Roddy McCorley, Irish nationalist, is executed on February 28, 1800. He is alleged to be a member of the United Irishmen and claimed as a participant in their rebellion of 1798.
McCorley, the son of a miller, and is born near Toome in the civil parish of Duneane, County Antrim, in what is now Northern Ireland. A few years before the Irish Rebellion of 1798, his father is believed to have been executed for stealing sheep. These charges appear to be politically motivated in an attempt to remove a troublesome agitator at a time of great social unrest. Following his father’s execution, his family is evicted from their home.
There is uncertainty as to whether McCorley is actually actively involved with the predominantly Presbyterian United Irishmen or the predominantly Catholic Defenders. His role in the 1798 rebellion itself is unrecorded. In a ballad called “Roddy McCorley” written in the 1890s by Ethna Carbery, he is claimed to have been one of the leaders of the United Irishmen at the Battle of Antrim, however there is no contemporary documentary evidence to support this claim or prove that he was even active in the rebellion.
After the rebellion, McCorley joins a notorious outlaw gang known as Archer’s Gang, made up of former rebels and led by Thomas Archer. Some of these men had been British soldiers who changed sides in the conflict, and as such are guilty of treason and thus exempt from the terms of amnesty offered to the rank and file of the United Irishmen. This means that they are always on the run in an attempt to evade capture. This “quasi-rebel” group are claimed to have attacked loyalists and participated in common crime. It is believed that McCorley is caught while in hiding, having been betrayed by an informer.
After McCorley is arrested he is tried by court martial in Ballymena on February 20, 1800, and sentenced to be hanged “near the Bridge of Toome,” in the parish of Duneane. His execution occurs on February 28, 1800. The bridge had been partially destroyed by rebels in 1798 to prevent the arrival of loyalist reinforcements from west of the River Bann.
McCorley’s body is then dismembered and buried under the gallows, on the main Antrim to Derry road. A letter published in the Belfast News Letter a few days after his execution gives an account of the execution and how he was viewed by some. In it he is called Roger McCorley, which may be his proper Christian name.
His great-grandson, Roger McCorley, is an officer in the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921).
In addition to Ethna Carbery’s ballad, historian Guy Beiner uncovers earlier references to McCorley in Presbyterian folklore, which he shows to have been repeatedly forgotten and obscured on the background of mainstream Presbyterian identification with Unionism.
Carbery’s ballad is re-popularised by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, The Kingston Trio, and others during the folk music revival of the 1960s. It is recorded in 1995 by Shane MacGowan and The Popes for their album The Snake and has also been recorded by other contemporary artists, such as Heather Dale on her 2006 album The Hidden Path. The melody for “Roddy McCorley” is reused in 1957 for “Sean South,” about a failed operation that year during the IRA’s border campaign.
An account of McCorley’s career compiled in the early twentieth century from local traditions and correspondence with his descendants, Who Fears to Speak of ’98?, is written by the Belfast antiquary and nationalist Francis Joseph Bigger. It contains an edited version of an early 19th-century ballad about Roddy McCorley’s fate.