United Irishmen, Co. Tyrone, 1797

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An extract – Chapter V : 1797 : January to April

Andrew Newton on the 1st of February 1797 informed a correspondent (1)

I know there was an ambassador from the Provincial Committee in Belfast last week to this place and that at this instant there is one from this (place) now in Belfast.

The information above concerning the United Irish society in Aughyarn, gives us some interesting information about the composition of a society; we may summarise a few conclusions that can be drawn from it.

A. An analysis of the names and the surnames (not, we know, an infallible guide) together with the fact that some of those mentioned were Defenders and others Yeomen indicates that the Corps was composed of both Protestants and Catholics. The analysis of the names would indicate that a majority were Protestant, and the number of Scottish names would lead one to surmise that at least quite a few of them were Dissenters.
B. Of the 42 men listed, 7 are definitely listed as being or having been members of the Yeomanry: one of them even was a sergeant of the Yeomen. This surely indicates intensive activity, for to convert the Yeomen must have been no easy task.
C. At least 2 of the Corps were former Defenders; they are listed as such.
D. The Corps met in various places. It met in the Catholic Chapel of Aughyarn at night; the main business at that meeting seems to have been the administration of oaths. There seem to have been several Protestants in the Chapel at that time. The Corps met also in an office-house of lame Andrew Sproull in Altamullin, in an office-house of Robert Neelan of Mornabeg, somewhere in Lisleen, and on Mullinabreen Hill.
E. The Corps was well organised and must have had a full complement, for there is mention of Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants. There seems also to have been a certain amount of competition for Commissions, for there is specific mention of polling on two men for a Lieutenancy.
F. Members of the Corps were active in more positive acts of treason than taking oaths: two of them are specified as being concerned in raiding for arms .

Joseph Castles or Cassels of Aughnacloy

We maybe pardoned for giving some special mention to one United Irishman, namely Joseph Castles of Aughnacloy. We have already met his name. In the examination of John G- (Sergeant in the Manx Fencibles) taken before J. Hill, on 28th December 1796 the deponent outlined a meeting which he had with Castles in Aughnacloy.(2) On the strength of this information Magistrate-Parson John Hill made out a warrant for the arrest of Castles: writing to Beresford in February he mentioned, inter alia (3):-

“Cassells a watchmaker of Aughnacloy is now at Omagh Jail; it was at his house they generally met. It was upon a warrant of mine he was taken. He is a very leading man.”

The meetings in Cassells’ house seem to have been meetings of the County committee. The arrest of Cassells was not so easily effected, if we may believe Edward Moore, the rabidly loyalist Post-master of Aughhnacloy who wrote to John Lees of the General Post Office, Dublin on February 1st, 1797(4):-

“I found of late that it is almost impossible to rely on the Constables that are in this place, particularly where the Law is to be executed against United Irishmen. I had myself sworn a Constable for the County of Tyrone for 6 months.”

Thus fortified with the majesty of the law, and with the assistance of nine Dragoons, he arrested Cassells. On 5th February he laid some information, which is in the State Paper Office. It included the following (5) :

“I have taken one of the ringleaders of the United Irishmen in Aughnacloy, one Joseph Castles, a watchmaker, charged with having sworn a number of persons to unlawful oaths and other treasonable practises. Hope in a short time to bring more of them to Justice.”

Thomas Knox was gladdened by the arrest of Cassells. On February 4th he wrote from Dungannon to Sir George Hill (6):_ “Cassells is safe at Omagh. The people of Aughnacloy (a vile lot) were intended to rescue him.”

Movement takes the initiative
The failure of the French Expedition, and the arrest of their leaders were indeed checks to the United Irishmen; yet these checks together with the proclamation of many districts did not destroy the United Irish movement, in fact, it soon recovered from these blows, and was causing the Government authorities no little concern as the following letter from Lake to Pelham on 13th March 1797 will show (7) :-

“I think it necessary to say that from every information we receive that matters are drawing to a crisis and that there is a determination to rise very shortly .

Every town brings some fresh accounts of these scoundrels’ success in swearing in the men of the Militia; whether every report is true I cannot say, but I believe there is foundation for them and as I am so urged by General Knox and Lord Cavan to get them out of the district, I have to request you will if possible send Fencibles in their room. General Knox has received intelligence that the artillery and Militia men attached to the guns in Charlemont had determined to give up the fort whenever a Rising should take place General Knox has sent a strong detachment of the Northampton Fencibles into the Fort of Charlemont and sent the artillery men into the town keeping a sufficient for the guns.”

The Government already had felt it necessary to adopt new measures.

The latest measure really was to hand over the coercive powers already in operation in the proclaimed areas to the military to be ruthlessly enforced by them. The main purpose of the measure was to disarm the inhabitants; the authority was trammelled by no limitations whatever, as was expressly stated to General Lake, the Commander-in-Chief of the North. To this man there went forth from Dublin Castle on March 3rd, 1797 two letters, part of which I will quote;-

(A.) An explanatory covering letter from Secretary Pelham to General Lake regarding the instructions from the Lord Lieutenant to disarm the inhabitants of the Northern Districts. (8)

Dear Sir,
You will receive by the same messenger who will deliver this letter to you an official authority from the Lord Lieutenant to disarm the inhabitants of the North of Ireland suspected of disaffection. The authority is full without limitation excepting what your discretion may suggest You are aware that the great part of the counties, Down, Armagh, Antrim, Tyrone and Derry, are already proclaimed and consequently that the magistrates have authority this moment to carry this measure into effect, and it is much to be lamented that those gentlemen who urged the measure of the proclaiming were not prepared to carry the most efficient part of the Bill in to effect.”

The letter then goes on to re-enumerate the powers in less official language. I give a summary of them :-

1. Power to order registration of arms.
2. Power of search in houses and grounds of persons who have not registered arms or are suspected of giving a false account.
3. Power of arresting strangers.
4. Power of imposing curfew, and arresting ‘in fields, street, or road,’ anyone breaking it.
5. Power to enter houses in curfew, (absentees to incur the penalties of idle and disorderly persons).
6. Power to impound their arms from even qualified and registered owners.

(B). Instructions from the Lord Lieutenant to Lieut-General Lake with respect to disarming the inhabitants of the Northern District. (9)

Sir,
I am commanded by the Lord Lieutenant to acquaint you that from information received by His Excellency with respect to various parts of the North of Ireland, additional measures to those hitherto employed for preserving the public peace are become necessary. It appears that in the Counties of Down, Antrim, Tyrone, Derry and Donegal, secret and treasonable Associations still continue to an alarming degree, and that the persons concerned in these associations are attempting to defeat all the exertions of the loyal and well-disposed by the means of terror, that they threaten the lives of all those who shall venture from respect to their duty and oath of Allegiance to discover their treasons, that they assemble in great numbers by night, and by threats and force disarm the peaceable inhabitants; that they have fired on His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace when endeavouring to apprehend them in their nocturnal robberies; that they threaten by papers, letters, notices the persons of those who shall in any manner resist or oppose them; that in their nightly excursions for the purpose of disarming His Majesty’s loyal subjects they disguise their persons and countenances; that they endeavour to to collect great quantities of arms in concealed hiding places; that they cut down great numbers of trees on the estates of the gentry for the purpose of making pikes; that they have stolen great quantities of lead for the casting of bullets; that they privately by night exercise themselves in the practice of arms; that they endeavour to intimidate persons from joining the Yeomanry Corps established by law in order to resist a foreign enemy; that they refuse to employ in manufactures those who enlist in the said Corps; that they not only threaten but illtreat the persons of the Yeomen and even attack their houses by night and proceed to the barbarous extremity of deliberate and shocking murder … and that they profess a resolution to assist the enemies of His Majesty, if they should be enabled to land in this Kingdom. It further appears that the disturbances and outrages exist and even increase as well in the districts which have been proclaimed .

T. Pelham.

This certainly gives a startling view of the activities of the United Irishmen. The gentleman who now took over the control of the loyalist forces in the Eastern half of Tyrone was Brigadier-General John Knox, who made his Headquarters in Dungannon, and in West Tyrone it was Lord Cavan, in whose area of operations the Baronies of Omagh and Strabane lay.

It is remarkable that the course of action which was now adopted seems to have had no sanction of law; it was as illegal as the operations of the United men themselves. But that deterred nobody. Lake in Belfast informed the Government on March 13th that all the information he received tended to convince him that a speedy rising when the French arrived was determined upon, and urged that every precaution be taken; for his part he will impose “coercive measures in the strongest degree.” General Knox at Dungannon seems to have adopted the policy which had been .adopted already by his brother, magistrate Thomas Knox, namely of setting the Orangemen and the United men at loggerheads.

In the same month of March he wrote (10):-

But in the …. part of Tyrone, through which my brigade is at present quartered, a proportion of the people are hostile to the United Irishmen – particularly those calling themselves Orangemen …. I have arranged a plan to scour a district full of registered arms or said to be so …. and this I do not so much with a hope to succeed to any extent as to increase the animosity between ‘the Orangemen and the United Irishmen or Liberty men as they call themselves. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the Central Counties of the North.

Knox saw the incongruity of the Government measures which tried to impose Martial Law and to keep up still the facade at least of sustaining the Civil Code. He expressed this in a long letter to Pelham(11), on April 19th, 1797, in which he urged in the strongest terms the imposition of full Martial Law and the reduction of the whole North to utter subjection as if it were a foreign country at war with Britain. Having reduced it, he urged that the Government then offer the people Catholic Emancipation, Parliamentary Reform, and some Agrarian Reform in return for a Union with England. This he saw as the solution of the troubles that beset Ireland. He was particularly hostile to the Landlords in whom he seems to have seen no good. Knox went so far as to resign (or send in his resignation) on May 11th, 1797, nominally over a disagreement with other officers, but really, it would appear, over policy. When complete Martial Law was mooted, Knox quickly withdrew his resignation (Letter of May 12th) (12) :

“Since my letter of yesterday (his letter of resignation) I have learnt that the Report of the Secret Committee may induce Government to adopt decisive measures and proclaim Martial Law. I, therefore, request you will delay my resignation for a few days -as if Martial Law is proclaimed I wish above all things to assist in crushing the Jacobins of the North. “

Under the direction of Knox the Loyalists got more active. Here is an extract from a letter of the Reverend Armstrong to Mr. Knox dated 9th March 1797 (13) :

“I have got possession of 6 muskets in good order all charged, the locks off, found in the house of Catherwoods father beyond Stewartstown (Catherwood a watchmaker of Stewartstown now confined in Charlemont) against whom I received information for having a quantity of arms concealed; the old gentleman said they were registered. We have got two notorious Liberty men here from Munterevlyn, wealthy farmers. There was a third Liberated on bail in consequence of his having some days ago lodged a strong information against that unfortunate man, Mr. Russell.”

The name” Catherwood” is surely a mistake for Calderwood. Regular guards and patrols were established and the registration of arms was carried on. J. Knox writing to Lenox-Conyingham from Dungannon, on March 21st, 1797 said: “The United are taking up arms about Carranteel, I think that as soon as the registry business is settled, we shall recover most of the arms in the Barony(14).”

Another example of activity is afforded by the letter of Robert Lowry of Pomeroy to Pelham, dated 23rd March 1797 (15):

“Sir, ….
I waited on General Knox and by his direction have established a guard of 10 men to be stationed night about in the Church School-houses which are about 3 miles distant …. I had the Company out searching for arms. (The company consists of only 63) and neither met nor heard any person on our patrol. But what I dislike most in the appearance of the country, is the few arms I got the day I was out, I found safely built up in turf-stacks, well-charged with locks and screws off. On the guns being found, some gave me up the locks etc. Others I had information against refusing to give up any-swearing in the most solemn manner that they knew nothing of either guns or locks, I took the law into my own hands, made prisoners of them and sent them to the guardroom, promising to send them to jail the next morn, which had the desired effect for every gun, lock etc. was sent for and delivered up, perfectly clean and better appointed with flints than those I got from Government; We are at present tolerably quiet, but still dreadfully disaffected and I am sure the United business is coalescing more now than it was two months ago – for I thought it had at that time got a check, which I am sorry to say is not the case at present.”

With the warning of Lowry to Pelham that the United Irishmen are again advancing we take up the story of the proceedings of the Liberty men. The arrest of Joseph Castles did not apparently cow the rebels of Aughnacloy. Edward Moore, who arrested Castles, informed John Lees on the 30th of March(16) that the people of the town were every day becoming more and more disloyal and in their disloyalty more and more daring. They were disarming everyone who would not join the movement; they had damaged the house of Mr. Moore, the landlord and magistrate of the area; they had smashed his own windows; and they were threatening his life. “They don’t hesitate to say I will be sent after Hamilton (meaning the late Dr. Hamilton).”

The Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the Commons in Ireland (August 21st, 1798) included some information of the Provincial meetings of Ulster (17)• At the Provincial meeting on 14th April 1797 a census of the men and equipment in the different Counties was taken. The census for County Tyrone was :-

United Irishmen …………………14,000
Guns …………………………….     950
Bayonets ………………………     2,000
Pikes ……………………………    2,000
Lbs. of Powder …………………        90
Ball cartridges…………………    .2,263
Balls……………………………         427
Yeomen ……………………….        423

This list of men and arms is indeed formidable, especially when we remember the amount of arms confiscated by the magistrates, Yeomen, and Military. It would appear as if at least 2,000 men were prepared to take the field. Incidentally the number of United men had increased enormously since the Provincial meeting of the 24th of January of the same year when it was given for Tyrone as 7,500. This surely points to great activity in the month of March 1797, when we remember the check they had received in the beginning of the year.

(1) id., 620/28/206.
(2) id., 620/26/174.
(3) id., 620/28/285.
(4)td., 620/28/216.
(5) id., 620/28/260.
(6) id., 620/28/231.
(7) Pelham transcripts. T.755, Vol. IV, p. 165.
(8)McCance Collection, P.R.O. Belfast.
(9) ibid.
(10) LECKY ; History of Ireland in 18th century.
(11) Pelham transcripts, Vol. IV, p. 287.
(12) Pelham transcripts, Vol. IV, p. 28.
(13) Rebellion papers, 620/29/51.
(14) LENOX-CONYNGHAM, An old Ulster house, p. 139.
(15) Rebellion papers, 620/29/195.
(16) id., 620/29/142.
(17) Report of committee of secrecy of the House of Commons of Ireland.

Taken from “The United Irishmen in Co. Tyrone”. Published in Seanchas Ardmhaca, 1960/61.
Author: Brendan McEvoy Vol 4, No. 1, pp 1-32.

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