Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Harry Munro


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From "Ulster in '98," by Robert M. Young, B.A., M.R.I.A., 1893.

Harry Munro was born at Lisburn in May, 1758. His father was a man of superior literary taste. The family consisted of a son and daughter, and both received very good educations. Harry, when in his fifteenth year, was taught linen-weaving -- an art in high estimation, and in social life regarded as much above that of any other handicraft. As a member of the Episcopal Church, Harry was a regular attender of the Sunday services at the Cathedral, and was highly respected by the rector and his curate. He became a buyer of linen webs for the then leading bleachers, Hancock, of Lisburn, and M'Cance, of Suffolk. Finlay M'Cance commanded an outpost at the battle of Ballynahinch, and only retired when all was lost, at the urgent appeal of Munro.

Harry Munro during the two years that followed the spring of 1796 had continued his adherence to the Society of United Irishmen. Spies and informers abounded in Belfast and Lisburn, keeping regular correspondence with Lord Castlereagh and the other authorities in Dublin. Vast quantities of arms, as well as ammunition, had been collected by the Society throughout Ulster, and during the month of May, 1798, preparations were made to take the field. The member who had been appointed to lead the United men declined at nearly the last moment to act as commander, and on the night of Saturday, the 9th of June, a Belfast lawyer, the legal adviser of the Society, but who was said to be the paid protege of Lord Castlereagh, called on Harry Munro at the latters residence in Market Square, Lisburn. Munro had some years before married the handsome daughter of Robert Johnston, an extensive linen bleacher, who lived at Seymour Hill, Dunmurry. The attorney reported the refusal of the man who was appointed as commander to take charge of the National army, and said the only hope was that Harry Munro should accept the command. The enthusiast at once agreed. His wife set off to her father's place, and early on Monday, the 11th, Munro, dressed in in uniform, presented himself as chief to the army assembled at Edenavady, in the grounds of Lord Moira. The chiefs of the rebel at Ballynahinch were dressed in green jackets, turned up with white or yellow, white vest, buckskin breeches, half boots, hats with white cock neck feathers, and green cockades.

When Munro's division, beating down all opposition of the regular troops, stormed the town of Ballynahinch under a dreadful fire of musketry and grape, the British general ordered the retreat to be sounded. As the trumpet-call was heard by the pikemen, it was mistaken for the signal to charge, and, thinking the enemy was heavily reinforced, they wavered, and sullenly retreated in a southerly direction, the Royal soldiers falling back to the north. As the Light Dragoons charged on the stubborn peasants, mangled as they were by a raking fire from the artillery of grape and round shot, they held their ground manfully moving slowly back with heavy loss. Colonel Forde, who observed many of his own tenants dropping in the insurgent ranks, said to an officer riding at his side, " G--o d--n these stiff-necked Presbyterians, they won't run."

Battle of Ballynahinch.

The actual fight took place on Wednesday, the 13th, at Ballynahinch, and, as is well known, the insurgents were completely routed and fled in all directions. Munro gallantly tried to rally the remnant, but in vain, and at length he himself, worn out and fairly prostrated by fatigue and disappointment, retired from the scene of strife. Early on Thursday morning he reached a farmhouse and sought shelter there. The owner paid the unfortunate rebel all the attention he could. He had refreshment prepared for him, after partaking of which he had a bed made in an outhouse, and secreted him there until Saturday morning, when, dreading vengeance for concealing an outlaw, he told him before daylight he must seek some other place of refuge. Munro set off and travelled to near Dromore, where he gave a man named Holmes some money he retained, and begged to be concealed for a few days until the Government offer of pardon to rebels who gave up arms should be issued.

Holmes took the money, promised to shelter the fugitive, but, instead of doing so, went to Hillsborough and told the yeomanry of having Munro concealed in an outhouse. A guard immediately accompanied him and the unfortunate man was handcuffed, brought to Hillsborough, and thence to Lisburn, where he was placed in the temporary prison. It was then late in the afternoon, and he was kept watched by soldiers till Monday forenoon, when he was brought before the court-martial that sat in Castle Street to be hanged and beheaded. As Munro was very popular in his native town, some difficulty occurred in finding a carpenter willing to erect a gallows, but at length one offered to do the work, and from out a window situated nearly opposite the condemned man's dwelling the dread structure was erected. At four o'clock Munro was brought out under a strong military guard. He begged to be allowed to go into the house of the rector, Dr. Cupples, to receive the sacrament. The request was granted, and, after partaking of the sacred rite, the procession again commenced, and on reaching the place of execution a wretched prisoner from the guard-house, with a black crape over his face, stood ready to perform the part of hangman. Munro stood at the foot of the gallows and sought leave from the officer of the guard to speak to a friend who lived near. Permission was granted, the friend was sent for, and the soldiers gracefully stood back during the short conference. Standing up firm and undismayed, he said, "I have deserved better of my country," and after a short prayer stepped on to the ladder, and, as his hands were tied, he missed, his footing, one of the rungs gave way, and he fell. Rising up lightly, he said to the crowd, "I am not cowed, gentlemen." On the ladder being adjusted he went up with the rope round his neck, the executioner turned the ladder, and, in a few minutes all was over. Then came the horrid finale of beheading, which was done, the hangman holding up the severed head and crying out, "There is the head of a traitor." Three other men were hanged in Lisburn. H. J. M'Cracken sent a man called Crabbe to the South to tell the rising was commenced, and entrusted him with a written communication. He was taken to Lisburn, and ate his despatch. His hat was knocked off, and a green cockade found in it; he was hanged half an hour after. He refused at tell his name, message, whence or whither he was going. Dick Vincent was the name of another man executed. Tom Armstrong, who was found near the town with a United cockade concealed in the lining of his hat, and the words "Remember Orr," was tried, condemned, and executed two days before Munro met his fate. Very tragic, full of the chivalry of greatness, was an episode in the last hours of Armstrong. He knew many secrets of the United men, and was offered pardon if he informed on other leaders, and his wife was brought to the guard-house in the hope that her entreaties would induce him to turn traitor. The poor woman cried bitterly, went on her knees, and begged of her husband to save his life for the sake of her and their two children. Armstrong seemed agonised for some moments, but at length, drawing himself an to his full height, he cried out: "No, Mary, I will not save my life on such terms. Were I to do so. great numbers of wives would be left widows, and many children deprived of their chief protectors. I will leave only one widow and two children, and the God of the widow and the fatherless will take charge of them."

The heads of the four men that suffered were stuck on spikes, and were placed on each corner of the Lisburn Market-house. They remained there until August, when the sight became so revolting that they were taken down and buried.

Harry Munro had attained to such military skill in the use of arms during the weekly parades of the Volunteers that, on the death of the veteran who had been drill sergeant for many years, he was appointed to that office, and in 1790 was raised to the rank of adjutant. Considerable bodies of military men encamped on Blaris Moore, and a great number of toot and horse soldiers were quartered in Lisburn for some time before the breaking out of the Rebellion in June, '98. On the morning of Wednesday preceding the battle of Ballynahinch, Harry was told by one of his lieutenants that in the evenings many of the soldiers stationed in the Lisburn barracks were in the habit of getting drunk, and that if Munro marched a sufficient number of his men that afternoon into Lisburn he could force a surrender of the Royal army, seize their arms and the ammunition, and set fire to the town. The rebel general listened to the proposal, but his chivalrous sense of dignity overcame the old adage that "All's fair in love and war," and he replied: "We will not act the part of midnight assassins, but in the open day meet and, I trust, gain one victory for Ireland." A spy who, decked out as a milk-woman, and bearing cans of milk, which was sold to the rebels who were posted in Mr. Ker's demesne close to Ballynahinch, had heard of the proposal to storm Lisburn, but not of Munro's refusal to accede to it, made way into the latter-named town and reported to the colonel in command. -- This was about seven o'clock in the evening. Of course, there was great commotion in military as well as civic circles. An order was issued that all lights and fires in the households of the inhabitants should be put out at nine o'clock, and, except the regular soldiers and local yeomanry, no one was to go out of doors after that hour. The Lisburn guard-house, situate at the Castle Street entrance to the cathedral, had in its dark recesses eight men, natives of the town, who had been suspected of sympathy in favour of the United Irishmen, but were not actually members. Sergeant White, of the Lisburn Yeomanry, and half a dozen of his men were in charge of the prisoners, all of whom were townsmen of his own. About nine o'clock, when all was still and silent in the streets, the clatter of a horse's hoofs on the pavement was heard by the prisoners. The rider stopped at the door of the guard-house, called out Sergeant White, and had a short conversation with him, after which he clanked down the street towards the horse barracks. The prisoners, suspecting some dread news, knocked at the door of their cell and begged of the sergeant to tell them what was the report. "It is a melancholy one," replied White; "the orderly was a dragoon. He said Harry Munro, with a large contingent of the rebel army, was expected to assail the troops in town. A sentinel had been placed at Bridge End, on the County Down side. A gun would be fired in Market Square to warn the loyal army of the assailants' approach; in which case," continued the sergeant, "our order is to put all prisoners to death."

As already stated, the report of Munro's assault on the town was erroneous; but the few hours of terrible suspense passed by the prisoners was a time of intense suffering quite indescribable.

The Axe that cut off Munro's Head.

The story is that a rebel was pardoned on condition that he would execute Munro. The morning was wet, and the handle of the axe was so slippery that the man said he could not hold it properly, so one of the dragoons who was in attendance pulled a piece of chamois out of his wallet and threw it to him. He wrapped it round the handle and used it, but the handle was broken by the force of the blow. The axe, handle and all, were put in the grave with the headless corpse, and on the grave being opened recently the chamois was found sticking to the axe handle. Munro was a very active man, a great jumper and runner. He was often known to jump the locks of the Lagan Canal. Mr. Breakey, Ballibay, used to tell that one morning Munro, with other linen buyers, was leaving his house to take their horses for their usual journey to the next town. He came out to the hall-door, and, telling tho groom to arrange them side by side, he sprang clear over the whole lot, landing safely on the other side.

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 28 December 1917 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and into 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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