Ulster had been the birthplace of the United Irishmen movement, founded in 1791 by Wolfe Tone and others, and for some time it had been the main area of United activity and organisation. But as the end of the decade came closer, it had seen any role it had in being the driving force behind violent revolution superseded by the United Irishman branches to the south. There was precious little in the way of coordination between Ulster and Leinster as time counted down to the rebellion.
Moreover, in 1798 it did not appear as if the Ulster branches of the United Irishmen had much interest in any kind of rising. The earliest disarmament campaigns the previous year had badly hit the north, and much of their leadership had either becomes absentee or been arrested, the result of significant security breaches by informers, like Nicholas Mageean, a United Colonel in County Down, who started leaking information in the authorities in late 1796/early 1797. The newer leadership were of the more moderate variety, and not so inclined to revolt as others, at least not without significant French assistance.
When the rebellion came in the south, it did not, as the Leinster Executive hoped, immediately encourage the north to rise as well. For a crucial week, nothing at all happened, with not even a meeting of the northern executive being called until the final days of May. It was at that meeting of the provincial committee that a split between membership began to become evident, as the more moderate leadership was denounced by lower-levels for their static approach to what was happening in Leinster. The same thing occurred at more local-level meetings. The leadership was suddenly being pushed to the side, and replaced by much more radical individuals, not least a young cotton manufacturer named Henry Joy McCracken.
McCracken had been with the United movement since almost the very beginning, helping to set-up the society with Wolfe Tone. A Presbyterian, McCracken longed to overcome both sectarian and land divisions in Ulster, and was one of the more firmly committed United Irishmen to the ideals of equality and liberty. His organisational abilities, personal charisma and enthusiasm for all things connected to the movement soon had him placed in its highest echelons, where he firmly advocated an immediate uprising, without French help if it came down to it.
With the news starting to arrive more concretely of what was happening in the south, with the initial rebel successes in the midlands being overturned, McCracken felt like he had to organise something, and soon, if Ulster was to play its part. His plan was simple: to rally what United Irishmen would come to his standard in Antrim, while others did the same in Down, the two counties with the best society organisation in Ulster. Once they were controlled, that success would encourage revolts in the rest of Ulster, a revolt that the isolated British forces would be unable to control. By the early days of June, McCracken was busy getting men to join up with him in Antrim, with supplying them with arms, and even digging up an old Volunteer cannon that lacked any wheels.
McCracken, taking command of the effort in Antrim, aimed for Antrim Town specifically. One of the biggest urban centres in the county, its capture would be a major success, and would leave the rebels only a few hours’ march from the arguably more important Belfast. McCracken must have known that he needed an early stand-out success to really kick-start the rebellion in the north, and the taking of Antrim Town was it. He drafted a proclamation to that effect, to his “Army of Ulster”, and sent messages to his various regimental colonels.
Unfortunately for him, as we have mentioned, one of those colonels was a government informer, and the commander of the north, American and Continental veteran General George Nugent, had soon heard of McCracken’s plans.
McCracken had instructed his men in arms to assemble at their positions, at Donegore Hill, Antrim, by June 6th, and had gotten a sizable amount by that time, maybe as many as 10’000, though the effectiveness of all these men and units, many without any formal commanders since the disarmament campaign, was severely in doubt. Many would not march, and a large proportion of Defenders, that entity fighting the land war, never showed up. The United Irishmen and the Defenders were ever only tenuous allies, with the almost entirely Catholic Defenders not totally endeared to the northern United Irishmen, who were largely Presbyterian, especially the higher ranks. Sectarian trouble and desertion was common. But McCracken, though he lacked any military experience himself, was determined to move forward. The first task, as he saw it, was to isolate Antrim Town by capturing the smaller villages on the approach to it.
Smaller units of United Irishmen were undertaking this task. To the west Randalstown had been taken without much effort, the small garrison of yeomanry smoked out of their barracks. At Toome, the bridge over the River Bann was broken down to block the road. Further north, Larne was captured after extended fighting in the streets forced the garrison to withdraw to the local castle. And Ballymena, north-west of Antrim Town, was taken in much the same manner as Randalstown. On McCracken’s instruction, the rebels were far more restrained in terms of looting and destruction than their southern counterparts, and there were no reports of atrocity or largescale property destruction at this point. By the evening of June 6th, a huge part of Antrim was in rebel hands, with elements of the smaller detachments reforming with the main group.
Early the following day McCracken’s personal command, now somewhere between 4’000 to 6’000, began their own march from Donegore Hill straight into Antrim Town. Approaching from the east, they entered without any initial resistance. Antrim’s garrison was pitifully small in comparison to the rebels, little more than 30 militia, 70 dragoons and a few dozen civilian volunteers brave enough to take up arms. Led by local noble Lord Massereene, they occupied the castle and the market house, and burned a section of the town they felt was too rebel sympathetic – the smoke from this would obscure much as the day progressed.
McCracken split his army into sections, sending one towards the church on the main street from the north while he went towards the same point directly, with another column, under Samuel Orr, to attack the market house.
McCracken’s inexperience when it came to the military matters showed vividly at this moment. He appears to have made no allowances for the possibility of government reinforcement from the south: he presumed that the rising in Down would prevent that, and did nothing to guard the roads, or ensure the taking of Crumlin, the town to the east by which government troops were now streaming towards Antrim. Informers had given Nugent all the encouragement he needed, before Antrim’s defenders had sent messages pleading for relief. Even as McCracken was instigating his attack, 150 dragoon reinforcements were entering Antrim from the other side.
After initial exchanges of fire, the cavalry charged the rebels in the streets, and were beaten back by the packed ranks of pikemen. The aforementioned Volunteer cannon fired a few rounds before being disabled by its own recoil. The rebels advanced again and seemed to have the advantage, but things rapidly broke down: Orr’s detachment retreated upon sighting the enemy cavalry, mistaking their own withdrawal for an attack, and this sudden flight spread fear throughout the rebel ranks.
Worse came shortly after, as additional reinforcements for the garrison arrived, a substantial force of infantry with artillery support. The big guns opened fire on the town from outside thinking it completely held by rebels, before the infantry advanced. By that time, McCracken’s army had completely broken and fled, save for a small number pinned down in the churchyard, who fought a successful rear-guard action to prevent a pursuit. Maybe 60 or so government troops were casualties, compared to 300 rebels.
The aftermath was bloody: the victorious government forces shot wounded, prisoners and others wholesale in Antrim Town and ransacked numerous properties, while General Nugent prepared to retake the north-east of Ulster. McCracken, having survived, attempted to rally his army at Slieve Mish, a mountain not far from Ballymena, but what few men he was able to gather quickly dispersed, and he was obliged to keep moving northwards, essentially a fugitive.
The campaign in Antrim had been a disaster for the United Irishmen. McCracken hoped to win a major success that would encourage others to rise all over Ulster, definitively opening a second front in the rebellion. Instead, because of his own naivety and inexperience, a sizable force of rebels had been crushed and scattered, and a potentially difficult situation for the government easily dealt with. McCracken’s goal of taking Antrim and the surrounding villages was not a bad one, but he failed to recognise that those units under his command had been badly affected by disarmament campaigns while his inadequate guarding of the roads led directly to the government counter-attack.
If those roads had been guarded, Crumlin taken and the advancing government forces turned back or delayed, the Antrim attack may well have been everything that McCracken hoped it would be. As it was, the Battle of Antrim was merely the beginning of a slew of rebel disappointments in Ulster.
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