The Execution of Rev James Porter

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The Grey Abbey
The Grey Abbey

Who was James Porter?

James Porter, minister, radical and satirist lived in County Down in those most ‘interesting’ of times, the late eighteenth century.

His life was unfortunately cut short in its prime. To combine popular proverbs and to paraphrase – The pen might be mightier than the sword, but hell hath no fury like the gentry scorned!

Family Background

The Porters were staunch Presbyterians and lived in the townland of Tamna Wood near the village of Ballindrait in County Donegal. Ballindrait comes from the Gaelic ‘Baile an Droichid’ meaning ‘town of the bridge’. James was born around 1752, the eldest of 8 children – 4 boys and 4 girls.

James’s father Alexander, was a farmer and also operated a small scutch-mill on the northern bank of the river Deal (Dale). In the autumn local farmers would bring their flax crop to the mill and pay for the services of the scrutcher or miller. Using wooden paddles powered by a water-wheel the husks would be removed from the plants, leaving the flax fibres ready for spinning into linen.

The Porter children attended the local village school which was run by the Rev Robert Law. Rev Law had resigned from his career as a preacher to become a teacher specialising in the Classics. It is said that James was a quick learner with a special interest in natural history.

After school, James worked on the family farm, though his interests were more mechanical than agricultural. He was soon repairing farm machinery for his father and the other local farmers. A sun dial made by the young Porter existed in the village for many years. 

Marriage to Anne Knox

 However, according to his son’s later writings “He left home as a consequence of some disagreement with his grandfather”. Eventually, James was employed by his mother’s uncle, Alexander Knox of Eden Hill as a tutor to his large family.

 In 1780 James married Alexander’s daughter Miss Anne Knox. The union was frowned upon by the Knox’s, who felt that Anne had married ‘beneath her’. The ceremony was officiated by the Rev Robert Black. Alexander Knox initially refused to give Anne a dowry but gradually the families were reconciled and the young couple even resided in Eden Hill for a number of years.

James Porter - from Sean Mac Loinsigh, Donegal Annual Vol 8 No 1, 1969
James Porter – from Sean Mac Loinsigh, Donegal Annual Vol 8 No 1, 1969

“A strikingly handsome man, one of the young ladies falling in love with him, they were married by Dr Black of Derry. The bride’s grandmother was present at the ceremony, and when it was over, she said to her granddaughter ‘I wish you a great deal of happiness my dear, but there are sma’ signs o’t’ (small signs of it)”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946

Further Studies

The Porters moved to Drogheda in County Louth, where James established a school.

He also continued with his own studies, learning Greek and Latin. Subsequently, in 1784, he attended Glasgow University as a part-time Divinity student (Presbyterians and Catholics were not permitted as students to universities in Ireland).

In 1786 He received his licence to preach by the Bangor Presbytery. 

Greyabbey Image (from Greyabbey information poster)
Greyabbey Image (from Greyabbey information poster)

Greyabbey Appointment

When Dr Stevenson, minister of Greyabbey in County Down resigned, James was offered the position and was ordained on 31st May 1787 at the age of 34.

As minister, James rented a cottage called Cabinvale on the estate of Mr Hugh Montgomery. It was a low, thatched dwelling about half a mile from Greyabbey. James and Anne had 8 children – 2 boys and 6 girls. The stipend from the Church was £50 a year. Porter added to his income by maintaining a small farm.

“His congregation was widely scattered, and needed his continued attention. That attention he gave to it, and his labours at this time for the mental and physical improvement of his people are still so gratefully remembered in Greyabbey as to cause his name, even to the present day, to be always mentioned there with affection and respect”

Classon Porter, Northern Whig, 1883

Agricultural Innovation

James Porter always had a great interest in science and turned his mind to improving agricultural machinery. Porter even gave lectures and demonstrations on Natural Philosophy, complete with experiments, to engrossed audiences.

“His scientific instruments and museum for the illustration of natural philosophy were, at that time, unrivalled in the north”

W J Doherty,   Inis-owen and Tyrconnell   1895

These were restricted at first to his own neighbourhood but became so popular that he lectured at the Assembly Buildings in Belfast and toured the north of the island.

“So far as scientific and classical attainments, of the highest order, were calculated to fit him for professional success, few young men of his day, were better qualified to make a figure in any of the learned professions”

R R Madden, The United Irishmen, 3rd Series, Vol 1 1846
James Porter Lecture - Newsletter Jan 1795
James Porter Lecture – Newsletter Jan 1795

Radical Times

Support for Change

However, few could remain unaffected by the radical talk of the day, influenced in the main, by the American and French revolutions. Rev Porter was a strong supporter of Catholic emancipation and political and economic reform.

 Landlords at this time were entitled to impose and increase rents as they wished, any tenant who could not pay was evicted with whole families left destitute. Most landlords saw their estates solely as money making enterprises and felt no responsibility for the well-being or concerns of their tenants. Many suffered.

Presbyterians also resented having to pay a tenth of their income to maintain the Anglian Church.

“In such a state of things, the great landed proprietor, who was not only the lord of the soil, but virtually, the lord of the law also, was, in reality, the supreme arbiter of life and death in his locality on every pretext of popular commotions, when their tenants had grievances to complain of, and at every period, when a pretext was made, for invading the rights of the people in their districts, and consolidating their own privileges”

R R Madden, The United Irishmen, 3rd Series Vol 1 1846

The Volunteers

In 1778 James Porter joined the Volunteers. This was a Protestant movement established to protect Ireland from foreign invasion. An attack on Carrickfergus by the American naval commander John Paul Jones, left locals in no doubt that to safeguard their land and property they would have to defend it themselves. Hence the Volunteers were formed on military lines with public marches, drills and weapon training.

James Porter, Satirist

The Northern Star

In pursuit of social justice Porter took up his pen. He wrote satirical articles for the newspaper The Northern Star. This paper had been founded by Samuel Neilson – its first edition appeared on 1st January 1792. It promoted the values of the United Irishmen, an organisation which arose from the more radical ranks of the Volunteers.

In his writings Porter attacked the unjust political system and in particular various unpopular landlords in his locality who abused their tenants.

“…the Northern Star was able to provide a larger content of local news and political comment, making it as critical and close to the bone as it dared. Political satire came to be its stock in trade, attracting the talents of able polemicists like the rising lawyer William Sampson who was Episcopalian, and a clutch of Presbyterian ministers, notably the Reverend James Porter of Greyabbey, the Reverend Sinclair Kelburn of the Third Congregation, Belfast and the Reverend William Steel Dickson, the minister of Ballyhalbert in the Ards Peninsula”

A T Q Stewart , The Summer Soldiers 1995
Billy Bluff and the Squire - Northern Star 2nd Dec 1796
Billy Bluff and the Squire – Northern Star 2nd Dec 1796

Porter’s Satire & Letter’s

Writing under an alias, Porter denounced tyranny and mocked its perpetrators.

His descriptions were only thinly disguised, for example, Porter’s Lord Mountmumble was Lord Londonderry, Noodledrum referred to the Rev Cleland, Squire Firebrand to Mr Montgomery of Greyabbey and Billy Bluff to William Lowry, Montgomery’s bailiff. These writings produced a great deal of gossip and hilarity.

Porter wrote a sequence of letters signed “A Presbyterian”.

In addition, he contributed a number of patriotic songs to the newspaper’s columns.  These “spirit stirring songs” were later republished in a pamphlet known as Paddy’s Resource. Using the voice of ‘Squire Firebrand’ Porter expresses the fear of the local authorities that these lyrics could inspire revolt

“According to the Squire, ‘tis songs that is most to be dreaded of all things. Singing, Billy is a d—d bad custom; it infects the whole country, and makes them half mad; because they rejoice and forget their cares, and forget their duty, and forget their betters”

Mary Helen Thuente, The Harp Re-Strung 1994
F.J. Bigger - The Irish Book Lover Vol 13 1922
F.J. Bigger – The Irish Book Lover Vol 13 1922

The Fate of the Northern Star

 In 1797 James penned a series of articles attacking the policies of the English government led by William Pitt. The passages were signed ‘Sydney’ and were addressed to Arthur Hill, 2nd Marquis of Downshire.

The authorities were so enraged that publication of the Northern Star was suspended for a time. Indeed, the newspaper did not survive much longer. In May 1797, its offices were attacked and the printing machinery destroyed by members of the Monaghan militia stationed in Belfast. No charges were brought against any of the soldiers.

“Were I to point out a public traitor, whose guilt is of a deeper kind than generally falls within the power of mere man to perpetrate – who has exported the precious metals out of these kingdoms – annihilated public credit and commerce – alienated the affections of the people from their sovereign – wickedly confederated with foreign powers to destroy our liberties, to overturn our constitution and to tear the royal diadem from the head of the house of Hanover ….were he tried at the bar of Europe, but that man would be found guilty….the Right Honourable William Pitt”

Extract from Porter’s third letter, 24th February 1797
Northern Star Report 24th Feb 1797
Northern Star Report 24th Feb 1797

‘Interesting Times’

On Thursday 16th February 1797, the English government declared a day of ‘thanksgiving’ since an invading French fleet had been dispersed by a huge storm off the southern coast of Ireland.

In response Porter preached a sermon in Greyabbey Church putting forward some alternate views. The sermon was later published entitled ‘Wind and Weather’.

In his oration Porter uses Biblical references to illustrate his point that powers, other than those of God, can and do, influence the weather.

“a great strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks – but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earth quake”

1 Kings 19:11

Also, that the storm was a blessing to the people of Ireland because it replaced the pestilential air in which sickness was thriving with “the pure air of Africa, enriched with the vivifying quality obtained from the luxuriant vegetation of the torrid zone”.

From the pulpit, Porter declared that even if God had sent the storm, it did not destroy the French fleet or drown its sailors and that British ships were similarly scattered. Also, that the government should be relying on more than divine help to safeguard the Irish coasts.

Porter goes on to say that the Irish are only involved in a war because of the English government.

“Were you to ask me, why we are involved in the American war, and in the present one, although the people were almost unanimous in their detestation of both? I answer, it was in consequence of our connexion with England – Some people call this connexion, subjection”

James Porter

Support for Peaceful Reform

James Porter was never a United Irishman. He advocated for reform but only by peaceful means. However, he well knew that he was a ‘thorn in the side’ of the establishment.

He took great care in speech and action to stay within the law, so as not to give the authorities any excuse to arrest him. However, he had angered too many of the local gentry in the area and when the 1798 Rebellion broke out, a reward was offered for his capture.

Capture and Prosecution

Before long James Porter was arrested and detained in Newtownards market-house, then a makeshift prison.

When he was eventually presented with a written prosecution document, the wording was so vague, Porter still did not know the charges against him. He could not prepare a defence, summon counsel or witnesses.

The Trial of James Porter

On 30th June the ‘trial’ began. It was conducted by the commanding officer of the dragoons stationed in Newtownards – 2 captains and 4 subalterns. It was only as the witnesses for the prosecution gave their testimony, that James discovered his alleged crime.

It was stated that the Rev Porter, at the head of a band of rebels, had stopped a post carriage and removed some military letters to pass on to the leaders of the United Irishmen “ in divers Treasonable Rebellious and Seditious acts contrary to His Majesty’s peace and Crown and Dignity”

Porter strenuously declared his innocence. Of the two supposed ‘witnesses’, one could not even identify him. He asked for time to prepare a rebuttal and call his own witnesses who could provide him with an alibi. This was denied.

Sitting in the gallery during this mockery of a trial was none other than Lord Londonderry, one of the figures Porter had pilloried in his satires.

“My mother, whose sagacity and good sense you may perhaps remember, said from the moment of his arrest that she was certain the hatred of Lord Londonderry would cost her husband his life”

James Porter Junior, 1844

The Death Sentence

The outcome was a foregone conclusion, James Porter was sentenced to death.

“Dr James Porter, the Presbyterian minister of Greyabbey, wrote for its columns (Northern Star) a serial entitled Billy Bluff and the Squire, a very slightly concealed ‘take-off’ on Lord Londonderry and his henchman the Rev Jas Cleland, which, in conjunction with his other political activities, eventually cost the author his life”

Mary McNeill, The life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 2019 edition

Appeals for Mercy

Anne Porter with her 7 children in tow (little Eliza had died), walked the two miles to Mountstewart to plead for mercy for her husband.

Lady Londonderry and her ailing daughter Lady Elizabeth (who had attended some of Porter’s lectures), were sympathetic. They were willing to write to General Nugent asking for reprieve. However, before the letter could be sent, Lord Londonderry himself entered the room and requested a postscript be added to the missive stating that he had forbidden his wife to interfere.

In desperation the whole family went by carriage to Belfast to appeal directly to the General Nugent. Standing at the door in the rain they were sent away. 12-year-old James remembered the scene and the horror of the decapitated heads of the rebels staring down at them from the spikes in the market-place.

The Hanging

At 11 o’clock on 2nd July, James Porter was taken under guard to Greyabbey. Here temporary gallows had been erected in sight of his home and the Presbyterian Meeting-House.

Anne travelled with him to the place of execution. As a concession James’s body was not to be decapitated and quartered, that is cut up into 4 pieces. James begged his wife, that when the children came of age, to send them away to America, because he feared there was no justice left in Ireland. 

Lord Londonderry demanded that all his tenants attend the hanging, but many bravely refused to witness the atrocity. Hence only the military were present. James Porter mounted the scaffold with dignity and fortitude. However, it is recorded that the execution did not go smoothly.

“His struggles, I have learned, were severe and his death must have been painful”

James Porter Junior, 1844
Porter news - Newsletter 3rd July 1798
Porter news – Newsletter 3rd July 1798

The Burial

The corpse was returned to the cottage were his wife and little children were waiting.

“In an hour after, the body she (Anne) had left in health and strength and all the pride of manly beauty was delivered to her a corpse. She had it carried into the room, and I remember that until the next morning no solicitation or entreaty could tear her from its side. Nor would she sit down. She stood and looked on it with her hands clasped. Not a tear fell, not a word escaped her lips”

James Porter Junior, 1844
The Grave from F.J. Bigger - The Irish Book Lover Vol 13 1922
The Grave from F.J. Bigger – The Irish Book Lover Vol 13 1922

 James was buried in Greyabbey graveyard. The flat headstone is inscribed ‘Sacred to the memory of the Rev James Porter Dissenting Minister of Greyabbey who departed this life July 2, 1798 aged 45 years

Mrs Anne Porter (nee Knox) died on 3rd November 1823, aged 70

James Porter Headstone
James Porter Headstone
James Porter's Grave
James Porter’s Grave

What Happened to Porter’s Children?

Alexander  – The eldest of the family, while only a boy he carried the flag of the United Irishmen at the Battle of Ballynahinch. He subsequently took refuge with relatives in Donegal. At age 16 an uncle, on his father’s side, brought him and his younger brother to America. He was educated in Tennessee and became a lawyer in 1807. Alexander was appointed to the Supreme Bench at the age of 32. He was a member of the House of Representatives, Associated Judge of the Supreme Court, Governor of Louisiana and a member of the U S Senate. He died in 1844 and is buried in Nashville.

James –  James accompanied his elder brother to America. He also was admitted to the Bar and became Attorney General for Louisiana. He died in 1849.

Rebecca   – Rebecca married Mr Andrew Allison and settled in Tennessee, USA

Ellen Ann  – Ellen Ann married John Cochrane, Presbyterian minister at Holywood, County Down

Matilda  – Matilda married Andrew Goudy, Presbyterian minister of Ballywalter, County Down (1802-1818).  Their son Alexander Porter Goudy also joined the Church.

Isobella  – Isobella married James Templeton,  minister at Ballywalter 1st Presbyterian Church (1821-1856)

Sophia  – Sophia married merchant William Dickey Henderson of Belfast on 6th January 1831. They had five children and lived at University Square in the city. Their youngest son John became a prominent businessman in Adelaide, Australia. Sophia died in 1853

Greyabbey Graveyard
Greyabbey Graveyard

James Porter Remembered

James Porter’s grave lies in the shadow of the ruined twelfth century Cistercian Abbey in the little village of Greyabbey that he sought to serve so well.

If he had been content to turn a ‘blind eye’ to the injustices all around he no doubt would have lived a long comfortable life, but he was a man with a conscience and deserves to be remembered.

“Had Rev Porter been a selfish man of the world it is safe to say that he would have lived to be honoured by Church and State and seats of learning. But living in the age and surroundings of his period, he could not close his eyes to the terrible injustices perpetrated around him and especially the dreadful plight under which the tenant farmers lived. He was most kind-hearted and charitable and was pained by the sad conditions under which his people existed. The tenant farmers at that time were little better than serfs. The legalised robberies committed by the landlords, had driven them to the verge of rebellion”

Sean MacLoinsigh, Donegal Annual Vol 8 No 1 1969
The Grey Abbey
The Grey Abbey

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Diane · 16 September 2023 at 11:48 am

This was a fascinating read. My father, also a Rev Porter, always told me that Rev Porter of Greyabbey was one of our ancestors. I’m so pleased to have found this comprehensive story of his life. Thank you.

    P&P · 18 September 2023 at 10:43 am

    Diane, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. We were fascinated by his story when we came across it while researching other posts. A principled man who died for his beliefs…

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