Wednesday 11 January 2012

Henry Joy M'Cracken


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Ulster Biographies of 1798, by W. T. Latimer, B.A., 1897.

Henry Joy M'Cracken was born in High Street, Belfast, on the 31st of August, 1767. His father, John M'Cracken, was captain and part owner of a vessel that traded between Belfast and the West Indies. He was descended from a Presbyterian family that had settled at Hillhall, near Lisburn, when driven from Scotland by Prelatic persecution.

His mother was Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, who, on the 1st of September, 1737, established the "Belfast Newsletter," the third newspaper published in Ireland. The family of Joy, or Joyeuse were of Huguenot descent; having fled from France rather than sacrifice their Presbyterian faith.

Samuel Neilson formed the idea of joining his country men, both Protestant and Catholic, into one grand confederacy of United Irishmen, who, instead of injuring one another, might combine to overthrow the enemies of their country.

The first object of the association was to obtain Parliamentary reform, and thus prevent a few hundred Episcopal landlords from ruling an entire nation. At first the United Irish Society was a lawful association, established for accomplishing a most desirable object. Its founder was Neilson, but Henry Joy M'Cracken laboured late and early with all the energy of his enthusiastic nature to promote its interests.

Before long, the leaders of the United Irishmen became discouraged at their want of speedy success in procuring Parliamentary reform by legitimate means, and, most unfortunately, began to aim at setting up a republic, after the example of the French. Accordingly, the society was remodelled, and in March, 1795, M'Cracken took the teat of the new organisation. Henceforth he devoted much of his time and energy to advocate its principles and forward its interests.

There is no doubt whatever that the Protestant United Irishmen of Ulster were by far the most formidable body with which the Government had to deal. They were numerous, more intelligent, and better organised than their brethren in any other province.

An adjutant-General was appointed in each county, and under him were a number of colonels. In Antrim the colonels held a meeting about the beginning of June, and pressed the general, Robert Simms, to take the field; but he opposed the resolution and resigned his command. M'Cracken was soon afterwards appointed in his stead, and he became not only adjutant-general for Antrim, but commander-in-chief of the United Irish Army of the North.

He planned for attacks to be made simultaneously on Randalstown, Ballynahinch, Saintfield, Newtownards, and Portaferry.

M'Cracken determined to make his chief attack on the town of Antrim, and there he commanded in person.

One hour after M'Cracken attacked Antrim he was master of the town, and the victory seemed to be won.

Meanwhile reinforcements, superior in numbers to the entire rebel army, had arrived under Clavering and Durham, from Blaris camp and from Belfast.

The battle was now won by the Royal troops, but at the expense of many killed and wounded.

Undaunted by this defeat, M'Cracken collected the remains of his army at Donegore, and determined to attack the Royal troops at Ballymena. But the insurgents, baffled by defeat, dispersed so rapidly that very soon he could count only about a hundred followers. These also soon dispersed, and he was finally captured near Carrickfergus.

The trial took place on July 17th, in the Exchange, Belfast, when he was condemned and ordered to prepare for immediate execution.

At five o'clock M'Cracken was ordered to the place of execution -- the old market-house which stood at the corner of Corn Market and High Street, and which had been given to the town by his own great-grandfather.

The hangman had accepted a bribe to discharge his duty so as to save the prisoner's life, and medical friends were ready to apply every remedy as soon as they received his body. M'Cracken ascended the scaffold and attempted to speak to the people, but his words were drowned by the trampling of the cavalry, and he quietly resigned himself to his fate. Years before this fatal day he had told a friend that he did not desire to ever die of sickness. In a few minutes all was over. His body was given to his friends, but all efforts to restore animation were unsuccessful.

His remains were buried in the graveyard beside the Episcopal church in High Street. Some years afterwards the parson of the parish got many of the graves levelled, and the ground sold for building purposes. The dust of the patriot lies under one of the houses erected on this site. His coat and sword may still be seen in the Belfast Museum.

M'Comb's Guide to Belfast and Adjoining Districts, 1861.

This little volume of some 180 pages contains a large amount of varied information -- historical and otherwise -- and gives a long and detailed account of the


On the morning of the 11th June. 1798, Munroe -- who had been a Volunteer -- a man of good military talent, "spoiled," says Teeling, "by a romantic love of glory and a mistaken feeling of honour," despatched one of his officers, named Townshend, to take possession of Ballynahinch -- a commission which was easily executed, as the garrison fled at his approach. On the 12th Munroe marched for Ballynahinch with the remainder of his force. (With that detached under Townshend it amounted to nearly 7,000 men.) On his way he learned that the Royal troops under General Nugent, supported by the artillery of General Barber, had left Belfast to intercept him. It was not long before their approach was indicated by unmistakable signs. As far as the eye could reach they had fired the country along their line of march. The two armies shortly came into collision. For upwards of an hour Munroe succeeded in keeping the Royal forces in check. He had, however, no artillery except a few small ship guns -- some six or eight -- mounted on country cars, while the British artillery was effective and well served. Obliged at length to give way, he sent instructions to Townshend to evacuate Ballynahinch, a part of which had already caught fire from the enemy's shells, and drew off his forces to the neighbouring hill of Ednavady. The British troops entered the town late in the evening, and began plundering, burning, and drinking. The disorganisation caused by these excesses afforded the insurgent army an opportunity during the night of repairing the disaster of the day. A council of war was held, and instant action was urged by all except Munroe. "We scorn," said he, "to avail ourselves of the ungenerous advantage which night affords. We will meet them in the blush of open day; we will fight them like men, not under the cloud of night, but the first rays of to-morrow's sun." This decision was so unpopular among Munroe's men that a well-armed division of about 700, with their leader, marched off en masse, and numerous other desertions followed.

At dawn on the 13th Munroe formed his men for action, and soon after commenced the attack by cannonading the town as best he could with his inadequate means. His small h=guns were promptly replied to by the heavier artillery of the enemy. A strong division of insurgents marched from Ednavady hill, with the view of entering the town on the right; a still more formidable column, led by Munroe, directed its march to the left. The former drawn up solid column, received a body of troops despatched by Nugent with a destructive fire, by which their leader was killed, and they were compelled to retreat to the town. Munroe's division, bearing down all opposition, entered it under a dreadful fire of musketry and grape. A piece of heavy artillery fell into the hands of the pikemen, who charged to the very muzzle of the guns. Munroe gained the centre of the town, where he was exposed to a cross-fire of musketry in the market square, and raked by artillery. His ammunition failing, he made an irresistible charge with the bayonet and the pike. The British general ordered a retreat. The insurgents, unacquainted with the trumpet's note, and enveloped by the smoke, mistook the sound for the signal to charge, and, conceiving that the enemy had been reinforced, fled precipitately from the town in a southerly direction, while the Royal troops were as rapidly evacuating it on the north. The consequence was an utter rout of the rebels. The 22nd Light Dragoons charged the flying insurgents, and were joined by the infantry who had rallied. Munroe regained his former position on Ednavady, but too late to offer decisive resistance. There remained no alternative between flight and destruction. The former was adopted. Numbers of the insurgents fell in the retreat. The town was pillaged and burned by the victorious Royalists. Two days afterwards Munroe was captured, tried by court-martial, and executed in front of his own house in Lisburn. His head was exhibited from the market-house on a pole.

As regards the losses on both sides during the two days of the conflict, various statements have appeared -- none of them, probably, accurate. Gordon says that the loss of the rebels was about 150, and that of the Royal troops more than 40. Another account states that only 20 bodies of the rebels were found in the town, and 28 scattered over the surrounding country; and a third gives the number of insurgents killed on the field and in the flight as from 100 to 500. The forces of the latter on the 13th amounted, deducting for desertions, to over 5,000; that of the Royalists to from 2,000 to 3,000.

The insurgents were routed after a hard contest; many of them were killed by the yeomanry in their flight, and among them a young girl of extraordinary beauty, named Elizabeth Grey, of Killinchy. She went into the action with a brother and a lover, determined to share their fate, mounted on a pony, and bearing a green flag. After the defeat the three fled, and on their retreat they were overtaken by a detachment of the Hillsborough Yeomanry Infantry, within a mile and a half of Hillsborough. She was first come up with, the young men being at a little distance seeking a place for her to cross a small river, and could easily have escaped. She refused to surrender, and when they saw her likely to fall into the hands of the yeomen they rushed to her assistance, and endeavoured to prevail on the captors to release her, offering themselves as prisoners in her stead. Their entreaties were in vain. Her brother and her lover were murdered on the spot. She still resisted, and it is said that a man called "Jack Gill," one of the cavalry, cut her gloved hand off with his sword. She was then shot through the head by Thomas Nelson, of the parish of Anahilt; aided by James Little, of the same place. The three dead bodies were found and buried by their friends. Little's wife was afterwards seen wearing the girl's earrings and green petticoat.

Bessie Grey.

If through Killinchy's woods and vales
      You searched a summer day.
The loveliest maiden to be found
      Was bonnie Bessie Grey.

The wild flowers shed their sweet perfume
      Whene'er she passed them by,
And put their brightest colours on
      To meet her gladsome eye.

She gathered pebbles in the brook,
      And berries in the dell--
A favourite wheresoe'er she went--
      The neighbours loved her well.

And Willie loved her tenderly;
      And won her maiden heart;
He loved, and was beloved again.
      And nought but death would part.

Alas! alas! Killinchy woods,
      Woe worth the summer day
When Willie left his native hills
      To join the battle fray!

And Bessie by her brothers side
      Rode on in sadden'd glee,
While many a weeping one cried out
      "God bless the gallant three!"

'Twas morning when they reached the hill.
      And welcome words were said
By many who, before the night,
      Lay numbered with the dead.

Fierce looks were quickly interchanged
      Between contending foes,
As sound of sharp'ning pike and song
      From Ednavady rose.

And shouts of noisy soldiery
      From Windmill Hill were heard
As proud defiance lifted up
      The musket and the sword.

Now Bessie on her tiny steed
      Bore high her flag of green;
Where'er the battle fiercely raged
      Killinchy's Lass was seen.

Now woe be on thee, Anahilt!
      And woe be on the day
When brother, lover, both were slain,
      And with them Bessie Grey!

(Next Week: The Volunteers of 1778.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 11 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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