Catholics And Protestants Were United
(Part 2)

But the situation was to change utterly, five years later, with the stationing in the Newry region of a Welsh Regiment, know locally as the `Ancient Britons`. Also striking terror into the populace was the Killeavy Yeomanry, under the leadership of the notorious Captain Seavers.

A systematic search for arms and subversive documents brought great distress to many families, as soldiers and militia were responsible for many killings and destruction of homes. The tale of a massacre at Ballyholland, near Newry, was related by the historian Lecky, who described how the home of a Presbyterian named Hodges was searched by the military.

“No weapons were found, but the troops claimed that they had been fired on, and called for reinforcements. Fire was opened on practically every person encountered, or they were cut down with sabres. Nearly every house was burned down, including that of a Revenue Officer. Seeing the flames, some neighbours rushed to extinguish the fire, but were killed or seriously injured, including women and two children. An old man, who fled to some rocks for safety, was pursued and, though pleading for mercy, had his head cut off with a sabre.”

Rev. Henry Ashe, a Church of Ireland curate at Poyntzpass, referred to the `Ancient Britons` as “bloody scoundrels. They stabled their horses in the old church at Acton, causing great indignation; and rode to the chapel at Ballyargan, where Mass was being celebrated, attacking the congregation with their sabres.”

Soldiers also raided the inn of Mr Rice at Culloville, looking for weapons and seditious material. Some men were drinking and discoursing in Irish. Alleging that they were talking treason, the troops slashed around them with sabres, maiming several, and seriously injuring the innkeeper’s daughter.

The historian Lecky commented: “There was competition between the military and the Orange Yeomanry as to who would do more damage to the wretches, who might have seditious thoughts, but were incapable of resistance. Two soldiers, about to enter a farmer’s house, shot and cut to pieces a young boy, who opened the gate. Young men playing in a meadow, saw the military approach and ran to a barn for safety. They were put to death. And soldiers killed six men, being escorted from Rathfriland to prison in Newry.”

However, the brutal killing of Thomas Dunne from Rostrevor, - whose flesh was literally torn to shreds by 250 lashes, administered by the Warrenpoint Yeomanry, still resonates over the centuries. The militia had earned notoriety for harassment and torture of the local tenants. Their commander, Captain Roger Hall, was often absent.

One day a spy brought information, connecting Thomas Dunne with the United Irishmen in the parish of Kilbroney. A detachment of soldiers went to the Dunne cottage at Cherry Hill. Thomas was reading, while his wife was at the spinning wheel. The children had all gone to bed. Suddenly, loud shouting was heard, and the front door came crashing in. The troops hauled him to the nearby military barracks.

The prisoner was charged with sedition and found guilty. But he was offered a free pardon, if he would reveal the names of members of the United Irishmen in the Kilbroney district, and renounce his political opinions. Refusing, he declared: “I will suffer any torture, even face death itself, rather than be a traitor to my country and my people. For what would it avail me to live a few years on the money obtained, by selling the lives of innocent men, and go to my grave, disgraced for all time.”

A sentence of 250 lashes was imposed, “as an example, which will strike terror into the hearts of all rebels for miles around.” The Court also ordered that the entire population of the district should be “rounded up and forced to witness the punishment being inflicted.”

The flogging proceeded, and soon the bones were visible through the flesh. Every time that the victim became unconscious, he was revived with whiskey and water. After about 200 lashes, Captain Hall appeared on the scene, and ordered that the flogging should cease. Thomas Dunne was taken to his home, where a surgeon tried vainly to save his life. The remains were interred in the nearby cemetery. His descendants include the founder of the Dunnes supermarket empire.

An officer with the Dublin militia, searching for arms in the Newry district, reported to his superiors that he and his party had joined the main body of soldiers, “to which we were directed by smoke and flames of burning houses, and the dead bodies of boys and old men, slain by the Ancient Britons.”

The policy adopted by the military proved so successful that General Lake told the Chief Secretary for Ireland: “The Newry area, which was only second to Belfast in subversive activity, seems to have been effectively pacified.” However, some men from this region took part in the battle of Ballynahinch and subsequent encounters in 1798, as well as with Robert Emmett in 1803.

However, the struggle of the United Irishmen was severely damaged by an infamous Newry informer, Samuel Turner, born at the Glen estate, now Barcroft Park. A fellow student of Wolfe Tone at T.C.D., he rose to become a member of the United Irishmen’s Northern Directory. While based in London, he was a regular guest at the residence of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s wife, where all information regarding plans, as well as the movements of exiles was passed on.

Turner got in contact with Lord Downshire at his London home, becoming an important and highly-paid informer. To retain his cover, the top agent was arrested on a visit to Ireland, charged with sedition, but released for some plausible reason. The secret was not uncovered until 100 years later.

With the bi-centenary of Robert Emmett’s death passed in 2003, we recall the famous speech from the dock, with its peroration: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.” Pundits and politicians have debated whether that time has come, especially with the Irish Republic’s role at the United Nations. What do you think?

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008