The Battle of Antrim is fought on June 7, 1798, in County Antrim during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 between British troops and Irish insurgents led by Henry Joy McCracken. The British win the battle, beating off a rebel attack on Antrim town following the arrival of reinforcements but the county governor, John O’Neill, 1st Viscount O’Neill, is fatally wounded.
The outbreak of the United Irish rebellion in Leinster on May 23 had prompted calls from Ulster United Irishmen to take to the field in support of their southern comrades. However, the organisation in Ulster had been severely damaged in a brutal disarmament campaign the previous year, and the new leadership are less radical and are not willing take to the field without French assistance, which is expected daily.
After waiting for two weeks while the rebellion rages in the south, the grassroots United Irish membership in Antrim decides to hold a number of meetings independent of their leaders. The outcome is the election of Henry Joy McCracken as their adjutant general and the decision to rise immediately. McCracken, together with James Hope, quickly formulate a plan to attack and seize all government outposts in County Antrim and then for the main attack to fall on Antrim town. Then using artillery seized at Antrim, the rebels are to march on Belfast in conjunction with the United Irish rebels in County Down.
McCracken has high hopes that many members of the militia will desert and join him, as disaffection is believed to be widespread, evidenced by the execution of four of the Monaghan militia for treason in Belfast in May.
On 6 June, McCracken and James Hope issue a proclamation calling for the United army of Ulster to rise. The initial plan meets with success, as the towns of Larne, Ballymena, Portaferry and Randalstown are taken and the bridge at Toome damaged to prevent the government from rushing reinforcements into Antrim from west of the River Bann. The rebels then assemble at Donegore Hill in preparation for the march and attack on Antrim town, where an emergency meeting of the county’s magistrates called by the county governor, Lord O’Neill, is due to take place.
Although almost 10,000 rebels assemble at Donegore, many display reluctance for the coming fight and stay on the hill in reserve or desert later so that probably fewer than 4,000 actually take part in the attack. The United Irishmen in Ulster are mostly Presbyterian, but are joined with Catholic Defenders and the tension between the two groups on the march likely causes some desertions. These difficulties lead to a loss of momentum, and the attack is delayed. McCracken is forced to make adjustments to his plan of attack, which had envisaged a simultaneous overwhelming assault on the town from four separate points.
The town is garrisoned by a small force of about 200 yeomen, cavalry under Lt. Col. William Lumley and armed volunteers but they also have four artillery pieces and the delay in the rebel attack allows them to send requests for assistance to Belfast and Lisburn from where reinforcements are already on the way. The garrison forms themselves at the base of the demesne wall of Antrim Castle, with artillery to the front and cavalry to the rear with their flanks anchored by the Market House and Presbyterian Meeting House. A part of the Scottish Quarter in the town is also burned by the garrison as it is perceived to be a stronghold of rebel sympathisers.
The attack finally begins shortly before 3:00 p.m. when the rebels begin a cautious march through the town. As rebel front ranks arrive to face the garrison’s defensive line, artillery opens fire on the rebels, causing them to pull back out of range. Large clouds of dust and smoke are thrown up which, together with the fires from the Scottish Quarter, obscure the garrison’s view of events.
The rebel withdrawal is mistaken for a full retreat and the cavalry moves out to pursue and rout the supposed fleeing rebels. The cavalry effectively runs into a gauntlet of rebels who are protected by a long churchyard wall and stationed in houses along the main street, suffering heavy losses to the gunfire and pikes of the rebels.
After routing the cavalry, the rebels attack the remainder of the garrison, which then begins to pull back to the safety of the castle wall. This is mistaken by a newly arrived rebel column as an attack on them, causing them to flee in panic. In the confusion, the county commander, Lord O’Neill, trapped with his magistrates, is fatally wounded by James Clements who avoids trial by joining the army. A rebel attempt to seize the artillery is only narrowly beaten off by troops stationed behind the demesne wall.
At this critical juncture, British reinforcements from Belfast arrive outside the town and, assuming it to be held by the rebels, begin to shell it with their artillery. This prompts more desertions and the rebel army begins to disintegrate, but their withdrawal is protected by a small band under James Hope which fights a successful rearguard action from the church grounds along the main street. This allows the bulk of the rebels to withdraw safely.
When the military enters the town, they begin a spree of looting, burning and murder, of which the most enthusiastic perpetrators are reported to be the Monaghan militiamen, who are anxious to prove their loyalty and expunge the shame of the recent executions of their comrades for sedition. The town of Templepatrick is burned to the ground and Old Stone Castle is razed to the ground. McCracken, Hope and their remaining supporters withdraw northward, establishing camps of ever dwindling size along the route of their retreat until news of the defeat at Ballynahinch causes their final dispersion. McCracken is arrested by yeomen on July 7 and is hanged in Belfast on July 17, having refused an offer of clemency in return for informing on his comrades.
Commemoration of the centenary of the battle, marked by a nationalist parade in Belfast on June 6, 1898, provokes loyalist riots.