Graves and memorials relating to the United Irishmen in Ulster
Sign in Saintfield 1st Presbyterian Church graveyard
Many of those who fell in the fighting in Antrim and Down lie buried in local graveyards. The newspapers of the time do not provide lists of combatants who died on the rebel side during the battles, but mention is made of insurgents who were arrested, tried and executed. Professional men died alongside artisans, clergymen shared the gallows with their parishioners.
In Saintfield First Presbyterian Church a wooden sign commemorates the battle and two headstones close by record the deaths of James McEwen, 42, from Ballymacreely, and John Lowry from Bellymarnon in the parish of Killinchy.
The gravestones of James McEwen and John Lowry
In Movilla graveyard a tombstone commemorates the Reverend Archibald Warwick who was hanged at Kirkcubbin for his part in the rising. He warrants only a terse mention in the Belfast News Letter of Tuesday, 16 October 1798: ‘The Rev Mr Warwick, Probationer, was yesterday executed at Kirkcubbin for being concerned in the late rebellion, pursuant to sentence of court-martial.’
Rev. James Porter lies buried in Greyabbey graveyard. His grisly end merits another prosaic paragraph in the Belfast News Letter of 21 July 1798:
‘The Rev James Porter, Dissenting Minister of Greyabbey, found guilty, also sentenced to be executed on the 20th, which was put in execution yesterday at the rear of his own Meeting House at Greyabbey – head not severed.’
Another rebel, doubtless hitherto deemed a pillar of society, was Dr James Cord; executed on 23 June 1798 aged 31. He is buried in Killinchy Church of Ireland graveyard. He is accorded two mentions in the Belfast News Letter of the time, though an inconsistency in the spelling of his name, and an uncertainty as to his true profession, suggests this duplication may be unintentional. The first report on 26 June offers a bare bones account of his activities: ‘Mr Coard, formerly Apothecary at Killinchy, was executed at Downpatrick on Saturday last being found guilty of treason and rebellion by court martial.’
The gravestone of Dr Cord in Killinchy Church of Ireland graveyard
The second account on Friday, June 29 fleshes out his leadership role in the insurrection: ‘James Chorde, commonly called Doctor Chorde, was tried at Downpatrick the 21st inst, for treasonable practices, and for having a command in the Rebel Army, assembled at Saintfield and Ballynahinch; and for instigating the people of Killinchy to rise – After a long trial he was on the fullest and clearest evidence found guilty – to be hanged on the 23 inst which sentence was put in execution. It appeared on this trial, that he was the leader of the rebels in the engagement with the York Fencibles and Newtownards Yeomanry, at Saintfield the 9th instant.’
As a leader of the rebels, Dr Cord may well have been dressed in the decidedly garish garb recorded by the Belfast News Letter as being worn by the Chiefs of the Rebels: ‘green jackets turned up with white or yellow, white vest, buckskin breeches, half boots, hats and white cock neck feathers, and green cockades.’ He would certainly have played a leading role in the skirmishes that led to the deaths of three men fighting on the government side; deaths accorded more space and more significance than his own.
A memorial on the south wall of Comber Church of Ireland church commemorates Captain William Chetwynd, Lieutenant William Haw Unite and Ensign Sparks “who fell bravely fighting for their King & Glorious Constitution in an engagement near Saintfield with the rebels on the 9th day of June 1798.”
The Belfast News Letter of Tuesday, 10 June gives a fulsome account of their deaths:
Saturday morning, Colonel Stapleton having received intimation of a number of people assembled at Saintfield and neighbourhood, he set out from Newtownards with a detachment of the York Fencible regiment, accompanied by the Newtownards and Comber Yeomanry, Cavalry and infantry, altogether about 320 men, and two field pieces.
About half past four o’clock in the evening, this little army fell in with a body of rebels, amounting to between 6000 and 7000, near Saintfield. The light infantry, commanded by Captain Chetwynd, advanced with great gallantry to take the height on the right, which having gained, he was attacked by a body of not less than 3000 men, the front armed with pikes, and centre and rear with muskets, whose fire galled them severely, till the body of the troops and field pieces came up, when the rebels were routed with great slaughter.
The Rebels, by their own account, left upwards of 500 men, among whom were several of their leaders. The King’s troops, after routing the insurgents, marched to Comber, where they rested during the night., and next morning arrived in Belfast. It is with regret we mention the loss of three brave officers in this action, viz Captain Chetwynd, Lieutenant Unite and Ensign James Sparkes, who were killed: the total return of the King’s troops are 29 killed, 22 wounded, and 3 missing.
While the conduct of the other Officers who fell in this action deserves our highest praise, that of the gallant and much beloved Captain Chetwynd ought not to be passed without particular notice. This brave officer, at the head of his company, received nine pike wounds, during which he still kept his position, encouraging his men to fight manfully; at length, two wounds from a musket deprived this gentleman of his existence, and his country of his future services. Poor Sparkes, whose race of glory was now completed, was only 16 years old, and had, just before he fell, received, for his intrepid conduct, the public approbation of the Commanding officer.
The newspaper was unyielding in its condemnation of the insurgents, contemptuous of their cause, and dismissive of their military capabilities: ‘If any thing could convince those unhappy and deluded men who are now in arms against the peace and prosperity of their country, of the desperate situation in which they are placed, and the distant probability of success attending their measures, it must be the consequences of the above action, where so many were killed and routed by such an inferior force.’
It is axiomatic that the victors write history; hence the adulatory valedictories accorded those who perished on the government side. Those who fought and died in the ranks of the rebels received short shrift from the contemporary chroniclers of the rising. They are written off as vainglorious fools, gulled by their supposed betters, prey to absurdly optimistic notions of liberty and equality, doomed to disillusion or death. Those dead in battle are largely forgotten, those captured, tried and hanged barely rate a mention.
Many tombstones do not record the subversive activities of their tenants. Relatives, alarmed by the ignominy of being associated with the catastrophic events of ’98, airbrushed their loved ones’ revolutionary inclinations from the inscriptions.
The gravestone of Archibel Wilson, Bangor Abbey
Some epitaphs do make oblique reference to the bellicose events; others are less circumspect. Archibald Wilson, who is buried in Bangor Abbey churchyard, was hanged on 26 June 1798. He rates three lines in one of the daily newspaper inventories of those dispatched for their perceived treachery: ‘Tuesday last, Archibald Wilson, mason, was executed at Conlig, between Newtownards and Bangor, having been found guilty by Court Martial of Rebellion and Treason.’
His gravestone bears tentative witness, in the arcane syntax of the time, to his rebel stand: ‘Here lieth the body of Archibel Wilson of Conlig who departed this life June the 26 in anno 1798, eg 26yr. Morn not, deer frends, tho I’m no more. Tho I was martred, your eyes before I am not dead, but do sleep hear. And yet once more I will apeer. That is when time will be no more. When thel be judged who falsely sore. And them that judged will judged be. Whither just or on just, then thel see Purpere, deer frends, for that grate day. When death dis sumance you away I will await you all with due care. In heven with joy to meet you there.’
Whitechurch graveyard, Ballywalter, contains a stone whose inscription is more forthright in its attribution: ‘Erected in memory of Hugh and David Maxwell of Ballywalter whose bodies are here interr’d They fell in an attack made on the town of Newtownards the 10th June 1798. “Lo Erin’s genius hov’ring o’er the tomb, With mournful eye surveys the hallow’d sod, Where sleep her bravest sons in earth’s dark womb, Tears fall, hope whispers “cease, they dwell with God.”’
The following quartet has only the dates on the individual headstones to connect it to the United Irishmen rebellion. James Dunlap, interred in Bangor Abbey cemetery, is listed, retrospectively, alongside two other Bangor men: ‘The following persons have been tried and found guilty at Newtownards, by Court-Martial, on charges of Treason and Rebellion: - James Dunlop, Thomas McKnight, and Robert Robinson, all of Bangor, were executed there on Tuesday last.’
The aforementioned Robert Robinson is buried in Movilla graveyard and his name is included on the family headstone: ‘Also their son Robert Robinson who departed this life July 10th 1798.’
James McCann’s mortal remains were interred in Killinchy Church of Ireland graveyard. His contribution to the cause was summed up in the Belfast News Letter as follows: ‘James McCan, of Killinchy, charged for being active in forcing persons into the rebellion, and instigating others to rise, and bearing the appearance of a leader in Killinchy. Fully proved – to be hanged 27th inst which sentence was put in execution.’ A brief filial tribute is all that records his death: ‘Erected by John McCann of Carragullin in memory of his father James McCann who departed this life June 1798 aged 40 years.’
John Skelly’s plot is located in Saintfield First Presbyterian graveyard. The Belfast News Letter of July 27 indexes him thus: ‘The following persons have been lately tried at Downpatrick … John Skelly, of Creevy Tennant, farmer, tried for treason, he having a command in the Rebel Army and for seditious practices. Sentence, death. Executed the 21st instant.’ His gravestone records the date, not the manner, of his passing: ‘Sacred to the memory of John Skelly who departed this life in July 1798 aged 34 years.’