The Ulster Land War of 1770


The troops of the famous felons

* * * * *

Over whose lives there dangled
Ever the shame of the rope.
Stephen Gwynn.

The judges on assize were kept fully occupied with the trial of prisoners in all the northern counties at this time. (See appendix IV.). The following are a few of the trials at Downpatrick, in May, 1772:–

“On Friday, the ist of May, 1772, the assizes ended at Downpatrick, and, among others, the following persons were convicted:–
Samuel Jameson (a heart of steel); found guilty of destroying the house of John Curragh. He was sentenced to be hanged on the 2nd of May, and he was executed accordingly.
Henry Henderson (a heart of steel) was found guilty of administering an oath to Joseph Usher. He was sentenced to be imprisoned one year, fined 20 marks, and give security of good behaviour for five years.
George Clealand, James Sawey, and Patrick Sawey (hearts of steel) were found guilty of a riot, and were sen- tenced to six months’ imprisonment, fined 10 marks, and to give security for 3 years.
Thomas Clingan (a heart of steel) was found guilty of feloniously taking from the person of Andrew Rowan a gun value £1, the goods of said Andrew. He was sentenced to be hanged on Saturday, the 16th of May.”

There is a paragraph in the News Letter, of 19th May, 1772, as to the carrying out of the sentence on Clingan. Here it is: “On Saturday last Thomas Clingan was executed at Downpatrick pursuant to his sentence. When he had hung for 28 or 30 minutes (still showing signs of life), the sheriff and some gentlemen of the 53rd regiment perceived that it was impossible he could be so long dying if some extraordinary act had not been made use of. Upon examination, they found that he had a steel collar about his neck, which had straps to it that buckled between his legs. During the time the collar was being taken off from about his neck he recovered so well as to be able to walk up the ladder again. The execution was conducted with the greatest good order.” This is only to be expected in the presence of the sheriff and so many “gentlemen of the 53rd regiment.”

At the same assizes there were twenty-one hearts of steel in custody. The court ordered these men to be transmitted to Dublin. Bills of indictment had previously been found against them, and several more who were not in custody.

The following are a few of the indictments and charges taken from the Antrim spring assize book of 1772. They show the general nature of charges brought against the people, and the condition of the county at that period:

James Maconaghy, guilty.
Alexr. Maconaghy, guilty.
Wm. Moore, not guilty.
Thomas Ward, guilty.
Thomas Stuart,
Alexr. Maconaghy and others.

“Indictment for that they, with other malefactors and disturbers of the peace, on the night of I5th November, 1772, at Swery, did feloniously and go by night, and wilfully injure the property of James Leslie, by killing two cows and two bullocks value £12 10s., belonging to said James Leslie; and by maiming two other cows and two other bullocks value £12 10s., belonging to said James.

To be hanged at Carrickfergus, on Saturday, the 16th day of May next.”

These were the trophies of James Leslie of Ballymoney, already referred to.


“Joseph Belchey or Bradshaw.
Henry Copland and others.
Indicted for administering an unlawful oath to the right
hon. William, earl of Hillsborough.”


“John Campbell.
John Abernethy of Ballymena
Hugh Abernethy of Ballymena

Indicted for that he did insult, menace, and threaten John White, a justice of the peace, in the execution of his duty.”
“Not guilty.”


“Mathew Coleman.
John Russell.
John Campbell.
Indicted. On 2Qth February, 1773, at Templepatrick, did riotously assemble and go by night and wilfully and unlawfully injure the property of William Bell, by pulling down the thatch and destroying the timber of two houses.”


“William MacMaster, custody; bailed £10.
Nath. Marshall, custody; £bailed 10.
Alex. Caulfield, custody.
And. Dunn, custody.
Jas. Wright, out.
Alex. Clarke, out.
Wm. MacWilliam, out.

Indicted for that they, on the 1st of April, 1772, at
Duneany [Carnmoney] administered an oath to John MacCrea that he would be secret and never would inform against
the hearts of steel.”


John Dickie.

“Indicted for that he, with many others, 23rd of December
(1771), at Belfast, did meet and go by night, and did
wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously destroy and injure the
property of Waddell Cunningham by wilfully, maliciously,
and feloniously setting fire to the dwelling house of said
Waddell Cunningham against the statute.”
“Charged also with taking a gun in the house of John Adair.”
Not guilty.

Before Chief Baron Foster and Baron Scott.
John Blair, not guilty.
John Blair, the younger, not guilty.
William Harper of Kells, Guilty.
John Macllwaine of Rickamore, Guilty.
To be hanged at Carrickfergus, Saturday, 19th of September instant.
“At trial which had been put off. Indicted that they, on the 11th December, 1772, at Ladyhill, took 4 bullocks price £4, the goods of John Gregg.”

The lives taken to keep John Gregg’s goods intact and the suffering occasioned by his greed were enormous.

“On Saturday, 9th May, 1772, James MacNeilly, John Clark, John Campbell, George MacKewan, and Philip MacManus were executed at Gallowsgreen, near Carrickfergus, pursuant to their sentence at last assizes for the county of Antrim. A great concourse of people assembled on the unhappy occasion, but no accident or disturbance happened. Reprieves, till further orders, are come for Alexander MacAuley and John Watson, who were sentenced to suffer next Saturday (16th May, 1772). There remain for execution on that day Hugh Macllpatrick, Thomas Ward, Thomas Stewart, and John Black.”

“12th May, 1772. The last four were duly executed according to MacSkimin. MacNeilly was charged with burning a dwelling-house of Marriot Dalway in the middle division of Carrickfergus. He solemnly protested his innocence. The value of this house was afterwards laid on the county, the catholics, according to the Carrickfergus records, being exempt, ‘not being implicated in these depradations.’ On the 19th September following John Blair, a leader of the hearts of steel, also suffered.”

The results of the trials, and the impossibility of getting jurors to convict in many cases, emboldened the hearts of steel and further frightened the authorities.

A contemporary writer, before quoted, says in some letters:

Belfast, 30th September, 1771.
“. . . On Saturday night last two cows on Robert Wallace’s lands in Ballymurphy, Falls, were killed, three wounded, and two young horses cropped, his property, and on the same night two of John Greg’s cows were killed, probably by the same persons; most horrid practices. When or how they will end God knows, but it is hoped that the wisdom of parliament will contrive some laws, and that the magistrates will have them effectually executed to operate in such a manner as will remedy those evils so destructive to a hitherto peaceable community.”

And again on 22nd October:
” . . . . I am sorry I can yet say that the country is not yet safe, for there are frequent burnings of hay, corn, and other property. . . . The country is not yet restored to its former tranquility, nor does it appear to be at hand, but I hope much from the wisdom of parliament after the recess.”

29th February, 1772.
“. . . . The riotous disposition of this country still continues, and seems rather to increase than diminish. The chief disorders now prevail in various parts of the county of Down, some places in the county of Armagh, particularly near Lurgan and Lisburn, in lord Hertford’ estate, in mr. O’Neill’s, lord Antrim’s, and several others from Randalstown to Ballymoney, and round by Ballycastle to Ballymena in this county, so that unless parliament frame some wise laws, and that those laws are spiritedly put into execution, it is hard to say what may be the end of this horrid work. Indeed, there is one thing very certain, that a considerable portion of the manufacturing inhabitants will be totally reduced to a state of beggary by means of long idleness, dissipation, and extravagance, the bad effects of which must be severely felt by all degrees of people in the north, especially where the disturbances most prevail.”

6th March, 1772.
“. . . . Within the last week there are frequent advices from the country of injuries committed, particularly about thirty pounds’ worth of oats (the property of David Henderson) burned on the farm opposite to Alex. Legg’s house in Malone. Also in Ballyearl, a house of William Marshall’s, and in Ballycraigy, a house of a tenant of J. Wallace’s, these last two in the parish of Carnmoney, where, and in most other parts of this country, those wicked deluded wretches called hearts of steel have from time to time robbed the inhabitants of their muskets in order the more effectually to carry on their evil practices. There is advice from government this day that two companies of the 53rd are ordered to this town from Granard, in the county of Longford, and I hear that three regiments of foot and one of light horse will be cantoned in the province of Ulster, which is double of the usual allowance exclusive of the horse. In consequence of sundry reports that some mischief is intended to be done to this town, the sovereign has for some nights past kept a town guard at the market house, from which patrols are sent out, and also from the regulars, that a surprise may not happen in the night. Our assizes are fixed for April, when I hope some examples may be made, though I apprehend little good will arise if the criminals are tried by a jury of this county. However, John O’Neill, the sheriff, is using the best means he can devise to have a jury of the best men in the county.”

This last paragraph clearly means that John O’Neill was doing his best to pack the jury. He would probably succeed in his efforts. Jury packing, like horse racing and hangings, came natural to these sheriffs.

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