Omagh Assizes, Co. Tyrone, April 1797

In the Spring months of 1797, the County of Tyrone passed into what could be and was called a state of ‘smothered revolt.’ The Government forces indeed acted strongly, as the Spring Assizes at Omagh in the beginning of April testify. Newton, the Coagh magistrate, was at Omagh ; from which place he wrote to the Revd. D. O’Connor in Dublin on the 4th of the month.(1) He informed him that the juries were packed with gentry, as the middle classes could not be depended upon to “do Justice.” The United Men were put in on lesser charges in order to absolutely ensure convictions (even though conviction in such cases resulted only in transportation  whereas the penalty for the graver charges was the death penalty. The motto of the prosecution seems to have been convictions at all cost). Four United men were taken at Newtownstewart, Newton informed O’Connor, “with white shirts on them in the dead of night.” John Toler, the Solicitor-General, (later Lord Norbury the infamous hanging judge and buffoon of the Irish bench) came down to Omagh to prosecute at the Assizes. He too wrote to Dublin outlining a few of his triumphs. He began his letter with a mundane item of commerce (2) “Linen yarn has risen this day at Omagh Fair from ¼ to 2/4 a spangle above the last market.” He then proceeded:

“Yesterday morn, (he was writing on April 5th) Owen Mc Bryan was brought in a prisoner here having been taken in the act of robbing a house of arms within 7 miles of the above town (Omagh) on the night before last. I ordered a bill of indictment to be sent up forthwith and brought on the trial instanter as the witnesses and prisoner were produced in court full of blood from the gallant defence made against the gang which consisted of 5 or 6, the rest of whom escaped. The prisoner who was servant to a private distiller was armed with a gun charged with slugs which was taken with him. The trial lasted about an hour when there was a verdict of guilty without leaving the box …. As the town was much crowded the prisoner was ordered to immediate execution.”

Three young men were also convicted of firing at Colonel Leith, Toler continues; apparently anything less than capital convictions did not merit mention in his eyes for he makes no reference to the many United men convicted of lesser charges. He concluded his letter thus: “This country has been in a most alarming state and the number of prisoners beyond belief.”

Dean Warburton, writing of the Armagh Assizes of the same Spring said that there were(3) “no juries, no prosecutions, no evidences against any person under the denomination of a United man.” The Tyrone Loyalists did get some minor results, but from their point of view they were disappointing. Over 100 persons were tried according to another letter of Toler at the end of the Assizes(4) But although practically all of them must in the eyes of the Government have been indictable on capital charges, they only secured four or five capital convictions. Connsidering that the Juries were packed and therefore as favourable as posssible to the prosecution, the outcome leads to one conclusion, namely that witnesses could not be induced to come forward through fear of reprisals. Andrew Newton thought poorly of the results. From Coagh on 3rd May he wrote (5):-

“I am extremely sorry to inform you that every day in this country affairs appear to have a more gloomy aspect. Men who here-tofore reprobated the conduct of the disaffected have totally changed their sentiments. This change has arisen in my opinion from the multitude of people taken up, without, I may say, any capital conviction.

To conclude our review of the Spring Assizes, we may quote some more of Toler’s letter at the end of the Assizes(6):-

In the course of the trials of more than 100 persons here it appears that the oaths and engagements are to reduce rents, tythes and that they would join the French when they landed. As to emancipation or reform they have no other idea connected with them but that they are to have the country themselves.

(1) Rebellion papers, 620/29/196.
(2) id., 620/29/182
(3) LECKY, History of Ireland … , Vol. iv, p. 31.
(4) Rebellion Papers, 620/29/336.
(5) id., 620/30/11.

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