Thursday 8 March 2012

Memorial of James Watson, Brookhill - 1851


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The name of the author of this little volume of 100 pages is unknown. James Watson, known as the "Young Commodore," was the son of John Watson -- "Commodore Watson" -- and grandson of James Watson, who was buried in Magheragall Parish Churchyard in 1777, aged 77 years. Margaret, the daughter of James Watson, born 1700, married Robert Redman, who afterwards built the old, house at Springfield.

The Old Commodore.

John Watson, known as "Commodore Watson," or the "Old Commodore," entered the Royal Navy about the year 1747. Later he relinquished his commission and proceeded to India, where he again entered the naval service under the East India Company, in what was then known as the Bombay Navy. From 1748 till about 1772 he led an active and adventurous life, rendered the Company signal service, and was several times wounded. In 1766 he married a Miss Popham, of London. It was in Dublin their first-born, James, the "Young Commodore," was born. On their return to India James was left behind in Ireland. In India two other children were born. At length the desire of home turned the Commodore's thoughts towards Europe. His fine Arabian charger, the "Old Major," was shipped before him, and reached Brookhill without accident. Mrs. Watson proceeded on her journey, the Commodore to follow on his return from an expedition then on foot. He was, unfortunately, wounded in the arm by a ball, supposed to be poisoned. The surgeon proposed immediate amputation. This was declined by the Commodore, who is reported to have said -- "If I live, it shall live with me; and if I die, it will die with me." Death speedily ensued.

The Young Commodore.

On Captain Redman and his wife, Margaret Watson, fell the duty of watching over the child James. In Magheragall Parish Churchyard an inscription on a tomb records that Robert Redman, of Springfield, died in 1788, aged 68, and that Margaret, his wife, daughter of James Watson, of Brookhill, died in 1806, aged 78.

A considerable portion of the little volume is taken up with an account of the boy's youthful days; then as he advanced into manhood, his love of hunting, racing, and rural sports; as a magistrate, his Protestant loyalty, his connection with Blaris Camp, and his experiences in Antrim in 1798.

When in the coarse of events he took his place in the county at the head of his hounds the whole population continually cheered and welcomed him. No one was seen in the field who could match him as he followed and encouraged the chase. No figures were better known or more warmly welcomed on the Maze course than that of James Watson and his brother-in-law, Mr. Wakefield. The last race which Mr. Watson rode was upon the Maze course, October 12th, 1825. He ran for the County Cup on Violet, a great pet of his, at that time aged nearly twenty years. He was himself sixty years of age. At the finish of the race stooping down and placing his arms round the neck of the panting and successful animal, he said -- "You are old, and I am growing old, and we shall run no more. This is our last race." This may be said to have been his formal leave-taking of the course, although he hunted and followed the hounds to a few years before his death.

He was remarkably abstemious. Even on the longest day of sporting excitement he would not ordinarily take even one glass of wine before his dinner. The table was no idol of his. This was all the more remarkable considering the days and circumstances in which he was placed.

As a magistrate at Lisburn, Hillsborough, and Belfast, or wherever he was called upon to act, his advice was looked up to as sound and constitutional, and no man enjoyed in a higher degree the confidence of the public and his brother magistrates.

From the very outset of his career James Watson was a thorough Loyalist. He was captain of the BrookhilL Yeomanry. In the troublous days of 1798 frequent reviews of the Magheragall Cavalry and Brookhill Infantry took place under his command on the "Plover Plain," about a mile above Brookhill.


With Blaris Camp he was also is daily communication. On Blaris Moor strange scenes were not unfrequently exhibited. It was known that secret influences were at work among the Irish regiments, corrupting their principles and seducing them from their allegiance. The emissaries of disaffection endeavoured strenuously to sow there the evil seeds of discontent and treason. The knowledge of this obliged the authorities and commanders of regiments to be constantly on the alert. At length three privates of the Monaghan Militia, were detected in treasonable operations. They were tried in Belfast by court-martial. It was found that they belonged to the Society of "United Irishmen." They were sentenced to death. To render the fatal punishment more exemplary, they were ordered to be shot in the presence of their own regiment and of all the other troops encamped at Blaris. Accordingly, the unhappy criminals were marched to the spot where they were to meet their doom. As they drew near Blaris the Dead March in "Saul" was heard in the distance, announcing their approach. The regiments were formed nearly into a square, within which three coffins were placed. As the three unhappy militiamen, the prisoners, were brought forward, each of them took his place and knelt by his coffin. A firing party then advanced. At a signal, the fatal discharge took place. The three fell instantly. One of them, however, seemed to be [--?--] in agony. A sergeant stepped out from ranks and put his pistol to the ear of the wretched fellow. A shot was heard -- the smoke cleared off -- and the three bodies were prostrate, equally quiet, in death. The several regiments were then made to file past them. It was deplorable to mark their clothes saturated with blood, yet, from the inflammable nature of the wadding, partially in a blaze over the lifeless remains.

Such terrible events were the necessary attendants upon the frightful state of the country at that conjecture of affairs. The crisis it length arrived. The rebellion was openly proclaimed. In the South, alarming progress was made. Some portions of the North were only waiting for the watchword, smothering the flame for a little time, that it might, on the outbreak, burn the more fiercely. Much of the County of Antrim was in this state.


On the 7th of June, 1798, Captain Watson was summoned to Antrim to attend a county meeting of magistrates specially called for the consideration of the threatening aspect of the times. There was a large attendance. Earl O'Neill drove hurriedly from Dublin to be present, and arrived in sufficient time to lend his aid in the anxious deliberations. However, the die was unhappily cast. The rebels marched into Antrim while the magistrates were there assembled, and took complete possession of the town. They were attacked by the King's forces. Among these was a troop of the Magheragall Cavalry, under Lieutenant Garrett. Colonel Lumley, from Lisburn, with a party of the 22nd Dragoons, from Blaris Camp, had passed Brookhill on their hasty march to Antrim. The Colonel held a conversation with Captain Wakefield, in the absence at Antrim of Captain Watson, instructing him to forward to Lisburn all unnecessary arms that were at Brookhill or Springfield, lest they might fall into the hands of the rebels. Making his own way onward to Antrim, and taking Lieutenant Garrett and one troop along with him, he left Captain Wakefield, with the rest of his men, to keep charge of the home post.

As the fight proceeded in the streets of Antrim, Captain Watson was close to the Magheragall Cavalry. He was not far from Lord O'Neill when his Lordship was treacherously and savagely piked. At the Massereene Bridge, about the moment of Earl O'Neill's fall, Captain Watson and his party were closely hemmed in by the rebels. To escape from the deadly enclosure in which they found themselves, he and two or three others, who were well mounted, saw that there was on opening for escape but by leaping directly over the parapet of the bridge and into the river. Just as he was in the act of leaping, one of the rebels levelled a pike or gun at him, with an aim so close and sure that there appeared no nope of its missing him. In that instant another rebel shouted -- "Don't touch Watson! that's Watson!" and dashed up the gun or pike that was in his comrade's hand. Captain Watson and one of the troopers, a farmer in Magheragall, made good their desperate leap. A third who endeavoured to follow their example was pierced through and through with pikes, and fell dead into the water, awfully mangled.

On the Captain's gaining the bank, and riding across a field to reach another part of the town, he came full in front of a separate detachment of rebels. He subsequently declared that he then considered his life as not worth many minutes purchase. First he thought of turning and seeking safety in an opposite direction. Ultimately he determined to move forward. Whether the men recognised  him and did not wish to do him injury, or whether they did not think it right to attack a gentleman who was not in a soldier's dress, he could not know. Howsoever it was, he was unquestioned and unchallenged, and permitted to pass them without remark.

Shortly after these momentary disasters Colonel Lumley caused a retreat to be sounded, to allow time for the reinforcements that were every instant expected. The corps of Magheragall Cavalry did not properly understand the signal, and remained exposed to the destructive assaults of the rebels. The Colonel observing this, and exclaiming -- "The poor fellows will be cut to pieces" -- galloped forward himself to lead them out of their perilous position. While engaged in this effort to save others he received a musket ball in the leg, near the foot, from the effects of which he never altogether recovered.

It was a source of great satisfaction to Captain Watson that, during all this terrible period of bloodshed and anarchy, no private causes of feud existed between himself and any of the infatuated people who were betrayed into disloyalty. While some of the gentry, magistrates residing not far from Brookhill, were obliged to brave the perils of private assassination, both day and night, it was his fortunate lot to be exempt from any such terror or peril. It was his great delight to afford hope to those guilty men who were alike dupes and victims. One of the most pleasing circumstances of this exciting period -- connected with Captain Watson -- was a result of the hazardous leap at Antrim. It is matter of history that M'Cracken in Belfast, and Harry Monro at Lisburn, and many others, forfeited their lives on account of their acts at or before the fights at Antrim or at Ballinahinch. The spectacle was but too common of men of respectability and intelligence executed and beheaded for their share in the rebellion. Necessity -- though sometimes but "the tyrant's plea" -- inevitably, in this case, urged the summary infliction of justice; but, in several instances, mercy tempered justice. A Mr. Mulholland, one of the most energetic rebel officers at the battle of Ballinahinch, was pardoned because he had interfered to save the life of a person who had been carried a prisoner into the camp, And when, shortly after the fights, some of the misguided men who had fought at Antrim were sentenced to death by a court-martial, one of the number claimed the protection of Captain Watson. It was the very man who, in the critical moment, had dashed away the murderous weapon directed at his breast. The Captain repaired to the place of his confinement, and was happy to recognise him as the preserver of his life. A representation of the facts being made to headquarters, the condemned rebel was at once set at liberty. Such incidents as these relieved to some extent the horrors of those days of terror and crime.

It is remarkable that, upon a subsequent occasion, long after the sound of rebellion was hushed, Mr. Watson was, a second time, in imminent risk of losing his life in Antrim. At a Corn Law riot there he and other gentlemen were violently assailed by the mob, and severely stoned. Passing down the street, with the late General Coulson, of Belfast, a huge stone -- which, it was supposed, was intended for the General -- struck Mr. Watson on the head and stretched him insensible on the ground. It was found that he had received a wound which was pronounced as likely to be mortal. After a lengthened, confinement at Antrim he was so far recovered as to be removed to Brookhill. His restoration from the consequences of the brutal assault was extremely tedious.

(To be Continued.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 8 March 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week for several years. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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