Issue 4-2022 small

5 November 1998 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The United Men and the Maiden City


In the winter of 1795-6 the Society of United Irishmen began organising in the northwest. By the summer, Derry loyalists were warning Dublin Castle that `every mischief is to be dreaded'.

Sedition was bare-faced. On 5 September two men employed by Sir George Hill, the city MP, to mix with the country people in the ale houses and booths at the city fair, reported that they were enthusiastically predicting the imminent arrival of the French.

By the end of the month, there had been arms finds in Strabane and Kilmacrenan. In October county delegates to the provincial committee of the Society claimed 3,696 men in Derry, 2,000 in Donegal and 4,855 in Tyrone. By December these figures had increased to 8,000, 3,000 and 6,550 and Joseph Orr, a wealthy Derry copper merchant with a business on Pump Street, was on the organisation's national executive.

Although faced with a formidable threat, the loyalist response was flaccid. Hill lobbied Dublin Castle to establish yeomanry corps but they failed to check the spread of sedition. Loyal gentlemen were reluctant to step forward and take command. Many corps only existed on paper. Others collapsed when their officers fled to the city, the capital or England. In winter 1796 nothing appeared likely to stem the republican tide.

The arrival of a French fleet in Bantry Bay in December shook the region. From Dungiven west to Dunfanaghy, United Irish `squads' commenced nightly raids for arms and pewter to manufacture bullets and began to cut trees to make pike shafts.

Rebel numbers were still growing. County returns in April suggest about 10,000 men were `up' - sworn United Men - in Donegal; 10,000 in Derry and over 13,000 in Tyrone. Moreover, the croppies had infiltrated the yeomanry. While most parishes had corps, Lord Cavan, the military commander at Derry, believed the only dependable units west of the Sperrins were large town-based units - the Derry, Letterkenny and Limavady corps and the Burleigh and Orwells of Stranorlar.

If Bantry Bay made the rebels active it made the loyal extreme. Magistrates met and applied to Dublin Castle to proclaim parishes under the Insurrection Act. The northern peninsulas of Inis Eoghain, Fánaid and Ross Guill; the Laggan district of northeast Donegal; the city and the Foyleside parishes of Derry and Tyrone were all proclaimed. The Derry and Letterkenny Yeomanry now joined the military in scouring the countryside for suspects and weapons and began to burn houses where arms were found.

Inevitably, there were fatal clashes. On 28 January several men died when troops and yeomen despatched from Derry ambushed 50 United Irishmen from the staunchly republican village of Newbuildings during arms raids near Glebes. Richardson Boardman of New Buildings was captured and information extracted from him resulted in the arrest of over two dozen prisoners, including his own brother.

The most startling developments were in Fánaid. In late January Rev William Hamilton, the Church of Ireland minister, had taken command of the local yeomanry corps and supported by 20 Manx Fencibles, they detained several United leaders - respectable Presbyterian farmers and a Catholic schoolmaster. The croppies responded by laying siege to Hamilton's glebe house for two days in an attempt to free the prisoners. They only withdrew when reinforcements arrived from Letterkenny.

The siege lifted, Hamilton swept Fánaid for arms, taking 32 guns, 9 pistols, 11 swords, 8 pikes and 1 cannon. He compelled over 1,000 men to take the oath of allegiance, arrested six rebel leaders and received sworn statements against 130 suspects. Yet Hamilton's days were numbered - on 2 March the croppies assassinated him at Sharon outside Newtowncunningham as he returned home from a meeting of magistrates. He is buried in the grounds of St Columb's Cathedral, Derry.

Hamilton's assassination was an event of national significance. Dublin Castle immediately instructed General Lake, the commander of the army in Ulster, to disarm the province and shortly afterwards officially imposed martial law.

The impact of martial law was uneven. In the city, the United Irishmen had made great efforts to `corrupt' the Tipperary Militia. Fearing summary punishment under martial law, three militia men almost immediately fingered six middle-ranking rebel leaders William Davison, Joe Orr's cousin and commercial agent; James Hamilton, a 56 year old hatter and dyer in the Bogside; William Bell, an apprentice watchmaker; John Gamble and his brother James who kept a public house at the Bishop's Gate and Lawrence McShane, a wealthy shoe-maker; McShane was a free mason and active in Catholic politics. Hill informed Dublin Castle that they were all `in reputable situation and circumstances'.

However, while martial law caused disarray in the city, it had no discernible impact in the countryside. Arms raids and gun-battles continued. In mid-April Hill observed that the rebel leaders were `more indefatigable than ever, their communications more frequent'. Their only concern was that the `spirit they have excited might die away from the people becoming wearied from expectation' of a French invasion.

As late as 12 June, Hill spent three days with the Cambridgeshire Cavalry in Inis Eoghain searching for arms and burning houses without as much as ten hours sleep. He thought the people were `wild to turn out' and complained to friends that it was `impossible to keep up with these fellows when they keep to the mountains'. It was `too tantalising to see them in large numbers beyond attack'.

At this stage, however, paramilitary activity suddenly ceased across Ulster. Rebels began to dump arms and come in to take the oath of allegiance. Hill correctly interpreted this mysterious silence as a ploy to lull the loyal into a false sense of security before a rising.

Until late spring, the United Irishmen had drummed into recruits that they would only rise when the French arrived. However, in April the Ulster Executive had informed the provincial committee that a French landing was imminent and issued instructions for the election of officers and the arrangement of plans for attacking the `king's forces'.

The croppies were ready by early May but the French failed to appear. The Ulster Executive then resolved to rise without the French. In the first week of June, the Ulster and Leinster Executives met in Dublin. Leinster refused to rise and the northern men, who included Joseph Orr, the Derry copper merchant, returned home to `begin the business themselves'. The ploy - the token arms surrenders and the taking of the oath of allegiance - began the following week.

Continued next week

An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1