The Ballad of Rody McCorley
During a recent trip to the Irish Republic, I was having dinner in a small pub in the village of Clonbur, County Galway, when I heard a song by Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. While introducing the song on a live performance CD, Makem states: “One of the great young heroes of Irish history was a young man who’s name would have remained oblivious had it not been for a song that kept his name alive.” They then played Rody McCorley, a story of a young folk hero of the 1798 Irish Rebellion against British oppression. As I was familiar with the song, I found the introduction was interesting because recorded history would hardly brand McCorley a folk hero!
An unknown author wrote the original Rody McCorley a few years after the 1798 uprising, although its verse and structure are largely unknown today. In 1898, to mark the centenary of the rebellion, a woman called Ethna Carbery wrote the version that’s become popular in modern culture. It was part of a collection of poems called ‘The Four Winds of Erin,’ and was published in 1904, two years after her death. According to Carbery’s song, Rody McCorley was one of the leaders at the Battle of Antrim, a significant battle, which took place in the north of Ireland on June 7, 1798. He is described as fearless and ferocious in battle, defeating numerous foes as he leads his men into the fray.
In my experience, when discussing the troubles in Ireland with Americans, in particular, the troubles in the North, opinions have been framed to suggest it was always a conflict of religion, Catholic against Protestant. That’s how the conflict developed since the early 1900’s, prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Once the British Government was committed to Europe in 1914, an opportunity was seized and the ill-fated 1916 Easter Uprising separated religion, making it a Catholic struggle for Irish independence.
But it wasn’t always that way! In fact, prior to the potato famine of 1845, Irish people of all religions had issues with the British government over the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881, which was passed by Parliament in an effort to buy land from farmers and freeholders. It could be considered, in modern day politics, as zoning for political dominance. The land was purchased and leased back to farmers. Legal disputes over customary rights and exorbitant rents actually worsened landlord-tenant relations. In the late 1870s when depression struck, evictions for non-payment of rent mounted, tenants had no protection, and in reply ‘outrages’ and the campaign by the Land League, led by Michael Davitt, became known as the ‘Land War’. The government had to pass a Coercion Act in 1881 because of the increase in violence in Ireland.
So how does an unknown personality become the topic of a revolutionary song that carries a name into history? There is no documentary evidence to back up the description of his great heroics in the song, and most detailed histories of the battle of Antrim make no reference to McCorley as a leader or even prove that he took part at all.
Rody McCorley was the son of a miller, born near Toome in the parish of Duneane, County Antrim. His birthdate is unknown. Some accounts of his life suggest that prior to the 1798 rebellion McCorley’s father was executed for sheep rustling. Rody McCorley was a Protestant Presbyterian, believed to be a member of the Protestant “Society of United Irishmen.” Some references have suggested, though Protestant, he was a member or the predominantly Catholic Defenders, a Roman Catholic agrarian secret society founded in County Armagh in the 18th-century.
Ethna Carbery’s version of events suggests that after leading the rebels in the battle of Antrim, McCorley was captured and hanged from Toome Bridge. There is no doubt that McCorley was a real historical figure because his execution, which took place on Friday, February 28, 1800, was covered in the Belfast Newsletter. However, actual charges are sketchy, with no reference to the 1798 uprising, or the battle for Antrim. There are also references to whether the trial was staged to remove a local agitator at a time of great political unrest. After his execution, it is said that his body was dismembered and buried from the gallows along the main Antrim to Derry road, a lot of trouble for a common criminal.
Some of the questions this song raises are: Was this just a case of hanging a local troublemaker, a nobody pulled into Irish folk-law through propaganda, in the need to create a local hero to help promote the struggle against British tyranny? Or, was this, in fact, a government cover-up in the attempt to quash a martyr in order to quell a rebellion? Why such a public hanging off the Toome bridge for nothing more than a local activist with no ‘so called’ record of being involved in any violent struggle against the British army? Accounts have stated that his body was hung from scaffolding over the river Bann so that it could be seen from both banks. There are also references that he wasn’t dropped in order to snap his neck for a quick death, but eased out over the river to struggle and choke slowly.
It was British policy at the time that martyrs would be publicly hung in a strategy to deter others. But why such a dramatic hanging, and then make no documentary record of the execution, or, any form of official public announcement over a rebel leader being caught and hung?
From the other perspective, this history is dependent upon given testimony from those who wished to create a public hero. As I’ve clearly stated above there is no recorded narration of McCorley being involved in the battle of Antrim. The dramatic hanging over Toome Bridge is based upon local affidavits. There are no detailed records of the execution other than the Belfast Newsletter account, which I’m sure, would have dramatized any melodramatic execution, dismemberment, and subsequent secret burial along a road.
In addition to the official account of the execution that appeared in the Belfast Newsletter; an unsubstantiated letter seemingly appeared in the same publication two days later, Sunday, March 2, 1800. A transcript of this unproven letter states the following:
“Upon Friday last, a most awful procession took place here, namely the execution of Roger McCorley who was lately convicted at a court-martial, to the place of execution, Toome Bridge, the unfortunate man having been born in that neighborhood.
As a warning to others, it is proper to observe that the whole of his life was devoted to disorderly proceedings of every kind, for many years past, scarcely a quarter sessions occurred but what the name of Roger McCorley appeared in a variety of criminal cases. His body was given up to dissection and afterwards buried under the gallows…thus of late we have got rid of six of those nefarious wretches who have kept this neighborhood in the greatest misery for some time past, namely, Stewart, Dunn, Ryan, McCorley, Caskey and the notorious Dr. Linn. The noted Archer will soon be in our Guardroom.”
The letter is what it is, uncorroborated, and therefore no real evidence. If there is any truth to the letter, one has to remember, it was almost certainly written by a loyalist, who would have been opposed to the rebellion, and prejudiced against this Protestant group of troublemakers. It is also the case that while loyalists may have condemned the outlaws, many nationalists who saw them as opponents of the Crown and British rule would have accepted them.
The likelihood is that the accounts of his exploits were passed down through oral tradition. While it is possible he was just a local troublemaker hung, for a multitude of transgressions, the reports of him as a leader, and freedom fighter, have become exaggerated to meet a political need and the want of an inspirational hero.
~ Steve McConnell
The Rody McCorley Memorial, Toome Bridge, County Antrim, Northern Ireland: © 2016 Stephen D. McConnell
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