Betsy Gray

“Ballad of Betsy Gray” If through Killinchy’s Woods and Dales You searched a summer’s day The fairest maiden to the found
Was bonnie Betsy Gray’ Betsy Gray was killed in battle of Ballynahinch defending her boy friend Willie Boal. It is said that she defended William and her brother by placing her arm in front of a soldiers sword, thus having her hand chopped off, she then had a shot to her head. It is reported Miss Betsy was a fine looking young girl aged 20 , no one was as pretty in the the County of Down
Her house still stands at the “Six Road Ends” , her boy friend William Boal came from “The Cotton”. Both areas just outside Bangor The story of Betsy Gray, a young Presbyterian woman, is so entangled with rumour and tradition that within the legend it is now almost impossible to identify the few facts from the mountain of myth which surrounds her. Nevertheless the heroine who rode onto the battlefield of Ballynahinch, as one of the “Hearts of Down” and was ruthlessly murdered while making her escape, is arguably the best-known figure of the 1798 rising in Co Down.
`The sodgers is cominq rin fast! rin fast! Wi’ guns an’ wi’ baynets! Rin fast! Rin fast! They’re lukinlur guns, an’ they’re lukin’ for pikes, They’ll show ya nae mercy, the blood thirsty tykes!’
Old Song
The events of the period are enshrined in the folk memory. Numerous poems and ballads were written in the aftermath of the rebellion and pictures of Betsy leading the insurgents at Ballynahinch adorned the walls of cottages in her native county. However, it was the publication in 1896, of W G Lyttle’s book “Betsy Gray or the Hearts of Down”, which ensured her immortality. Such was its popularity that the novel occupied a prominent place on the bookshelves of local houses alongside the Bible and the poems of Robert Burns.
Lyttle’s account places Betsy Gray’s birthplace as Gransha, near the Six Road Ends, outside Newtownards, Co Down. The end of the eighteenth century was an eventful period in the history of Ulster. In 1791 the Society of United Irishmen was formed in Peggy Barclay’s tavern in Sugarhouse Entry, Belfast. Composed mainly of Presbyterians, the aims of the Society were initially constitutional – a union of all Irishmen to counter English influence, a radical reform of Parliament and the inclusion in that Parliament of people of all religious persuasions. The Society undoubtedly drew much of its inspiration from the revolutions which had recently taken place in America and France.
However by 1795 Government repression had changed a party of constitutional reformers into a society of determined revolutionaries. The introduction of the Insurrection Act in 1797 provided magistrates with extreme powers of search and arrest. The conduct of the King’s troops, commanded by the heavy handed General Lake, known as the “dragooning of Ulster” caused intense resentment among the local people.
However it was the execution of William Orr at Carrickfergus on 10 October 1797, which proved the fatal catalyst – the Presbyterians had their martyr and open rebellion became inevitable. Throughout the accounts of the 1798 rebellion there are numerous references made to those women who played a pivotal role in the uprising. The most famous of these was the 20 year old Elizabeth or “Betsy” Gray. W.G Lyttle’s account holds that she was raised by a doting father, who did not wish his only daughter to take part in working on a farm, or household chores and so he sent her to a ladies school where she received a formal education. Lyttle described Betsy as –
“..possessed of wondrous beauty, a beauty enriched and enhanced by a warm heart, an ardent temperament and lady-like accomplishments. Her beauty and her goodness formed a theme for every tongue wherever she went, and many a wealthy suitor sought her hand in marriage.” Her father, brother George and lover Willie Boal, were all members of the illegal United Irishmen. Although Betsy was not officially a member of the organisation, she was to play a significant role in events in 1798. In early June, George Gray and Willie Boal were involved in the rescue of Colonel Bryson from Newtownards Jail before moving on to the rising at Ballynahinch to take a stand against the King’s forces commanded by General George Nugent. On the 13th June 1798 it is said that Betsy, mounted on a white horse, dressed in green and brandishing her sword, led the Hearts of Down in a ferocious and, for a time, victorious charge on the King’s forces at Ballynahinch. The Monaghan Militia were repulsed from the town square and down Market Street. However, in the confusion of battle the insurgents mistook the bugle call of the retreating military for the arrival of Government reinforcements and themselves began to retreat. Having lost the initiative, the insurgent retreat rapidly developed into a rout and Betsy, George and Willie Boal fled in the direction of Lisburn. `Along the Lisburn road they fled Pursuing yeomen keeping watch Then Betsy took her gleaming sword And hid it in the farmhouse thatch’ Two members of the Hillsborough Yeomanry said to be Thomas Nelson and James Little from Annahilt captured them at the farm of Samuel Armstrong in Ballycreen. “She ran back a few hundred yards to find her lover dying upon the ground, and her brother struggling. He was about to be struck by a sword from behind when Betsy grabbed the blade in the bare hands to save him. She was set upon by three soldiers; one of them struck her upon the wrist with his sword cutting her hand completely of another (Nelson of Annahilt) put his pistol close to her eyes and sent a bullet crashing through her brain. In the same instant her brother was shot.” It is this version of the story that has been immortalised in traditional folk songs and poems, and the one which is most recounted. It is said the James Little’s wife was seen wearing the earrings of Betsy Gray after the murder and that the Little family suffered as a result of her husband’s hand in Betsy’s murder. One clergy man recalled that other families would not sit in the same pew as the Little’s in church and that the children were stoned as they made they way to school. Yet there exists a slightly different account of the murder which was published in “McComb’s Guide, 1861”, which was about 30 years before Lyttle’s own publication. It tells that Betsy Gray went into battle with her brother and lover determined to share their fate. She was mounted on a pony and bearing a green flag. After the defeat the three fled, and on their retreat they were overtaken by a detachment of the Hillsborough Yeomanry Infantry, within a mile and a half of Ballynahinch. “She was firstcome up with, the young men being at a little distance, seeking a place for her to cross a small river, and could easily have escaped. She refused to surrender; and when they saw her likely to fall into the hands of the yeomen, they rushed to her assistance and endeavoured to prevail on the captors to release her; offering themselves as prisoners in her stead. Their entreaties were in vain. Her brother and her lover were murdered on the spot. She still resisted; and it is said that a man called “Jack Gill”, one of the cavalry, cut her gloved hand off with his sword. She was then shot through the head by Thomas Nelson, of the parish of Annahilt, aided by James Little, of the same place”.
Local tradition recalls that the scene of the murder was the corner of Horner’s Road. The bodies were discovered on the evening of 131! June by yomtg Matthew Armstrong who, with local farmers Orr and Graham buried them, in the little vale of Ballycreen and marked the grave with a log of black oak.
In the nineteenth century a member of the Gray family erected a monument at Ballycreen with the simple inscription – “Elizabeth Gray, George Gray, William Boal, 13th June 1798”. However, on the eve of the centenary of the rebellion the monument was destroyed, ironically by Presbyterians, who objected to the site being exploited by Nationalists. Years later one of the participants to the destruction recalled, “We meant no disrespect to the memory of Betsy Gray, sure wasn’t she one of our own”.
Many historians have attempted to understand and explain the story of Betsy Gray. Some claim that she did not fight at Ballynahinch and that it is more likely that she was a camp follower from Waringsford or part of a large group of women who were posted at the insurgent camp on Ednavady Hill, or she may possibly have been trapped there while delivering supplies.
It is almost impossible at this distance in time from the events of 1798 to separate fact from fiction. Whatever future historical research may reveal, Betsy Gray and the brave hearts of Down have earned a place among the legends that will be forever unchanged.
`Like a shadow glimpsed disappearing around a corner, the ghost of Betsy glides on to succeeding generations’


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