Crown were cruel and selfish men.

For many years after its first publication, this was a standard book in almost every County Down home, and although a vast number of books have been written about the Rebellion of 1798, many have gleaned their knowledge of the insurrection solely from Betsy Gray. This may be regrettable from a purely historical viewpoint, but the average reader cares little about the complex political and economic factors which underlay the insurrection."

Other material referred to includes:

1. The Decade of the United Irishmen, Contemporary Accounts 1791-1801 edited By John Killen

2. The 1798 Rebellion, Photographs and memorabilia from the National Museum of Ireland edited by Michael Kenny

3. The 1798 Rebellion, An Illustrated History by Bartlett, Dawson & Keogh

Ireland's Real Game Fairs © Ballynahinch Harvest & County Living Festival