Catholics And Protestants Were United

CEREMONIES have taken place in the Newry area and nationwide, to mark the bi-centenary of the rising by Robert Emmett and the United Irishmen, his arrest, the famous “speech from the dock” and execution.

“To unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman” was the rallying-cry of that revolutionary and non-sectarian organisation. It was very strong in the Newry region, to which its founder and leader, Wolfe Tone, was a regular visitor.

Best-known members of the United Irishmen in the frontier town were two Protestants, Cochron and Lowans, who were publicly executed at Gallows Hill, situated at the rear of Trevor Hill, now Heather Park. They were interred in St Patrick’s graveyard, while a plaque was erected, facing John Mitchel’s statue on Newry’s main street.

On returning from the battle of Ballynahinch in 1798, Cochron gave ten pounds to a woman for to conceal him. However, she persuaded her husband to go into town, and report the fugitive’s whereabouts for a much higher sum. Meanwhile, Lowans was apprehended at Bellman’s Loanin, now Windsor Avenue.

Both men were held captive at Linen Hall military barracks. Then they were publicly hanged, their heads being spiked at Margaret Square for 40 days. Cochron’s father was refused permission to bury his son’s head along with the body, unless he agreed to carry the uncovered head in both hands, shouting: “Traitor, traitor; the head of a traitor,” all the way to St Patrick’s graveyard.

A search and destroy operation by British troops, assisted by informers, had led to the mass arrest of leading members of the United Irishmen in the town, including Protestant merchants. They were John Gordon, Isaac Glenny, John Walker, David Lawson, Thomas Morris and John Melling, along with Robert Maxwell, James Jones, Peter Lacey and Willie Reilly. A group from Sheepbridge, - Edward Fegan, Matthew Savage, Laurence McEvoy and Stephen Byrne, - were also `lifted.` Rev Boyle Moody, a Presbyterian minister, was arrested and held in Linen Hall barracks, but was so badly treated that he died shortly after release.

When John Gordon’s wife learned of her husband’s detention, she rode post-haste to Belfast, and pleaded for his release. Her appeal was successful. But the valiant steed died next day of exhaustion. The horse’s tail was preserved in the family home, then given to Dr Francis Crosslie, who later presented it to the Newry Town Commissioners. It can still be seen in the boardroom of Newry City Hall.

After bookseller David Lawson was arrested, 56 pikes were discovered in his home. He was marched through the streets of Newry, with the pikes strung around his neck and body. News of his detention struck panic throughout the town, and a number of people fled. However, they returned when he refused to give information, stating that “life was not sweet enough on the terms offered.”

Incidentally, another of those apprehended was John Melling, who became Town Clerk of Newry from 1828 until his death in 1835. Some of the country people, terrified of the Welsh Regiment, known as the `Ancient Britons,` gave up their weapons and asked for pardon.

The birth of republicanism in the North started in 1792, with journeys to Newry and Belfast by Wolfe Tone. He would stay overnight at the Crown Tavern on Hill Street in Newry, owned by leading barrister, Patrick O’Hanlon. At a conference there, Tone proposed the formation of the United Irish Society in the town. There had been differences between sections of the local Catholic population, with the leader of the United Irishmen acting as mediator.

Wolfe Tone noted: “The establishment of unity and concord among all the people of Newry, proved most satisfactory. We have contributed to restoring peace in this part of Co Down. And we have created a spirit in Newry, which never existed before. We have reconciled differences, encouraged our friends, disheartened our enemies, and puzzled Lord Hillsborough.

“We rode to Rostrevor, - more and more in love with it, the sea and the mountains. Attended dinner for 30 people; many of them Protestants. Dr Moody, a dissenting Minister, said grace. The United Irishmen were mentioned favourably, - the idea met with general approbation. It’s wonderful to see the Catholic mind rising, even in this Tory (pro-British) village.”

The U.I. leader also visited Rathfriland, in an effort to settle the bitter sectarian quarrel between the Catholic `Defenders` and the Protestant `Peep O Day Boys`. Present at a conference were Fr Edmund Derry, P.P., Clonduff, later Bishop of Dromore; Rev Samuel Barbour, Presbyterian minister; and Alex Lowry of the Linen Mill, Katesbridge. Tone blamed the influence of landlords.

Two Newry Hibernians, the brothers Gerry and Kieran Lennon, have explained in their book that the A.O.H. was a successor to the `Defenders,` who organised the defence of Catholics in the rural areas, coming under attack from the Protestant `Peep of Day Boys` in the 1790’s.

Just how excellent were the community relations in Newry, was described by one of Tone’s companions, who referred to a “prosperous town, whose trade is quite considerable, as it supplies a great part of the province with foreign luxuries, via its canal. The general population is entertained at the Theatre Royal on High Street, while the influential and affluent residents enjoyed convivial company at the Snug Club.

“Catholics and Protestants were considering means of redressing anti-Catholic laws, in an atmosphere of religious tolerance and awareness of a new political radicalism, which pervades the North. Catholics laid on entertainment, to which a number of Protestant gentlemen were invited. A general air and spirit of unanimity and regard was apparent on all sides,” he added.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008