#OTD in 1798 – Death of James Dickey, an Ulster Presbyterian barrister of the Society of the United Irishmen.

Dickey was captured by the Sutherland fencibles on the Divis Mountain where he hid out. He was court-martialled and hanged at Corn Market, Belfast. Famously; before his hanging Dickey refused to wear a black hood saying to the hangman, “Sir, don’t cover my face!” According to local legend he shouted, “Don’t think gentlemen, I am ashamed to show my face among you, I am dying for my country!” He was 22 years old. His head was placed on a spike outside the market house.

The United Irishmen were initially founded as a group of liberal Protestant men interested in promoting Parliamentary reform, and later became a revolutionary movement influenced by the ideas of Thomas Paine and his book ‘The Rights of Man’. In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone published the pamphlet ‘Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland’ where he set out that religious division was being used to balance “the one party by the other, plunder and laugh at the defeat of both.” He put forward the case for unity between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.

This pamphlet was read by a group of prominent Belfast Presbyterians interested in reforming Irish Parliament. They invited Tone and his friend Thomas Russell to Belfast where the group met on 14 October 1791. It was there that the Belfast Society of the United Irishmen was formed.

In May 1798, the United Irishmen instigated a rising against British rule. Beginning in Kildare, it spread to other counties in Leinster before finally reaching Ulster. On 5 June the Antrim Society of United Irishmen met in Templepatrick where they elected textile manufacturer Henry Joy McCracken as their General. The next day McCracken issued a proclamation calling for the United army of Ulster to rise. The initial plan met with success, as the towns of Larne, Ballymena, Portaferry and Randalstown were taken and the bridge at Toome damaged to prevent the government rushing reinforcements into Antrim from west of the Bann. Dickey himself commanded the rebel force that took Randalstown.

Although the plan met initial success and McCracken led the rebels in the attack on Antrim, the Roman Catholic Defenders Group whom McCracken thought would assist were conspicuous by their absence. McCrackens United Irishmen were defeated and his army melted away. On 15 June, Dickey, together with McCracken, James Hope, James Orr and about 50 other rebel survivors from Antrim arrived at Slemish, near Ballymena. There they set up camp for 3 weeks before leaving under threat of attack from Colonel Green of the Tay Fencibles.

Charlotte Schreiber’s The Croppy Boy (1879), relating to the United Irishmen’s Wexford Rebellion. A man, possibly a rebel from his green cravat, kneels before a Catholic priest who is covertly in military uniform. The church hierarchy opposed the rebellion.

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