Big thank you from

Tuesday 15th August 1876 and the stolen drum.


A Belfast Lambeg Drum called “The Pride of Fortwilliam.” Could this be “The Ballymote Earthquake” that would later be named “Roaring Meg”?

A Belfast Lambeg Drum called “The Pride of Fortwilliam.” Could this be “The Ballymote Earthquake” that would later be named “Roaring Meg”?

James Loughlin, a catholic farm labourer, was a member of a family who owned approximately 48 acres of land in the townland of Ballymote, Glenavy. The Louglin family, sometimes referred to as “Lughlin”, during that era lived amongst other established families in the area – the Witherupps (later Withers), Boltons and the Gillens.

James was the joint owner of a drum which it was claimed was purchased in about 1874 in Lurgan for £5. This was a substantial amount of money in those days and James was part of what was later described as a “partnership transaction.” He had personally subscribed £1 towards the purchase of the drum. This was the “Ballymote Earthquake” and it had been painted green, had white facings and bore the motto “United We Stand” with and a harp and shamrock logo. He would later tell the magistrate at Lisburn Petty Sessions In November 1876 that he had stored the drum at his own house during the past year.

On the morning of the 15th August 1876 James Loughlin and a group of men left the Ballymote area to make their way on foot to the Hannahstown area where they would join the main Belfast procession. It was reported that they had set off with fifes, drums and flags. Although scant in detail, the reporting in the Belfast newspapers of that day’s events gives us some flavour of the colourful displays of the participants. Members were decorated with a green sash with green and white rosettes. Some sashes were emblazoned with hearts, crosses, hands, shamrocks, harps and portraits of Daniel O’Donnell. Observers of the parade would note banners and flags bearing mottos of “Amnesty,” “Home Rule,” “God Save Ireland,” “Orr” and “Grattan.”

Unfortunately for the Ballymote men the skin on the drum broke due to the fact that it had been struck too hard. It would be pointless carrying a broken drum the whole way to the assembly field at Torneroy so they stopped at the home of Robert Jordan. Local press reported that Robert and his wife Catherine resided at Ballymacward near Stoneyford, about two or three miles from Hannahstown on the “new line of road from Glenavy to Belfast.” Catherine Jordan had been standing at the gate watching the procession passing. James Loughlin later gave evidence that he and Francis Morrow carried the drum into the Jordan household with the intention of collecting it at a later stage. They would never see the drum again.

It is at this point in the story that the ballad of the Ballymote Earthquake commences.

“Come all you true born Irishmen, attention to me pay,
And I’ll tell you of an Earthquake that lately has gone astray
She’d never be contented; at home she wouldn’t stay
So she went to join the Orange boys upon last Lady Day.”

James Loughlin took a summons against five men who were accused of the theft of his drum. They were also charged with receiving the drum, knowing it to have been stolen. The case was heard before the magistrates at Lisburn Petty Sessions on Thursday 16th November, 1876. The five accused were named as James Belshaw, Francis Benson and Joseph Wright all labourers from Ballynadolly, Moses McKnight, labourer and William Thompson, a publican’s assistant, both from Kilcorig. The case attracted a lot of interest and was widely reported in the local press. The accused all lived within walking distance of each other.

The five surnames of the defendants are often all that can be recited of the ballad locally -“Wright, McKnight and Benson too, Thompson, Belshaw were a few....” The published version of the ballad in 1973 does not include this well known verse. That may be as a result of the story of the stolen drum having been claimed by others who relate a similar story, but do not credit the event to the Lisburn area. Over the years there have been many different claims in relation to the episode and the ballad seems to have been altered accordingly. Dennis Morrow, described as a second- generation Lambeg Drum maker resides in the East Belfast area. His father, William, worked for both Johnston and Hewitt the well-known and respected drum makers. Dennis had heard stories about the stolen drum as a child and in those days the Belfast men claimed to know where the drum was, although their sequence of events and places are at times contrary to the information we now have. Of course it would not be beyond those in drumming circles in those times to circulate several rumours and falsehoods “to take the heat” off the whereabouts of the missing “Earthquake.”

A total of thirteen witnesses were examined in November 1876 in order to establish the facts surrounding the disappearance.

The defence in the cross-examination of Robert Jordan intimated that the drum had perhaps been taken by some of the subscribers who, were in fact Fenian supporters, as a prank on those who were Home Rulers. His wife Catherine told the court that she had been outside churning when three people had called at the house between two o’clock and three o’clock that day and they established that the drum had been left there. She stated that after about five minutes in her house they had taken the drum away with them and she identified one of the culprits as Moses McKnight.
Catherine Campbell from Ballyclough was examined. She told those present in the court that she had seen James Belshaw and Joseph Wright passing along the road towards the direction of the Maze. They had a drum with them but she was unable to provide any further detail. Other witnesses examined included William Usher, Ballyclough; Mary Grogan, publican, Stoneyford; James McIlwrath, Stoneyford; sisters Isabella Maria Leckey and Margaret Ann Leckey, Sarah Fox, William John Campbell, Ballyclough and Elizabeth Campbell. The Grogan family had been in the licensed trade since October 1866 when the licence was transferred to them from a William Scott.

John McKnight told the court that he had been working in a field and he heard the party going along the road singing Home Rule songs and “Fare ye well Glenavy.” He also states that he had heard that the drum was in a cornfield.

Mr John Rea, who represented the prosecution during the case, urged the magistrates that there was a prima facie case established and that Moses McKnight and the other defendants should be returned for trial at the next Quarter Sessions. He suggested that if the informations laid before them was not strong enough for the case to proceed, then he requested an adjournment in order that the police may carry out a search for the drum. He told the court that if the drum was returned to the owners and the expenses incurred paid then he would advise the withdrawal of the prosecution. The defence were unable to address the court due to the intervention of the magistrate, Mr W.T.B. Lyons. He told those present that there was no evidence on which to justify them returning the accused for trial and he dismissed the case, having refused to postpone it. It was widely reported that the announcement was received by applause and cheers in the “densely crowded” courthouse.

The Orange balladeer was unsympathetic to the plight of James Loughlin –
“So now the trial’s over and sorely they do rue,
For they have lost their Earthquake, likewise their money too,
When Loughlin tires sweating, he may sit down and cry,
For his Earthquake joins the Orange Boys on the Twelfth Day of July...”

James Loughlin and his colleagues would not let the matter rest however. It is said locally that the following July several of the victims of this theft went to watch the orange procession in the hope that they would recognise the distinct sound of their drum. This was without success. The ballad contains several clues to the fate of the drum. Of course the published version may not have any resemblance to the original. We are told that the drum landed down to Stoneyford after leaving the Jordan homestead where “she was christened Roaring Meg.” There is a reference to a painter who it is said enquired as to the reason for the change of colours on the drum. The ballad hints that if you want to see the drum then you would have to take the train to the Sandy Row, and it continues -

“Some say she’s in the cornfield but I say it is not so
For I met her out near Lisburn, sure it’s not a month ago....”

During the cross examination of James Loughlin he had been asked if he had been prosecuted for trespassing on lands in search of the drum. He denied this and added that no one had searched a haystack for the drum.

We may never know the full truth of the matter, but at least we are now in a position to clarify some of the facts of the matter. The 19th century ballad concludes –

“I know it vexes Loughlin, but sure what can I do?
He may buy another Earthquake and bring her to the Crew.
And when she stays a month or two perhaps she may get free
And she’ll dander down to Stoneyford her sister Meg to see.
So now my song is ended and I hope you’ll not complain,
For we’ll have a tune on Maggie when July comes round again.
So fill us up a bumper and we’ll drink when we are dry
For Meg has changed her walking day from August to July.”

There are many stories about the fate of the “Ballymote Earthquake” and other tales of houses in the district where it was allegedly stored. I would be interested to hear from any readers who may be able to add to the story.

The Digger can be contacted by email

PICTURE CAPTION: A Belfast Lambeg Drum called “The Pride of Fortwilliam.” Could this be “The Ballymote Earthquake” that would later be named “Roaring Meg”? The mystery continues....