Author on the hunt for local tales as he pens new book on the Battle of Antrim

AN author who has made his home in Antrim is seeking stories handed down through generations about the Battle of Antrim.

Stephen McCracken was frustrated to find little in the way of contemporary books about the skirmish, so has decided to write one himself.

Originally from the north west, he is related to Henry Joy McCracken, who issued a proclamation calling for the United army of Ulster to rise on June 6, 1798.

Whilst not in living memory, Stephen points out that the Battle of Antrim took place just over 200 years ago and is convinced that there are more stories to be shared.

He says that more should be made of the event, and adds that there is an element of ‘not wanting to remember’ or deliberately overlooking such a pivotal point in the history of the town.

Stephen’s previous book include The Presbyterians of Magilligan Ancestry Guide 1600-1900, which touches on the impact which Randalstown ministers had on the local people through their combined ministry of more than 100 years.

He also penned the Plantation of Ulster Ancestry Records, which breaks down the plantation in North Londonderry into respective parishes.

The Battle of Antrim was fought on June 7 1798 during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 between British troops and Irish insurgents led by Henry Joy McCracken.

The rebels assembled at Donegore Hill in preparation for the march and attack on Antrim town, where an emergency meeting of the county’s magistrates called by the county governor, Lord O'Neill, was due to take place.

Although almost 10,000 rebels assembled at Donegore, many stayed on the hill or deserted, so probably fewer than 4,000 actually took part.

The United Irishmen in Ulster were mostly Presbyterian, but were joined with Catholic Defenders and the tension between the two groups on the march may have caused more desertions.

This meant that the attack was delayed and McCracken was forced to make adjustments to his plan of attack, a simultaneous overwhelming assault on the town from four separate points.

The town was garrisoned by a small force of about 200 yeomen, cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel William Lumley and armed volunteers.

They also had four artillery pieces and the delay in the rebel attack had allowed them to send requests for assistance from Belfast and Lisburn.

The garrison formed themselves at the base of the wall of Antrim Castle, with artillery to the front and cavalry to the rear with their flanks anchored by the Market House and Presbyterian Meeting House.

The Scottish Quarter in the town was also burned by the garrison as it was perceived to be a stronghold of rebel sympathisers.

The attack finally began shortly before 3pm when the rebels marched through the town.

As rebel front ranks arrived to face the garrison’s defensive line, artillery opened fire on the rebels, causing them to pull back out of range.

This was mistaken for a full retreat and the cavalry moved out to pursue and rout the supposed fleeing rebels - straight into a gauntlet of rebels, suffering heavy losses.

The rebels attacked the remainder of the garrison, which then began to pull back to the safety of the castle wall; this was mistaken by a newly arrived rebel column as an attack on them, causing them to flee in panic.

In the melee, the county commander, Lord O’Neill, trapped with his magistrates, was fatally wounded.

A rebel attempt to seize the artillery was only narrowly beaten off by troops stationed behind the wall.

British reinforcements from Belfast then arrived outside the town and began to shell it with their artillery.

This prompted more desertions, but a small band under James Hope allowed the bulk of the rebels to withdraw safely.

When the military entered the town, they began a spree of looting, burning and murder.

McCracken, Hope and their remaining supporters withdrew north, establishing camps along the route of their retreat until their final dispersion.

McCracken was arrested by yeomen on 7 July and was hanged in Belfast on 17 July, having refused an offer of clemency in return for informing on his comrades.

“It was all over in a short space of time,” said Stephen.

“But it was still a very important historical event.

“I learned next to nothing at school about the United Irishmen or the 1798 Rebellion and it has been a source of frustration to me for many years - so I’ve decided to do something about it!

“I heard the name Henry Joy McCracken, but not who he was or what he was fighting for.

“I have found a lot of archive material but what I really would like is for any Antrim families who have heard stories passed down from their relatives, to get in touch.

“There was a big commemoration in 1998 and smaller re-enactments down through the years, but there is an element of ‘disrememberment’.

“The Orange Order was coming to prominence and a lot of the United Irishmen joined eventually.

“People did not want to be associated with rebellion or Republicanism.

“So a lot of these stories and memories became hidden or private, and they shouldn’t be.

“It was always in the Protestant people to rebel against authority and protest - it’s even in the name and why Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the church door, right up to today’s protests against various agreements between the British and Stormont and Irish Governments.”

Stephen is also keen to seek out artefacts from the time.

Despite happening a relatively short time ago in the grand scheme of things, precious few items or indeed remains have been found.

“The shape of the town itself has changed very little since the battle,” he said.

“One of the reports of the battle said that the yeomanry’s cannon, firing up the street from Market Square, were not positioned to overcome a large rise in the road and their cannonballs smashed straight into the gravel, allowing the rebels a great advantage.

“Another column was based where the Top of the Town now sits.

“I visited a man in Dunsilly who was draining a ditch for his garden and uncovered bayonet and a powder or musket ball flask four foot down.

“He cleaned it all up and it was verified by the Ulster Museum to be from the correct period for the Battle of Antrim.

“He could have had a full grave down there, but never even considered it.

“Most of the men were buried where they fell,” he said.

“There was a rule that none of the rebels could be buried with headstones, but many people ignored that.”

Thanks to a fascinating photo captioned ‘the Rebel’s Grave’, there is a rumour that bodies were buried under a mound at Massereene Golf Club, but Stephen says hat’s more likely to be an existing flagstaff, a forerunner to a lighthouse.

“It would make no sense to dig something like that up, fill it with bodies and then cover it up again,” he said.

“It’s a fantastic photo, but if you look closely you can see that there’s a gate and a road going past the mound, which eventually lead to a crossing or ford at the Six Mile Water, behind where the old police station is now.

“It’s probably more likely that the grave is under the road.

“I have found the grave of John Storey, at Muckamore, the date ties in, he is said to have led the Kells Column in and attack down Patie’s Lane, when their original leader deserted and joined the yeomanry.

“He was said to have fought very bravely and his family owned a mill at Islandbawn.

“I have also visited the ruins of a mill near Randalstown, owned by Adam Dickey.

“His son James negotiated the surrender of Randalstown, which fell very quickly and there were relatively few fatalities on either side.”

Stephen has also photographed a gun which was pulled from the thatch of an old building in the Niblock Road area.

“I don’t think the gun would have been used,” he said.

“At that time, McCracken would have been going round to the local farms around the country, chasing boys out of the potato fields, rallying them to action with whatever they had to hand.

“A lot of men said they would go and fight, but they were country people and farmers, not fighters, and a lot of them deserted or did not turn up or stayed at Donegore.

“I’ve not been able to find Lord O’Neill’s grave, but I imagine he would have had a more grand resting place than some of the other dead.

“I’ve heard names like Big Campbell from Killead, who fell in a garden and was buried there, or an S Skillen.

“There were men from Randalstown, Toome, Templepatrick, all over.

“There was a lot of in-fighting between the Protestant and Catholic rebels, and that delayed the attack, a Catholic Defender would say something like ‘let’s avenge 1690’ and a big row would break out with a bunch of boys from Ballyclare or Carnmoney.”

This June 7, Stephen is helping to organise a commemorative walk with local tour guide Donal Kelly, from Mallusk to Antrim town, with around ten featured speakers, including historians and archeologists, at important points along the way.

“It was a small insurgency, but it is a fascinating story,” he said.

“These men fought very bravely and came within a whisker of winning.

“There should be no shame or wish to hide anything to do with the Battle of Antrim, it is part of who we all are and a big part of the history of the town and I think it should be talked about, celebrated and commemorated more than it is.”

Stephen says he hopes that his book will be finished in the summer time, around the time of the anniversary.

“Like I say, while there are a lot of older documents, Ireland at that time was very much in the oral tradition and I know there must be some stories which have been passed down verbally that have never been committed to print and those are the details I am really interested in, or photographing things that people may have found or dug up and they maybe don’t realise the significance.”

If you have any information which could help, please contact Stephen on 07842809873.

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