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Gravestones associated with the 1798 Rebellion

Survivors, their subsequent fates, and their final resting places


Some of the leading United Irishmen managed to survive the slaughter, evade capture and either hatch plans for future risings or decamp to safer pastures. Some were transported to the colonies for life, others for a specified number of years. Thomas Russell evaded the hangman’s noose in 1798 only to swing beneath the gibbet at Downpatrick jail after the abortive rising of 1803. James Hope, who was out in 98 with Henry Joy McCracken, lived until 1847, having fathered two sons named after famous revolutionaries, Robert Emmet Hope and Henry Joy McCracken Hope. Samuel Neilson was imprisoned in Kilmainham prison following an abortive attempt to spring an incarcerated Lord Edward Fitzgerald; he was transferred to Fort George in Scotland in 1799 before going into exile in America, where he died in Poughkeepsie in 1803.

Thomas Russell, Downpatrick Church of Ireland
Thomas Russell, Downpatrick Church of Ireland

Thomas Russell, along with Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken, was one of the original founders of the United Irish movement in Belfast on 14 October 1791. He is buried in Downpatrick Church of Ireland graveyard and a horizontal stone, placed there by Mary Ann McCracken, marks his grave. His trial in Dublin covered many column inches in the Belfast News Letter and the following assessment of his career was offered in a scathing editorial, published after his execution:


In the account of the discovery of Mr Russell in Dublin, we were informed, that he continued to glory, in what he called, the cause, and was ready to die for it, in the field, or on the scaffold.


What is the cause for which his life would be a cheerful sacrifice? Is it the cause of freedom? No. That can have no affinity to it, which is to be effected by the arms of the chief foe of human rights over the entire globe. The soldier of fortune, whom chance as well as Generalship raises to the pinnacle of power, and who exerts it in the establishment of a government purely military, can never intend to promote the cruel concord of other states, or to improve their conditions in any respect. Confusion, horror, and misrule, follow the steps of a tyrant: Order, liberty and happiness, are never of his train.


What was the cause for which Russell, Hamden and Sydney contended? – for the blessings of a British Constitution. For what is it that Mr. Thomas Russell would fearlessly meet his end – for the abolition of that very Constitution, by the introduction of French armies, French anarchy, French slavery. The tyger and the ape Voltair conceived to be the compound of his countrymen’s character. These, if Mr Russell’s project took effect, would lord it over the unhappy land which gave himself birth, cursing it with the ferocity of the one animal and the fanatical tricks of the other.


These are the happy ends for which he has sported a life that might have had its value in Society, if confined to pursuits as humble as his talents. What were the means employed by him, and to whom did he look for carrying his purposes into execution? Did he turn to the virtuous and enlightened, some of whom were once among his friends; or the ignorant, the prejudiced, and worthless? Defenderism was the desperate engine which he chiefly referred to, because no other would serve his purpose. In resorting to it, his judgement must have been strangely bewildered, if it did not inform him, that the natural consequence of his measures would be to drive the Catholic and Protestant once more to the extremes of hatred; to revive those ancient scenes of horror which ought for ever to keep in the tombs of our ancestors, and were on all sides an everlasting stain on the historic page.


It is also believed that the general tenour of his life was gentle and humane.  So inconsistent is human, and in few breaths has its inconsistency been more apparent! – an advocate for pious sentiment in his conversation; his actions tended to the establishment of French irreligion in every corner of the land. An ardent friend of civil liberty to an impracticable degree; he would devastate the country with French armies; who, if they left us ever, would leave us with a few vestiges of freedom, as they have spared to the innocent Swiss. In the same breath that he publishes proclamations as precursors of French forces, he declares to his little assembly of conspirators, that they must save themselves by their own exertions; since a French army, if numerous, will be destruction to their hopes.


All these inconsistencies, and the sad end of Mr Russell, may be traced to his first deviation from the front line of morals: the moment on which he broke his oath of allegiance, as an Irish officer, consistency, wisdom, and almost all that should be dear to man, were irretrievably lost. Beginning his public career with that act; he closes it with an enterprise, in which, instead of desirable conciliation, the Catholic and Protestant would be committed, in proportion to the success of his attempt. He brings in a Despot, hot from blasting the chance of liberty in France, to substitute misery and slavery, for industry and prosperity, among ourselves.


James Hope lies in Mallusk graveyard. His epitaph serves as a counterweight to the vituperative attack on his fellow United Irishman above. It could well stand as a general paean to a band of brothers, and their significant sisters, whose story is largely lost in a swirl of propaganda and misrepresentation:


One of nature’s noblest works, an honest man, steadfast in faith and always hopeful in the divine protection, in the best era of his country’s history, a soldier in her cause and in the worst of times still faithful to it, ever true to himself and to those who trusted in him, he remained to the last unchanged and unchangeable in his fidelity.


Samuel Neilson’s family remained in Ulster and the family burial ground can be found at Knockbreda graveyard in County Down. The inscription offers an inkling of the secret life of suffering led by his wife.


This is the burying place of Samuel Neilson where lies interred one of his children named Alexander, who died in infancy, and the remains of two still born female children, 18th April 1794 Here also is deposited the body of Anne Neilson, relect of the above Samuel Neilson who died in exile, and mother of those children A woman who was an ornament to her sex, who fulfilled in the most exemplary manner and under the severest trials the duties of a daughter, wife and mother Her distinguished worth and virtues eminently qualified her to adorn society and her tender maternal affection will ever be preserved in the memory of her children.


The most famous, or infamous, of the Ulster United Irishmen, Henry Joy McCracken, went on the run following the routing of his forces at Antrim town. He was eventually arrested and arraigned before the courts. His trial, conviction and execution were reported matter-of-factly in the Belfast News Letter of Friday July 20, 1798:


On Tuesday last came on the trial of H. J. McCracken.  The court being duly sworn before the prisoner, he was informed he was to be tried for Treason and Rebellion, and for being in arms at Antrim on the 7th June – the prisoner pleaded, Not Guilty. Two witnesses were examined whose evidence corroborated the above charge.
Being found guilty by the court – at five o’clock the prisoner was brought from the Artillery Barracks to the place of execution. Having been attended in prison by a Clergyman, he was only a few minutes from the time he came out, till he was launched into eternity. After hanging one hour his body was given to his friends.


The place of execution was at the junction of Corn Market and High Street, the date July 17, 1798. It would not be the last violent event enacted in the vicinity. He was buried in the old graveyard of St George’s but in 1909 Francis Joseph Bigger had what were believed to be his bones transferred to his sister’s grave in Clifton Street cemetery.


The minister who attended McCracken in extremis, Rev. Sinclair Kelburn, was imprisoned in Kilmainham gaol, Dublin, for his sympathies with the United Irishmen. His grave can be found in Castlereagh Presbyterian graveyard. He died on March 31, 1802, a year before Robert Emmet’s fateful rebellion finally consigned the United Irishmen movement to oblivion. The inscription reads:


Here rests in hope of resurrection in everlasting life, all that is earthly of Revd Sinclair Kelburn who for 22 years, with much propriety and piety, sustained the character of Dissenting Minister of 3rd Congregation in Belfast Obiit 31st March 1802, aged 48 years.


The final word should go to perhaps the last surviving insurgent of 1798. On a small cross near south-cast corner of Drumbeg Church of Ireland graveyard the following is inscribed: ‘In memory of William Gouldie, an Irish volunteer of '98, died 8th April 1873 aged 104 years.’

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