The Ulster Land War of 1770



The county of Down furnished an episode quite as exciting and disastrous as the Templepatrick one. Richard Johnston, of Gilford, whose fortunes were somewhat shattered, desired to stand well with the government. By a subterfuge he arrested, on the 6th March, 1772, three of the hearts of oak and carried them into his house. Their comrades at once surrounded the house, demanding the release of the prisoners. Johnston replied with a shot from his window, which only exasperated the hearts of oak when they saw one of their number killed and two mortally wounded. They attacked the house with fury, forcing Johnston to an ignominious flight and killing Samuel Morell, a dissenting minister, of Tullylish, near Gilford, who was foolishly and unfortunately assisting Johnston, as a contemporary account puts it, “however unbecoming it was in him to fight with the arm of flesh, especially against his own flock.” Morell was clearly engaged in a most un- worthy and unclerical calling. Johnston posted at once to Dublin and obtained a strong military force from the viceroy to enable him to quell the disturbance which he had largely created. John Byrne, William Redmond, Philip MacCossir, Moses Evans, John Hill, Michael Carr, George Foster, Joseph Davison, and James Fryer were arrested and sent to Dublin to be tried. They were received there by a troop of lord Drogheda’s light horse and a company of the 5th regiment of foot, with trumpets and drums, as if they were prisoners of war, and not, even so far as “the law” was concerned, innocent men going to their trial. A benefit was given by the Dublin people at Ranelagh in aid of the prisoners with considerable popularity and ardour. The court sat for several days. The crown stated that Johnston had received many threatening letters, and that he had banded about fifty persons, his friends, tenants and servants, and had them trained by an ex-sergeant, Alexander Adamson, to military duty, and that Samuel Morell was amongst them. This, of course, was grossly illegal, but nothing was said of that. On the 5th March Morell informed Johnston that the hearts of oak had a meeting of delegates at the house of one, Tedderton, in the townland of Clare. Johnston, Morell, one Logan, and ex-sergeant Adamson armed themselves and rushed Clare, capturing four of the delegates. Johnston and Logan returned in triumph with two, Morell and the ex- sergeant with the other two, one of whom, Finlay, escaped, and roused the whole band to come to the rescue. About two thousand people assembled at once and surrounded Johnston’s house. This proves conclusively how popular the movement was. Johnston’s trained force had deserted or was absent, as he could only muster twenty-three, including the ill- fated Samuel Morell, all fully armed however, with ten rounds of powder and ball. They were placed at the different windows. Johnston fired and ordered his guard of twenty-three to fire, which they freely did until their ammunition was done. The engagement lasted half an hour, when the battle of Gilford was ended by Johnston offeiing to surrender, sending out his steward with a white flag. Morell was shot in the arm and breast when he ran upstairs and jumped out “of a two pair of stairs window,” receiving other shots till he died. Johnston escaped over a wall, waded through a mill race, then cut across a field, swimming the river Bann with the bullets flying around. He was then so exhausted that it took the help of a girl called Davison to assist him out of the river and into a cabin near at hand. After recovering his breath he mounted a horse without a saddle and never paused till he found shelter in Newry, about 15 miles distant.

William Redmond was accused of being the leader of the people. Phillip MacCossir was charged with blowing the horn that called on the forces, and also with carrying fire in a pitcher to burn out Johnston. James Fryer was also charged with blowing a horn and of having slept over Morell’s dead body. John Hill was charged with having said he would quarter Johnston and place a quarter on each corner of his house. The others were charged with being armed at the attack. It was proved by the crown that Morell had repeatedly charged his gun and fired on the people and “that he crept on his hands and knees still holding his gun into the hall. “After the flight of Johnston the people entered his house and pillaged the whole place, but did not kill or injure any of his people but let them go free. Johnston admitted, on examination, that the men he arrested were “very honest, peaceable men,” that he did not arrest them on sworn informations, and that upon trial they were discharged. John Stewart swore that he was ordered to go and surrender his lease to his landlord, when he met the insurgents. Willy Redmond commanded the Portadown party he gave orders to put out the fire of Johnston’s house. All the crown witnesses distinctly shied at giving any definite proof of the guilt of any of the prisoners they were unwilling or unable to bring home any real charge. The prisoners’ witnesses were “not kept sumptuously as the crown witnesses were, but strolled about and sat on the steps of the Dublin Four Courts.” The Dublin protestant jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Subsequently Jeremiah Reilly and James Murphy were tried for treason and murder at Gilford. Judith Crozier was the principal witness against them. She saw Johnston’s furniture and goods destroyed. Johnston imagined he saw Reilly in the attack, for which statement he was checked by the judge. He admitted that Morell had sworn informations before him against MacByrn, and swore that Reilly was impertinent to him on one occasion, but that he never heard anything against the character of Reilly. Ann Crosby swore she knew Murphy because she met him at a cock-fight a year before in Gilford.

The jury brought in Reilly not guilty, and Murphy guilty of destroying Johnston’s furniture, for which he was transported.

This was satisfactory for Willy Redmond, the daring Portadown leader, so far, but fresh trouble awaited him.

The News Letter of 15th September, 1772, reports:

“Dublin, 12th September, 1772. Last Saturday William Redmond set out from Kilmainham gaol escorted by a detachment of dragoons, for Armagh, to take his trial at the ensuing assizes for that county on a fresh indictment.”

And in a subsequent issue (29th September), the N. L. publishes a letter from Armagh, dated 16th September, which says:–

“Yesterday came on the trial of William Redmond (who was transmitted from Dublin to take his trial here). It lasted upwards of five hours, when the verdict was brought in not guilty. The county thought to have transported him, but the judges would not admit of it, and had him entirely cleared.”

Willy Redmond had now been twice tried and twice acquitted. He had been sent away from his own county to be tried by a packed Dublin jury, and had been set free, he had been returned to Armagh, and again tried and set free. What the law failed to do Johnston carried out himself regardless of “law and order.” It appears to us that he murdered Willy Redmond in cold blood; he forced his way into his house, when Redmond defended himself, as he had a perfect right to do, from such night marauders (Johnston himself had been attacked in open day), when he was shot dead. This “fatiguing expedition” did not prevent Johnston at once riding to Dublin to see the authorities. The following account details the murder of Redmond:–

“We hear that Richard Johnston of Gilford, having received information that William Redmond, charged with being a leader of the hearts of oak, was lurking at a remote place called Monterreven in the county of Tyrone. He, with a party of light horse, set out from Gilford one evening the latter end of last week to apprehend him, and arriving about midnight at the house where he lodged (30 miles from Gilford) and being refused entrance, the door was instantly forced open and Johnston entered with the party at his back, and coming into the apartment where Redmond lay, he started up, and having a charged pistol by his bedside, snapped it at Johnston’s breast, which burnt priming, whereupon one of the military party discharged his pistol and wounded Redmond in the side, of which he is since dead; that Johnston returned to Gilford next morning, and notwith- standing this fatiguing expedition, performed mostly in the course of one night, set out the same day for Dublin.”

Willie Redmond, like his namesake Redmond O’Hanlon, was only taken in his sleep and done to death by treacherous murder.

After the attack on Johnston’s house and before the trial of the hearts of oak, Johnston was presented with a service of plate value for three hundred guineas by the high sheriff, grand jury and that ilk for his behaviour “as a faithful, active and spirited magistrate,” etc. He also received a baronetcy. When he escaped over the garden wall and across the mill race and through the river Bann, with the assistance of the wench Davison, he was plain Richard Johnston. After he made that midnight ride into Tyrone, with his troop of light horse, and murdered poor Willy Redmond sleeping in his cabin at midnight he was sir Richard Johnston, baronet, with “family” plate, crested with the flying spur, on his sideboard, value for three hundred guineas. How appropriate.

Gilford has now no knowledge of the Johnstons nor is their name extant.

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