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16 October 2014
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Most people throughout Northern Ireland will have heard something about the 1798 Rebellion and the ‘Battle of Ballynahinch’. But while I grew up in the town, the details were sketchy to say the least. Local historian, Horace Reid reminded me of some of the facts…

title image of Betsy Gray

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The Battle of Ballynahinch

The battle fought in this town was largely a battle of the Presbyterians against the Crown forces. Among the rebels, there was also a small Catholic contingent and a few Anglicans, namely their general, Henry Monroe from Lisburn. While they fought against a royal army, this royal army was mostly composed of auxiliaries who had been recruited in Ireland itself. These included the Monaghan Militia and many yeomen recruited from Orange lodges in the surrounding townlands and towns like Clough, Inch, and Downpatrick. So it seems the battle in Ballynahinch was a civil war in many ways, where Protestant fought against Protestant.

Looking back 200 years, this is probably hard for a modern audience to understand. Horace explains that during this time, the penal laws not only affected the Catholic population, but also their Presbyterian neighbours. While Presbyterians were well educated and generated a lot of the wealth in County Down, they were effectively excluded from the political system. Indeed they suffered varying degrees of political and religious discrimination including the fact that Presbyterian schools had to have special licenses to operate and that many Presbyterian marriages were deemed unlawful and their children illegitimate. Having put up with this kind of persecution, they decided to imitate their close relatives in America who had risen in rebellion to throw off the English crown and had installed the world’s first working democracy. The result was a violent rebellion in County Down and County Antrim in 1798.

Betsy Gray

There are a number of characters remembered from the rebellion, but perhaps the best known of these was 20 year old Betsy Gray. It’s said she came from the Cottown or Granshaw near Newtownards and accompanied her brother George and her fiancé William Boal, members of the United Irishmen, to Ballynahinch on 10th June 1798. While there were a lot of young females associated with the rebels, it seems that most of them were wise enough to return home before the fighting started. But not Betsy Gray. She stayed on and is reputed to have been involved at the frontline of the battle.

After the final defeat, many of the Newtownards contingent fled towards Lisburn, where they ran straight into the swords of the Hillsborough horse yeomen. Betsy, her brother and her fiancé were among those who lost their lives, ruthlessly murdered at Ballycreen by yeomen from Annahilt. Betsy was initially buried at Ballycreen, but it was said that her body was later interred and buried in a little churchyard called Garvachy.

link to Betsy Gray flash presentation
link to audio
link to Lord Moira
link to David Ker and Montalto
link to Spa Wells

painting of 'The Battle of Ballynahinch' by Thomas Robinson


It was 100 years before a memorial was erected to her. This comprised of a headstone and a railing, funded by a man claiming to be a relative of Betsy’s.
It is interesting how politics in Ballynahinch and indeed throughout Ireland had changed in the intervening years. Presbyterians had been relieved of many of their grievances. They had the vote, there were Presbyterian MP’s sitting in parliament and the old system of discrimination had been swept away. The political landscape had changed when Gladstone introduced his first home-rule bill, offering to give independence to Ireland.

This frightened Presbyterians who had the looming prospect of becoming a minority within a Catholic state. In Ballynahinch, this proved to be explosive, because although Betsy was still fondly remembered and respected, the political agenda which she had represented had disappeared. However, it had not disappeared for Belfast Nationalists, and when the memorial was erected, they came up to Ballynahinch to pay their respects to someone they considered an icon for an independent Ireland.


Ballycreen townland and the neighbouring Magheraknock townland were Presbyterian strongholds and were outraged at the arrival of the Belfast Nationalists one Sunday afternoon. Indeed the two sides had to be separated by the Royal Irish Constabulary after a riot eschewed and the Nationalists were chased out of the area.
Proceedings were only ended when the Orangemen took large hammers and destroyed Betsy’s new memorial. This was not out of disrespect to Betsy and they were in no way disowning her. To put it simply, this was just straight competition for her memory. While Orangemen liked to think of her as a nice wee Presbyterian girl from County Down, Nationalists saw her as a heroine with the green flag of Ireland wrapped around her.

photo of Ballycreen townland

Horace pointed out that in 1998, on her bi-centenial, there was no such trouble and today the Ballynahinch Regeneration Committee are trying to promote her image as a positive one, a heroine for all people, bringing Protestant and Catholic together. Indeed her story featured in a mural, displayed in Ballynahinch for a number of years before it was sadly destroyed by a low-flying pigeon. Interest in Betsy has never waned and in fact her memory was being debated in a local newspaper article as recently as October 2004. Her story has been retold in a Flash presentation.

Do you know anything more about the story of Betsy Gray? Can you offer any more details on
her life and death? If so, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the team.


victor johnston - Feb '08
Hi My mothers maiden name was Boal and she came from Newtownards, she had a brother William who has now passed on and also lived in newtownards all his days and was a memeber of the orange order, i would dearley like to know is there a connection with my mums maiden name and the name of betsy grays fiance name. I will watch your comments closley, many thanks.
victor Johnston.

Jean Driver - Mar '07
Interesting reading. My great, great grandfather a presbyterian,Robert Hagan farmed in Drumnaquoile in the early 1800s also his son Robert. Are there any Hagans still out there?

Alex Korwin - Nov '06
I stumbled across your fascinating article during my on-going (though largely fruitless) searches for the origins of the surname Granshaw. The connection was made because of Betsy Gray's origins.

I notice that there are a number of places called granshaw in Ireland, and in the absence of any other leads at present, assume that people with that surname would probably have originated from one of these places. I wonder if Horace Reid can shed any light on this?

I'm sorry that this does not bear strictly on the subject of your article, but would assure you that I found it most interesting, and (bearing in mind that my ancestors may well have been involved in the uprising) particularly evocative.

Thank you.

Mrs. I.G. Patterson-O'Regan - Nov '06
Although the family information is very vague, it is handed down that domething happened in 1798! The furthest ancestor known is Henry Patterson Jnr. b.c.1730 who settled in England in Norfolk, England! We believe his parents came from Ireland: and that his father, was the Henry Patterson snr. found in Griffiths Valuation of Ireland in the parish of Termoneeny, location, Knocknakielt, Londonderry in the barony of Loughinsholin, a province of Ulster! Have already tried to contact the Tower Museum by email, but so far have not as yet received a reply.

Justin Gardener - April '06
Two of my great, great, great grandfathers fought at the battle. They were John Denvir, grand father of the writer and historian of that name, and Brian O'Loughlin. Both came from Lecale.

Joan O'Connor - March '05
Thanks so much Rory. That will give me a place to beging the Ireland search, so kind of you to post this. If you see them, please tell them I'd like to make contact with them. My father and brother were in Ireland in 1996, but at that time, we thought we came from an area farther south, so they were searching in the wrong parish ( which had its records destroyed by fire anyway).

Glenna Morrison - March '05
Beautifully done and a fascinating piece of history. One of my ancestors is Valentine Swail of Loughkeelan, Ballyculter. I have read about a Dr. Valentine Swail who was involved in the Battle and have to believe he is connected to my family, but I haven't been able to prove it ... yet. The article stated "Munro’s second adjutant, Dr. Valentine Swail, was from Ballynahinch. It was he who advised Munro to attack the army during the night, while the Monaghans were busy drinking and plundering the town. Following the battle, Swail hid successfully on the Montalto demesne for several weeks. His family knew where he was concealed, but dared not go near his hiding place, though a faithful old servant, Shulah Durnin, managed to supply him with food and necessities. Eventually Swail obtained the government’s permission to remove himself and his family to America, and local people did not forget Shulah Durnin’s heroic constancy."

Joan O'Connor Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
Great story! I think my forefathers might have come from that town. My great great grandfather came from ireland, but there is little history of him....of his brother daniel O'Connor, there is more. In 1811 Daniel was shipwrecked off Cape Breton Island , Nova Scotia, Canada. he stayed and eventually was granted land and two of his brothers came to join him. We think they came from Ballynahinch because he named his land, ""Drumna Quoile". .....and we know he came from County Down. Can anyone tell us if there are other O'Connors in the area?

Rory O'Neill - March '05
There are still O'Connor's living in Drumnaquoile, close to Castlewellan, Co.Down. Danial, Seamus, Colm, and Liam I know them all quite well so maybe that would help you?




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