Betsy Gray is well-known in the north of Ireland as the heroine of the 1798 Rebellion. Bravely riding onto the battlefield at Ballynahinch, with her menfolk, in the pursuit of a new fairer society for all. Over the years her story has been embellished in the telling, but she still remains a symbol of courage and defiance in the face of adversity.
Elizabeth Gray [Grey], known as Betsy or sometimes Bessie, was born around 1778. Her home is believed to be at a place called Six Roads End in County Down, between Bangor, Donaghadee and Newtownards. The Gray family rented land of some 77 acres in the townland of Gransha. In the 1780’s Betsy lived on the farm with her widowed father Hans, her uncle John and her older brother George.W G Lyttle Betsy Gray or, Hearts of Down 1888
In 1888, the author and editor of the North Down Herald, Wesley Greenhill Lyttle first published his fictionalised account of Betsy in book format. It had previously been serialised in the newspaper. Lyttle says that Hans “fairly doated upon his daughter”. She was sent to a school for young ladies and received a good education. This was unusual at the time for a farmer’s daughter, even a prosperous one like Gray. Lyttle goes on to describe Betsy in glowing terms
“[she] was possessed of wondrous beauty, a beauty enriched and enhanced with a warm heart, an ardent temperament and lady-like accomplishments. Her beauty and her goodness formed a theme for every tongue wherever she went and many a wealthy suitor sought her hand in marriage”
In her twentieth year, Betsy became engaged to William Boal. William was a close friend of her brother George.
The United Irishmen
The Gray family were Presbyterians and supporters of the United Irishmen. It is suggested the George and William were among the leaders of the local branch of the Society.
Goals of the United Irishmen
The Society of United Irishmen were formed in a Belfast tavern in October 1791. They arose out of the Irish Volunteers, a Protestant military force. The Volunteers were formed by local landlords to protect Ireland from foreign invasion while England was engaged overseas in the American War of Independence. The aim of the United Irishmen was to form a new political system in Ireland based on the principles of civil and religious liberty.
Inspired by the French and American revolutions, the leaders sought to establish a society where all men were treated equally, regardless of creed and that Ireland would be freed from English rule. They sought to revoke the Penal Laws and allow Catholics to practice their religion and to vote. They were also passionately against slavery in all its forms.
Restrictions on Presbyterians
The majority of the founders of the United Irishmen were of the Presbyterian faith, including William Drennan, Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken. By not being members of the established church, that is the Church of Ireland, they lived under certain restrictions.
Although many Presbyterians were wealthy landowners and successful businessmen, they were not permitted to hold public office or be members of the English or Irish parliaments. Presbyterian marriages were not recognised as legal, therefore any children were classed as illegitimate. Presbyterians, or Dissenters as they were called, could not study at Trinity College in Dublin. Any Presbyterian owning land over one acre, was obliged to pay a tenth or ‘tithe’ of his income to support the Anglican Church.
Restrictions on Catholics
The Penal Laws were much more severe for the Catholic population –
- Catholics were not allowed to practice their religion.
- Priests found in Britain or Ireland were imprisoned or suffered the death penalty.
- Catholics were not allowed to vote.
- Catholics were not permitted to own land and could only obtain a lease of 31 years.
- On death, rented land would be split between all the existing children unless the eldest son became a Protestant, then he would inherit it all.
- Catholic schools and Catholic teachers were forbidden.
- Catholics were not allowed to live in towns.
- Catholics were not allowed to enter public office, be a member of parliament, enter the legal profession or study at Trinity College, Dublin.
- Catholics could not join the army, or own a firearm or own a horse more the £5 in value
These are just some of the restrictions intended to subdue the Irish Catholic populace.
The Road to Rebellion
Having been ignored by the English government and outlawed in 1793, the Society felt they had no option but to turn to force to make their voices heard. During 1797 and the spring of 1798 communities throughout Ireland began to prepare for the inevitable bloodshed.
“From this period, the glorious reign of equality was said to be at hand, and nothing was talked of but preparations for the eventful day. Fire-arms were brought from where they had been secreted, and pike-heads were shafted, and other continued to be forged…..”Samuel McSkimmin Annals of Ulster 1853
The government became aware of the rumours and the growing tension and tried to threaten and intimidate the locals into submission
“With rumours of rebellion in the air, the authorities began a systematic and ruthless campaign in 1797 to root out the rebels and their arms. Houses were searched and the people treated with the utmost brutality by soldiers, provoking even more hatred for the government and the ruling classes”Hugh McCartney North Irish Roots Vol 9 1998
The Battle of Ballynahinch
The Local Rebels
When the call came on 12th June 1798, George Gray and William Boal rode out to join the gathering men heading towards Ballynahinch (Baile na Hinse in Irish, meaning ‘town of the island’).
These volunteers were farmers, labourers and townsfolk. They had no military training. Some had muskets but most were only armed with pikes. They had procured 8 small cannons, but these were like toys in the face of the heavy artillery possessed by the English army.
“There were seven or eight pieces of small cannon, mounted on common cars, which were not calculated to produce much effect”‘Recollections of the Battle of Ballynahinch’ Belfast Magazine 1825
The women followed after, with provisions – food, drink, bandages. On the eve of the battle Betsy arrived along with others with “clean linens”. They camped at Ednavady Hill.
The English Commander
The English were commanded by Major-General George Nugent. Nugent was a professional soldier, he had served during the American Revolutionary Wars, the siege of Valenciennes, the battle of Lincelles and the Flanders campaign.
Nugent’s ‘red coats’ were an organised, well-trained, seasoned force. The English were also reinforced with the Yeomanry of North Down, who knew the area well.
On 11th June, Nugent issued a proclamation to the rebels, he ordered them to disperse or he would
“proceed to totally destroy the towns of Killinchy, Killyleagh, Ballynahinch, Saintfield and every cottage and farmhouse in the vicinity of these four places; carry off the stock and cattle, and put everyone to the sword who may be found in arms”Major-General George Nugent, 11 June 1798
The Rebel Leaders
In contrast the revolutionaries were led by Henry Munro, a linen merchant from Lisburn. He was only elected General at the last minute.
The previous leader of the United Irishmen in Down, the Rev Steel Dickson, had been betrayed by an informer named John Hughes from Belfast and imprisoned.
Munro is described as a prosperous businessman ‘honourable in his dealings’ and ‘romantic’ in his views. This is borne out by the fact, that he was advised to attack Ballynahinch at night, when the occupying English troops were in a state of disorder, drunk and plundering the town. However, Munro refused suggesting that to do so would be an “ungenerous advantage”
“Such was the romantic character of the man in whose hand was placed the destiny of thousands”Charles Hamilton Teeling, History of the Irish Rebellion, 1833
An eyewitness account described the rebels
“A mixed and motley multitude met the eye. They wore no uniforms, yet they presented a tolerably decent appearance, being dressed no doubt in their Sunday clothes, some better and some worse. The only thing in which they all concurred was the wearing of the green, almost every individual having a knot of ribbon of that colour, sometimes intermixed with yellow in his hat”Belfast Magazine Vol 1 1825
Betsy Gray on the Battlefield
Whether Betsy intended from the start to ride onto the battlefield or got swept up in the moment, no-one will ever know. But she rode forth on her white pony with the other insurgents.
Some say that she carried a green banner, others that she was wielding a sword. She was not the only female to take part in the fighting.
“When we arrived, there were on the ground a considerable number of females, chiefly servants, or the daughters or wives of cottiers or small farmers. These were almost all employed in the same business as ourselves; though it is said that two or three of them remained on the field during the battle, submitting to their share of its labours and dangers and performing as valiant deeds as the men”James Thompson of Spamount (aged 12 in 1798)
From the Jaws of Victory
For all that, the “motley multitude” of mainly Presbyterians but also some Catholics, would have won the day except for one disastrous mistake.
“Next day was fought the Battle of Ballynahinch – a battle that was really won by the half-armed and undrilled farmers of Down in hand-to-hand encounter with the effective artillery and well-equipped infantry and cavalry, backed by the accursed Yeomen of the Ulster landlords”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
In the heat of the battle the English bugle was sounded signalling retreat. However, to the crowd of inexperienced rebels, it was mistaken as a call to bring in English reinforcements. Fearing being surrounded, panic set in among the United Irishmen, they scattered and the day was lost.
The insurgents fled the battlefield and were mercilessly mowed down. Most of these killings were committed by the local Yeomen.
“The Yeomen, trained in connection with the Hillsborough, Castlewellan, Mountstewart and other rent offices in Ulster, were ready for the work of massacre which regular troops would have distained. They shot down and sabred without mercy, and continued the work of slaughter for days”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
The Fate of Betsy Gray
George, William and Betsy, now all unarmed, had travelled about two and a half miles from Ballynahinch on the old Lisburn Road, when they were caught by the Yeomen from Annahilt.
The two young men offered themselves as prisoners if they would let Betsy go free. They were both shot and stabbed on the spot.
In great distress Betsy ran to her fallen fiancé and brother. As she reached out to them, a Yeoman named Jack Gill, cut off her gloved hand with his sabre. His colleague Thomas Nelson then shot Betsy through the eye.
“There was no quarter given to the fugitives of Ballynahinch, and amongst those who perished was a young girl, of extraordinary beauty and daring courage, who accompanied her lover and his faithful companion – her own brother – to the field”Samuel McSkimmin, Annals of Ulster, 1853
The Yeomen Gill, Nelson and another, James Little, then stripped the bodies and left them on the rough grassy ground.
A few days later, when it was deemed safe, some local folk, including Matthew Armstrong, on who’s land the corpses lay, buried the three young people together. They were interred on the spot where they had been murdered in the townland of Ballycreen.
It is said that not long after the atrocity, the wife of James Little was seen in church wearing Betsy’s green petticoats and earrings. For decades the descendants of the Hillsborough Yeomanry were ostracised and shunned by the community.
For many years the grave-site on the farm of the Armstrong family became a place of ‘pilgrimage’. In 1896 a memorial was erected to the memories of the three young people slain by the “Hillsboro’ heroes”. The memorial was paid for by James Gray of London a distant relative.
It was a rectangular column composed of Irish granite. It sat on a low plinth and was topped with a peaked capstone. The names Elizabeth Gray, George Gray and William Boal and the date 13th June 1798 were simply engraved on the front panel. The marker was enclosed with iron railings constructed by Messrs S & T Hastings of Downpatrick and Newtownards Monumental Works.
The Times They Were a-Changin’
However, times change and in the following century the attitudes and views among many in Irish society altered considerably. The United Irishmen and those who fought on their side, were no longer regarded as champions of freedom, but misguided rebels and terrorists.
The nationalistic fervour which surrounded the memorial at Ballycreen in the approach to the centenary of the Battle of Ballynahinch was so contentious and aroused such ill-will that the memorial was destroyed.
“Last Sunday the secluded little dell at Ballycreen, near Ballynahinch, where lie the remains of Betsy Gray, her brother George and her lover, William Boal, who were overtaken and slain on a memorable June morning in 1798, was the scene of an extraordinary display of rancorous feeling, which ended with the demolition of the monument erected to the martyred three in the summer of 1896 by Mr James Gray, a grand-nephew of the famous heroine”Down Recorder 7th May 1898
Betsy Gray Remembered
The fact that Betsy, George and William are really only known due to stories, poems and ballads passed down through the generations lends an ephemeral feel to their short lives.
We have little recorded facts in writing. Mary Ann McCracken mentions Betsy in a letter to Dr Madden and her brother Henry Joy refers to a comrade named G Gray. Other evidence comes from near-contemporary sources. However the fact that the story was not documented in writing at the time does not mean that it is not true.
“Born and killed on the threshold of the modern age, like a shadow glimpsed disappearing around a corner, the ghost of Betsy Gray glides on into succeeding generations”Jack McCoy, 1987
Betsy Gray was courageous both physically and morally. She deserves to be recognised for her bravery which has earned her the title ‘Ulster’s Joan of Arc’. She also represents the thousands of ordinary men & women who left their homes and families to fight for a just society in the country they loved.
“Two hundred years ago 30,000 Irish men, women and children died in a few summer months supporting the United Irishmen who had a dream, influenced by the American and French Revolutions, of an independent non-sectarian state with economic and social justice and religious and political freedom for all”Hugh H Macartney, North Irish Roots, Vol 9 1998
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