His progressive thinking had already led McCracken to confront the establishment in Belfast. In 1788 he and some friends voluntarily organised education classes for the working class of Belfast, who were being denied such education because of their poverty. Interference from the Town Sovereign, Rev William Bristow, compelled them to cease this experiment, but McCracken soon afterwards established a cheap lending library in opposition to the Belfast Reading Society, whose charges were so high that only the rich could afford to borrow books.
When hostilities finally broke out on 24 May, they quickly took on the character of a religious and bloody war in the South. In the North, McCracken managed to rally twenty-five Antrim regiments numbering some twelve thousand men, with as many again from Down, supported by contingents from Tyrone and Armagh. He addressed his men in confident tone: “Army of Ulster, tomorrow we march on Antrim; drive the garrison of Randalstown before you and haste to form a junction with your Commander-in-Chief.”
McCracken’s confidence was misplaced. The Ulster Presbyterians were dismayed by the lukewarm support from the Northern Catholics, and then horrified by the stories of atrocity and massacre of Protestants at Scullabogue on 5 June. Nevertheless, on 7 June, the United Army of Ulster took Larne and Antrim, but was soon defeated and Henry Joy captured. On 9 June the ‘Hearts of Down’ won the Saintfield skirmish and proceeded to Ballynahinch, where on 13 June they were decisively defeated and their leader Henry Munro captured and hanged.
On 26th June 1798, my ancestor Archibel Wilson of Conlig was hanged, aged only 26 years, at the Far Rocks above my home village of Conlig for his part in the Rebellion. He died protesting his innocence and indeed it was a family tradition that his sister was the real leader of the Hearts of Down in the area.The gallows tree with chain was still there when I was a boy. The rebels certainly were very active in Conlig and letters from the village at the time are kept in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. I used to visit Archibel’s grave in Bangor Abbey Graveyard regularly on my way home from Bangor Grammar School to Conlig. It is recorded in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology that he was hanged off Bangor Pier but Granny Kerr nee Sloan said otherwise. Some years ago I was sent a copy of his Court-martial in Newtownards confirming Granny’s opinion rather than the academics, so I have retained a healthy scepticism of academics ever since.
On 17 July the noble Henry Joy was executed in Belfast. His devoted sister Mary Ann wrote lovingly of his last moments:
I took his arm and we walked together to the place of execution, where I was told it was the General’s orders that I should leave him, which I peremptorily refused. Harry begged I would go. Clasping my hands around him, (I did not weep till then) I said I could bear anything but leaving him. Three times he kissed me and entreated I would go; and, looking round to recognise some friend to put me in charge of he beckoned to a Mr Boyd, and said ‘He will take charge of you.’… and fearing any further refusal would disturb the last moments of my dearest brother, I suffered myself to be led away.
As Packenham commented, McCracken was “a gentle, idealistic man, and determined that the rising in the North, at any rate, would not be disgraced by a counter-terror in the name of liberty. And to this principle he remained true in all the horrors of the succeeding week. In contrast to the wild scenes in the South, the northern United men acted with notable restraint [during] the short-lived Republic of Ulster.”
Thus did the rebellion in Ulster collapse.
To be continued