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 Suicide of Reverend William Jackson

william-jacksonThe Reverend William Jackson, noted Irish preacher, journalist, playwright, radical, and spy, commits suicide on April 30, 1795 after being found guilty of high treason.

Jackson was born in Newtownards, County Down, in 1737. Much is unclear about his early life. He studies at Oxford and became an Anglican curate. In the 1760s, he moves to London, where he preaches at the Tavistock Chapel and St. Mary-le-Strand. Although he gains some popularity as a preacher, he remains unbeneficed and eventually turns to journalism to support himself.

In 1766, Jackson becomes the editor of The Public Ledger. Under his editorship, the London paper becomes increasingly strident and oppositional in its politics. He is forced to flee to France in April 1777 to avoid a trial for libel that the popular actor and playwright Samuel Foote had initiated. He does not have to stay long in exile because Foote dies on October 21 of that same year.

After Foote’s death, Jackson returns to England. He resumes his political activities by publishing The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America in 1783, with a dedication to the opposition leader, William Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland. But the following year, he is secretly hired by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, to support the government in The Morning Post. Publishing anonymously, he attacks his former allies with his usual vehemence until he is discovered and is soundly damned for his apostasy and finds himself generally excluded from English politics.

Jackson’s next appearance in the public results in yet another scandal. In 1787 he joins forces with “Gentleman” John Palmer. Their goal is to build a new theatre in London. Jackson and Palmer persuade investors to sink more than eighteen thousand pounds into the construction of the Royalty Theatre. However, while there is no law against building a theatre in London, there is a law against operating one without the Lord Chamberlain‘s authorisation. Jackson and Palmer have no such authorisation so the theatre is shut down after just one night. The duped investors initiated legal action. Jackson again flees to France, where he arrives on the eve of revolution.

During his stay in Paris, Jackson is swept up in the revolutionary fervour and becomes involved with the radical British expatriate set there. Swept up in the general arrest of British subjects in 1793, he is released from prison on the strength of his radical commitments. Upon his release, he becomes inspector of horses for Meaux and later in 1793 is commissioned as a spy for the French. Nicholas Madgett, an Irishman who works in the Marine Ministry, recruits Jackson to go to England and Ireland to assess the public’s inclination towards armed revolution.

Jackson arrives in London in early 1794 and becomes reacquainted with John Cockayne, a lawyer he had met two decades earlier. He reveals his mission to Cockayne, who promptly reveals it to the Prime Minister out of fear of being tried for treason himself. When Jackson leaves London for Dublin, he is accompanied by Cockayne. In Ireland they meet with several radical leaders of the Society of United Irishmen, including Theobald Wolfe Tone, James Reynolds and Archibald Hamilton Rowan. Hamilton Rowan, in particular, is tempted by Jackson’s talk of French assistance, and persuades Tone to write up a report for the French, indicating Irish willingness to rise up. Jackson makes the fatal mistake of placing Tone’s report and other letters in the public mail, where they are seized by the authorities. This seizure leads to Jackson’s arrest on April 28, 1794.

Jackson remains in prison for a year before his trial takes place. The delays are at his request, allowing him time to assemble a defence and procure witnesses. During his imprisonment, he writes his last work, Observations in Answer to Mr. Paine’s Age of Reason (1795). His trial takes place in Dublin on April 23, 1795, and he is found guilty. One week later, on the morning of his sentencing hearing Jackson steps into the dock looking terribly ill. As his lawyers make drawn out speeches, hoping to avoid judgment on the technicality of an improperly filed indictment, Jackson’s condition steadily worsens. The judges order that a chair be provided for him and ask that a doctor attend him. He then collapses and dies. An autopsy finds that Jackson had ingested a large quantity of a “metallic poison.” This is likely administered by his second wife, but the inquest pointedly refuses to assign blame.

The effect of Jackson’s suicide is that he had not actually been pronounced guilty of treason by the court, and so his family can inherit his goods and a pension.


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Birth of Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne

robert-blair-paddy-mayneRobert Blair “Paddy” Mayne, British Army soldier, solicitor, Ireland rugby union international, amateur boxer, and a founding member of the Special Air Service (SAS), is born in Newtownards, County Down on January 11, 1915.

Mayne attends school at Regent House School, a school for students age 4 to 18. While at Regent he discovers his skill and love for the game of rugby. He also enjoys cricket and golf and becomes a marksman with the rifle club. He goes on to Queen’s University Belfast to study law. At university he takes up boxing and becomes the Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion in August 1936. He also wins the Scrabo Golf Club President’s cup in 1937. He graduates from Queen’s University in 1939.

During 1938, Mayne travels to Africa on the 1938 British Lions Tour to South Africa. He plays on a team that tours around Africa playing other local clubs. While traveling, it is discovered that Mayne has a wild side and on various occasions finds himself in trouble. His “go to” is to trash the hotel rooms of his teammates. The team includes some of the best players from around Ireland and Britain.

In 1939, with outbreak of World War II, Mayne joins the Supplementary Reserves in Newtownards and receives a commission in the Royal Artillery. He serves in several units in Ireland and England, generally with light and heavy anti-aircraft units. He volunteers for the No. 11 (Scottish) Commando unit which is sent to the Middle East. There he sees action during the Syria-Lebanon campaign. Specifically during the Battle of the Litani River, he draws attention from Captain David Stirling who is forming the new Special Air Service (SAS). Sterling recruits Mayne for the new SAS while he is in jail for striking his commanding officer.

From November 1941 to the end of 1942, Mayne is involved in several raids behind enemy lines with the SAS. He uses jeeps to go to various Axis bases and begin blowing up planes and fuel dumps. It is claimed that he personally destroyed 100 planes during these missions. In addition to serving in the Middle East, he serves as well in Sicily, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and France. In most of these locations he works with the resistance behind the enemy lines. In France he helps to train the French Resistance.

By the end of the war, Mayne has been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and has also received the British Army’s Distinguished Service Order with three bars, which means he received the award four times. After the war he joins the British Antarctic Survey in the Falkland Islands. He returns home to Newtownards when back issues, which started while he was serving in the Middle East, become more difficult for him.

Mayne is initiated into Eklektikos Lodge No. 542 in Newtownards in 1945. He is a very enthusiastic mason and joins a second lodge in Newtownards, Friendship Lodge No. 447. On the evening of December 13, 1955, he attends a meeting of Friendship Lodge and then joins some of his masonic brothers at a local bar. At about 4:00 AM on December 14, he is found dead in his Riley RM roadster in Mill Street, Newtownards, having reportedly collided with a farmer’s vehicle.

At his funeral hundreds of mourners turn out to pay their respects and to see him interred in a family plot in the town’s old Movilla Abbey graveyard. After his death his masonic jewel is preserved for many years by an old school friend before it is presented to Newtownards Borough Council where it is displayed in the Mayoral Chamber of the Council Offices.