From the time that the French appeared at Bantry Bay, the societies greatly increased, but we soon found that what we gained in numbers we lost in worth. Our enemies propagated rumours varying in their tendencies, by which the public mind at one time was raised to the highest pitch of expectation, and at another sunk to the lowest depression. The cruelties practised on the people, sanctioned by the Indemnity Act of the Irish Parliament, left life without security, and innocence without protection. This state of things rendered resistance inevitable. In the months of March and April, 1798, the people were in daily expectation of being called to the field by their leaders; an intention, as it appeared afterwards, which the leaders had little idea of putting in execution.
The adjutant-general of Down, who could neither be intimidated nor corrupted, had been arrested; and the general of Antrim kept back the signal for a general movement, called a meeting of his colonels and resigned; by which means the whole province of Ulster, which expected the signal from Belfast, was completely disorganised. The influence of Henry Joy McCracken, especially with the Defenders, had caused many people to consider him as an eligible person for a command in a force in which it was desirable to combine them with the Presbyterians. The Defenders were directed by a committee, by whom their chief was chosen, who communicated with the United Irish Society by a deputy. The latter had to fly to America, and the duty assigned to him devolved on Henry Joy McCracken.
On his appointment, he had an interview with the adjutant-general, and shortly afterwards I was directed to act as aid-de-camp to one of two persons named, when first called on by either of them. I delivered messages from the leaders I have spoken of to several persons, and was pressed to give their names, which I declined to do, telling them they would be forthcoming when wanted. On the news of a rising in the south reaching Belfast, I went to the adjutant-general, who said he would call the colonels, to give them their orders; and I went home satisfied that such would be the case, and recommended patience to all those I met with. This was on Saturday, and on the Tuesday following, I received a message from the general. I went to him; he gave me a guinea, and directed me to go to a camp which he said was at Dunboyne, near Dublin; that he had ordered the colonels to meet him, and that I was to return with all haste with such information aa I could learn, of the state of the south.
I met Henry McCracken near Belfast, and he stopped me; and on learning my order, he said, you must not go, there is no camp at this side of Dublin; there has been some fighting at a place called Clonee, near Dunboyne, but the men have marched for Tara, and are defeated and dispersed. He has concealed the signal, and must be watched: or the hope of a union with the south is lost. I answered, if he is a traitor or a coward, he will have me tried for disobeying his orders- McCracken replied, I will put you under arrest, and let him try me. Go home, until you hear from or see me. I obeyed; he went into town, and was attacked by some yeomen in Hercules-street. A woman, named Hamell, came to his assistance with a large knife; the yeomen fled, and he escaped into her house, got out of town that evening, and came over the mountains to meet me that night.
Next day we learned that the colonels met and that the general had resigned. We had no communication from the other chief of the Union, but Henry, as his deputy, watched the movements of the United colonels, and learned that, on receiving the resignation of their chief, they had dispersed in consequence of a false alarm, and adjourned from Parkgate to Templepatrick. They selected Munro, and a man named John Coulter (a linen merchant), as persons to whom the command was to be offered: the first met with, to be applied to, and the proposal made to him. The colonels were to meet on Sunday at Ballyeaston. They did meet; and Henry and I went to watch their movements, and learned that none of them had seen the gentlemen named for the appointment, and that the colonels had resolved not to fight. I learned afterwards that, of three of the colonels who had written notices sent them by McCracken, one went in person, and the other two sent their notices to General Nugent.
These orders were sent by the colonels who commanded the districts of Larne, Broughshane, and Loughgeel to General Nugent, which assisted him in his movements to disconcert McCracken’s plans. The colonel of Broughshane sent his brother to General Nugent, and appeared himself among the people after the taking of Ballymenagh, and assisted in dispersing a body of men who had joined the Braid men in considerable force, on which the men of Kells and Connor fell back from Antrim, and still retaining their arms, took post in Kells, four miles in advance from Ballymenagh, to Belfast. The manner in which the plot was managed to get the Ballymenagh men to disperse, was this; — The Committee or Council, consisting chiefly of men of the aforementioned colonels, gave out that they intended to march for Dublin, through the heart of the county Armagh ; they sent home the Braid men and others who had fought in Ballymenagh, for necessaries for the march on Saturday evening. The town-guard of the people then consisted mostly of strangers, who, sending on the Sunday morning to the Council for orders, found the members of it had decamped. They immediately got into confusion, threw down their arms, and dispersed.
When our general resigned, Henry Joy McCracken sent me with a letter to Dr. Dixon, who had been appointed to the command of Down. John Hughes, the then unknown informer, was the man who knew where I would find him. It was early in the morning, and few houses were open. I met William Stewart, a coppersmith, in North-street; he went with me to Hughes; we were admitted, and sent up to a room adjoining that in which Hughes slept; he came out of his room half dressed, wringing his hands in apparent agitation, and exclaimed, ‘It is all over! Our leaders have sold us; the packing and removal of the plate of —- , is the signal for Nugent to commence hanging and flogging the people. There is but one way to stop their career of treachery, and that is to have them arrested; you have done much for the cause, but no service equal to that of lodging information against them.’
I told them that whatever might take place, if this proposal was acted on, I would inform against the person by whom it was carried into effect. Hughes still continuing to express his fear and his determination, if taken, to give full information, I took a pistol from my breast, and pointing it at his breast, said, ‘If you were not so near your wife and children, you would never speak these words again.’ Stewart, who had sided with Hughes, now joined the latter in applauding my firmness, and both declared they wore only trying me. I told them whoever would try the experiment on me again would have no time for explanation. They turned the matter into a laugh, and Hughes bade me go to a house in Church-lane, and Dixon would be there. I went, and waited some hours, but he did not come. I then wont back to Hughes, and he sent me over the Long-bridge to Mr. Pottinger’s; but he was not there. On returning to Hughes, he told me to come into town next day but one, and bring a man and a horse with me; that he had some things that Harry would want, that would require a day for him to provide, and I went home.
When I went to town on the day appointed, it was strongly guarded by the military at every entrance ; it was easy to get in, but how to get out was another question. When I got to Hughes’ in Bridge-street, they were preparing to flog men in High-street. Colonel Barber and some officers were walking in front of the Exchange; we could see them from Hughes’ window up-stairs, and Hughes seemed greatly agitated. One of Hughes’ clerks came up, and said they were flogging Kelso, and in a little while the servant girl ran into the room in haste, and said that Kelso was taken down, and was telling all that he knew. At this time we could see the military moving in small parties in different directions through the street in seeming haste, and Barber and the officers coming towards Bridge-street.
Hughes exclaimed, ‘They are coming here; what will become of my poor family?’
‘What ails you, Hughes?’ said I, ‘ you need not be so frightened.‘
‘Oh! Look here,’ said he, taking me into another room, where he showed me a strong linen ticken bag with better than a stone weight of musket balls and some packages of gunpowder.
‘I’ll ease you of that,’ said I, gathering them up and running down stairs. The clerk followed me to the hall door, and exclaimed, ‘Hope, if Barber sees you, you will be hung at a lamp iron.’ I gave him a benediction, and told him he and his master might hide, if they did not dare to walk the street, while the horsemen were jostling me, and laughing as they passed. I went into a shop at the upper corner of Bridge-street, where I had left a sack, and put my bundles into it, and then went up North-street, and got a comrade named Charles Scott; we took the sack to a carman’s yard, threw it down, and my comrade watched it at a distance, while I put some old things together – two swords, the colours which we afterwards fought under at Antrim, and a green jacket.
Having packed them up into as small a compass as we could, we went forth and joined the Town Yeomen, and passing on with the soldiers, as if under their protection, we began to quicken our step unnoticed by the escort, and soon got out of their sight, and striking off the high road by Shankhill, we got safe to the mountains.
The plan of the Antrim movement formed by Henry Joy McCracken was sent by express to the colonels of the county Antrim, each of whom was appointed to command five hundred men. The plan, in substance, was as follows. The different colonels, at the appointed time, are to attack any military post in their neighbourhood ; or leave light parties to prevent communication, and march to Donegore-hill; while he, McCracken, with the men from the neighbourhood of Killead, Templepatrick, Carmony, and Donegore, marched to Antrim to secure, if possible, the governor, deputy governor, and magistrates of the county Antrim, who were to meet in Antrim on the 7th of June; and to devise means for raising men to reinforce the army destined to effect a junction with the men in arms in the south. Some of the colonels sent these orders to General Nugent, and we were betrayed at all points. We, however, marched to stop the rebellion of the Orangemen against the king’s subjects, and not to promote their objects, as some writers would insinuate.
Men at this time were daily driven from their homes, thousands from their country, some by compulsion, some by a kind of choice that was influenced by fear or famine, to be slaughtered on the Continent, or to fly from danger, and to beg their bread in foreign lands: while many persons, not the most unthinking or unsteady in their principles, seemed to be of opinion that it was a question not easily to be solved, whether resistance or submission would be attended with most injury to human life and happiness, —bearing in mind that the gagging bilk had left no power to public opinion, no protection in a free press, no arena for a moral conflict with oppression.
Some information appears to have been received of my intended journey to the south, to inquire about the Wexford men; for I learnt afterwards that a yeoman was stationed for three or four days at a place I would have had to pass, with instructions to shoot me. Some of my own party wanted to get rid of me. It was finally decided, when neither Munro nor Coulter could be found, that Henry Joy McCracken should be appointed to the chief military command., He wrote, on his appointment, to Steele Dixon, by one Duffy. The letter fell into the hands of Duffy’s wife, and was burned by her.
The South had been forced into resistance on the 21st of May preceding, but the North had been kept inactive until the beginning of June, by the men appointed to command; whether from prudence, cowardice, or concert with their opponents, is best known to themselves. McCracken, who was one of the first founders of the Union, and the only one who was not then in the power of the enemy, drew up and signed the fighting orders for the 7th of June, and sent them to the officers who had been appointed, and were expected to direct the movements of the people, but they declined to act.
He set out at length on his march, with a force of trusty followers, which did not at first exceed one hundred men, but from the starting point, having five miles to march, they were augmented on the road by considerable numbers, who considered themselves more as a forlorn hope, than a force having any well-founded expectation of a successful issue.
Having no organized staff to convey his orders. McCracken could only give advice, which at first was received with attention by the people. We marched into Antrim in good order, until our front arrived opposite the Presbyterian meeting-house, when a party of the 22nd Light Dragoons wheeled out of the lane below the church, fired on us, and then retreated. Another party then advanced from the same quarter, but was soon brought down, men and horse. The rest of their force fled to the market-house, and we advanced under a heavy fire from a body of foot, covered from our fire by the castle wall and two field-pieces, by a shot, from one of which, a gun we had brought from Templepatrick, placed on a common car, was dismounted. We then went into the churchyard, and silenced the field-pieces, and relieved our pikemen from the shower of grape-shot which they had stood without flinching. Part of our rear had been imprudently drawn up in a field, on the left of the church, and rendered useless during the action.
Another party, which had appeared on our right on the Donegore-road, as we entered the town, was ordered to enter the other side of the town, by the back of the gardens. On the approach of this party, the horsemen at the market-house, in danger of being surrounded, and being then galled by our fire, made a charge at full speed up the street, some of the troops having previously fled by Shane Castle-road. The body that charged soon fell by our pikemen. At this time, the party stationed on the west side of the town entered by Bow-lane, but were checked by a destructive fire from the men behind the wall, and a volley from another party posted at a house in the lane by which they entered. They were forced to retreat at the moment that a body of five hundred men from Connor and Kells, who had taken Randalstown on their march to Antrim, came to our assistance, and on entering the town, mistook the flying horsemen for a body of the King’s troops making a charge, and the retreat of the Bow-lane party for a complete rout.
They became panic-struck, and instantly fled, McCracken immediately led a party down through the gardens, to dislodge the enemy from their position behind the wall, in front of the demesne of Lord Massareene. This party, however, seeing the flight of the Connor and Kells men, followed their example and two of them crossing a pike-handle against McCracken’s breast, threw him down, when attempting to stop them and their comrades. The Monaghan regiment, with Donegall’s cavalry, now made their appearance on the road from Belfast, and took up a position at a little distance from the town, and placed two field-pieces on an eminence, the main body keeping behind the elevated ground, as if expecting an attack, while a party of the Donegall corps surrounded our men who were stationed in the field, between them and the town, and slaughtered them without mercy.
We then formed in the street, and proceeded with our colours flying, to the upper part of the street by which we had entered, and kept our ground there until the troops on the hill began to move; we then marched leisurely down the street, and went out by the back of the gardens, on the right hand side of the road, the enemy throwing some round shot at us, which we did not regard, and none of us fell. We retreated slowly to Donegore hill, where we expected to find a body of men in reserve, commanded by Samuel Orr, the brother of William Orr; but they had dispersed before our arrival. There was nothing more to be hoped or to be done; all went home, with the exception of a very small number, of which I was one. Next morning, the news of Lord O’Neil’s death reached us. The account of that event I had from some of the men who had advanced, and taken the guns near the market- house. When our men were approaching by Bow-lane, Lord O’Neil came out of a house beside the market-house, with a pistol in each hand, one of which he fired at a pikeman, and wounded him in the thigh, of which wound the man continued lame during life. The man turned round, and seeing the other pistol levelled at him, used his pike in defence of his life. He declared that Lord O’Neil might have entered the castle-gate without any molestation from him, had he only consulted his safety. I believe this to be true, though I was in the churchyard at the time it happened.
Had Lord O’Neil surrendered, the capture and treatment of Major Jackson and others, who did so, is a proof that he would have got quarter, for such was both the orders to, and inclination of, the people. The troops under his lordship had intrenched themselves in the houses in Bow lane, to cover their retreat, if necessary, on Shane’s Castle, while a light corps, appointed to meet the assailants, were directed to wear each a red thread round his hatband, by which to know each other.
One of the old volunteers who had served under Lord O’Neil, belonging to the Klage company, named Andrew Lewars, whose son fell at his side in the action in Antrim, seeing his boy quite dead, took his pouch and belt, and putting it on over his own, fell into the ranks, and with the additional ammunition during the action, kept up a well-directed and steady fire. He escaped in the retreat, and I met him at Muccamoor ten years afterwards, evincing the same fearless spirit.
Samuel Orr behaved like a coward in Antrim; his flight caused a party headed by McCracken, who were proceeding to dislodge a body of yeomen in Lord Massareene’s demesne, to take to flight, when McCracken endeavoured to restrain them, but was thrown down and the panic became general; he then proceeded to Donegore hill, and did not enter the town again.
His party diminished in the mountains from one hundred to twenty-eight; Colonel Clavering sent up a letter by a spy to say he would grant terms to all the people, provided they gave up their arms, and give a reward of 100l a piece for each of the four following: – William Orr, Samuel Orr, and his brother John Orr, and Robert Johnstone. McCracken was not named. Samuel Orr surrendered, and got home. William Orr, still living was transported; John Orr escaped to America, from Island Magee, along with Robert Orr, a chandler, who died there.
Henry was already at Donegore hill, when we arrived, but on seeing the Kells men going home and our party dispersing in all directions, he and a few of his followers went further back into the mountains and joined some Belfast friends in the neighbourhood of Glenerry, but for want of some countrymen to learn the state of affairs, they could not ascertain whether any considerable numbers were brought together; but on hearing that the Kells men still remained in arms, they proceeded to Kells. Early on the tenth, when the Kells men were breaking up in consequence of news from Ballymenagh, that the people who collected had been deserted by their leaders, they likewise dispersed. Henry McCracken then went to Slemish, with such as were loath to give up the struggle, and remained there until our number was reduced to twenty-eight; we then left that place and took post on the heights of Little Collin, where we heard the guns at Ballynahinch.
On our march to the battle of Antrim, McCracken said, ‘If we succeed to-day there will be sufficient praise lavished on us, if we fail we may expect proportionate blame. But whether we succeed or fail, let us try to deserve success.’ Henry had no other design in making this attempt, than to try the last effort for effecting a junction with the men in arms in the south, and to gain that point he was quite willing to sacrifice his life. But the fact is, when persecution and ferocious bigotry were stalking abroad, had we come to a quiet understanding to join in small communities, for the protection of one another’s life and liberty, by verbal agreement without any other obligation or design, many a valuable life would have been saved and perjury avoided.
News having reached us, that the men from the lower part of the country were flocking into Ballymenagh, from the 7th of June, — I joined them in a few days, and was ordered by the commandant of the town, to open a communication with the Kells men. The town had been taken on the 7th by the neighbours, and they were receiving reinforcements every hour ; the commandant told us he had eleven thousand under his command, a thousand of which number had fire-arms, that he intended to march through the county Armagh into Louth for Dublin, and wished me to accompany the advanced guard, which he intended to be composed of the Kells men, to keep them from running home again. I obeyed his orders, and on the 9th we were ordered to Donegore Hill, but the men mutinied on the hill, and returned to Kells in the evening. We got billets and kept pickets on the road all night. The picket on Ballymenagh-road took a prisoner, who told us, that the people of Ballymenagh had been dispersed by the desertion of their officers; we sent a messenger to that place, and found the account was true.
Henry McCracken having joined us that morning, and seeing the Kells men dispersing also, advised such as were loth to go home, to go with him to Slemish, and keep a rallying point, or let such as durst go home, have time to hear if they would be safe. We went to Slemish, and found a spring at the south end of the hill, which we opened, and we remained there until Colonel Clavering came to Ballymenagh with four hundred men. He sent a message to us offering pardon, and one hundred guineas each, for four men supposed to be with us. We returned for an answer, that the men at Slemish would not pardon him.
We were then reduced to twenty-eight, and learning next day that a female visitor had reported our numbers and means of refreshment, to Clavering, we left the hill and marched in the direction of Belfast in open day, but stopped at Glenerry for the night, and assembled on a hill called the Little Collin next morning. In the evening we heard the guns at Ballynahinch, and marched in the direction of them; on our way we disarmed a guard at Ballydare, and frightened their leaders a good deal, but hurt none of them. We crossed the country to Divis mountain, and saw several houses on fire in the county of Down.
On learning by a messenger we had sent to Dunmurry, that the people were dispersed at Ballynahinch, we retraced our steps, and took post on the Black Bohell; there we were informed from Belfast, that the Wexford men were on their march for the north. We were then reduced to eight men, including McCracken, who sent word to his friends in Belfast, that he intended to meet the Wexford men; for although the people were dispersed by treachery, their spirit remained unbroken, and men were calling to us to learn if there was any hope, for the burning of houses, and scouring of the country still continued. Two ladies at this time arrived from Belfast at the risk of their lives, with word that General Nugent was apprized of our intention. McCracken then told us that he could make no farther use of our service, and after many words of kindness and of grief, he parted with us, and bid us think no more of following him.
While we were looking sorrowfully after him, as he was going away to get some place of shelter for the ladies, it being then late in the evening, he called to me and another man, and said he had one more request to make, that we should endeavour to ascertain what the Wexford men were doing, and return with the intelligence to him as speedily as possible; but before we could return he had heard of their defeat, and then crossing the commons of Carrickfergus for Larne, he was taken, and suffered death in Belfast on the testimony of James Beck and John Minis.
Henry Joy McCracken was the most discerning and determined man of all our northern leaders, and by his exertion chiefly the Union of the societies of the north and south was maintained. His memory is still fresh in the hearts of those who knew him. Forty winters have passed over it, and the green has not gone from it.
I had an opportunity of knowing many of our leaders, but none of those I was acquainted with resembled each other in their qualities and their principles, in the mildness of their manners, their attachment to their country, their forgetfulness of themselves, their remembrance of the merits of others, their steadiness of purpose, and their fearlessness, as did Henry Joy McCracken and Robert Emmet.