Nicholas Delaney was on trial for his life. Along with his friend Edward Neil, he was charged with the murder of Richard Twamley and George Heppenstall. With three other United Irishmen, he was also charged with abducting John Hope and John Brady, two yeomen, who were also killed.
Oddly enough, he was a lucky young man. Lucky because he was still alive, unlike the 23,000 rebels killed fighting or in loyalist reprisals after the battle of Vinegar Hill, the battle of Ballyellis (Nicholas’s home) and the surrender of the United Irishmen.
Lucky, too, because by the time he came to trial, in December 1799, the reprisals had died down a little, and Charles, Marquis Cornwallis, Commander-in-Chief and Viceroy in Ireland, was inclined towards mercy and reconciliation.
And lucky because of the chief witness against him – the infamous Bridget Dolan.
She was the most notorious paid informer in south-east Ireland and her name lives on as a synonym for liar or traitor.
Biddy Dolan grew up in Carnew and had known Nicholas all her life. She had also been a camp follower with the rebel army and was said to have been the mistress of the United Irish General Joseph Holt (who was also transported to Australia). So no chance of mistaken identity. She was out to get Nicholas.
Why? It would have been exciting to unearth a doomed love affair, a woman scorned, something like that. The truth is duller, if more unpleasant. Biddy turned informer, perhaps for the money and clothes her handlers gave her, perhaps to save herself from the virulent revenge of the loyalists. And she informed against a large number of other rebels, the most famous of whom is Billy Byrne of Ballymanus, who was hanged in Wicklow Gaol in September 1799. A statue of Billy stands outside the courthouse in Wicklow to this day. The wooden pike in his outstretched right hand has been periodically (ahem) removed and replaced.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Biddy Dolan, the historians Ruan O’Donnell and Vincent O’Reilly have written about her, and there is a section looking at her life – and death – in A Rebel Hand (pp 57 – 61).
Next time: The murder of Twamley and Heppenstall!