Vol. 4 No. 3 - 1982
In the 1976 REVIEW, I gave extracts from Volume I of the BLACKER DIARIES, written by William Blacker (1777-1855) M.A., J.P., D.L., of Carrickerblacker, Portadown, Lieut. Colonel of the Armagh Militia and of the Seagoe Yeomanry, High Sheriff 1811, Vice Treasurer of Ireland 1817-1829, Foundation member of the Orange Order.
There are seven diaries in all and the following extracts with comments are taken from Volume II. The first two volumes are the most interesting, the remaining five were apparently written towards the end of his life and ramble somewhat. The writing is also most difficult to decipher.
span class="drCap" style="width: 1.05em ;">My college life might in all human probability have been like that of hundreds before me, in the usual routine of Chapels and Halls, Lectures and Examinations, until I had written B.A. to my name and shoved quickly off into one of the "learned professions," but it was otherwise ordered. The 'man's hand cloud' which during the winter of 1795 showed itself above the political horizon, ere long exhibited that increase of gloom which was to be progressive until the entire heavens became complete in its blackness. The United Irish system was in full march on the one hand, while on the other the Orange Institution was already beginning to be looked to as its antidote and it is not to be supposed that the ardent spirits located within the walls of the college were likely to be intimated in such times, or seduced by the spurious name of 'liberty.'
I had joined the ranks of republicanism, carried away in fact by the examples of French principles then so prevalent and would have unquestionably followed the wild example but for the introduction of the Orange system within the precincts of the University which took place in 1796. By the 12th July on that year about ninety numerous lodges had been formed, a great many of these so numerous that they had to be sub-divided. The anniversary celebrations had spread the flames of Protestantism and many young Northerners returned to their College duties after the long vacation of that year initiated members of the Association.
A College Lodge was formed with due formality and a few of the first meetings took place in my rooms, and after a very short time they became accepted, but soon my capacious quarters were too small and we met in the Druid's Head in South Great Georges Street, a tavern of some respectability and we had frequently two hundred members and visitors sitting down to supper at ten o'clock - many of them high in the Church and at the bar, not a few of them paid the debt of valour. Meantime the rebel party had not been idle, what they lacked in numbers they made up in activity. (Then follows a long story about an attempt to lay a trap for the Orange gathering, presumably by the United Irishmen, which failed.)
There is also mention of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, at that time becoming the Commander of the rebel party - a spirit better suited to the situation could hardly have been found. He was bold and enthusiastic, a military turn and a commander knowing tactics and possessed of a captivating manner, great bodily activity and high rank. Mr. Blacker remembers seeing Lady Edward Fitzgerald at Mr. Beresford's Ball in the Customs House when she excited much attention by the exhibition of a white turban spotted with crimson intended to represent a handkerchief stained with the life blood of the unfortunate Louis XVI of France.
The Government's reply to the United Irishmen's activities was to form the Yeomanry out of the loyal portion of the community. He says two persons had a strong claim to the honour of having suggested the Yeomanry, both of them churchmen - the Venerable Dr. Percy, Bishop of Dromore and Dr. Richardson, Rector of Clonfeakle, the former well read in 'Ballads' and the latter in 'Basalt'.
The Yeomanry that was formed was a voluntary service like the Volunteers but the difference was that it was subject to military discipline and regulations from Dublin Castle and subject to the Mutiny Act as any unit of the Army. William Blacker was asked to raise a force and in 1796 transmitted a list of nearly 1,000 good men and true to the Castle. Many volunteers however were disappointed for as he says "Many are called but few are chosen." On the 31st October William Blacker was elevated to the rank and title of Captain William Blacker of the Seagoe Infantry - which was to consist of four sergeants (one of them permanent) one permanent Drummer and 100 Privates. William Blacker selected his 100 men from a large body drawn up on the green in front of the Seagoe Glebe House, after Church in November 1796.
The uniform was composed of tight blue pantaloons with a stripe of scarlet, a jacket of scarlet faced with blue and bound with orange tape and a leathern cap shaped like a Bishop's mitre. This was later exchanged for a light helmet of lacquered tin, surmounted with bear skin and turban with orange linen which, as he says, 'had a very tasty effect.' None of these uniforms have survived to the present day. The Officers of the Seagoe Infantry were - First Lieut. Jack Watson of Portadown, 2nd Lieut. Thomas Mathers of Drumgor, Permanent Sergeant Tolerton Lutten. (The writer of this article has in his possession an Irish (Dublin made) silver cup 8" high x 9" over the handles with the following inscription "The Gift of Lieut. Col. Blacker to Mr. Tolerton Lutten. In approbation of his conduct as Sergeant Major of the Seagoe Battalion of Yeomanry, since its formation in 1796. During the most eventful and trying years recorded in the annals of Europe. Presented August 26th, 1815."
The Officers who served with the Seagoes in later years were - John Calvert, Alex Hickland, William Fisher, William Brown, William Stuart, John Campbell, George Dickson, John Joint and William Hickland.
In January 1796 William Blacker rode up to Dublin for the January examinations at Trinity and shortly after his return in February writes about the death of his mother on 27th February of the same year. He described how his Mother was then about to 'lie-in' of her sixteenth child and was in excellent health when on the 26th he went to a party in Armagh of his Aunt Olphent. At eight the next morning he was awakened by his Father to say that his Mother was 'no more.' In Burke's Landed Gentry, the Very Rev. Stewart Blacker's family is described of being of four sons and five daughters out of sixteen, but at least six must have died at birth or early infancy as only nine were listed. Large families of 12 to 20 were not uncommon in those days, but infant mortality must have taken a heavy toll, for in very few cases did all the members of a large family survive to adulthood.
There is mention of Primate Robinson's visit to the School at Armagh (Armagh Royal School) and his appearance which invariably brought on a whole day's holiday. The portrait of him in the Palace by Joshua Reynolds was fast losing its colour, like most of Sir Joshua's productions. William Blacker goes on to mention the death and lying in state of Primate Robinson and meeting in the Cathedral two lively young girls in the gloom of the evening. He says "I tumbled in love with the elder of the twain and as her abode was in view of the School, I could see her in walks, until the appearance of the black pony which carried me home." He continues that the girl, Julia, married in due time a most excellent man "and the last time I saw her was in the interesting occupation of blowing the nose of a chubby child" (her son).
William Blacker gives some information about Frederick Harvey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. He describes a visit to the edifice of Ballyscullion near Bellaghy - "It was a magnificent circular edifice standing like a huge beehive on a site well chosen, overlooking Lough Beg." The building was a Rotunda topped by a noble dome with a handsome balustrade surrounding the lower part of the dome. The entrance was through a handsome Portico (now forms the entrance to the Chapel of Ease - St. Georges in High Street, Belfast). Around the domed hall ran two galleries, one above the other, beautifully railed with bronze upon which opened the doors of the upper apartments. The reception rooms on the ground floor are described as being with paper and silk hangings, the wall covered with pictures and the hall ornamented with statues. The Earl of Bristol however, preferred Downhill as a residence, and not choosing to keep a second home, and as no one was likely to become a tenant - levelled the whole smack smooth, selling even the very stones of which it was composed - (the Portico carried to Belfast) Transient glory - Ballyscullion.
In 1797, 12th July was held an Orange demonstration at Lurgan. On that day William Blacker's Grand Uncle, Colonel Cary made him a present of an original picture of William III by Kneller and also the 'horse furniture' used by that Prince at the Battle of the Boyne. This gear was put on the back of a black racing hunter belonging to William Blacker's father and was paraded through Lurgan, attended by twelve men all over six feet high, all uniformly draped. The Chief Orangemen were met by General Lake, the commander-in-chief of the Northern District and some of his officers. The orangemen filed past these officers at the head of Castle Lane, into Mr. Brownlow's Demesne and round the lake which was completely surrounded and more by marching men. William Blacker and his father set off for Carrick at 10 o'clock, and on the way met old Frank Burrel, a fiddle-playing schoolmaster from Drumlyn Hill, whom they came up with near the Red Cow Inn, fiddling and dancing along the road.
The United Irishmen Rebellion in Ulster and the Eye-witness Account of the Execution of Henry Monroe, the Presbyterian Commander of the United Irishmen forces at the Battle of Ballinahinch
On the 7th June, 1798, Henry Joy McCracken led a force of 3,000 or 4,000 men against the town of Antrim, an important military target on the road between Derry and Belfast. The United Irishmen were routed. An amnesty was offered to the rebels on condition that they surrender their arms and release their prisoners. This was done, and the rising in Co. Antrim came to a finish. McCracken was, however, captured and hanged beside the Old Market House, Belfast. On the 10th June the Seagoe Yeomanry Corps marched to Lisburn with the object of cutting off communications between the insurgents of Antrim and the United Irishmen forces gathering in Co. Down in and around Ballinahinch under the command of Henry Monroe.
William Blacker states that Henry Monroe was a Lisburn woollen draper in the Market Place and was shrewd, brave and active, and I have reason to believe if his advice had been followed on the night of the 12th, there might have been a different story to tell in the morning - On that evening General Nugent, having drawn the Rebels from the Windmill Hill which commanded Ballinahinch on the north side, encamped on it for the night. Monroe's plan was to select 300 stout pikemen and steal upon Nugent's camp at the dead hour of night when the troops were tired and asleep, and before the arrival of reinforcements from Downpatrick. I have never been able to ascertain why a proposition so well concocted was negatived. Some say the Popish portion of the rebels disliked serving under the command of a Presbyterian.
After the action and defeat of the rebels, Monroe fled and was taken prisoner in a potato field, by some Yeomen. He was brought into Lisburn from Dromore on Thursday night and tried by a Court Martial. The next morning I was present. He conducted himself with great propriety before the court, but made no defence, indeed he rather seemed to disdain doing anything of the kind; very different from a Presbyterian Minister named Birch who was tried immediately after, who entered into a long and blubbering defence, but the evidence was so conclusive and he also was found guilty. Between then and four in the afternoon, Monroe was brought out for execution - a gallows had been erected on that side of the Market Place facing the Moira Road and the troops formed three sides of a square and a row of houses forming the fourth side. I was Captain of the day and stationed at the immediate place of execution which afforded me an opportunity of witnessing Monroe's conduct on this trying occasion. It is improbable to imagine anyone so cool and firm without anything like bravado. There was an upturned barrel on the spot on the top of which he placed his shop books which he had caused to be brought to him and settled his accounts with several persons with as much apparent attention as if he had been in his own shop.
After that he prayed a few short prayers and made a kind of spring up the ladder - it was a crazy kind of one - the two lower rungs broke and he came to the ground, but instantly darted up again exclaiming "I am not a coward, gentlemen." A wretched devil of a prisoner had been brought from the guard house to perform the office of executioner, having made fast the rope, he watched for Monroe's signal for throwing him off, which was to be the dropping of a handkerchief. He did not have long to wait, for Monroe almost immediately dashed the handkerchief to the ground saying "Tell my country that I deserved better of it." The miserable creature of a hangman on this, attempted to turn the ladder, but was inadequate to it - to aid him was mercy to the culprit and under this feeling I beckoned to my orderly Sergeant Thomas Porter of the Seagoes to put his hand to the ladder, as 1 did mine, and Monroe swung into eternity and though a light man apparently without a struggle. His mother, and I believe his wife, were witnesses of the execution scene from a window at no great distance, but did not scream or even break the silence which prevailed on that awful occasion. After hanging a couple of hours, the body was taken down and the head cut off and was placed on a pike over the Market House.
The victory of Ballinahinch crushed the hopes of the rebels and the Corps was ordered home. The day after their return, they were ordered to Gilford, as the area to the south was considered to be far from loyal. They remained' there until the defeat and capture of the French at the Battle of Ballinamuck in Co. Longford on the 23rd of September; which put a final close to the rebellion. (The Armagh Regiment took part in the Battle of Ballinamuck and captured a French Standard).
D. A. Chart, Litt. D., in 'A History of Northern Ireland' sums up the position in the North following the suppression of the United Irishmen rebellion. Soon after occurred the rising in Wexford, in the course of which outrages were committed against Southern Protestants. These proceedings seem to have caused a revulsion in the North where the insurgents had been mostly drawn from that faith, particularly from those of the Presbyterian denomination.
The chief reason why the Northern Presbyterians were drawn into rebellion in the first place was their bitter resentment of the disabilities placed upon Nonconformists by the High Church party; for instance the imposition of a religious test as a qualification for office. They were democratic in tendency and the Government of Ireland, centred in Dublin, was markedly aristocratic.
Few things are so remarkable as the complete and rapid extinction of the rebellious spirit amongst the Northern Protestants after 1798. The Union of the Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 was accepted by them at first under protest, but eventually with almost entire acquiescence.