Who were the Hearts of Steel?

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Castle Upton Unrest
Castle Upton Protests

Who were The Hearts of Steel?

The Hearts of Steel was an exclusively Protestant secret society which was formed in 1769 in County Antrim as a protest against the huge rise in rent imposed on the local tenant farmers.

Despite several years of poor harvests, landlords and their middle-men, raised rents to such an extent that the tenants were unable to pay and faced eviction and destitution.

In the north of Ireland, where the Plantation policy was at its most extreme, the mostly Presbyterian tenant farmers had previously benefitted from certain advantages. For example, so long as they paid their rent they could not be evicted and if they decided to leave their farms, they received compensation for any improvements they had made. Catholics were generally excluded from land ownership.

“In North-East Ulster the mainly Protestant tenantry had, ever since the great plantation of the seventeenth century, benefitted from the so-called ‘Ulster custom’ which allowed fairly extensive rights to tenants….Catholics in North-East Ulster were chiefly labourers with no land at all”

Robert Kee, The Most Distressful Country, 1976

Growing Resentment

However, the 18th century saw a rise in rents to such an extent that agrarian discontent was widespread.

Tenant farmers also resented having to pay a tithe (tenth) of their income to the Established Church and to provide free labour to repair and maintain roads. Many of the large landowners were English and lived in England. These absentee landlords saw their Irish estates only as a means of making money. The welfare of their tenants was of no concern.

Many of the landlords’ middle-men, also known as ‘speculators’ and ‘forestallers’ who collected the rent were openly corrupt. It was far from unknown for these unscrupulous men to over-charge the tenant farmers and pocket the extra money for themselves. As evictions increased, these ‘speculators’ (who could afford the higher rents) acquired the land for their own families at the expense on the original tenants.

The Rise of the Hearts of Steel

Desperate times call for desperate measures and the Hearts of Steel arose from the grievances felt by the tenant farmers who no longer felt secure on the land they may have rented for generations.

The group originally operated as an ‘underground’ movement, using intimidation and covert threats. They were also known to maim cattle (‘houghing’) and burn haystacks under the cover of darkness to ‘persuade’ the middlemen to act fairly and merchants not to raise prices beyond the means of ordinary folk.

Hearts of Steel Activity - Newsletter 1st Aug 1769
Hearts of Steel Activity – Newsletter 1st Aug 1769

“….betwixt landlords and rectors, the very marrow is screwed out of our bones, and our lives are become even so burdensome to us, by these uncharitable and unreasonable men, that we do not care whether we live or die”

From the Proclamation of the Hearts of Steel, March 1772

The ‘Steelboys’

As time went on the Steelboys activities became more open.

A band of men broke into the estate of Clotsworthy Upton in County Antrim and destroyed the garden statuary.

Castle Upton
Castle Upton

The first house set on fire was that belonging to John Bill of Ballymartin on 23rd July 1769. Others suffered the same fate, Andrew McIlwaine also of Ballymartin on 5th December 1769, John Douglas on 7th December and John Busby and James McAlister in the townland of Ballypallady.

At the same time, letters were written to landowners threatening the destruction of property if money was not left at a designated spot for collection by the Hearts of Steel.

“By these means the well-disposed persons in the community were for some time completely overawed, and the civil powers being weak, and the country without any military force, save a few in Belfast, the system spread rapidly over the entire county and into county Down”

Samuel McSkimin Manuscripts
Castle Upton Doorway
Castle Upton Walls
Watching All
Silent Witnesses

The Belfast Riot

From Templepatrick to Barrack Street

On Friday 21st December 1770 in the little village of Templepatrick, 12 miles north of Belfast, events came to a head. A local man, David Douglas, was arrested, charged with maiming the cattle belonging to a Belfast merchant, Thomas Gregg.

Douglas was escorted to the town and imprisoned in Belfast barracks. This barracks, on Barrack Street had been built in 1739. It housed around 40 soldiers and was deemed more secure than marching the prisoner to the main jail in Carrickfergus.

The local populace was incensed and on Sunday 23rd marched to Belfast to demand Douglas’s release. En route they stopped at the Stag’s Head on the Shore Road and gathered more reinforcements. In total they numbered around 1,200.

“The capture of this person excited no little commotion, and it was immediately resolved that his liberation should be effected. On the morning of the 23rd an assembly of persons, avowedly Hearts of Steel, met at Templepatrick for this purpose; ….the entire body when assembled proceeded towards Belfast, armed with guns, pistols, swords and ruder weapons”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, 1877

The Siege

The protesters surrounded the barracks and demanded the release of their compatriot. The Sovereign (Mayor) Stewart Banks and “about 25 other gentlemen” had barricaded themselves inside.

When they refused to release Douglas, the crowd moved to the home of Waddell Cunningham, on the corner of Hercules Street (now Royal Ave) and Bank Lane. Cunningham and his brother-in-law Gregg were avaricious ‘speculators’ who had been ‘acquiring’ land by unscrupulous means in the district around Templepatrick.

“The immediate cause of this assault was the eviction of tenants by the Upton family from their Templepatrick estate; poor tenants were ejected and replaced by solvent tenants including two Belfast speculators, Thomas Greg and Waddell Cunningham”

Jonathan Bardon, Belfast, an illustrated history, 1982

The Riot

The army was deployed to disperse the Steelboys. They were ordered to fire on the crowd. Several men were shot dead and many others injured. Amongst those killed were William Russel of Carnmoney, Andrew Cristy of Dunagore, and J Sloan of Falls.

In desperation, the protestors set fire to the Cunningham home. As this property was centrally located, there was a real danger that the conflagration would spread and the burgeoning town of Belfast destroyed. To allay any further damage, Mayor Banks agreed to release the prisoner.

“To prevent the destruction of the town it was deemed expedient to give up the prisoner to the insurgents, which was accordingly done about one o’clock in the morning, on which they retired and the fire extinguished”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, 1877
The Hearts of Steel Storming the Barracks at Belfast (from The Ulster Land War of 1770, Francis Joseph Bigger)
The Hearts of Steel Storming the Barracks at Belfast (from The Ulster Land War of 1770, Francis Joseph Bigger)

Hearts of Steel – A Song

The Twenty Third of December away we did go,

To visit Belfast – for it must be so –

To seek for our Brother, if that he was there,

And straight to release him no pains would we spare.

We went to the Barrack and there we did stand

And of Banks and Cunningham we did demand

The pris’ner in durance, we knew not for what cause,

But as they pretended he had broken their laws.

Opening verses of a song recorded by Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland, 1780

Growing Resentment

Further grievances occurred on the estates of Lord Donegall in south-east Antrim.

When the current leases expired, Donegall, the largest landowner in Ireland, demanded a hefty renewal fee if the farmers wanted to remain on the land instead of the expected increase in rents .

The extravagant Lord Donegall was in the process of building himself a large house with landscaped gardens in Staffordshire, England. He had hired Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and required the money immediately; he had no time to wait for the rents to come in.

“Lord Donegall planned to use his income from tenanted land in Ireland to create a magnificent estate in Staffordshire for his home… Brown removed the (existing) Tudor house and created a colossal Palladian mansion; removed formal, tree-lined avenues; and designed a natural parkland with the addition of a great lake”

Timothy Belmont, Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland

Not surprisingly most of these smallholders did not have a lump sum of cash to hand over. Many evictions followed. In some cases, Lord Donegall’s middlemen paid the fee themselves hence securing the leases in their own names. They then sublet them to the previous tenants at higher rates. As landlord wishes were basically the law on their estates, the tenant farmers had no legal recourse.

Evicted (1890) by Lady Butler depicts a woman standing by her destroyed cottage after eviction
Evicted (1890) by Lady Butler depicts a woman standing by her destroyed cottage after eviction

Growth of the Hearts of Steel

Such was the discontent against rapacious landlords, the Hearts of Steel movement soon spread into counties Down, Derry and Armagh. Landowners were threatened with reprisals and the burning of their homes.

Although the society was composed mostly of Presbyterians, not everyone in their religious community concurred with their actions. Some Presbyterian congregations had lists published in the Belfast Newsletter of those who condemned the actions of the Hearts of Steel.

Another published list contained the names of those who had refused to sign. The presbyteries of Tyrone, Monaghan, Armagh, Antrim, Ballymena, Moira, Newry, Belfast and Derry all condemned the violence with which many of their flock were engaged.

Some, like Templepatrick, while abhorring such acts, openly acknowledged the reasons that had caused it.

“Now though we, the members of the presbytery cannot but lament the heavy oppression that too many are under from the excessive price of land and the unfriendly practices of many… which may be the occasion of the present illegal measures, yet we are convinced that violence defeats its own ends”.

Address of the Templepatrick presbytery (forwarded by the Lord Lieutenant to London)
The Old Presbyterian Church Templepatrick
The Old Presbyterian Church Templepatrick

Prosecution & Punishment

Although many men were indicted and brought to trial accused of the illegal acts often the local juries were sympathetic to their cause. Hence the number of convictions was low.

“The difficulty of getting witnesses to testify and juries to convict was resulting in verdicts of not guilty in a great many cases. The authorities looked on in alarm to find man after man discharged”

F J Bigger, The Ulster Land War of 1770, 1910

To combat this, in early 1772 an act was rushed through parliament decreeing that defendants should not be tried in their own locality but taken to a different part of Ireland for trial. Also on St Patrick’s Day, five companies of foot soldiers marched from Dublin to be deployed against the Hearts of Steel in the north.

“The authorities sent reinforcements to the north and early in 1772, alarmed by the difficulty of securing convictions from local juries, rushed through an act to have the accused tried in Dublin”.

W A Magill, Irish Historical Studies, Vol 21 no. 84, 1979

Some of the resulting cases included that of Samuel Jameson, found guilty of burning the house of John Curragh. Jameson was hung in Downpatrick on 2nd May 1772.

Another, James Horner was convicted of a felony and transported for 14 years.

Henry Henderson was found guilty of administrating the oath of the Hearts of Steel to another, he was imprisoned for 1 year and fined 20 marks.

Clingan - Newsletter 19th May 1772
Clingan – Newsletter 19th May 1772

The Execution of Thomas Clingan

An unusual execution was reported in the Belfast Newsletter on 19th May 1772.

Thomas Clingan was found guilty of stealing a gun from Andrew Rowan. He was taken to the gallows in Downpatrick on 16th May. About 30 minutes after his hanging, the sheriff and some soldiers of the 53rd regiment ,who were stationed in the town, thought that the victim still showed some signs of life.

Upon cutting down the body they discovered that Clingan had a steel collar around his neck held in place with leather straps to prevent his death. The collar was removed and Clingan was forced to remount the scaffold to be hung again.

The Battle of Gilford

Richard Johnston

One resident landlord, Richard Johnston of Gilford Castle in County Down, was particularly vociferous in his condemnation of the Steelboys. He was descended from the Johnstons of Annadale in Scotland and had inherited the estate in 1758 on the death of his father.

Johnston had been High Sheriff of Down in 1765 and High Sheriff of Armagh in 1771. As a local magistrate, Richard Johnston was known for his harsh sentencing and detestation of any form of agitation against the ‘status quo’.

In 1772 Johnston received several threatening letters, purported to come from the Hearts of Steel. In response he recruited an ex-army sergeant named Alexander Adamson, to form and drill a voluntary militia to combat attack. 50 or so friends, neighbours and servants enlisted in this vigilante force.

The Hearts of Steel March through Gilford

On 2nd March 1772, 800 members of the Hearts of Steel assembled in Gilford. They marched through the village in a show of strength before returning to their homes. Richard Johnston was said to be incensed by this open challenge to his authority.

Rev Samuel Morrell

One of the members of Johnston’s unofficial militia was the Presbyterian minister of Tullylish, the Rev Samuel Morrell. Morrell was descended from a Huguenot family. At the age of 24 he had been appointed minister of Tullylish on 6th March 1768.

This young man had an extreme hatred of the Hearts of Steel and also abhorred the superstitious beliefs that were rampant in his parish. He roused local dislike by preaching against ‘pagan’ traditions and backed his words by cutting down hawthorn blossom and uprooting fairy trees.

The Raid

Morrell, perhaps due to his position as Presbyterian minister, came upon some information that he relayed to Richard Johnston on 5th March 1772. He had been reliably (?) informed that a meeting of the leaders of the Hearts of Steel was to take place in the townland of Clare.

Subsequently Johnston, Morrell, Adamson and one Thomas Logan raided the house of a Mr Tedderton. The alleged leaders were having a meal of herrings and potatoes when they were surrounded and arrested. A sum of coins on the kitchen table was claimed to be their munitions fund. The prisoners Hill, Dennison Finlay and one other were taken, under guard to Downpatrick Jail.

Finlay however, escaped and roused local sympathisers. The father of Hill also helped to incite the local tenantry into action. A horn was sounded throughout the county to raise the ‘call to arms’.

Battleground Gilford

On Friday 6th March 1772, 6 columns of the Hearts of Steel descended on Gilford. These were insurgents from Lurgan, Portadown and surrounding regions. The Lurgan contingent were led by Richard Savage and the Portadown, by William (Billy) Redmond.

The occupants of Gilford Castle must have been terrified. Johnston had deployed more than half of his militia to guard the prisoners on their enforced march to Downpatrick. This left around 23 men to defend the castle. Each defender had only enough gunpowder for 10 rounds.

Johnston tried to smooth things over by asking for diplomacy but was met by gunfire from the enraged Steelboys. A full-scale gun battle began which lasted less than an hour. The insurgents broke through the castle walls and set fire to the gardener’s cottage. So great were the attackers numbers (between 1,000 and 2,000 men) that the neighbours and retainers defending Gilford Castle feared they were lost.

Johnston’s Escape

At this point, Richard Johnston decided to ‘save his own skin’. He climbed over a wall, crossed a mill-race, then, while still being fired upon, raced over the pristine lawns to the banks of the River Bann. Swimming across the river he was aided by a local girl by the name of Davison and brought to a cabin. Securing a horse, Johnston then rode bareback to Newry to the military garrison.

Johnston’s erstwhile companions were left to fend for themselves in Gilford Castle.

The remainder of the defenders were treated mercifully and allowed to leave unharmed. The general feeling among the Steelboys was that these men had no option but to side with their employer.

The Fate of Rev Morrell

The Rev Morrell sustained gunshots wounds to his arm and the left side of his chest. He is said to have (presumably in shock) thrown himself to his death from an upstairs window.

It is interesting to note that contemporary sources blamed the Rev Morrell’s death not on the actions of the Hearts of Steel, but on his distain of the fairies.

Traditional belief that destroying sites associated with the ‘little folk’ would result in dire consequences appeared to be vindicated.

Woe to him with sneering word

The wrath of the Elfin race hath stirred,

Who hath dared to mock the mystic power

They long have swayed o’er rath and bower.

For his hand hath torn the fairy thorn’

And flung on the earth its fragrant bloom

And the Fair Queen for his deeds of scorn

Hath damned his life to a fatal doom.

For ah! From the Castle young Morrell

Who had sued for mercy, lifeless fell.

The fairies laughed with unearthly glee

As they danced that night round the fatal tree,

And the twined in its shade a wreath of flowers

To deck the Queen of their Elfin bowers.

Verses from a song circulating in the Gilford area soon after the event.

Downfall of the Hearts of Steel

Richard Johnston’s Revenge

While this may have been a victory for the Hearts of Steel, such is the way of the world, the insurgents paid a heavy price. Richard Johnston returned to Gilford with a contingent of soldiers. Anyone suspected of being a member of the Hearts of Steel was hunted down and hanged. Some drowned in the Bann while trying to escape.

“For the Steelboys the victory at Gilford proved to be a Pyrrhic one as it provoked a heavy military repression in the whole area. A panic spread because of the possibility of reprisals and one newspaper reported that in the Gilford district in the closing days of March there was scarcely a man to be seen other than those wearing redcoats”.

D E McElroy, The Battle of Gilford

Many fled to America, where they joined the revolutionaries in the War of Independence.

“It was from a continuance of these and other injustices that more than 30,000 Ulster Presbyterians left their homes for North America during the next two years, to settle in a land where, as they said, there was no legal robbery; and it was the memory of those same injustices that spurred on these solid worthy men to take a vital and forthright part in the struggle of the American colonies against English arrogance and myopic misrule”

Richard Hayward, Belfast Through the Ages; 1952
he Emigrants Farewell -Mary Francis Cusack, An illustrated History of Ireland 1868
The Emigrants Farewell -Mary Francis Cusack, An illustrated History of Ireland 1868

Richard Johnston estimated the damages done to his castle and grounds came to £2,200. He was reimbursed by the government in Dublin and granted an annual pension of £800. He was also presented with a service of plate valued at 300 guineas. On 17th July 1772 he was created a Baronet and a member of the Irish Parliament.

The Trial

On 12th August 1772, the trial commenced of nine members of the Hearts of Steel. The case was heard in Dublin because it was thought juries in the north would be too sympathetic to the prisoners.

The defendants were

John Byrns – the murder of Rev Samuel Morell

William Redmond – leader of the Hearts of Steel

Phillip McCusker – bringing fire in a pitcher and destroying silver knives

James Fryers – blowing a horn [to incite rebellion]

John Hill – threatening Mr Johnston’s life

Moses Evans – firing 2 shots

Michael Corr – bearing weapons

James Davison – bearing weapons

George Foster – plundering Johnston’s house

Information from F J Bigger

The trial was heard by nine commissioners headed by Lord Annally. In summing up, Annally advised the jury that if they were not totally convinced of the accused’s guilt, they should err on the side of mercy. The jury retired and returned their verdict in only 17 minutes. All the defendants were found Not Guilty.

Opinions on the Hearts of Steel

To many ordinary folk the Hearts of Steel were seen as heroes.

“They had many sympathisers who condemned the harsh treatment which, as they alleged, had produced these disturbances. Pamphlets are not rare which take this view of the subject, and adopt a line of reasoning much akin to the tenant-right argument of late days”

George Benn A History of the Town of Belfast 1877

To the gentry they were seen as terrorists to be eradicated. Johnston in particular was obsessed with extracting revenge from one of the ringleaders, Billy Redmond. After Redmond’s acquittal in Dublin, Sir Richard had Redmond indicted in County Armagh. Again, the defendant was found not guilty. Furious Johnston insisted that the man be transported, however, the judges disagreed and Redmond walked free from the court.

F J Bigger in his book The Ulster Land War of 1770 (written 1910), records further information on the fate of Mr Redmond. Apparently, sometime later, Richard Johnston was informed that Willy Redmond was staying in a remote part of County Tyrone called Monterreven. He gathered together a party of men and rode the 30 miles to the spot. Arriving around midnight, they broke into the cabin and found their target in bed. According to Johnston, Redmond went for his weapon, whereupon he was fatally shot by one of Johnston’s men.

One member of the aristocracy however, did not hold the same views. The viceroy of Ireland, at the time, Lord Townsend, had some sympathy for the Steelboys predicament. He privately blamed the landlords for inciting rebellion through their greed. In November 1772, Lord Townsend issued a general pardon for all members of the Hearts of Steel.

The Hearts of Steel Remembered

The Hearts of Steel, though a short-lived organisation, held sway over large areas of rural Ulster from 1770-1772. Like many protest groups, it began with one complaint, then spread to cover other injustices, some local, some widespread.

During this time and in the period shortly after, there was a huge peak in the number of people leaving what they saw as the untenable position of tenant farmer in Ireland, and emigrating to the USA.

Indeed, with many of these exiles playing a role in the War of Independence, the Hearts of Steel not only imprinted themselves on the history of Ireland, but on the history of America too.

The Ulster Land War of 1770 by FJ Bigger
The Ulster Land War of 1770 by FJ Bigger

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Joe · 25 February 2023 at 8:37 am

Very fascinating. Thank you.

    P&P · 27 February 2023 at 9:21 am

    Glad you enjoyed it.

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