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4 June 1998 Edition

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The hearts of Down

Sean O'Duifin visited Saintfield where, on 9 June 1798, the only major defeat inflicted by the rebels on the British during the United Irishmen's rebellion in Ulster took place.

I, and some friends, visited Saintfield First Presbyterian Church with its adjoining Cemetery on 15 August 1996. And the small town, about twelve miles south of Belfast, a sleepy innocuous place, is now associated more with loyalism than the historic and bloody battle which was fought there two hundred years earlier.

The battle of Saintfield was the only defeat inflicted by the Irish rebels on the British forces during a rebellion that was to cost the lives of 30,000 Irish people.

Our guide was retired headmaster Jim McIlhenny, who was well versed in the local history of the period. Jim, a Presbyterian Church elder, lives locally in a modern bungalow is in a peaceful cul-de-sac. Jim and his wife expected us and we availed of their hospitality while he told us of the events and the personalities involved in that bloody period.

He also showed us local maps, articles and letters relating to the period but particularly that awful day in 1798. We then went to the old Church and cemetery. The road passes Saintfield Girls Secondary School on the left. This school was built on Dorans Wood, which is the actual site of the battle.

The route we took was the same as that taken by the York Fencibles, the English regiment engaged in the battle. This regiment had come from Comber and the garrison town of Newtownards. The Fencibles were led by Colonel Granville Anson Chetwynd-Stapelton. On the other side of the road to the west and overlooking the school is a steep hill. It was here that between 5,000 and 10,000 republicans armed with muskets and pike lay in wait, then set upon the Fencibles, who were said to be numerically inferior but heavily armed. The regular soldiers were taken by surprise by the attack, and their advance guard of Yeoman Cavalry fell back in confusion. During this confusion rebel pikemen rushed down and attacked the baggage train at the rear of the column. The Fencibles were not used to fighting pike and during this attack Stapleton and two other officers, Lieutenant William Hawe Unite and Ensign James Sparks were killed.

Spark's brother Captain John Sparks later wrote to his friend in Dublin, Captain Payne. According to him after the first surprise attack Stapelton managed to get his troops off the narrow road, and this enabled him to make use of his two six-pounder artillery pieces.

Sparks used his sword to kill a rebel who attacked him with a pike.

The rebels broke under heavy canister fire and suffered heavy losses, but reformed beyond the wood and attacked again. Eventually the Fencibles retreated to Newtownards having lost 104 men including four officers, six sergeants, three drummers and eighty seven privates and four volunteers. The rebels lost between 500 and 700 men.

Beside the school, the spacious lawn fronting a modern detached villa is identified as Fencibles Green. Beyond this, the road dips to a small stream which is bounded on its northern side by a swamp, known locally as York Island. On the other side of the stream is a small pine wood. This marks the limit of the cemetery which stretches southwards up a hill about two hundred yards. The old Church stands at the other end of the cemetery in the town centre, and is unchanged since it was built in 1777.

We met Jim in front of the Church. It has a large square front door. Inside, the carved mahogany pews dip in yielding conformity to the slope of the hill upon which the church is built. An elevated pulpit stands at the front and is bounded on each side by two decorative carved winding staircases. I was struck as much by the sheer symmetry of the place as by its antiquity.

The hall and original manse stand adjacent to the church, and its architecture suggests a similar age. At its front a spire houses a clock with brassy Roman numerals. This and its plain square windows seem to confirm its 18th century authenticity. Inside there are rare relics of the battle. A musket and sword, both encased in glass, adorn the wall inside the main hall and a large drawer contains some pikes.

An adjoining room houses an old fireplace and some antique oak furniture. The high ceiling provides ample space for the sombre portraits of the dwellings' earliest inhabitants. The most striking of these is that of the Rev. Thomas Ledlie Birch, first minister of the Church who came to Saintfield after being ordained in Scotland in the 1760s. The dark wooden frame is about five foot high and four foot wide. The austerity of Birch's countenance, the drabness of his dark frock and the 18th century white clerical cravat combine with the portrait's commanding position above the fireplace to create an imposing atmosphere. Adjacent to this hangs a portrait, of similar dimensions, of Birch's wife, but in apparent subordination to a stronger will. It was Birch who founded the United Irish Society in Saintfield. Wolfe Tone visited the church and was assured that every soul in Birch's ministry was committed to the cause of Irish Republicanism.

Outside, in the cemetery, modern monuments of polished marble, limestone and sparkling granite strike northwards and downhill. Their modernity occasionally interrupted by the drab sandstone of much older graves and tombs. But these rows of marked graves end abruptly, well short of the stream and York Island. The rough ground which separates them from the stream and marsh itself, is said to contain the mass grave of the hundreds of rebels and royalists killed in the battle. Only two of the graves are marked. At the lowest point in the cemetery, almost at the river, there are two sandstone monuments, side by side, and hidden from the rest of the cemetery by a row of pines. The artistic epitaphs on the weathered stones can still be read. The inscriptions reveal that these graves contain the bodies of two rebels, John Lowry of Killinchy and James McEwan from Ballymacreeny, both of whom died from their injuries after the battle. The names of the English officers who were killed that day, William Chetwynd, William Hawe Unite and Ensign James Sparks are enshrined in a roll of honour inside Comber Presbyterian Church.

In Saintfield today, painted kerbstones and loyalist bunting testify to the changed political allegiances of that in the two centuries since Tone's visit. It is said in recent years that some local people have had their dead relatives exhumed and re-interred in a different cemetery. Doing so to protest at the presence of dead republicans in the same burial as their loved ones, but even Jim McIlhenny could not confirm the authenticity or otherwise of this story.

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