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


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The Battle of Scarrifholis

The Battle of Scarrifholis takes place on June 21, 1650, near Letterkenny, County Donegal, during the Irish Confederate Wars. A force loyal to the Commonwealth of England commanded by Charles Coote defeats the Catholic Ulster Army, commanded by Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher.

Although slightly smaller than their opponents, Coote’s troops consist largely of veterans from the New Model Army and have three times the number of cavalry. After an hour of fighting, the Ulster army collapses and flees, losing most of its men, officers, weapons, and supplies. The battle secures the north of Ireland for the Commonwealth and clears the way to complete the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Irish Confederate Wars, sparked by the Irish Rebellion of 1641, are initially fought between the predominantly Catholic Confederation, and a largely Protestant Irish Royal Army, led by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond. Both claim to be loyal to Charles I, while there is a three sided war in Ulster. The latter involves Royalists, Gaelic Catholic leader Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill, and Presbyterian militia, known as the Laggan Army, supported by Scots Covenanters under Robert Munro.

In September 1643, Ormond agrees a truce, or ‘Cessation’, with the Confederation, freeing his troops for use in England against Parliament in the First English Civil War. Some Irish Protestants object, and switch sides, including Sir Charles Coote, who becomes Parliamentarian commander in Connacht. Charles surrenders in 1646, while a Covenanter/Royalist uprising is quickly suppressed in the 1648 Second English Civil War. On January 17, 1649, the Confederation allies with Ormond’s Royalists. Following the execution of Charles on January 30, they are joined by the Laggan Army, and remaining Scots troops in Ulster.

There are various reasons for this. The Covenanter government, who provide support for Scottish settlers in Ulster, consider Oliver Cromwell and other leaders of the new Commonwealth of England dangerous political and religious radicals. As Scots, they object to the execution of their king by the English. As Presbyterians, they view monarchy as divinely ordained, making regicide also sacrilegious, and they transfer their allegiance to his son, Charles II of England.

However, this is offset by a split within the Confederation, between Catholic landowners who want to preserve the position prevailing in 1641, and those like Ó Néill, whose estates had been confiscated in 1607. As a result, he agrees a truce with Coote, and refuses to join the Alliance, depriving them of their most effective fighting force in the north. Despite this, by late July, Ormond’s combined Royalist/Confederate army control most of Ireland.

Ormond’s defeat at the Battle of Rathmines on August 2 allows Cromwell and an army of 12,000 to land in Dublin unopposed. After capturing Drogheda on September 11, his main force heads south towards Wexford. Colonel Robert Venables is sent north with three regiments, or around 2,500 men, to take control of Ulster. Munro’s garrisons surrender with minimal resistance, and by the end of September, Venables has occupied Dundalk, Carlingford, Newry, and Belfast. These are accompanied by the mass expulsion of Scots settlers, as punishment for their defection. When Coote captures Coleraine on September 15, he massacres the largely Scottish garrison.

Ó Néill’s death in November 1649 and Coote’s defeat of a combined Royalist/Covenanter force at Lisnagarvey in December leaves the Catholic Ulster army as the only remaining opposition to the Commonwealth in the north. At a meeting at Belturbet on March 18, 1650, Heber MacMahon, Catholic Bishop of Clogher, is appointed in his place. Although a leading figure in the Confederation, MacMahon has no military experience and opposes the alliance with Ormond’s Royalists. His election is essentially a compromise between supporters of Henry, Ó Néill’s son, and his cousin, Felim Ó Néill.

By May 20, MacMahon and his deputy Richard O’Farrell have assembled an army near Loughgall, with 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. They lack both arms and artillery but after Ormond promises to send these from Connacht, they march north, intending to divide Coote’s troops at Derry from those commanded by Venables at Carrickfergus in the east. To do this, MacMahon establishes a line of garrisons with its northern end at Ballycastle, then moves south, intending to cross the River Foyle just below Lifford and maintain contact with Ormond through Ballyshannon.

At this point, Coote has only 1,400 men and seems vulnerable. The Irish cross the river on June 2, beating off an attack by the Commonwealth cavalry and occupy Lifford, where they spend the next two weeks and Coote withdraws to Derry. However, the supplies promised by Ormond fail to arrive, leaving MacMahon short of provisions, while on June 18 Coote is joined by an additional 1,000 infantry under Colonel Roger Fenwick sent from Belfast. At the same time, detaching men for the new garrisons leave MacMahon with around 4,000 infantry and 400 cavalry.

MacMahon now relocates to the Doonglebe/Tullygay Hill overlooking the pass at Scariffhollis, a strong defensive position two miles west of Letterkenny on the River Swilly. When Myles MacSweeney takes his regiment off to recapture his ancestral home at Doe Castle, it leaves the two armies roughly equal in number. However, Coote’s men are well equipped veterans and he has three times the number of cavalry. When he appears at Scariffhollis on June 21, MacMahon’s subordinates advise him not to risk battle. They argue Coote will soon be forced to retreat due to lack of provisions, allowing the Irish to withdraw into Connaught in good order.

For reasons that are still debated, MacMahon ignores this advice and on the morning of June 21, 1650 orders his troops down from their mountain camp to give battle. Coote later reports that although the ground is still “excessive bad,” it allows him to use his cavalry, although the initial fighting is conducted by the opposing infantry.

The Irish army is drawn up in a large mass formation with 200–300 musketeers in front, which may have been due to their shortage of ammunition. The battle begins when Colonel Fenwick leads a detachment of 150 men against the advance guard. After an exchange of fire, during which Fenwick is mortally wounded, it turns into a hand-to-hand struggle. As Coote feeds in reinforcements, the Irish musketeers fall back on their main force, which has no room to manoeuvre and is now subjected to devastating volleys at close range. After an hour of bitter conflict, the Irish are out of ammunition and at this point the Parliamentarian cavalry charges their flank. Thrown into disarray, the Irish break and run.

In most battles, flight is the point at which the defeated suffer the heaviest casualties, exacerbated by the lack of Irish cavalry and the brutal nature of the war. Most of the infantry dies on the battlefield or in the pursuit that follows, including Henry Ó Néill and many officers, some of whom are killed after surrendering. Estimates of the Irish dead range from 2,000 – 3,000, while Coote loses around 100 killed or wounded.

MacMahon escapes with 200 horse but is captured a week later and executed. Phelim Ó Néill and O’Farrell make it to Charlemont, which is besieged by Coote and surrenders on August 14. With the exception of a few scattered garrisons, this ends fighting in the north. Limerick is taken by Hardress Waller in October 1651 and the war ends when Galway surrenders to Coote in May 1652.

(Pictured: A view of the mouth of River Swilly at Lough Swilly, Letterkenny, County Donegal)


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King William III, William of Orange, Arrives in Belfast

William of Orange, King of Holland, and recently declared King William III of England, arrives with his fleet in Belfast on June 14, 1690. He remains for twelve days, departing on June 26. For his part he likes what he sees. “This country is worth fighting for,” he says.

William’s departure from London is held up by parliamentary business until the end of May, when he announces that he can wait no longer and adjourns Parliament. He sets out early in the morning of June 4, reaching Northampton before nightfall. On Sunday, June 8, he attends divine service in Chester Cathedral and goes on to inspect the ships at Hoylake on the tip of the Wirral Peninsula.

For two days the wind is contrary, but on June 11 he embarks on board the yacht “Mary” with a fleet escorted by Sir Cloudesley Shovell‘s squadron. On June 14 the hills of Ireland come in sight and in the afternoon the fleet casts anchor off Carrickfergus. He is rowed ashore in the Rear Admiral’s barge and at about 3:30 p.m. lands at the Old Quay under the shadow of the great Norman Castle.

The Garrison of the Castle has drawn up a Guard of Honour and the townspeople add their applause. The chosen spokesman is a Quaker, whose principles forbid him to doff his hat, or use such titles as Sir and Majesty. He gets around the difficulty by taking off his hat and laying it on a stone and then stepping forward and saying “William, thou art welcome to thy Kingdom” which pleases the King so much that he replies, “You are the best bred gentleman I have met since I came to England.” With these words he mounts his horse and sets off for Belfast.

Halfway along the shore is the little port of Whitehouse, where most of the army disembarks. The Commander-in-Chief, Frederick Schomberg, 1st Duke of Schomberg, and his senior commanders are waiting here to welcome the King. To cover the disembarkation, earthworks have been thrown up by the engineers at Fort William and garrisoned by troops ready for action.

In 1690 Belfast consists of about 300 houses in five streets. It has two churches, the Parish Church, where St. George’s Church still stands in the High Street, and the Presbyterian Meeting House in Rosemary Lane. The town had been surrounded by a rampart in 1642 and had been captured by Colonel Robert Venebles for Oliver Cromwell after a four-day siege and an assault on the North Gate in 1649.

It is at the North Gate that King William enters Belfast where North Street now crosses Royal Avenue. Here he is welcomed by the magistrates and burgesses in their robes and by the Rev. George Walker, now Bishop-elect of Derry. A Royal Salute is fired from the Castle and is echoed and re-echoed by the guns which Schomberg had placed at wide intervals for the purpose of conveying signals from post to post. Wherever it is heard it is known that King William has come. Before midnight all the heights of Antrim and Down are blazing with bonfires.

The next day being Sunday, William attends church at the Corporation Church, now St. George’s Church. On Monday, June 16, addresses of loyalty are presented on behalf of the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church clergy, the civic authorities of the city of Londonderry, the town of Belfast and by the Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace and Gentlemen of the Counties of Down and Antrim. The next two days are spent in military preparation.

In the previous season Schomberg had conducted a slow and cautious campaign but William says he has not come to Ireland to let the grass grow under his feet. He orders a general muster of the army in the Parish of Aghaderg which includes Scarvagh and on Thursday, June 19, begins his southward march from Belfast Castle.

The line of march continues along Upper Malone by the Old Coach Road and past the ruins of both Drumbeg and Lambeg Parish Churches which had been burned down in 1641. William reaches Schomberg’s headquarters in Lisburn Castle for lunch on the same day that he left Belfast Castle. The afternoon and evening are spent inspecting troops on Blaris Moor, and then on to Hillsborough Castle for the night.

The cavalcade moves on through the little round hills of County Down, crosses the Upper Bann between Huntly and Ballievey by ford over the hill of Banbridge and on to the rendezvous on the north west of Loughbrickland.

After the disappointments of the previous season and the appalling loss of life through disease, Schomberg had dispersed his army into winter quarters all over Ulster. The Derry and Enniskillen men had gone home to pick up the threads of their lives. Now the farmers among them have the crop in and are recalled to the colours and ready to be reviewed. There are four regiments of Enniskillen men – Wynns, Tiffins, Lloyds and Cunninghams, one of foot and three of horse. There is only one regiment of Derry men, St. John’s, commanded by Mitchelburne with Rev. George Walker as chaplain.

On June 22, William sits in the saddle for hours reviewing his 36,000 men. Marching past are 10,000 Danes, some of whom came from Norway and Sweden, and even Finland, 7,000 Dutch and Brandenburgers, 2,000 French Huguenots, 11,000 English and Scots, 800 Derrymen, 4,500 Inniskilleners and two companies from Bandon, County Cork.

On June 24, an advance party reaches beyond Newry to the edge of Dundalk and brings intelligence that the deposed King James II has fallen back on Ardee. The following day the main army advances to Newry and camps on the side of a hill. On June 25, with the King at their head, wearing an Orange colour sash, they go through the Moyry Gap and pass out of Ulster en route to the Boyne.

(From: “History of Orangeism: King William in Ulster,” Museum of Orange Heritage, http://www.orangeheritage.co.uk)


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The Battle of Benburb

The Battle of Benburb takes place on June 5, 1646 during the Irish Confederate Wars, the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It is fought between the Irish Confederation under Owen Roe O’Neill, and a Scottish Covenanter and Anglo-Irish army under Robert Monro. The battle ends in a decisive victory for the Irish Confederates and ends Scottish hopes of conquering Ireland and imposing their own religious settlement there.

The Scots Covenanters land an army in Ulster in 1642 to protect the Scottish settlers there from the massacres that follow the Irish Rebellion of 1641. They land at Carrickfergus and link up with Sir Robert Stewart and the Laggan Army of Protestant settlers from County Donegal in northwest Ulster. The Covenanters clear northeastern Ulster of Irish rebels by 1643 but are unable to advance south of mid-Ulster, which is held by Owen Roe O’Neill, the general of the Irish Confederate Ulster army.

In 1646, Monro leads a force composed of Scottish Covenanter regiments and Ulster settlers armies into Confederate-held territory. According to some accounts, this is the first step in a drive to take the Confederates’ capital at Kilkenny. Other sources say it is only a major raid. The combined force is about 6,000 strong. Monro has ten regiments of infantry, of whom six are Scottish and four are English or Anglo-Irish, and 600 Ulster Protestant cavalry. Stewart and the Laggan Army are slated to join Monro’s force in the attack, however, on the day of the battle the Laggan Army is in Clogher, nearly 30 kilometres away. O’Neill, who is a very cautious general, had previously avoided fighting pitched battles. However, he has just been supplied by the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, with muskets, ammunition and money with which to pay his soldiers’ wages. This allows him to put over 5,000 men into the field, an army slightly smaller than his enemy’s. The Covenanters have six cannon, whereas the Confederates have none.

Monro assumes that O’Neill will try to avoid his army and has his soldiers march 24 kilometres to intercept the Irish force at Benburb, in modern south County Tyrone. Gerard Hayes-McCoy writes, “many of them must have been close to exhaustion before the battle began.” Monro’s men draw up with their backs to the River Blackwater, facing O’Neill’s troops who are positioned on a rise.

The battle begins with Monro’s artillery firing on the Irish position, but without causing many casualties. Monro’s cavalry then charges the Irish infantry, but are unable to break the Confederates’ pike and musket formation. When this attack fails, O’Neill orders his infantry to advance, pushing the Monro’s forces back into a loop of the river by the push of pike. It is noted that the Irish pikes have longer shafts and narrower heads than those of their opponents, meaning that they outreach them and are “better to pierce.” At this point, the fatigue of Monro’s troops is apparent as they are gradually pushed back until their formation collapses in on itself. The Confederate infantry then breaks Monro’s disordered formation with a musket volley at point-blank range and falls in amongst them with swords and scians (Irish long knives). Monro and his cavalry flee the scene, as, shortly after, does his infantry. A great many of them are cut down or drowned in the ensuing pursuit. Monro’s losses are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 men, killed or wounded. The Irish casualties are estimated to be 300.

O’Neill’s victory means that the Covenanters are no longer a threat to the Confederates, but they remain encamped around Carrickfergus for the rest of the war. O’Neill does not follow up his victory but takes his army south to intervene in the politics of the Irish Confederation. In particular, he wants to make sure that the treaty the Supreme Council of the Confederates has signed with the English Royalists will not be ratified.

The battle is commemorated in the ballad “The Battle of Benburb.”


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Birth of Arthur Armstrong, Landscape & Still Life Painter

Arthur Armstrong, landscape and still life painter who often works in a Cubist style, is born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, on January 12, 1924. A prolific painter, completing up to 300 paintings a year, in oils, watercolour and mixed media, he regards himself first and foremost as an abstract artist.

Armstrong is the son of a house painter and attends Strandtown Primary School. Later he studies architecture at Queen’s University Belfast, but after two years he moves to study art at Belfast School of Art. The influence of Cubism and the School of Paris can be clearly seen in his work, which takes him to England, France and Spain. He also travels and paints in the west of Ireland and Connemara inspires some of his best work. In 1950 his work is exhibited in the Grafton Gallery in Dublin, and subsequent exhibitions take place in England, Spain and the United States, as well as in Belfast and Dublin. In 1957 he is awarded a travelling scholarship from the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), a forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and goes to Spain. He eventually settles in Dublin in 1962 and begins showing work at the Royal Hibernian Academy.

In 1968 Armstrong is awarded the Douglas Hyde Gold Medal at the Oireachtas Exhibition. In 1969 he designs sets, with George Campbell and Gerard Dillon, for the Seán O’Casey play, Juno and the Paycock, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He becomes a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1972 and in 1973 he is awarded the Art in Context prize from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He becomes a member of Aosdána in 1981, the same year that a retrospective exhibition of his work from 1950 to 1980 is held by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

From 1971 Armstrong lives at 28 Chelmsford Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin, in a house he shares with Gerard Dillon. A bachelor, Armstrong dies in a Dublin hospital on January 13, 1996. The contents of his studio are sold February 3, 1998.

(Pictured: “Glendalough” by Arthur Armstrong, oil on board)


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Death of Owen Roe O’Neill, Member of the O’Neill Dynasty of Ulster

Owen Roe O’Neill, Gaelic Irish soldier and one of the most famous of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster, dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan.

O’Neill is the illegitimate son of Art MacBaron O’Neill, a younger brother of Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, who holds lands in County Armagh. His mother is the daughter of Aodh Conallach O’Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O’Reilly in County Cavan.

As a young man O’Neill leaves Ireland, one of the ninety-nine involved in the Flight of the Earls escaping the English conquest of his native Ulster. He grows up in the Spanish Netherlands and spends 40 years serving in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. He sees most of his combat in the Eighty Years’ War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders, notably at the Siege of Arras, where he commands the Spanish garrison. He also distinguishes himself in the Franco-Spanish War by holding out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.

O’Neill is, like many Gaelic Irish officers in the Spanish service, very hostile to the English Protestant presence in Ireland. In 1627, he is involved in petitioning the Spanish monarchy to invade Ireland using the Irish Spanish regiments. He proposes that Ireland be made a republic under Spanish protection to avoid in-fighting between Irish Catholic landed families over which of them would provide a prince or king of Ireland. This plot comes to nothing. However in 1642, He returns to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, is part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Because of his military experience, O’Neill is recognised on his return to Ireland in July 1642, at Doe Castle in County Donegal, as the leading representative of the O’Neills and head of the Ulster Irish. Sir Phelim O’Neill resigns the northern command of the Irish rebellion in his favour and escorts him from Lough Swilly to Charlemont.

Jealousy between the kinsmen is complicated by differences between O’Neill and the Catholic Confederation which meet at Kilkenny in October 1642. O’Neill professes to be acting in the interest of Charles I, but his real aim is the complete Independence of Ireland as a Roman Catholic country, while the Old English Catholics represented by the council desire to secure religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the crown of England. More concretely, O’Neill wants the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O’Neill clan’s ancestral lands. Moreover, he is unhappy that the majority of Confederate military resources are directed to Thomas Preston‘s Leinster army. Preston is also a Spanish veteran but he and O’Neill have an intense personal dislike of each other.

Although O’Neill is a competent general, he is outnumbered by the Scottish Covenanter army that lands in Ulster in 1642. Following a reverse at Clones, he has to abandon central Ulster and is followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the retribution of the Scottish soldiers for some atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. He does his best to stop the killings of Protestant civilians, for which he receives the gratitude of many Protestant settlers. From 1642–1646 a stalemate exists in Ulster, which he uses to train and discipline his Ulster Army. This poorly supplied force nevertheless gains a very bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

In 1646 O’Neill, with substantial Gallowglass numbers and additionally furnished with supplies by the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, attacks the Scottish Covenanter army under Major-General Robert Monro, who had landed in Ireland in April 1642. On June 5, 1646 O’Neill utterly routs Monro at the Battle of Benburb, killing or capturing up to 3,000 Scots. However after being summoned to the south by Rinuccini, he fails to take advantage of the victory, and allows Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

In March 1646 a treaty is signed between James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond and the Catholics, which would have committed the Catholics to sending troops to aid the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The peace terms however, are rejected by a majority of the Irish Catholic military leaders and the Catholic clergy including the Nuncio, Rinuccini. O’Neill leads his Ulster army, along with Thomas Preston’s Leinster army, in a failed attempt to take Dublin from Ormond. However, the Irish Confederates suffer heavy military defeats the following year at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in Ireland at Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanauss, leading to a moderation of their demands and a new peace deal with the Royalists. This time O’Neill is alone among the Irish generals in rejecting the peace deal and finds himself isolated by the departure of the papal nuncio from Ireland in February 1649.

So alienated is O’Neill by the terms of the peace the Confederates have made with Ormond that he refuses to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fights with other Irish Catholic armies. He makes overtures for alliance to George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, who is in command of the parliamentarians in the north, to obtain supplies for his forces, and at one stage even tries to make a separate treaty with the English Parliament against the Royalists in Ireland. Failing to obtain any better terms from them, he turns once more to Ormond and the Catholic confederates, with whom he prepares to co-operate more earnestly when Oliver Cromwell‘s arrival in Ireland in August 1649 brings the Catholic party face to face with serious danger.

Before, however, anything is accomplished by this combination, O’Neill dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan. There is no clear evidence of the cause of death, with one belief being that he was poisoned by a priest, while others think it is more likely that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he is reputed to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. However some local tradition still suggests that it may have been at Trinity abbey located upon an island in Lough Oughter, which may be more likely given the logistics of his removal. His death is a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and is kept secret for some time.

The Catholic nobles and gentry meet in Ulster in March 1650 to appoint a commander to succeed O’Neill, and their choice is Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher, the chief organiser of the recent Clonmacnoise meeting. O’Neill’s Ulster army is unable to prevent the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, despite a successful defence of Clonmel by O’Neill’s nephew Hugh Dubh O’Neill and is destroyed at the Battle of Scarrifholis in County Donegal in 1650. Its remnants continue guerrilla warfare until 1653, when they surrender at Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan. Most of the survivors are transported to serve in the Spanish Army.

In the nineteenth century, O’Neill is celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who see him as an Irish patriot. Thomas Davis writes a famous song about O’Neill, titled “The Lament for Owen Roe” which is popularised in their newspaper, The Nation.

O’Neill has been commemorated in the names of several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, including Middletown Eoghan Rua Gaelic Athletic Club in County Armagh; CLG Eoghan Rua in Coleraine; St. Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh GAA in Dublin, and Brackaville Owen Roes GFC; Owen Roe O’Neill’s GAC in County Tyrone; and the defunct Benburb Eoghan Ruadh GAC.


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Execution of William Orr, Member of the United Irishmen

William Orr, a member of the United Irishmen, is executed by the British on October 14, 1797 in what is widely believed at the time to be “judicial murder” and whose memory leads to the rallying cry “Remember Orr” during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. He is regarded as the first United Irish martyr.

Little is known of Orr’s early life. He is born in 1766 to a Presbyterian farming family and bleach-green proprietor, at Ferranshane outside Antrim town. The family is in comfortable circumstances and, as a result, he receives a good education. His appearance and manner are at the time considered noteworthy as he stands 6′ 2″ in height and is always carefully and respectably dressed, a familiar feature in his apparel being a green necktie, which he wears “even in his last confinement.” His popularity amongst his countrymen is also noted, particularly among the Northern Presbyterian patriots. He becomes active in the Irish Volunteers and then joins the United Irishmen. Sometime in the mid-1790s, he contributes several articles to their newspaper, the Northern Star.

Orr is charged at Carrickfergus Town Hall with administering the United Irishmen oath to a soldier named Hugh Wheatly, an offence which had recently been deemed a capital charge under the 1796 Insurrection Act. The offence is aggravated from a legal point of view because of the allegation that it is a serving soldier whom he is alleged to have administered the oath to. The prosecution makes the most of this “proof” of the “treasonable” aim of the United Irishmen to “seduce from their allegiance” the “men who are the Kingdom’s only safeguard against the foreign foe.”

The United Irishmen know from the evidence of some of their own number that Orr had not administered the oath on the occasion alleged. They also have the evidence of another eyewitness, James “Jemmy” Hope. The soldier witness Wheatly perjures himself and it is proved he is of bad character. The person who did tender the oath is a well known member of the Society, William McKeever, who subsequently escapes to the United States. It is widely believed at the time that the authorities wish to make an example of Orr to act as a deterrent to potential United Irishmen recruits.

The actual case, which does not appear in the course of the proceedings but everyone, according to T. A. Jackson, is “in the know” and fully aware that the United Irishmen’s oath had been administered to a soldier “whether it was Orr or another who administered the oath was merely incidental.”

Orr is represented by John Philpot Curran, and the trial leads to a speech, which, according to T. A. Jackson, “is among the most remarkable of his many remarkable speeches.” It is a charge of libel against the Press newspaper, the journal founded by Arthur O’Connor to replace the Northern Star. The Press had published an open letter to the Viceroy, remarking scornfully on his refusal to show clemency to Orr. Curran’s defence is a counter-attack — an indictment of the Government, root and branch.

The only evidence used against Orr is the unsupported evidence of the soldier Wheatly and after hearing Curran’s defence of the prisoner, “there could be no possible doubt of his innocence.” Even the presiding judge, Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore, is said to have shed tears at the passing of the death sentence, although Orr’s friend, the poet and United Irishman William Drennan expresses his disgust at this display with the words “I hate those Yelvertonian tears.”

The sentence was hardly passed on Orr when regret is to seize on those who had aided in securing that verdict. The witness Wheatly, who subsequently goes insane and is believed to have died by his own hand, makes an affidavit before a magistrate admitting that he had sworn wrongly against Orr. Two members of the jury make depositions stating that they had been “induced to join in the verdict of guilty while under the influence of drink,” while two others swear that they had “been terrified into the same course by threats of violence.”

These particulars are placed before the Viceroy, but Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, is “deaf to all appeals” (including from his sister Lady Londonderry). “Well might Orr exclaim within his dungeon” he said “that the Government had laid down a system having for its object murder and devastation.”

Though his execution is postponed three times, Orr is hanged in the town of Carrickfergus on October 14, 1797, surrounded by an extra strong military guard. It is said that the population of the town, to express their sympathy with the “patriot” being “murdered by law,” and to mark their repugnance of the conduct of the Government towards him, quit the town on the day of his execution.

Orr’s fate “excited the deepest indignation throughout the country” and it is commented on “in words of fire” by the national writers of the period, and for many years after the rallying cry of the United Irishmen is “Remember Orr.” The journalist Peter Finnerty, who publishes an attack on Yelverton and Camden for their conduct in the matter, is later convicted of seditious libel, despite an eloquent defence by Curran.

(Pictured: William Orr from a sketch by E. A. Morrow)


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Birth of Mary Ann McCracken, Humanitarian & Social Reformer

Mary Ann McCracken, Irish businesswoman, radical humanitarian, supporter of the Society of United Irishmen and a noted social reformer, is born in Belfast on July 8, 1770.

McCracken’s father is Captain John McCracken, a Presbyterian of Scottish descent and a prominent shipowner. Her mother, Ann Joy, comes from a French Protestant Huguenot family, which made its money in the linen trade and founded the Belfast News Letter. Her liberal and far-sighted parents send her to David Manson‘s progressive co-educational school, where ‘young ladies’ received the same education as the boys. She excels at mathematics.

As an adult, McCracken manages a successful muslin business in Belfast, which pioneers the production of patterned and checked muslin. She runs the business together with her sister, and has at least one agent in Dublin.

McCracken is the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen. In the aftermath of her brother’s defeat at the Battle of Antrim on June 7, 1798 she helps Henry Joy and some colleagues hide in the hills of south Antrim, bringing them clothes and money. She is arranging for a ship to take him to the United States when he is recognised by three Carrickfergus soldiers and arrested there on July 7, 1798.

McCracken shares her brother’s interest in reviving the oral-music tradition of Ireland, and is a founding member of the Belfast Harp Society (1808–1813). She supports Edward Bunting in his collecting of traditional music, introducing him to people who can help, acting as his unofficial secretary and contributes anonymously to the second volume of his work The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1809. Bunting lives with the McCrackens for thirty-five years, before moving to Dublin 1819 and thereafter corresponds regularly with McCracken.

McCracken, like her brother, holds radical beliefs and these extend not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery. She is dedicated to the poor of Belfast and from her earliest childhood she works to raise funds and provide clothes for the children of the Belfast Poorhouse, now known as Clifton House, Belfast. Following a visit from Elizabeth Fry she forms the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and is chair from 1832–1855. Thanks to the efforts of the committee a school, and later a nursery, is set up to educate the orphans of Belfast. She takes particular pains to find a suitable teacher, displaying a high level of dedication and compassion for her cause. The committee also inspects the homes where children of the poorhouse are apprenticed out.

McCracken leads the Women’s Abolitionary Ccmmittee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement and continues to promote the cause long after the spirit of radicalism had died in Belfast. By the 1850s, the liberality of the 1790s had largely evaporated in the aftermath of the failure of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the subsequent executions or exile of the leading protagonists.

At the age of 88, McCracken is to be seen at the Belfast docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery is still practised. Her continued campaign long after the deaths of her counterparts serves to demonstrate the strength of radicalism that exists in certain circles of Belfast society at the close of the eighteenth century.

After her brother’s execution in Belfast, McCracken takes over the care of his illegitimate daughter, Maria, which is not universally accepted in her wider family. She lives with Maria and her family until her death at the age of 96 on July 26, 1866. She is buried in grave number 35 at Clifton Street Cemetery.

A blue plaque has been placed by the Ulster History Circle on the house at 62 Donegall Pass, Belfast, where McCracken lived for much of her later life.


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Death of Margaret Emmeline Dobbs, Scholar & Playwright

Margaret Emmeline Dobbs, Irish scholar and playwright best known for her work to preserve the Irish language, dies in Cushendall, County Antrim, Northern Ireland on January 2, 1962.

Dobbs is born in County Antrim on November 19, 1871 to barrister Conway Edward Dobbs who is Justice of the Peace for County Antrim, High Sheriff for Carrickfergus in 1875 and High Sheriff for County Louth in 1882. Her mother is Sarah Mulholland, daughter of St. Clair Kelvin Mulholland of Eglantine, County Down. The family spends time living in Dublin where Dobbs is born. She attempts to learn Irish, however, when her father dies in 1898 her mother moves the family back to Glenariff.

Dobbs is interested in learning Irish and finds it easier to learn in County Donegal where it is still spoken. Her first teacher is Hugh Flaitile. She attends the Irish College at Cloughaneely in the Donegal Gaeltacht. She brings the idea of promoting the language to the Glens of Antrim and her circle of friends. She is one of the small number of Protestant women interested in the Gaelic revival.

The year 1904 sees the “Great Feis” in Antrim and Dobbs is a founder member of the Feis na nGleann committee and later a tireless literary secretary. In 1946, the Feis committee decides to honour her by presenting her with an illuminated address. It can be seen today at Portnagolan House with its stained glass windows commemorating a great Irishwoman. During her speech she says, “Ireland is a closed book to those who do not know her language. No one can know Ireland properly until one knows the language. Her treasures are hidden as a book unopened. Open the book and learn to love your language.”

Dobbs writes seven plays, published by Dundalgan Press in 1920, though only three are actually performed. The Doctor and Mrs. McAuley wins the Warden trophy for one-act plays at the Belfast festival in 1913. Her plays, however, are generally not a success and after 1920 she never writes another. She continues to work on historical and archaeological studies and her articles are published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, in a German magazine for Celtic studies, in the French Revue Celtique and in the Irish magazine Ériu.

Roger Casement is a good friend and although Dobbs never makes her political opinions known she contributes to his defence costs when he is accused of treason. Although her political views are not clearly known, Dobbs has been a member of the Gaelic League and in the executive of Cumann na mBan.

Dobbs dies at her home, Portnagolan House, Cushendall, on January 2, 1962.


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Death of Isabella Tod, Women’s Rights Activist

Isabella Maria Susan Tod, Irish women’s rights activist, dies at her home at 71 Botanic Avenue in Belfast on December 8, 1896. She is a formidable lady who uses her political skills to great advantage in order to further many causes.

Tod is born on May 18, 1836 in Edinburgh into a well known Irish Presbyterian family, her uncle being the Rev. Hope Masterton Waddell, one of the earliest Irish Presbyterian missionaries who served with the Scottish Missionary Society in Jamaica and whose great grandfather is the Rev. Charles Masterton, one of the most distinguished minsters of the General Synod of Ulster who ministers at Connor and Rosemary Street, Belfast. She is very proud of her Presbyterian heritage and of her Scottish ancestry.

The daughter of James Banks Tod, an Edinburgh merchant, Tod spends her early years in Edinburgh. She is educated at home by her mother, Maria Isabella Waddell, who comes from County Monaghan. The family moves to Belfast in the 1850s following the death of her father. She and her mother join Elmwood Presbyterian Church. Her Presbyterian background no doubt contributes to her radical views on social issues and women’s rights. She earns her living from writing and journalism, contributing, for example, to the Dublin University Magazine, an independent literary, cultural and political magazine, and to the Banner of Ulster, a Presbyterian newspaper.

Tod becomes one of the leading pioneers in the fight to improve the position of women. She is the only woman called to give evidence to a Select Committee of Enquiry on the reform of the married women’s property law in 1868 and serves on the executive of the Married Women’s Property Committee in London from 1873 to 1874. She successfully campaigns for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 which enacted that a woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. She sees this legislation as an infringement of a woman’s civil liberties.

Tod is also a strong supporter of the temperance movement and, along with her friend Margaret Byers, forms the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association in 1874. Perhaps she is best known for her tireless campaign to extend the educational provision for middle-class women. For example, in 1878 she organises a delegation to London to put pressure on the Government to include girls in the Intermediate Education Act of 1878. The Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast, Alexandra College in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies Institute owe their existence largely to her. She writes a paper entitled “An Advanced Education for Girls in the Upper and Middle Classes” which is presented in 1867 at a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and is among the pamphlets held in the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland library.

Tod is also an active campaigner for women’s right to vote, embarking on her first campaign in 1872 and addressing meetings in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Londonderry. Following a meeting in Dublin a suffrage committee is established that later becomes the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society and in 1873 she forms the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society. She extends her meetings to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh and is a frequent visitor to London to lobby politicians during the parliamentary session.

Tod is very much a staunch opponent of Home Rule, establishing a branch of the London-based Women’s Liberal Federation in Belfast and the Liberal Women’s Unionist Association. She sees unionism as the way to progress. “I knew that all the social work in which I had taken so prominent a part for 20 years was in danger and most of it could not exist a day under a petty legislature of the character which would be inevitable,” she says. “What we dread is the complete dislocation of all society, especially in regard to commercial affairs and organised freedom of action.”

Tod suffers from ill-health in her later days and dies in Belfast of pulmonary illness on December 8, 1896. She is buried in Balmoral Cemetery in South Belfast.


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Claire McCollum Proposes to Alastair Clarke

claire-mccollumClaire McCollum, newsreader at Downtown Radio in Newtownards, County Down, Northern Ireland, makes headlines herself on February 29, 2000 when she proposes on air to Dungannon and Ulster rugby star Alastair Clarke and he accepts.

McCollum is born on June 5, 1974 in Carrickfergus, County Antrim. An MA graduate at the University of Dundee, she begins her career in broadcasting with Macmillan Media in 1997. She also works as a researcher for CNN and as a newsreader on Downtown Radio.

McCollum joins UTV in March 2000. As well as presenting and reporting for UTV Sport, she has also presented UTV News bulletins and Sport on Sunday.

In February 2009, McCollum announces she is leaving UTV as part of a voluntary redundancy scheme at the station. In an interview with a regional newspaper, she announces her intention to become a freelance broadcast journalist.

Following her departure from UTV, McCollum builds up her portfolio with BBC Northern Ireland. She becomes synonymous with many of Northern Ireland television’s highest profile events. She co-hosts BBC Proms in the Park at Titanic Slipways, the Olympic flame arriving at Belfast City Hall and the Clipper Homecoming in Derry.

McCollum also presents and reports on two series of the popular BBC Northern Ireland consumer programme In Your Corner and covers many major sporting events including the North West 200, Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Northern Ireland’s Football World Cup qualifiers, Tennis Legends in Belfast and the Belfast International Horse Show. She is also a regular presenter on Balmoral Agricultural Show and Children In Need programmes and hosts the second glittering ‘Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing’ extravaganza for Children in Need.

McCollum and Clarke have two children and reside in her hometown of Newtownabbey, County Antrim.