seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Saintfield

battle-of-saintfieldThe Battle of Saintfield, a short but bloody clash in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland, takes place on Saturday, June 9, 1798. The battle is the first major conflict of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in County Down.

A rebel force, over a thousand strong, converge on a large house owned by the McKee family. The McKees are a family of loyalists, who are unpopular in the region because they had provided information to the authorities leading to the arrest of a radical Presbyterian minister and some members of his congregation. The McKees know that they are unpopular and are thus armed to the teeth. As the house is surrounded, shots are fired from the fortified house, hitting some of the attackers. Gunfire holds the insurgents back for a short while, until one of them, a fiddler by the name of Orr, manages to sneak around the back of the house with a ladder and sets the roof alight. The house is destroyed, and all eight members of the family inside are killed. News of this quickly reaches the British forces in the area, and a 300 strong force under Colonel Granville Staplyton, consisting of Newtownards Yeomanry cavalry and 270 York Fencibles, as well as two light cannon, march to the region.

The rebels, however, anticipate the move and are waiting in ambush. Stapylton sees the road ahead twisting into woods, and orders a pair of scouts to check for anything suspicious. The men do not seem to be particularly vigilant, as they return and declared the road ahead to be safe.

The redcoats march into the wooded area, a dense hedge snaking along the road on one side. On the opposite side, the ground steadily rises, with the areas higher up the slope dominated by demesne woods. This provides cover for the Irish. The Irish rebels are mostly armed with pikes and the terrain allows them to quickly swarm the soldiers on the road below. In the fierce hand-to-hand combat that follows the British forces are overwhelmed. One of the fencibles, a veteran of wars in Europe who manages to survive the attack later states that he had never before witnessed such fierce fighting.

Over fifty men are piked to death before Staplyton manages to order the soldiers. He then brings his cannon into play against the mass of rebels before him, inflicting enough casualties with canister and grapeshot to blunt their attack. In the meantime, Staplytons force uses the situation to march to safety.

The Battle of Saintfield is largely regarded as a victory of the United Irish rebels. Long after, in the 1950s, two skeletons, a sword and bayonet of the York fencibles are found in the area.

The rebellion in Down proves to be short lived. Only a few days later the rebel army is slaughtered at the Battle of Ballynahinch.

Many of the dead from both sides of the battle are placed in a mass grave within the grounds of the nearby Presbyterian church. Although there is a plaque signifying the location of these graves, the area seems largely neglected with what appears to be temporary vehicle access over the belligerents final resting place. In May 2010 a memorial park is finished and opened. The area has been cleared and landscaped, with several new plaques and information boards being erected. The graves have been refurbished and the headstones relaid.

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The Battle of Ballynahinch

The Battle of Ballynahinch is fought outside Ballynahinch, County Down, on June 12, 1798, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 between British forces led by Major-General George Nugent and the local United Irishmen led by Henry Munro.

Munro is a Lisburn linen merchant and Presbyterian United Irishman who has no military experience but has taken over command of the Down organisation following the arrest on June 5 of the designated leader, Rev. William Steel Dickson. Upon hearing of the victory at Saintfield on June 9, Munro joins the rebel camp there and then moves to Ednavady Hill, Ballynahinch to join the thousands who have gathered in support of the rebellion. The response of the British garrisons is to converge on Ballynahinch from Belfast and Downpatrick in two columns accompanied by several pieces of cannon.

The battle begins on the night of June 12 when two hills to the left and right of Ballynahinch are occupied by the British who pound the town with their cannon. During a pause when night falls, some rebel officers are said to have pressed Munro for a night attack but he refuses on the grounds that it is unchivalrous. As a consequence many disillusioned rebels slip away during the night.

As dawn breaks the battle recommences with the rebels attacked from two sides and although achieving some initial success, confusion in the rebel army sees the United Irishmen retreat in chaos, pursued by regrouping British forces who quickly take advantage by turning retreat into massacre. Initial reports claim four hundred rebels are killed, while British losses are around forty.

Munro escapes the field of battle but is betrayed by a farmer who he has paid to conceal him and is hanged in front of his own house in Lisburn on June 16. Ballynahinch is sacked by the victorious military after the battle with sixty-three houses being burned down. Cavalry scours the surrounding countryside for rebels, raiding homes and killing indiscriminately, the 22nd Dragoons being guilty of some of the worst atrocities. The most famous victim is Betsy Gray, a young female rebel who, with her two brothers, is slaughtered in the post-battle massacre, ensuring her place in legend to this day.

Because of his family’s involvement in this event, Robert Stewart, the future Lord Castlereagh, is made Chief Secretary for Ireland.