Wednesday 4 January 2012

Harry Munroe, 1758-1798



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HARRY MUNROE, 1758-1798.

By Hugh M'Call.

The excitement and restlessness created by the political agitation that immediately preceded the insurrection in 1798 did immense injury to the country. Unsettled habits were giving a reckless tone to a large class of society, and the effect on industrial progress was most injurious. Many farms lay partially cultivated for two or three seasons, linen looms remained idle a great part of the time, and, as a consequence, the production of goods did not exceed two-thirds the usual average. Exports of finished linens, which amounted to forty-six million yards in '98. But during the intervening period preparations for open war had been stealthily carried on by the disaffected party. The Irish pike -- a rude and unsightly weapon -- was much prized by them, and the manufacture occupied many of the midnight hours of such workers at fire and forge as were engaged in that dangerous employment. A smith, celebrated for his make of weaver's shears, and who lived near Templepatrick directed much of his labour to pike-making, and was much patronised by the United men. In an entry off Ann Street, Belfast, a shuttle-maker often worked eighteen hours out of the twenty-four in turning out pike heads and handles. Hunders of dozen of these were sent to the depots in Down by the ingenious contrivance of packing them in puncheons. On several occasions the cart that conveyed a couple of these puncheons passed under the eye of Town Major Fox, that vigilant officer never dreaming but that the vessels were filled with the national beverage. According to the returns of the United Irishmen's secret committee, there were enrolled in the Country Antrim in 1797 a grand total of 26,720 men, 3,220 muskets, 1,120 bayonets, 350 pistols, 3,500 pikes, 100 swords, and 10 cannon, besides ample stores of ammunition. During the winter of 1797 and the spring of the following year a Lisburn whitesmith forged upwards of five hundred pikes, and all this was accomplished without leaving undone any of the ordinary work he was called to perform for his every-day customers.

The linen markets of the Northern districts of Ulster were attended by great numbers of buyers about this time, and of that itinerant brotherhood none were more respected than Harry Munroe and Bartholomew Teeling. These gentlemen had been members of the Lisburn Volunteers, and when that body was ignominiously put down by the State, they both felt a full share of the general indignation at imperial ingratitude. Munroe was an Episcopalian, fondly attached to his Church, and Teeling, son of Mr. Luke Teeling, of Chapel Hill, Lisburn, belonged to the Catholic creed. Their career was remarkably unfortunate. In several points of character they were much alike, but Munroe was less mercurial than his younger friend, and had strenuously opposed many of the propositions introduced by the more excitable members of the fraternity. At no period of the insurrection had he contemplated taking the field against the Royal troops, and until a few days before the fight at Ballynahinch he attended to his business as usual; but from causes which need not be explained here, he was unexpectedly called on to take the command of the Irish army, and looking upon the call as a matter of honour he accepted it, without for a moment waiting to consider the magnitude of the responsibility he was about to undertake.

The battle of Ballynahinch was fought on the 13th of June, 1798, and, as is well known, a complete victory on the part of the Royal army, and a total overthrow of the insurgents, followed that reckless attempt to meet well-disciplined soldiers in the open field. Munroe's followers were scattered like sheep, and had fled in all directions; but though sadly broken down by fatigue, and dispirited by defeat, the unfortunate general was among the last to the leave the field; nor did he finally abandon the scene until, as he had hoped, the remnant of his people had got into some place of comparative safety. For several hours he had roamed about the country, and though well known by many of the farmers, the large rewards offered for his apprehension failed to induce any of them to betray the secret of his hiding-place. To the honour of one of the loyalists he was concealed nearly two days, during which time he received all the attention a kind-hearted man could bestow on an ill-fated fellow-creature. But as the harbouring of any suspected person was at that time contrued into an offence of great magnitude, the hospitable entertainer of Munroe dare not run the risk of allowing him to stop at his place for any lengthened time, especially as patrols of cavalry were marching through the country on the lookout for straggling men of the routed army. On the morning of the 15th of June he was consequently once again obliged to seek shelter in some other quarter, and at break of day he left the cottage.

His Betrayal.

Not daring to appear except in the most unfrequented parts of the country, he at length ventured into a small farmstead situate on the borders of Dromara, County of Down, and at nearly equal distances from the towns of Lisburn and Hillsborough. In that house he met a man named Holmes, to whom he offered five pounds -- all the money he had in his possession -- and a small parcel of shirts, to conceal him for some days, and until the opinion of Government should be known us to the prospects of pardon.

To this proposal the fellow not only agreed, but he expressed the utmost sympathy for the misfortunes of the fugitive. Making sure of the cash and the shirts, he gave Munroe some refreshment, and, leading the way out of the cottage, placed him, as the fugitive had been led to hope, in a secure retreat at the end of a large pig-house, where he covered him over with bundles of straw. But as Holmes had never entertained the most distant idea of keeping faith with his captive, his first thought after leaving the place of concealment was how to make the most of that secret. With this view he set off to the next seat of military authority at Hillsborough, where he met four members of the local corps of yeomanry, known as the Black Troop because of their not wearing any uniform save a band of white linen round the left arm. To these men he reported what had taken place at Dromara. The fellows immediately armed themselves with muskets and bayonets, and proceeded to the place alluded to by the informer. As soon as they arrived there they pounced on their prey, dragged him from his hiding-place, and to guard against further they tied his hands behind his back. Finding himself betrayed, Munroe tried to soften his captors by stating that if they permitted him to get free a large sum would be paid to them by his friends. But either in the hope of obtaining a higher reward, or from the fear that, should they acceded to his appeal, the promise would not be kept, they refused to make any terms with him, and in great triumph marched their prisoner into Hillsborough.

Believers in the doctrine of retributive justice will find much material to strengthen their faith in the after-history of the men who captured Munroe and received a handsome reward for their "loyalty." It is a remarkable fact that although each of them had some property at that time, they afterwards became miserably poor, and the longest-lived of the four was a mere pauper at the time of his death. Holmes, the betrayer of the unfortunate Munroe, was held in contempt and scorn by people of every class and creed in his own neighbourhood. From the day he violated his faith to the last hour of his life he was despised for his deceit and denounced for his treachery, and after dragging out a miserable existence he died as he had lived -- a wretched outcast.

Under a strong guard the prisoner was marched off to Lisburn, handcuffed, and on arriving there he was confined for the night in a temporary prison in Castle Street. When it become known among his former friends that be had been taken prisoner, the utmost sympathy was felt for him. His clothes were much torn and his health had suffered materially under the fatigue of his fugitive life for several days before. Mr. George Whitla, a local cotton manufacturer, sent him a full suit of clothes, and the rector of the parish, the Rev. Dr. Cupples, who resided within a few doors of the guardhouse, had his meals regularly carried to him from the rectory during the period of his confinement.

The Trial.

On Monday, the 17th of June, the trial came on before a court-martial, composed of officers belonging to the several regiments then lying in Lisburn Barracks and at Blaris camp. Among those officers, General Goldie and his aide-de-camp, M'Coy, were characterised as men of great austerity. In one case it is said that when a rebel soldier was about to suffer M'Coy pushed him up the ladder. The tribunal before which Munroe was tried sat in a large room situate near the guardhouse; and it is only fair to state that, if mercy rarely found a resting-place in that august assembly, justice was rigidly enforced. Short was the period of the court's deliberations; it required little proof to convict, and it was still easier to condemn. Only three witnesses were examined for the Crown, and the deposition that the prisoner had led the native troops at the recent battles being conclusive, the sentence of death was at once written out and Harry Munroe was ordered for execution.

The culprit was immediately informed that he had not long time to live, and to make speedy preparation for the death that awaited him. On his way from that judgment-hall to the place of punishment he requested to be taken to the rectory, that he might receive the sacrament. That rite of the Church having been administered to him, he was led down the street to the Market Square, where a temporary gallows had been erected in front of Mr. Ward's stationery warehouse, and nearly opposite the woollen-drapery concern of which Munroe was proprietor. He was dressed in a black coat, nankeen knee-breeches and white stockings. A guard of the 23rd Light Dragoons, under Colonel Woolarston, and two companies of the local yeomanry, were drawn up before the place of execution. During all the preliminary arrangements the condemned patriot exhibited perfect coolness without putting on the slightest appearance of the bravado. One request alone he made, and this was -- while the executioner adjusted the fatal noose -- to beg the commanding officer's permission to see a friend who resided in the immediate vicinity of the spot where he stood. That request was granted, and when the gentleman appeared he addressed a few words to him in a low tone, just before he ascended the ladder leading to the gallows. What he said on the occasion was never known, even by the nearest relations of the friend into whose ear it was spoken.

The Execution.

The moment the preparations had been made, Munroe leaped from the street up the ladder, but the slight rung on which he alighted having given way, he fell down against some of the guards by whom he was surrounded. Recovering his balance in a moment, although having his arms firmly pinioned, he said "All-right," and, refusing assistance, again mounted the ladder. When he had reached the required height the executioner, whose face was closely veiled by a piece of black crape, also ascended to the spot, and placed the rope round the prisoner's neck with an awkwardness of manner that proved him to be a mere amateur in the art of legal strangulation. Without waiting for the final act of the finisher of the law, the doomed man suddenly leaped forward, and as the body fell, and swung to and fro, a low wail of sorrow, which the military authorities vainly endeavoured to suppress, told how bitterly the tragic their fellow-townsman was felt by the multitude that thronged the place of execution. Many of his acquaintances -- many linen merchants who, in happier days, had stood side by side with Harry Munroe in the Linen-Hall, engaged in the usual pursuits of their business -- were around him at his last moments, and though several of them looked upon his conduct as that of the wildest and most misguided patriotism, his political opponents, as well as his personal friends, mourned heartily over the sad fate of the man whom everyone respected as a worthy and amiable citizen. When the body was taken down the final vengeance of the law had not been fully satisfied -- the authorities, who irresponsibly wielded the powers of life and death, having ordered that decapitation should take place after the execution of the first part of the sentence. On that savage act having been perpetrated, a dragoon seined the head and flung it into the air, shouting "There goes the head of a traitor." In this act of wanton ferocity the operator seemed to think that, in thus outraging the remains of an unfortunate fellow-creature, he performed an achievement worthy the glory of a British soldier. Munroe's head, with the white night-cap still on it, was afterwards stuck on a spike and placed on the front of the Market-House, the military authorities carrying out a custom barbarous as any ever practised by the most savage tribes of the New Zealanders. Some weeks afterwards a Scotch nobleman, in passing through the town, and feeling shocked at the disgraceful spectacle, had the head taken down and interred in the Lisburn Churchyard, in the same grave that contained the other portion of the mutilated body.

Whatever may have been the errors of Henry Munroe as a politician, his conduct in private life was that of a perfect gentleman. Numerous are the anecdotes related of his light-heartedness and love of fun, and still more numerous are the stories told of his fearless conduct and disregard of personal danger. On one occasion, when attending the linen market of Lurgan, an alarming fire having been discovered in the church of that town, he exhibited the greatest courage in his efforts to stop the progress of the flames, and risked his life in assisting to save the building. Although warmly attached to what was then considered a righteous cause, he had never taken any direct part in the movements of the insurgent army until it became known that, at the eleventh hour, the ostensible leader of the native troops had refused to take the command. In consequence of that determination, the duty that should have devolved on another was forced on Munroe; but having accepted the office, he threw himself into it with all the enthusiasm of an over-sanguine disposition. Nothing, however, could tempt him to tarnish his fame as an honest friend and a manly foe. He was considered a very handsome man, and had ever been exceedingly fond of neatness in dress. At that time it was fashionable to wear a portion of the back hair very long, and this was tied with black ribbon and hung over the collar of the coat. Munroe continued to wear his hair in this form, but most of the United Irishmen cut off their "pig tails," hence the origin of the tern "croppie."


During the short period of his leadership a circumstance occurred which proved that he considered the preservation of his honour as dearer than life itself. It appears by the histories given on both sides of the question that, on the eve of the Ballynahinch fight, the Royal troops were ranged on the Windmill Hill, near that town, and the insurgent lender had drawn up his forces along the north side of a mount in the demesne of Earl Moira, the town of Ballynahinch lying between the rival troops. A proposal was made to Munroe that he should attack and cut off the local yeomanry, several companies of which were then in Ballynahinch; and as numbers of them had been indulging in drunken carousal, and, of course, were unable to repel a sortie, there would have been little difficulty in overpowering the garrison and setting fire to the town. Against that proposition his generous and manly spirit at once revolted. Had he given his assent to it, a cold-blooded and terrible massacre would have been the inevitable consequence. "If we are to fight," said Munroe, "let us take the field like men, and do battle with all our might, but a national cause must not be stained by the cowardice of midnight assassins." There was the greatness of true heroism in this, but so much was the majority of the troops opposed to it that numbers of them deserted in course of the night.

After the death of Harry Munroe many of the disaffected party were made prisoners and lodged in the Lisburn Guardhouse. Two of these people were tried and convicted, the sentence of death following close on the verdict of guilty. One of the condemned was Richard Vincent, copper and tin smith, a native of Lisburn, and the other was named Maxwell. These men were executed almost immediately after receiving sentence, and their heads, after being cut off, were placed on the Market-House beside Munroe's. Not many days after his execution, a sister of the general, one who had been celebrated as a heroine in the national struggle, was passing through the town, and when opposite the Market-House she gazed for a moment at her brother's head, and exclaimed aloud, "Ah, Harry, you will be revenged for all yet!"

Harry Munroe's mother lived in Lisburn for many years after the "day of trouble," and supported herself respectably by keeping a little shop in the house situated on the Sluice Bridge, in Bow Street. She survived the death of her son about seventeen years.

A United Irishman, who gave his name as Crabbe, was the first person hanged for treason in that town. He suffered death on a lamp-post at the corner of Castle Street, and right opposite the Market-House. The charge against him was having a pistol in his pocket and a green cockade hid in his hat. Some reports went to say that he had been a clergyman, but no direct proof of the fact was ever brought forward, nor did a single secret connected with his history transpire, from that day to the present. He was taken prisoner in one of the bye-lanes in Lisburn, and in three hours afterwards was tried, convicted, and executed.

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 4 January 1918 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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