Betsey Gray
or Hearts of Down

Other Stories and Pictures of  '98.
as collected by and
published in The "Mourne Observer"

Other Stories and Pictures of  '98.


THE EVENTS leading up to the Battle of Ballynahinch - the Saintfield skirmish, the insurgent encampment at Creevy Rocks, Monro's advance upon, and occupation of, Ballynahinch, his first collision with the Military on Tuesday evening, 12th June, when he withdrew from the town and Windmill Hill and concentrated all his forces on Ednavady Hill -- are adequately dealt with in the main story of this book.

As for the main battle, which commenced at 3 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, 13th June, we present readers with some additional details.

The insurgents numbered between 5,000 and 7,000 but more than a thousand had deserted during the night. The military numbered between 2,000 and 3,000. In artillery Nugent had six six-pounders and two howitzers, while Monro had only eight one-pounder swivel guns mounted on common cars.

Nugent's principal officers were Major General Barber in charge of artillery, Colonel Leslie and Lt.-Col. Stewart, while Monro's chief officers were James Townsend and Dr. Valentine Swail.

It would seem that it was part of Monro's plan to advance a strong force on his right flank through the demesne to the east, to cross the river at the Mill Bridge (on the road from Ballynahinch to Clough), then north across the Mill Fields to attack Nugent's headquarters on Windmill Hill. Foreseeing this, Nugent dispatched Lt.-Col. Stewart with the Argyll Fencibles, three companies of Yeomanry, part of the 22nd Dragoons and Yeomanry cavalry, with one six-pounder and a howitzer to enfilade the insurgent right flank. Accordingly, Lt.-Col. Stewart made his way from Windmill Hill down the Mill Fields, and up Crabtree Hill towards old Magheradroll churchyard, from which position he could fire into the demesne lands.


The battle began at 3 a.m. with artillery attacks on both fronts. Nugent placed two of his six-pounders in Bridge Street (now Dromore Street) to support the Monaghan Militia against the insurgent attack led here by Monro. One participant on the insurgent side described the action thus - "We were obliged to go up in the face of a party of the Monaghan Militia who did not fail to salute us with a brisk fire. We ran up like bloodhounds and the Monaghans fled into the town where they kept up a kind of broken fire which we returned, although only about twenty of us were armed with muskets. We obliged them to take shelter in the houses twice".

As may be gathered from the above, fighting in this sector was severe. Captain Henry Evatt, adjutant of the Monaghans, was shot dead, Lieut. Hillis wounded, and the army was forced back up Bridge Street.

Meanwhile, Monro sent a fresh detachment over the bridge, and turning due east they crossed the field to reach Church Street near the parish church. This force soon made contact with the main attacking party at the head of Bridge Street and together they pushed the army back to the Market Square. Despite musketry cross-fire, and grape and canister shot which took heavy toll, and the fact that the ammunition for their musketry was expended, the insurgents pressed forward with pike, bayonet and sword, driving the military down Meeting-House Street (now Windmill Street) towards Windmill Hill.

A cavalry charge against the insurgents failed, and the 61b. balls for Nugent's cannon became exhausted (when leaving Belfast in a hurry a pile of 91b. arid 121b. balls had been put tip in mistake). It was at this juncture that Nugent ordered a general retreat. But the insurgents mistook the bugle call as the signal for a charge (or a summons for reinforcements) and they hesitated and gave way. General Barber seeing this, ordered the troops to the charge, and pursued the enemy through the town.


During this time heavy fighting took place on Monro's right flank, in the region of Mill Bridge. What had been intended as an attack by Monro was forced to become a defence in which all the advantage lay with the military, they having the greater artillery support.

General Nugent in his dispatch to Lt.-General Lake describes this part of the action thus -- "Lieut.-Col. Stewart now advanced within two hundred yards of the main body of the Rebels, who made three different attempts with their musketry, supported by a very great number of Pikemen, to dislodge him, but were completely beat back by the steadiness and firmness of the Argyll Fencibles and the Yeomanry, covered by the Howitzer and the gun served with grape shot, which killed a great number of Rebels, many of whom they carried off, notwithstanding our heavy fire . . . Lieut.-Col. Stewart took possession of their strong post on the Hill where lie found their eight guns with a great quantity of ammunition, their Colours, Cars, Provisions, etc. - a very considerable number of the Rebels who were concealed in the Plantation near Lord Moira's House were killed there . . . "

The defeat of the insurgents on Ednavady Hill was almost simultaneous with their retreat in the town. Tire cavalry was ordered in chase, and the defeat became a rout, many being cut down as they fled to seek refuge in the countryside.


The losses on both sides can only be guessed at. One account of the battle says: "In the conflict from 80 to 100 of the insurgents were killed and many wounded. Of the army it could never be ascertained what number was killed, as their dead and wounded were carried off in tumbrels. There were, it is thought, about 40 killed, or perhaps more".

General Nugent claimed to have killed 300 in the actual fighting and 200 in the pursuit, and the killing and destruction continued for some days. The army casualties admitted by Nugent were low to the point of absurdity - "one captain and I believe 5 rank and file killed and one lieutenant and about 16 rank and file wounded . . . and several yeoman infantry killed and wounded".

During their occupation of the town the military burned and pillaged: 63 houses were burned; 69, including the houses of worship, were left standing.


Professor James Thomson (father of Lord Kelvin), who lived at Spamount, and was a boy of twelve at the time, wrote an interesting eye-witness account of the battle in 1825. In it he states that on their arrival at Ednavady Hill on Monday, 11th June, the insurgents dispatched parties in all directions to collect provisions and bring in the United Irishmen. They were more successful in the former (mainly by using threats), than in the latter as the men of Ballynahinch and neighbourhood in general chose to retire to Slieve Croob and adjoining mountains. Thomson accompanied women folk of his own family with provisions to the insurgents. They were well received and conducted through the camp, shown pikes, cannon and ammunition, which the leaders pointed out to them. The men did not have uniforms, but were dressed in "Sunday clothes". All wore something green, and some of the leaders had green coats and yellow belts.

In arms, the majority had pikes. Some of the men had old swords, and those of the higher class had guns.
Professor Thomson described the scene of battle as witnessed from a hilltop near his home at Spamount. The approach of military from Belfast was "announced by the smoke and fumes of farm-houses which they set on fire indiscriminately. Inhabitants who had not yet deserted their dwellings began forthwith to remove such articles as appeared valuable, or could be most easily concealed . . A person in the neighbourhood concealed upward of a hundred guineas in a magpie's nest in a high tree".

The battle on the 12th started at 6 p.m. and went on until dusk, and consisted chiefly of cannon and musketry. A great many of the rebels deserted, and the more determined were heard shouting to stop the runaways.

Between two and three in the morning the King's forces set fire to houses in the town and the rebels with their small artillery tried to arrest the work of devastation. The Royal army recommenced the cannonade with heavier fire than before. A detachment with pieces of artillery flanked the insurgent forces and their success contributed in a considerable degree to the success of the military.

After mentioning the attack in Bridge Street and the centre of the town, Professor Thomson continued: "During this part of the engagement which continued for a considerable period we distinctly heard the cheers, the yells and the shrieks of the combatants .
it is certain that the King's forces did not at that time succeed in their intention (to dislodge the rebels from their position). The rebel army, however, was suffering constant diminution by desertion, and their fire was gradually slackening and had almost ceased, it is said, from want of ammunition, about seven in the morning."


This miniature of Betsy Gray, which is in the possession of Mr. C. J. Robb, Spa, was first published in the 1920's in a booklet "Out in '98". It was reproduced from a painting by a man called Newell of Downpatrick, who posed as a United Irishman prior to 1798, but who was, in fact, in the pay of the Government.


A SLIGHTLY different account from that by W. G. Lyttle of the murder of Betsy Gray is given in "McComb's Guide", published in 1861 (about 30 years before Lyttle's publication). It states "She went into action (at the Battle of Ballynahinch) with a brother and lover, determined to share their fate, mounted on a pony, and bearing a green flag. After the defeat the three fled, and on their retreat they were overtaken by a detachment of the Hillsborough Yeomanry Infantry, within a mile and a half of Ballynahinch.

"She was first come up with, the young men being at a little distance, seeking a place for her to cross a small river, and could easily have escaped. She refused to surrender; and when they saw her likely to fall into the hands of the yeomen, they rushed to her assistance and endeavoured to prevail on the captors to release her, offering themselves as prisoners in her stead. Their entreaties were in vain. Her brother and her lover were murdered on the spot. She still resisted; and it is said that a man called "Jack Gill", one of the cavalry, cut her gloved hand off with his sword. She was then shot through the head by Thomas Nelson, of the parish of Annahilt, aided by James Little, of the same place. The three dead bodies were found and buried by their friends. Little's wife was afterwards seen wearing the girl's ear rings and green petticoat."

It is local tradition that Betsy and George Gray and Willie Boal were killed at the corner of what is known as Horner's Road near the farm of James Henry McMaster, and that the bodies were carried over rocky fields to the hollow in which it was easier to open a grave.

The land on which the grave is situated belongs to Mr. John Dunlop, but it remained in the Armstrong family (who found the bodies) until the present century.

The Yeoman from Annahilt who murdered Betsy Gray became most unpopular. Mr. Hugh McCann, Drumkeeragh, Dromara, informed us that his father, Mr. Terence McCann, a local historian who was born about 1850, said the parishioners of Annahilt Church wouldn't sit in the same pew as the Littles, and that their children were stoned at school.

The women of the Little family were seen wearing parts of Betsy Gray's clothing and ear rings, and a man who was employed by the Little family in the early years of this century, stated in a letter that he saw the green dress in a box in Little's house. (This letter is in the possession of Mr. C. J. Robb, of Spa.)


Mr. James Mills, of Antrim Road, Ballynahinch, who was born in 1882, was present when a number of local loyalists destroyed the
( monument on Betsy Gray's grave in 1898 - but it was in no disrespect of Betsy's memory that they did so: neither was it the contrary.

"There was to have been a special ceremony at the grave on that Sunday to mark the centenary of the '98 Rising," said Mr. Mills, "and local Protestants were inflamed because it was being organised by Roman Catholics and other Home Rulers. They didn't like these people claiming Betsy, and they became so enraged that they decided to prevent the ceremony from taking place, so they smashed the monument with sledge hammers."

Those involved in the wrecking included Mrs. Watt and her three sons; William Simpson, James Samuel McMaster, James and Samuel Quinn, Samuel McCaughey, and men called Duffield and Totten.

When the parties, mainly from Belfast, began to arrive in horse drawn carriages for the centenary ceremony, several scuffles took place, and the reins of the horses were cut by the locals, the horses scared off and the carriages "couped." One Catholic named John McManus of Ballykine, who was known in the district as "a decent man," was saved from his pursuers by Mr. John Magowan, brotherin-law of Mr. Mills.

Down the years pieces of the granite stone were removed as souvenirs and taken all over the world, and the railings from the grave were fashioned into horse-shoes by James Martin, who then had the blacksmith's shop at Magheraknock. He gave these to many of his friends, and one is in the possession of Dr. A. R. Hamilton of Ballynahinch.

Mr. Edward Totten, of Lisburn Street, Ballynahinch, who is two years younger than Mr. Mills, has confirmed the above facts.


THERE IS a tradition (which corresponds with Lyttle's story) that Monro was captured at what is now Mr. Thomas McKeown's farm in Clintnagooland (between Ballynahinch and Dromara, where he was betrayed by William Holmes and his wife.

However, Mr. Robert Gray, of Church Street, Ballynahinch, says Holmes at that time lived in a house in Burren, about half a mile on the Ballynahinch side of McKeown's, and on the north side of the road. The house is now in ruins.

"The reason for the misunderstanding," said Mr. Gray, "is that Robert Holmes, a grandson of the couple who deceived Monro, was bequeathed the house which is now McKeown's and he lived there until about 1910. The property was next owned by Peels for a time before the McKeowns purchased it. During the years when Lyttle and others were doing research into the '98 Rebellion, Robert Holmes resided in this house, and that is how the mistake arose."

An old lane leads from the house down to the Dromore Road and it was along it that Monro was taken on his journey which led to Dromore, and from thence to Lisburn and the execution block.

The Holmes family became so unpopular in the district that they eventually left Ballynahinch to live in Antrim.

William Holmes was buried in Dromara Parish Churchyard, and Mr. Gray recalls attending the funeral of Robert Holmes in 1924, when he was interred in the same grave. So far as Mr. Gray is aware, there are no relations now in the Ballynahinch district.

Mr. Gray's father took a keen interest in the history of the '98 period and passed most of his knowledge on to him. He is a relative of the late Mr. Thomas Gray of Tullyniskey, Dromara, who claimed to be connected with the Betsy Gray family.


AFTER THE PUBLICATION of an article in the "Mourne Observer", Newcastle, Co. Down, by a correspondent signing himself as "The Student", which suggested that the McKee family of Saintfield may not have been as `black' as they were painted by W. G. Lyttle (see Chapter 30) the following letter was received from an authoritative source: --

Although it is doubtless an excellent axiom not to speak ill of the dead, I feel that "The Student" is perhaps too keen to whitewash the unfortunate McKees. One cannot condone their murder - the only atrocity committed by the insurgents in Co. Down - but in fairness to the rebels one must point out that for two years prior to the rebellion a veritable reign of terror existed in the Saintfield neighbourhood, and the McKees were largely to blame. In March, 1797, the McKees tried to have eleven of their neighbours hanged on a false charge of attacking their home.

A few details of the murder may be of interest. William Dodd, who owned the ladder used in the attack, was a rebel whose wife was a sister of Samuel Adams, who was attacked by Nelly McKee. Twelve were hanged for the murder - William McCaw, William Shaw, James Breeze, hanged 23rd March, 1799; Hugh McMullan, James Collins, Andrew Morrow, James Morrow, Robert Glover, David McKelvey, James Hewitt, Thomas McKeever and Samuel HewAt, hanged 6th April, 1799.

Charles Young accused only James McNamara, William Shaw, Hugh McMullan and John McKibben of the murder. James Gardner accused James Breeze, James Collins, Rev. Adair, James Shaw, sen., James Shaw, jun., Thomas McKeever, John Thompson, William McCall, James McCall, James Swan, William Keown, William Gill, jun., Patrick Miskelly, David Hamilton, James Hammil, Samuel Sibbet, Thomas Torney, Rev. Warden, Archibald McCann, Andrew Morrow, James Morrow, Robert Glover, David McKelvey, Samuel Hewitt, Hans Shaw, Thomas Coulter, Arner Phillips, James Sibbet, Samuel McCann, Adam Finlay, and - Wallace, a deserter from the Breadalbane Fencibles.

The attack on the McKees was apparently made in two waves. An eye-witness, Betty McCall, said she did not know any of the attackers, except James Shaw, who was dressed in a green jacket. She heard it was a fiddler named Orr, who lived between Saintfield and Killyleagh, who set the house on fire. She saw John McKibben, a Saintfield surgeon, who was armed with a pistol, march up with the first party.

Catherine Quinn, another eye-witness, later told that she stood at the rock opposite her own house while the second party marched up to the attack. She and three friends, Mary McMaster, Susanna

McMaster and Ellen Murray, watched the attack and burning of the house, and waited till the attackers returned to Saintfield. The only attacker whom she knew was Charles Young, who was armed with a pitchfork. She saw Flora and Betty McCall come up from the Saintfield direction after the second party had marched past, and go towards their own house in order to avoid the shots.

It is remarkable that most of those accused of the murder were not natives of the district. Keown and Glover hailed from Ballymoran; Torney, the Morrows and Hewitts from Killinchy, the Sibbets from Balloo, the Breezes from Toye, and McKelvey from Ballymacreely. Keown was the son of the kilnsman at Ravara Mill, and James Swan was the son of the miller. The only local man hanged for the murder was William McCaw, a weaver in Carricknaveagh.

"The Student" replied, acknowledging the authority of above, but respectfully submitting that since so few local United Irishmen took part in the affair, those who murdered the family did not know the full facts. After all, the McKees openly declared their loyalty and were not sly informers. "The Student" also said that although this is the only (recorded) atrocity committed by the insurgents, there was certainly a good deal of intimidation in some quarters of those who did not join the United Irishmen.


Mr. William Orr, of New Line, Saintfield, who believes he may be a descendant of one of the parties involved in the burning of the McKee family, has a quotation from "A History of the Descendants of David McKee, Annahilt", published in Philadelphia in 1892. It includes the following story about the Hugh McKee whose family suffered the terrible fate:

"Hugh was engaged to be married to a girl in the Ards. He went on the day arranged to the tavern where according to Scottish fashion the marriage was to take place. The clergyman, bridesmaid and all were there, except the bride. After what seemed an endless wait and everyone had given up hopes of the bride's appearance, Hugh, deeply chagrined and disappointed, turned to the bridesmaid with the question "Will you have me, then?" She consented, and the ceremony was immediately performed.

"The last word had scarcely been spoken, when the intended bride came galloping up to the door on horseback, having been delayed by her dressmaker. On learning the turn which matters had taken she violently upbraided her friend and bridesmaid, and left, telling her that some judgement would fall on her for what she had done.

"How tragic was the subsequent fate of Hugh, his wife, five sons and three daughters, at their farmstead at Craigy. Dozens of Croppies attacked the house with firearms. A valiant but ineffectual defence was offered. Soon the house was ablaze, and in the end the inmates were immolated. The threat of the disappointed bride was fearfully realised".


MR. COLIN JOHNSTON ROBB, of Magheratimpany, Ballynahinch, is well known for his researches into local history, and his writings extend to several volumes of manuscripts.

Mr. Robb kindly allowed us to study these and to use extracts from his exhaustive accounts of events in County Down at the time of the '98 Rebellion.

The next few pages are condensed stories of Mr. Robb's writings.


Mr. Robb's great grandfather, James Robb, was a Yeomanry officer at the Battle of Ballynahinch, while his (James's) brother, John, was one of the rebel leaders, and there is a tradition that they met during the battle.

John was one of the `Fifty Pounders' who, because of the price on his head, had to flee the country. He escaped to Norway where he later died.
In 1780 James Robb built the house at Magheratimpany in which Mr. C. J. Robb now lives. The arms belonging to the local Yeomen were kept in the house and the present dining room was known as "The Gun Room" in those days and indeed up until the present century.

James was wounded during the battle and he received a drink in a house to which he was carried unconscious. The drink revived him and after the battle he called in the same house, and seeing the jug from which he drank, offered to purchase it. The lady of the house gave it to him and he had an inscribed metal plate attached to it. This is now in the possession of Mr. C. J. Robb.


The Spa area was very divided in its loyalities in '98, and although there was an efficient Yeomanry Corps under the command of James Robb
there was also a large number of United Irishmen.

These included not only James Robb's brother but also some of his employees, including one, John Davey, who lived in a house now occupied by Mr. Murphy, just a short distance from the Robb residence. Sensing that some day he might be seeking a safe refuge, Davey prepared a specially constructed turfstack with a hollow centre. After the battle, he escaped to the home of his employer and hid in the stack while troops enjoyed the hospitality of the loyal household.


The Clokey brothers from Spa were dedicated United Irishmen and were among the officers who fought at the Battle of Ballynahinch.

The Robb writings include an old poem written by a John McMuIlan, a native of Magheratimpany. It runs:

Did you hear of the Battle of Ballynahinch,
Where the country assembled in their own defence?
They assembled together and away they did go,
Led by their two heroes, Clokey and Munro."

The Clokey referred to was Andy Clokey, who resided on a farm now occupied by Mr. Robert Watson, Ballymacarn. He was secretary of Spa Volunteers and for a time was First Lieutenant of Volunteers. He was a friend of Wolfe Tone, whom he met in his brother's house in Ballynahinch when Tone was on a visit at one time to Lord Moira at Montalto. Clokey escaped to America, but through the influence of his family with David Ker, who prevailed upon the authorities, he was allowed to return home.

Clokey didn't rest immediately after the battle, because there is a on in the Dunturk area that while being pursued by the Royalist Troops he doubled back and attacked a band of horsemen in a field now owned by Mr. James McKay.

Mr. Barney Milligan, of Dunturk, remembers old people discussing this incident, and saying that the United men hid their saddles and bridles there and continued to flee on foot, so that they could not be so easily traced.

"Clokey the last of the Rebels" was a familiar saying in the Spa area until recent years, and it probably originated from the fact that Clokey returned home in 1825 and lived to a good old age. By that time the "Liberalism" of the area had almost disappeared and it later became a very loyalist district.


There was also a common grave on the back road to Spa above the present Croob Park housing estate in the woods near Spa Golf Course, where scores of bodies were thrown after being taken there in block wheel cars. These were pointed out to Mr. Robb by his grandfather, who died in 1912, and who had known many descendants of those who fought in the battle.


The Rev. Samuel Barber, Minister of First Rathfriland Presbyterian Church was involved with the United Irishmen. Rathfriland was by no means a stronghold of United Irishmen. A few other rebels came from that district including Tommy Cromie of Lisnacroppin, who was wounded in the Battle of Ballynahinch, and was treated by a doctor in Kilkeel through which he passed on his way to America. He was later pardoned and returned to Rathfriland and lived with his son who was a shopkeeper in the town. Of course there was the prominent United Irishman, Samuel Neilson (born 1761), son of Rev. Alex Neilson, minister of Ballyroney Presbyterian Church.


When the 22nd Light Dragoons and others were beating the country for rebels who fled after the Battle of Ballynahinch, many rebels took refuge in the islands of Strangford Lough and eluded arrest in this way.

John Torney, Hugh Coffey and Archie Murdock hid in an island at Ballygagan Lake. Torney later made his way to the house of one Small and dressed up in the clothes of Small's wife. Small took his horse from the stable and rode off through Killyleagh with Torney riding pillion, no one suspecting who the "lady" was. Torney escaped to America.


It is sometimes wrongly supposed that only men from North Down were involved with the United Irishmen.

This is probably because the majority of those at the Battle of Ballynahinch were from North of the county, but the 'entire county was involved in the movement and with the incidents which preceded the actual Rising. For example, a particularly bloody incident occurred near Kilkeel in 1797 when between 10 and 20 innocent and helpless people were killed.

It has been stated that there were no Roman Catholics present at the battle, but Roger Magennis, a Catholic, in a letter dated 1805, states that his corps, who were nearly all Catholics, held the offensive in the demesne along the Ballynahinch River.

Capt. Hugh Jennings, also a Catholic, who was at one time Captain of the Dunmore Yeomanry, was also present on the insurgent side with 450 Catholic Citizen Soldiers. He escaped to America and then to France, where he joined the French Army, and while serving in a volunteer company of the 8th French Regiment of Light Infantry, he was killed at the Battle of Barossa, 5th March, 1811.


The roads were cut up or trenched from Saintfield to Ballynahinch in order to make the approach of the military more difficult. This work was carried out by Ballynahinch insurgents under a Moses Montgomery.



Saintfield, where traces of the liberation spirit which made it a strong centre for United Irishmen in 1798 remained until recently, was the scene of a skirmish on Saturday, 9th June, 1798 (see Chapter 31).

The military were defeated and the bodies of the dead Yorkshire Fencibles were buried in what is known as York Island at the bottom of the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Mr. Billy Grant, who is now in the R.U.C. and whose parents reside at The Square, Saintfield, is one of the local people to have found swords and bayonets in this swampy area.

In First Presbyterian Church itself there are several old weapons which were reputed to have been used in the battle. They include firearms, swords and a pike which was given to the late Rev. Stewart Dickson by Mr. Hugh McWilliams, of Lessans, Saintfield.


Two Killinchy men, who were involved in the Battle of Saintfield are also buried at the bottom of the graveyard, and their graves are marked by headstones.

The almost illegible inscriptions are -- `Here lies the remains of James McEwen, Ballymacreely, Killinchy, who departed this life, 9th June, 1798, aged 42 years.' (This was the date of the battle). `Here lies the body of John Lowry, Ballymorran, Killinchy, died 19th June, 1798, aged 46.'