The Ulster Land War of 1770




In many parishes advertisements like the following were published obtaining a wide subscription. Many signed to cover themselves, many through intimidation and pressure, for, as in the present instance, numbers of the signers were hand and glove with the hearts of steel. This Ballynure advertisement was mere sham. The sons of many of the signers were “out,” and well known to be by the others, or most of them. If they had not signed they would have been “out” too, such was the power of the land grabber.

“Whereas several outrages of a very wicked and pernicious nature have been lately committed in many parts of this county such as houghing and killing cattle, robbing, firing into, and burning houses, stacks of hay and corn, and writing and dropping incendiary letters, full of horrid oaths and imprecations.

We, the inhabitants of the parish of Ballynure, whose names are hereunto subscribed, in order to show our utter dislike and abhorrence of these and all such detestable proceedings, and to prevent (as far as we can) the spreading of that evil spirit which hath influenced some persons to such hateful wickedness (as we are happy to think it hath not as yet prevailed among us), and to preserve peace, order and a due obedience to the laws of our country, do agree, engage, and pledge our faith to each other, and the public, that we will use our best endeavour to prosecute to con- viction every person or persons who shall be guilty of such wicked and diabolical crimes, so destructive of the peace and welfare of society, and inconsistent with all order and good government.

And the more effectually to carry these our good intentions into execution, we will each of us be very attentive to, and strictly watchful over, our respective families, and not entertain persons therein but those whose behaviour we know to be regular and good; and, further, that whenever the magistrates shall see it necessary, we will keep a regular stout nightly watch, in the several townlands in which we respectively live, where we will, in our turn, attend in person, or send a man who may be depended upon, and that we will, to the utmost of our power, each of us not only defend our own properties separately, but instantly, on the least alarm or appearance of danger, join with and assist each other, and repel force by force, in case the same shall become necessary, in defence of each other.

Dated at Ballynure this 14 September, 1771.”
Signed with 165 names. (See Appendix).

Advertisements like the following were but too common. They tell of deep personal animosity. The looping up of the victim’s name, “Samuel Douglas ” with “Alex Holmes of Belfast, shopkeeper” is ominous of land trouble. Rainey used his dirk, proving he harked back to his Scottish ancestry, and a Douglas came to grief. This was another incident of the war, the only details of the skirmish being this legal document. We have no evidence from the Rainey side. We feel sure he had some reason for his action.

“Whereas on Tuesday, the 24th December, 1771, on the public road leading from Ballyclare to Doagh, in the county of Antrim, about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Robert Rainey, in company with his father, James Rainey. both of the parish of Donegor, in said county, did barbarously wound and murder Samuel Douglas and Edward Hunter, both of the parish of Templepatrick, in said county, by stabbing them in different parts of the neck and body with a dirk or dagger. “It is requested that all persons will endeavour to apprehend said Robert Rainey in order that he may be brought to justice for this most atrocious crime.

He is 5 feet 9 inches high, about 35 years of age. slender made, long visaged, has dark pale hair, tied behind; had on, when he went off, a blue coat and red waistcoat. Whoever apprehends said Rainey, and lodges him in any of his majesty’s gaols in this kingdom, shall receive 10 guineas reward, tc be paid by John Douglas, of Ballyhartfield, or by Alexander Holmes, of Belfast, shopkeeper. Given under my hand at Belfast, 26 December, 1771.


N.B. It is supposed said Rainey fled either to the county of Tyrone or Derry. It is requested that all masters of ships will be cautious of harbouring such a villain.”

Matters came to a head with a farmer named David Douglas, who was the reputed leader of the resistance in Templepatrick. On Friday, 2ist December, 1770, Douglas was arrested in Belfast by Waddell Cunningham, and lodged in the military barracks. The charge against him was houghing cattle belonging to Thomas Greg, of Belfast, who, with Waddell Cunningham, was a particular object of dislike on account of the lands they had taken over the tenants’ heads. The steel boys determLied to rescue Douglas. On Sunday, the 23rd, a band of them marched to Templepatrick meeting-house while service was being held, and summoned their comrades to join them. It is said they rapped the butts of their rifles against the door, calling the men to come out, as that was no place for men at such a time, but might do for the women. They then marched to Belfast, gathering reinforcements as they went. They met at a house on the shore road, called the Stag’s Head, at Skegoneill, where their number amounted to about 1,200 men, chiefly from Templepatrick, Doagh, Ballyclare, and Carnmoney. Here they were formed into regular order by an old soldier called Nathaniel Mathews. They were led by Gordy Crawford on horseback who carried before him several iron crow-bars rolled in hay ropes for the purpose of breaking open doors and gates. On news of their advance, Stewart Banks, the sovereign, and many other men, fled to the military barracks for protection The hearts of steel, armed with guns, pistols, swords, scythes, pitchforks, etc., at once surrounded the barracks, and demanded Douglas’s release. This was refused. The hearts of steel then proceeded to the house of Waddell Cunningham, which stood on the site of the present Provincial Bank, in Royal Avenue, Belfast, broke in the door, and began to wreck the furniture. Dr. Halliday approached the raiders, and exhorted them to desist. They promised to do so if he would procure the release of Douglas. With this intention dr. Halliday set out for the military barracks, but when the soldiers saw the crowd again approaching, they fired, killing several and wounding more, amongst the killed being William Russell, Carnmoney; Andrew Cristy, Donegore; and J. Sloan, Falls. The renewed violence of the raiders convinced Stewart Banks, the sovereign, that the most expedient course was to release the prisoner, for, during the long parley, the hearts of steel had become impatient. They set fire to Waddell Cunningham’s house, and fired shots into Thomas Gregg’s. This destruction, and the fear lest the entire town should be burned as the whole place was in an uproar, had the desired effect. At one o’clock in the morning the barrack gates were thrown open, and Douglas was restored to his fiiends, who marched him back in triumph “between Cave Hill and the sea,” to Templepatrick.

THE following account, mildly written, is taken from Benn’s History of Belfast (p. III):

“1771.– Belfast became, this year, the scene of an extraordinary riot, the immediate cause of which produced in the end effects extremely injurious to the interests of the north of Ireland. An estate in the county of Antrim, a part of the vast possessions of the marquis of Donegall (an absentee), was proposed, when its leases had expired, to be let only to those who could pay large fines; and the agent of the marquis was said to have exacted extravagant fees on his own account also. Numbers of the former tenants, neither able to pay the fines, nor the rents demanded by those who, on payment of fines and fees, took leases over them, were dispossessed of their tenements, and left without means of subsistence. Rendered thus desperate, they maimed the cattle of those who had taken the lands, committed other outrages, and to express a firmness of resolution, styled themselves hearts of steel. One of their number, charged with felony, was apprehended and confined in Belfast, in order to be transmitted to the county gaol. Provided with offensive weapons, several thousands of peasants proceeded to the town to rescue the prisoner, who was removed to the barrack and placed under a guard of soldiers. Shortly after the steel boys arrived, and pressed forward to the barrack, and several shots were actually exchanged between them and the soldiers. The consequence, in all probability, would have been fatal to many on both sides, and to the town, had not a physician of highly respectable character and leading influence interposed, at the risk of his life, and prevailed with those concerned to set the prisoner at liberty. Being delivered up to his associates, they marched off in triumph. One house only experienced the effects of their resentment. The effects of this insurrection, which extended into the neighbouring counties, proved highly prejudicial to the country. So great and wide was the discontent that many thousands of protestants emigrated from those parts of Ulster to America, where they soon appeared in arms against the British govern- ment, and contributed powerfully, by their zeal and valour, to the separation of the American colonies from the crown of Great Britain.”

A few days later the lord lieutenant issued a proclamation offering a reward for the apprehension of some of the rescuers.

It admits fully and in detail the whole affair. The men of Templepatrick distinctly scored on this occasion. They were largely tenants of the Upton’s, although it has been frequently stated that the Templepatrick rent exacter did not follow in Donegall’s footsteps.

By the Lord Lieutenant and Council of Ireland.


Whereas we have received information upon oath that on the evening of the twenty-third of December last, several hundreds of people who have distinguished themelves by the name of hearts of steel, most of whom were armed with firelocks, did, in a riotous and tumultuous manner march into the town of Belfast, in the county of Antrim, in order to rescue David Douglas of said county, farmer, who had been some time before committed to gaol, being charged with having been concerned and aiding and assisting in wilfully houghing and maiming sundry cattle, the property of Thomas Gregg, of Belfast, merchant, and that they repaired to Stewart Banks, sovereign of said town, and demanded of him to deliver up the said David Douglas, then in his custody, and threatening if he did not do so they would set fire to and burn the said town of Belfast; and upon his refusal to deliver up the said Douglas they thereupon broke into the dwelling house of Waddell Cunningham of said town of Belfast, merchant, and set the same on fire, and pulled down and destroyed part of the furniture in said dwelling house; whereupon the said sovereign, to prevent the destruction of the whole town, was obliged to deliver up the said David Douglas, and to discharge him out of his custody.

And whereas we have also received information upon oath that Nathaniel Mathews, of Cogry, and James Gillespie, of Carnmoney, in said county, farmers, were the persons who were the most active among said people who call themselves hearts of steel, and had the greatest authority over them; and that James Barber, of Doagh, Paul Douglas and John Douglas the younger, both of Ballymartin, Hugh Love and Stafford Love, both of Ballyclare, Samuel Douglas, of Ballyheartfield, John Patton, of Ballynaloddy, Thomas Dickey, of Templepatrick, John Richey, of Parkgate, and Andrew Shaw of Carnmoney, all of the county of Antrim aforesaid, were of the number of said persons called hearts of steel, who, on the twenty-third of December aforesaid, entered said town of Belfast, and were present aiding and assisting in the rescue of the said David Douglas.

And whereas we have also received information upon oath that Hugh Wilson, of Ballyclare in said county, farmer, with several other evil-minded persons, did, by threats and menaces, compel several persons to subscribe sums of money for the persons who distinguish themselves by the name hearts of steel; and that Robert Cunningham, of Ballyclare aforesaid, did deliver to William Forsythe, of Ballyclare aforesaid, a written order, all of the handwriting of said Robert Cunningham, but signed and subscribed captain Firebrand, commanding said William Forsyth and William Park, merchants, in Ballynure in the county aforesaid, to raise money on the inhabitants of the townland of Ballynure aforesaid, of the persons called hearts of steel, and to set down the names of those who subscribed the same.

Now we, the lord lieutenant and council of Ireland, having a just abhorrence of such atrocious crimes, and being determined, as far as in us lies, to bring the said offenders to speedy and condign punishment, do, by this our proclamation, hereby publish and declare that if any person or persons shall, on or before the 25th day of July, apprehend and lodge in any of his majesty’s gaols in this kingdom the said Nathaniel Mathews, James Gillespie, James Barber, Paul Douglas, John Douglas the younger, Hugh Love, Stafford Love, Samuel Douglas, John Paton, Thomas Dickey, John Richey, Andrew Shaw, Hugh Wilson, and Robert Cunningham, or any or either of them; such person or persons so taking or apprehending them, any, or either of them, shall, upon conviction, receive as a reward the sum of 50 sterling for each and every of the said offenders who shall be so taken and apprehended as aforesaid.

And we do hereby strictly charge and command all justices of the peace, mayors, sheriffs, bailiffs, and all other his majesty’s liege subjects to be aiding and assisting in apprehending the said offenders and every of them.

Given at the council chamber in Dublin, the 25th day of January, 1771.”

Lifford, C. Tyrone. Branden. J. Beresford
A. Foster. George Macartney. Fras. Andrews.
Mar. Patersoii.
Nath. Clements.

To this proclamation a sturdy Templepatrick man, named Thomas Dickie, surrendered himself, issuing a proclamation of his innocence. He was duly tried and acquitted, with great enthusiasm, in a crowded coart. His was a brave defiance, after being named an “evil minded person” in a vice-regal proclamation in the year of grace 1771.

“ADVERTISEMENT. That I, Thomas Dickie, of the parish of Templepatrick and county of Antrim, understand that I have been charged with setting fire to the house of Waddell Cunningham, merchant, in Belfast, on the night of the 23rd day of December last; and being conscious of my innocence, have surrendered myself to the mayor of Carrickfergus, and gaoler of said county, in order to take my trial for the same, at the next general assizes and general gaol delivery to be held in and for said county, whereof all prosecutors, and others concerned, are to take notice.”

Given under my hand, in the gaol of said county, this 19th day of August, 1771.

“I hereby acknowledge to have the above named Thomas Dickie in safe custody within said gaol.
Dated August 19th, 1771.”
“GEO . WEIR, gaoler.”

At the same time that Dickie had surrendered there were other actions being taken, quite raising the anger of Upton, who did his utmost to produce informers on his estate. He only raised more trouble.

“Whereas a most impudent, wicked and incendiary paper was, on the 8th of August, sent to Robert Humphrey, constable, with an intent to raise fresh disturbances in this parish, and to destroy that peace, harmony, and good conduct which has so remarkably distinguished my tenants ever since the month of December last. I do hereby, in order to bring such malicious and atrocious offenders to the severest punishment that the law can inflict, promise a reward of fifty pounds and 300 acres of land in the province of New York, rent free for ever, to any person or persons who shall, within six months from the date hereof, discover and prosecute to conviction the author or authors of such an infamous and audacious paper.
Castle-Upton, the 10th of August, 1771.

“N.B.–The money (on conviction) will immediately be paid by Henry Langford Burleigh, in such manner as shall be most agreeable to the discoverer of the authors of the paper.”

This was not a bad bid for an Upton 50 and 300 acres of land in New York. The life of such an informer would not have been too comfortable in Templepatrick, and it is questionable if New York would have been safer. The “peace, harmony and good conduct of my tenants” had not been of long continuance from December till August. They must have been seething with discontent. According to the advertisement already quoted, well nigh one hundred farms had been “cleared” and were “to let “by “C. Upton.”

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