Burying the past

OVER 220 years after they breathed their last, the bodies of hundreds of men may still be languishing in a mass unmarked grave on the outskirts of Antrim.

The united Irishmen rebellion was ruthlessly crushed in its defining skirmish on June 7 1798 at the Battle of Antrim.

The insurgents were largely Presbyterians but they sought absolute political and religious equality for all citizens, liberty rather than liberties, equality rather than privilege and fraternity rather than co-existence.

Those were lofty ideals - and many would die for them as the streets of Antrim ran red with blood.

The United Irishmen had planned to take the town by sheer weight of numbers and then use the artillery they would seize to march on Belfast - but instead the 4,000 men were eventually outgunned and outmanoeuvred by an initial force of just 200 British troops.

When the smoke finally cleared around 60 soldiers lay dead and they were later buried with military honours in the sands of Shane’s Castle.

A less glorious fate awaited the rebels. United in life, most were now united in death.

It was estimated that around 300 bodies were piled high at Market Square, some stripped naked by opportunist thieves - alongside the gravely injured.

Ezekiel Vance saw them begin their ignominious final journey, at first mistaking the carts of bodies for dead pigs heading to market.

“As one approached with its ghastly load, the driver seated on the top was asked by the yeomanry officer commanding the burial party ‘where the devil did these rascals come from?’

“A poor wretch raised his gory head from the cart and feebly answered, “I come frae Ballyboley.” He was buried with the others.

But precisely where were the unfortunate man and his brothers in arms laid to rest?

History has not been kind to their memory, with many accounts speaking vaguely of a large hole a third of a mile from the Lough.

There was no ceremony. No Marker. It was if the British wanted to erase the men from history - which of course they did.

The years passed and the people who were in Antrim that day passed too. Already buried under the earth, the insurgents were becoming lost in the mists of time.

The land around the Lough eventually became Massereene Golf Club, which opened for business 125-years-ago.

Two years later it merited an entry in The Irish Golfers’ Annual - and the question of Antrim’s missing dead was broached.

“The ground on which the course was laid out has an interesting history,” said the respected tome.

“The level of the Lough had been lowered a number of times, prior to which, the Lough shore was believed to be somewhere near the present Lough Road.

“During the Elizabethan age, apparently, the troops who were attempted to subdue O’Neill in Tyrone marched along this road and embarked on boats to cross the lough. There was a ford in the Six-Mile-Water at Riverside in Antrim which also formed part of the military road.

“At this time the mound at the Twelfth hole was built with a flagpole to act as a beacon for the boats returning to Antrim from Tyrone.

“This story contradicts another tradition which refers to this mound as the’Rebels’ Grave’ and suggests that the insurgents who died in the Battle of Antrim in 1798 were buried there.

“The former version is more likely since within living memory there has been a flagpole on top of the mound.”

Case closed, then. Well, not quite.

Another contemporary report, written on Massereene’s opening day in 1895 also refers to the unusual pile of earth on what is now the 12th hole - though back then it was the third.

“The tee for the third flag is on top of a mound raised, according to local report, over the remains of the men or the horses - let us hope it was the latter - who fell there in 1795.”

Is this another reference to the Rebels’ Grave - or are there yet more remains buried beneath the fairways?

So what’s it going to be? Is the mound a nautical marker or a mass grave?

On their website Golf Ireland have hedged their bets.

“There is an interesting historical incident behind this place that dates backs to 16th century,” they say.

“The mound at the twelfth hole is part of the legacy of the time when some troops wished to make O’Neill relinquish his power in Tyrone. They marched along this road and crossed the Lough with the help of boats and also used a flagpole planted on the mound as a beacon while rowing back to Antrim

“According to a legend, the mound was actually used as burial place for those who died in the 1798 Battle of Antrim and is thus called ‘Rebels Grave’.”

Curiouser and curiouser. Things became more complicated still when a rare photograph dating back before the opening of the club emerged.

Taken from the Lough Road and looking towards town - roughly in the direction of where the Antrim Forum now stands - it shows the mysterious mound and is entitled ‘The Rebels Grave at Lough Neagh’.

The gate posts where the man in the foreground is leaning are still standing. And the raised section of earth near the 12th tee is still there for all to see, just yards from the road.

Arguably too low to act as much of a beacon, it could conceivably be the soil displaced by the burial of hundreds of bodies.

The uncomfortable truth is that for decades people may have been playing golf on what is effectively a war grave.

Ironically ball games near those are illegal under the terms of the 1977 Local Authority Cemetery Order - though those rules only apply in England, Scotland and Wales.

Peter Francis, of the Commonwealth Graves Commission, also takes a dim view branding such a set-up ‘inappropriate’.

There re plaque to commemorate the fallen at the scene of the other pitched battles of ‘98 in Saintfield and Ballynahinch. In Antrim there is nothing. There have also been some archaeological digs at these sites which unearthed pikes and other items of historical interest - the sort of items, in fact, that could draw the crowds to the council’s museum a few hundred yards away at Clotworthy.

Speaking on the eve of the 220th anniversary of the battle, Alderman Paul Michael - the chairman of the Antrim Branch of the Royal British Legion - said the men of 1798 appeared to have been ‘airbrushed from history’.

“Antrim is an historic town and the battle was undoubtedly a pivotal moment in 18th century history, so it right and proper that we remember it,” he said.

“I think some people have been deterred by the actions of some who have sought to claim the United Irishmen as their own - to hijack what they stood for and to re-write history for their own ends.

“The Battle of Antrim took place here in this town. The story belongs to us all and it should be commemorated.

“I’ve visited the police museum in Carrick to see some of the guns used that day and I came away thinking that they should be on display in Antrim.

“Children too should be taught about the battles in schools, so they can understand why up-standing Presbyterians decided to rebel against the crown.

“The Battle of Antrim has been buried for too long.”

Which brings us neatly back to the ‘rebels’ grave’.

Alderman Michael has examined the picture and he shares the view that the dead may well be lying under the golf course.

“It’s a very interesting picture and clearly sign posts where the bodies are buried,” he said.

“Would I have any problem marking out a grave where hundreds of men have been lain to rest? Absolutely not. Should we examine how best to do this? Yes, I think we probably should.

“Putting politics to one side, I think it’s very sad that so many may be lying in an unmarked grave. They have been forgotten in time.

“Back in 1998 the people of Antrim turned out in their droves for a reconstruction of the battle. It was a fantastic event which brought people together.

“History can galvanise people as well as divide them. Surely it’s time to re-examine our shared history.”

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