During the months which followed the Irish rebellion of 1798, a French army landed in the south of Ireland to help the insurgents in their struggle against the British Crown. The aide-de-campe of the French General Humbert was a young Irishman who had left his native town to serve beneath the standards of revolutionary France.
The Irishman was Bartholomew Teeling, and presently he was captured try the British, brought to Dublin and court-martialled as a rebel. In order to he certain who they were executing the authorities sent for William Coulson, the damask manufacturer from Lisburn, who identified the prisoner as a son of Luke Teeling, a linen merchant who lived in Chapel Hill, Lisburn.
Bartholomew Teeling was duly executed, and of the even the Hibernian Magazine wrote: "The severity of Teeling's fate was rendered necessary by the peculiar state of the times."
The times' referred to was the decade of the French revolution which had been greeted by young men all over Europe -- and nowhere more eloquently. than in Belfast - with the splendid vocabulary of idealism. The example of the French, who offered their support in the international struggle of people everywhere against the tyranny of kings, seemed to many Irishmen yet another compelling reason why they should unite and destroy the power of the English Crown in Ireland
Only republicanism could guarantee freedom, because only in a republic could the people govern themselves, and if people did not govern themselves they were not free. This simple idea. force-fully stated all over Ireland and passionately believed in by the converts it won in villages, hamlets and towns, contained the seed of rebellion, for it followed that if kings would not give up their thrones and their control over the destinies of men, then their power would have to be taken from them by force.
In eighteenth century Ireland the government was so
riddled with injustice that it would have been miraculous
if the Irish had not tried to
redress their grievances, by persuasion it' possible, by force it necessary.
Presbyterians could not hold office under the Crown, and frequently the children of people married by a Presbyterian minister were described and treated in law as bastards. Roman Catholics fared no better under the sway of English law in Ireland. Not only were they excluded from higher offices and barred from parliament, but also they suffered under a penal code which restricted their personal freedom no less than the decrees of Louis XIV affected the Huguenots of France.
Besides the grievances. of these two categories of people there was the anger of men who were driven out of their homes by business men with capital. As the leases of farms ran out they were not renewed, with the result that there was a great deal of uncertainty among farmers about their future.
From the 1750's there were agrarian outrages all over Ulster, attacks on farms and individuals which may have seemed pointless to people of that time but which forewarn the historian that tile conditions of rebellion are at hand.
Lisburn was a centre of the agitation that preceded : the '98 rebellion. The Lisburn Volunteers, which had originally been formed as defensive force against the threat of a French invasion, carried their militancy into politics and made it clear to the King's representatives in Dublin that they would welcome the abolition of the restrictions on religious worship, the holding of office, and freedom of trade.
To emphasise their attitude Captain Alexander Crawford led his company to mass in tile Roman Catholic chapel, and thus the Volunteers of Lisburn rejected the dangerous bigotry which had plagued the town till then, and which lies latent still in the minds of some of its citizens.
The Dublin authorities saw nothing to fear in the intentions of the Volunteers until symptoms of disturbances became too numerous to ignore. Up in Kilrea the locals began to experiment with a guillotine -- on cats and dogs, indeed, but the message was clear. Two hundred and twenty five rounds of shot for six pounder cannon were found in a shallow part of the Lagan near Lisburn.
Songs reflected not only tile attractions of the republican idea, but also an alarming disrespect for the King like this toast of tile 1790`s: "May the skin of old Geordy, meaning the King - be a drum head to rouse the republicans to arms."
Men of like minds met secretly to plan open rebellion in the five fields of Erin, and of the agitation in the north Lord Castlereagh wrote in 1796: "Belfast is its centre. and it is very general towards Lisburn."
So general was the activity of the United Irishmen around Lisburn that the people of the town became accustomed to the sight of leading citizens being committed to gaol or to eternity at the hands of the executioner.
Samuel Musgrave, the Rev. Crawford and scores of others were arrested in the town. An unfortunate named Crabbe and a tinsmith named Vincent were executed, and we have a stirring account in the work of Charles Teeling of the fate of Armstrong, "a man from the humbler walks of life", who when petitioned by his wife to think of his children and turn informer to save his life, replied, "Ah. Jane, if I were to become a traitor, think how many widows and orphans that would make."
But for all the persecution., preparations for the rising continued unabated, in the north as in the south, among protestants as well as Catholics, and previously quiet country homesteads rang like the forge of Vulcan. "During the winter of 1797," writes McCall, "and the spring of , the following year a Lisburn whitesmith forged upwards of five hundred pikes."
On June 16 of that year a group of rebel leaders met at Hillsborough and "walked out by different routes" to examine the defenses of the army camp at Blaris, near Lisburn. They found it well entrenched, but Colonel James Plunkett, who had served as an officer on foreign battlefields, declared that he could destroy it when the time came.
And only the time remained to be fixed, for strategy , tactics and weapons had already been prepared.
There was no family more outstanding for the involvement of its members in the agitation leading to the '98 than the Teelings of Lisburn whose misfortunes made them famous all over Ireland.
Luke Telling was a linen merchant who lived in Chapel Hill. It was he who organised a petition, signed by many freeholders in County Antrim, imploring the King to dismiss his representatives in Dublin.
His attitude to the Government was never violent and his efforts were directed to peacefully securing for people of his own faith the privileges then enjoyed only by Anglicans. Nevertheless. he was arrested and offered his freedom on the condition that he would take his family out of Ireland and never come back.
The prisoner replied: "Mr Telling, never having offended against the laws of his country ... nor given any cause for the outraged comitted on his family, his property and his person, cannot accept any terms that imply guilt."
Luke Teeling's sons, feeling like Wordsworth. that to be young at the time of the French revolution "were very heaven" rejected the ways of the Lisburn Constitutional Club and became revolutionaries. Charles, the eldest son, was arrested in Lisburn, and he described the event like this: "We had proceeded up the street together, when having reached the house of his noble relative the Marquis of Hertford, we were about to take leave of his lordship (Castlereagh). 'I regret,' said he, addressing my father, 'that your son cannot accompany you', conducting me through the outer gate, which, to my inexpressible astonishment, was instantly closed."
Like his father, Charles was committed to a prison in Dublin, and like his father refused to accept a bribe to leave Ireland.
A second son of Telling's was also imprisoned during the period of the rebellion, and Bartholomew, the youngest. most fervent member of the family, suffered, as we have seen, the fate of rebels who fail.
It would, I think, be accurate to describe the Teelings as one of the most remarkable families to have lived in Lisburn. Certainly I know of none from that town which was more committed to changing the society in which they lived.
When the time came for the rebels to take up their cause and their pikes against the Government the "turnout" (a phrase still used in a different context) in the Lagan Valley was disappointing. The United Irishmen were indeed strong in Belfast and Lisburn. but the presence there of garrisons of soldiers made caution prevail among sympathisers with the aims of the rebellion, and the extensive army encampment at Blaris just outside Lisburn seems to have had a deterrent effect.
The leaders of the '98 in the north decided to concentrate their early efforts on Antrim, from where the could hope to co-ordinate the efforts of insurgents in the north and north-west. But Henry Joy McCracken and his colleagues seem to have given little thought to where they would go after Antrim.
So long as the military forces of the Crown in Lisburn and Belfast held the Lagan Valley. South Antrim and North Down could not play an important or successful role in the rebellion.
Indeed, one of the reasons for the defeat of the attack on Antrim was undoubtedly the arrival of reinforcements from the army camp at Blaris. The failure of the rebels to take account of the long-established military importance of Lisburn by launching an early attack on Blaris - as they had planned to do - greatly reduced their already slim chances of success.
The rebels of Ulster made their last effort at Ballynahinch, where they were led by a Lisburn draper, Henry Munroe. Munroe was a man of some standing in the ranks of Lisburn's society before questions of politics became so urgent as to compel moderate men to take sides.
He became a Volunteer in 1778, and in his own generous way saw no reason why people of his Anglican faith should determine the way in which other people should worship. He also advocated parliamentary reform.
In 1795 he became a United Irishman, three years later to accept the leadership of the North Down rebels after one of them, Hood, had been flogged through the streets of Lisburn.
By some accounts, Munroe might have won a victory at the battle which closed the chapter of rebellion in the north if he had taken advantage of the drunkenness of his enemy. But he declined to attack when they were defenseless, preferring to meet them "in the blush of open day."
It was a splendid phrase and an honourable sentiment, but scarcely the altitude required to turn revolt into revolution. His forces were defeated in the blush of open day, Munroe himself evaded capture for some days, until finally he was brought back to Lisburn and executed in full view of the citizens who still respected his character even if they disliked his views.
The '98 rebellion, one of the best known episodes in Irish history inspired many songs, books and poems, supplied Ireland with a fresh batch of martyrs to the cause of freedom, and created an example of violence for generations yet unborn to follow. It brought Ireland no closer to freedom or to the specific aims for which the insurgents had fought.
Another generation passed before the achievement of Catholic `Emancipation.' Fresh agrarian outrages occurred before the British Government listened to the demands of Irish peasants. More bloodshed, more volunteers, more than another hundred years were to pass before Ireland became a republic.
In the north of Ireland the idea of religious toleration, which won a brief, audience in the later eighteenth century, failed to survive as a social force. One reason for this tragedy is certainly to be sought in the determination of the people of Ulster to maintain their union with the English crown at any price.
One hundred years after the '98, the Protestant volunteers were preparing to fight again, not this time to break away from the British Empire, but to assert their determination to remain a part of it against the real or imagined ambitions of "the papist peril in our midst."
Talk of freedom, a concept as old as language, was heard again in the streets of Lisburn, but re-defined: used, this time, to praise what had been condemned as bondage. a hundred years before.