Book sale – special Christmas offer

This offer is now closed –

thank you to everyone who ordered ‘A Rebel Hand’ at the reduced price!


From today until December 24th we’re offering A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798 at the special price of £6.50, or £6.00 for two or more copies (plus P&P).

All the details of postage and packing are here on the order form on our website.

Of course, we’d be glad to sign and/or dedicate copies for anyone who’d like that.

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The day we met the President

The Irish presidential election is in the news these days – it takes place on Thursday, 27 October 2011. There are seven hopefuls in the race, some more controversial than others.

It reminds me of the day, 13 years ago, when we met the current President, Mary McAleese, in Wicklow town.

Wicklow Gaol opening day - Mary McAleese speaking

Wicklow Gaol opening day – Mary McAleese speaking

We were invited to the re-opening of Wicklow Gaol as an interactive visitor centre.  It’s now also famous for its ghosts (a bit of a theme this month, ghosts).

We’d visited the gaol before, when we were researching Nicholas’s story. This is where he spent many bleak months waiting for sentence to be carried out after his trial in December 1799, and many more months after Lord Cornwallis commuted it to transportation on January 17, 1801.

While we were there we met Joan Kavanagh of the Wicklow Heritage Centre. Hugely knowledgeable and helpful, she told us stories of Wicklow in 1798. Biddy Dolan came up, of course, and Joan knew Nicholas Delaney’s name. We swapped stories about Nicholas and she and put us on the trail of other local historians.

Wicklow Gaol was undergoing restoration, ready for the bicentenary of the Irish rebellion, and we were thrilled to get an invitation to its reopening on May 30th 1998.

Opening Day, Wicklow Historic Gaol - ecumenical blessing

Opening Day – ecumenical blessing

It was a memorable day. Speeches, a blessing, a feast and a tour of the new Gaol, including horrific reconstructions of prison life and the transport ships.

After the ceremony, we had a quick chat with the President. Sadly there are no photos of this as we were too busy talking. But here are some of a very special day in our hunt for the story of Nicholas and how a landless peasant became a convicted murderer and an Australian pioneer.

Mary McAleese, the Mayor and other guests at the opening of Wicklow Historic Gaol

Mary McAleese, the Mayor and other guests

Coming soon… more about Sarah Simpson



 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in 1798, Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Was Sarah murdered? Is she a famous ghost?

For a change from thinking about Nicholas, I typed Sarah Marshall into Google. She’s my g-g-g grandmother, a convict who arrived in New South Wales on the Friendship in 1818. She married* John Simpson (Ocean II, arr 1818) and later that year their daughter Lucy was born. Lucy married Nicholas Delaney’s son Thomas in 1834.

And including the details of their crimes and sentences we only had about four pages’ worth of information about Sarah and John. Until now.

Imagine how surprised I was when result after result came up. The first I clicked on had a query about her – did anyone know anything about Sarah, who was murdered?


Murdered? Some mistake, I thought. Not ‘my’ Sarah. But I checked the dates, and the convict ship, and the places, and it looked more and more as if  I’m descended from a woman who was brutally killed in Castlereagh, NSW in 1838 at the age of 42.

How could this not have come up in our research? How could the family not remember such a shocking event? I wondered.


I went on a googleathon. Some very lurid stories came up. Pretty soon I was reading that she haunts her grave in Castlereagh General Cemetery. She was murdered by a gang of men ‘in a fit of lust’.

I also read (and these are urban legends) that she was 17 when she died, that she had eight children out of wedlock with John, ‘an independent, well-to-do man’ who married her as she lay dying so that she could pass into the next life without sin.


Romantic touches, but the truth is that she had a husband, a tailor and freed convict, at the time of the first Australian census in 1828.

I learned that Sarah and John may both have been already married before they were transported to Australia. So that’s two more possible bigamists in my family tree.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any newspaper articles about her death on Trove.

As for the haunting, the net’s full of it. Apparently ‘Sarah’s Grave’ is a well-known scary place in the Penrith area, and she’s been seen by a lot of people, a spirit in white with a strong dislike of men. So many people go there at night that the graveyard has been fenced off. There are even tours to her grave.

I’m not putting an image of her grave up because the ones on the net belong to other people, but I’ll put some links at the bottom (Update – I’ve posted one by my cousin, Michael Wood, here). This is the inscription:



the memory of


died Decr 10th


aged 42 years


And am I born to die
To lay this body down
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown
A land of deepest shade
Unpierc’d by human thought**
The dreary regions of the dead
Where all things are forgot

So for the moment I’m stuck.

And more than a bit surprised.

In the space of a few hours my obscure ancestor has become a bigamist, a murder victim and a famous ghost. I’m left wondering how a murder which spawned local legends in the Penrith area could have been forgotten by Delaney family members who lived nearby. Or did they suppress the story, ashamed of its notoriety (especially if Sarah had been sexually assaulted)? After all, our convict origins were hushed up for at least four generations.

Or – is the murdered, ghostly Sarah not my ancestor at all? Was she a woman in another graveyard – whose story has been attached to Sarah Simpson, as Sydney Spirit Stalkers wonder?


And I’m yet again amazed at how different genealogy and historical research is now, with the net, from how it was when we started researching Nicholas Delaney and his family. Finding information like this is what makes writing this blog so worth while – I can put so much in here that’s an add-on to A Rebel Hand.

And of course now I would like to see her grave. I’d like to leave some flowers and wish her peace.

Is there anybody there…….. who has any answers?

*Since writing this, I’m not so sure they were married. They were certainly a couple and Sarah is referred to in the 1828 census as John Simpson’s ‘wife’

** The original epitaph reads ‘Unpeirc’d by humam thought’

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -

Here are a few more snippets and links:

I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to Sarah’s story in the future…

And I did – here’s Sarah’s grave and here’s more about her life.



 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Australia, Convicts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 55 Comments

At the heart of Sydney

‘One of the most historically significant urban spaces in Sydney and Australia’.

Photo: Macquarie Place, Sydney, NSW  © A Rebel Hand

Macquarie Place, Sydney

That’s how another of Nicholas Delaney’s building projects has been described by New South Wales’s Office of Environment and Heritage.

It’s Macquarie Place.

Just over a fortnight after Nicholas and his men finished the construction of Mrs Macquarie’s Drive in the Government Domain on 13 June 1816, he was hard at work again for the Governor.

As Lachlan Macquarie records in his diary:

Monday 1. July !

This Day Nicholas Delaney’s Gang of Labourers commenced clearing and levelling that Piece of Ground in the Town of Sydney, adjoining the Government Domain called “Macquarie Place,” preparatory to its being enclosed by a Dwarf Stone Wall and Paling in the form of a Triangle!

Photo: Macquarie's diary entry about Nicholas and his gang

Macquarie’s diary entry about Nicholas and his gang (Original in State Library of NSW)

Macquarie Place is probably best known now for its obelisk, designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway, who was so important to the Governor‘s plans for Sydney. It was erected in 1818.

Greenway eventually fell out of favour with Macquarie, but his buildings stand as a memorial to two singular-minded men – and to the labourers who carried out their vision.

Inscribed at the base of the obelisk is its purpose:

To record that all the
Public Roads
Leading to the Interior
of the Colony
are Measured from it.

And here are the measurements:

Principal Roads.
Distance from Sydney
to Bathurst }                           157 Miles
From Sydney to Windsor 35 1/2 D
to Paramatta                      15 1/2  “
to Liverpool                        20 “
to Macquarie Tower
at the South Head }              7         “
To the North Head
of Botany Bay }                  14         “

So all roads from Sydney began from where Nicholas made his mark on the city.

Nearly 200 years later, this green space in the centre of Sydney still remains, a little smaller and now dwarfed by buildings.

But nothing should overshadow its significance in Australia’s history. As the Office of Environment and Heritage says:

Picture: Macquarie Place: inscription on the obelisk. Photo © Patricia Owen

Macquarie Place: the obelisk © Patricia Owen & A Rebel Hand


“Although the original importance of Macquarie Place as the main town square of Sydney, the geographic and symbolic centre of the Colony, the setting to First Government House and the landmark qualities of Obelisk are now less apparent than in Colonial times due to the level of surrounding changes, the park and its monuments remain one of the few tangible links to this first Colonial town centre and thereby part of the earliest history of European settlement in Australia.”



 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Macquarie, Roadbuilder | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Making roads for Macquarie

Staying in New South Wales for this post, I’ll be looking at Nicholas Delaney’s road building for Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

There are no records to show exactly when Nicholas began working on the roads of the new colony.  He had been an overseer on goverment projects since 1808 and was in charge of a group of convict labourers in 1812. In January 1813 Macquarie signed his free pardon.

It was a good time to be in the building trade. The new Governor made it his business to tidy up the higgledy-piggledy settlement he had found when he arrived in 1810. Sydney would be set out in rational grid lines, the Domain enclosed and roads driven west into the daunting Blue Mountains. Nicholas was to work on all these ventures.

Photo: Mrs Macquarie's Chair, Sydney

Mrs Macquarie’s Chair

He and his men were busy with a project dear to the Governor – building  Mrs Macquarie’s Drive, a long road which encircled Sydney’s Government Domain land. Named for, and planned by, his wife, Elizabeth, the road encloses what are now the Botanic Gardens and takes in her favourite viewpoint, still known as Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

By luck or careful planning, Nicholas and his co-workers finished the entire drive on Elizabeth’s birthday.

Auspicious day

As Lachlan Macquarie wrote in his diary:

Thursday 13. June 1816

This day at 1. P.M. Nicholas Delaney the Overseer of the Working Gang employed for some time past in the Government Domain reported to me that Mrs Macquarie’s New Road – (measuring three miles and 377 yards -) round the inside of the Government [domain] – together with all the necessary Bridges on the same – were completely finished agreeably to the Plan laid down originally for constructing it by Mrs Macquarie.

As a reward for their exertion in having completed “Mrs Macquarie’s Road“, on this particular and auspicious Day, I have given Delaney and his gang of Ten Men, five gallons of Spirits among them – as Donation from Government from the King’s store.

Picture: Lachlan Macquarie's diary entry about Nicholas Delaney and his gang

Lachlan Macquarie’s diary (Original in State Library of NSW)

The Governor was obviously delighted at this extra birthday present for Elizabeth. Nicholas and the other men would have been extremely pleased with their reward, too. Five gallons of rum – that’s 40 pints, or nearly 23 litres. Enough for a good party, and plenty left over for use as currency.

There will be more about Nicholas’s road building in the next blog post.

Macquarie on TV

On Australia Day (26th January) 2011 BBC TV showed The Father of Australia, a drama-documentary about Macquarie. Unfortunately it’s no longer available to view, but there are some clips on the Beeb’s site and here’s a link to a clip provided by the programme-makers, Caledonia TV.

© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Macquarie, Roadbuilder | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

National Heritage Week in Ireland

This week (August 20 – 28) Ireland celebrates its national heritage. And 1798 is a major part of that history.

So here are some events related to Nicholas Delaney’s life and the men he fought with.


  • a walk in the Wicklow mountains, where he was heading when Twamley and Heppenstall were murdered and where Michael Dwyer and Joseph Holt held out after the rebellion was over
  • In Co Wexford, a talk on 98 in the 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy and another event nearby in Ballinamona

And much more.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem possible to link directly to these events, but if you’re interested it’s enjoyable trawling through the website.

So here’s the link again.


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On board the convict ship (for Australian National Family History Week)

It’s National Family History Week in Australia (until August 10). So I’m going to leave the Irish history theme for now and pick up some of Nicholas Delaney’s story in New South Wales.

Starting with his arrival.

Human cargo

On October 30, 1810, the convict ship Atlas II docked at Sydney Cove after a five month sea voyage. He and the 207 others transported as human cargo were unusually lucky. Not for them the high death toll resulting from poor food, filthy conditions, untreated illness, lack of air and exercise and a voyage spent below decks in chains.

Only four died during the journey, thanks partly to Atlas II being a new ship as well as to the work of surgeon Thomas Davie, the attitude of the captain, Thomas Musgrave, and probably to sheer luck in that no fatally contagious diseases raged through the ship.

By contrast Atlas I, which sailed some months before, lost 65 convicts out of 176.

And when Musgrave’s ship was sighted, bets were laid that only half the convicts would have survived. But, to the onlookers’ amazement, a long stream of men appeared blinking in the strong light, while the ship’s captain shook hands with every one of them.

Musgrave, that enlightened man, who had not insisted that his ‘cargo’ remain in chains once he had set sail, treated them as fellow humans even to the last.*

Political prisoners

Out of the 208 convicts aboard Atlas II, 190 were Irish political prisoners, according to Captain Musgrave. The other men tried alongside Nicholas – Edward Neil, James Dempsey, Patrick Stafford and John Kavanagh – were there. So were other south Wicklow men convicted on Biddy Dolan‘s evidence, including John Nowlan, Richard Carr and Patrick Murray. These Wicklow men, the ‘Forgotten Prisoners’, seem to have stayed in touch once they reached Australia.


Nicholas was about to start a new life working for Major George Johnston, commander of the New South Wales Corps – the infamous Rum Corps.  Interestingly, it was Johnson who was credited with putting down the ‘other’ Battle of Vinegar Hill, at Castle Hill, near Parramatta, in March, 1804.

Later Johnston was himself involved in civil unrest – as a leader of the Rum Rebellion against Governor William Bligh. Piling irony upon irony, Bligh was already well known for another uprising against his authority – the Mutiny on the Bounty.

* There is much more about Nicholas’s transportation and Atlas II on the A Rebel Hand website.

Some useful links

A search on the net brings up a lot about convicts transported to Australia. Two resources I found useful are Peter Mayberry’s Irish convicts pages and Lesley Uebel‘s claim a convict pages (not just Irish).  The National Museum of Australia has some information and there are some great descriptions of transportation to Australia, plus information about free settlers, here (scroll down, it’s quite long).


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Convicts, Transportation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Two surprise finds

I’m excited by this.

OK, perhaps I’m easily pleased, but it was a real delight to find the clip of Graham Norton’s Who Do You Think You Are? in which he learns about his yeoman ancestor in Carnew, just days after I posted about it. And when I was looking for something else, too. That’s Google for you. Here it is, with Graham talking to the excellent historian Ruan O’Donnell.

Libidinous wretch

Ruan’s also written about our old friend ‘Croppy’ Biddy Dolan. Here’s possibly the most well-known account of Bid’s character and actions, written by Br Luke Cullen:

‘…in the year 1798 she mostly rode with the rebel cavalry — a buxom vivandiere on horseback. Her lack of morals and indecencies are too disgusting to follow, but it win be sufficient to say, that this pampered informer of the County Wicklow, at thirteen years of age, was an avowed and proclaimed harlot, steeped in every crime that her age would admit of ; and her precocity to vice, as it was to maturity, was singular.’

It gets worse.

‘…this abandoned person, who was brought up without the slightest particle of education, or more regard to morals than the brute that browsed in the field ; and in regard to her knowledge of Christian truths, she was an infidel.’

And as a witness for the prosecution:

Photo: Statue of Billy Byrne, Wicklow

Statue of Billy Byrne, Wicklow

‘She was young, and under judicious teachers had time enough to learn. Her unblushing audacity was firm and boundless. Drunk or sober, her pert and ready replies to all questions helped to restore her to that portion of favour which only seemed to be lost to her.’

As for her evidence against Billy Byrne:

‘Croppy Biddy was the one on whom the prosecutors rested their hopes. The [?]giggling and loud laugh, the levity and whole demeanour of that libidinous wretch, was the most disgusting display that, perhaps, any witness was ever before allowed to indulge in, where the use of a high and honourable gentleman was concerned. Her first plunge on the green cloth this day was perjury, and all her assertions, that were of any moment, to the end of the trial, were of the same dreadful description.’

Informers online

It is possible to portray Bid in a more sympathetic light, and we weigh up both sides in the book, but the point of this post is to signpost a great link I also found today, “The sham squire” and the informers of 1798 : with jottings about Ireland a century ago (1869), a book by William John Fitzpatrick available online as part of the Internet Archive project. It’s well worth a look.

One word of warning – it’s scanned, not transcribed, so some words look odd and need deciphering. It’s worth a look, though, even if it’s just for Br Luke’s inventive invective.


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in 1798, Blogging | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Me, Graham Norton and an infamous massacre

Well, Graham Norton’s great-great-great grandfather and my g-g-g grandfather, to be strictly accurate. They would have known each other. They probably wanted to kill each other. (Luckily, I quite like him and he doesn’t know I exist, so that’s all right!)

How did I find this out?

Four years ago, long before this blog was thought of, I was gripped by BBC TV’s series Who Do You Think You Are?

I was fascinated by the unravelling of family myths and mysteries (we’ve got a few of our own) and envious of the fantastic resources that the Beeb could pull together.


Then, on November 2, 2007, I leapt out of my seat punching the air and shouting: “Carnew! The ball alley!”

Graham Norton was retracing his Irish roots and, to my amazement, his ancestor was in that southernmost Co Wicklow town at the same time as mine, in May 1798, when the terrible Carnew massacre was carried out.

On the other side.


While Nicholas Delaney was working in Robert Blaney’s bog – at the moment Richard Twamley and George Heppenstall were being killed – Graham’s ancestor, Thomas Walker, was among the yeomen in the town.

Indeed one of his relations, John Walker, was shot and piked by the rebels. Just as Twamley and Heppenstall were, according to ‘Croppy Biddy’ Dolan.

And there was Graham in the ball alley in Carnew Castle, where the infamous massacre took place. The same ball alley my mother and I were shown by the castle’s owner, who pointed out to us the bullet holes in the wall which still bear witness to the day when unarmed local United Irish prisoners were gunned down in cold blood by the yeos.

It was a strange moment.

Photo: Carnew: the Castle from All Saints' churchyard © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

Carnew: the Castle from All Saints’ churchyard © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand

I’ll write more about the Carnew Massacre soon. It’s not just a tragic story in its own right, but probably one of the incidents that spurred the people of Co Wexford, next door, to rise in arms and play their colossal part in 1798.

Since writing this I’ve found a clip of Graham in the Ball Alley – it’s just as good second time around.


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Nicholas Delaney | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

New look

Have you noticed? Did you wonder if you’d come to the right site?

After using a custom (very attractive) header, I’ve changed it to match the header on the website for A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798.

Images used include the Wexford pikeman, Wicklow Gaol, an extract from Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis‘s order reprieving Nicholas and sentencing him to transportation for seven years and a family watercolour of Moyne, the farm Nicholas’s son Thomas and his family lived on. Moyne is thought to be the first privately-owned permanent building erected west of the Nepean River.

Wish list

When Patricia and I were researching Nicholas’s life, we took dozens of photos in Ireland to add to her collection of Australian ones, and we had our family albums and some pictures our Aussie cousins and local historians let us have. That was back in the days when people still used film and slides, and I’m left with slides which I can’t scan. Which is frustrating. And many of our old photos are in black and white.

Watercolour of Moyne, the old Delaney family home

Old watercolour of Moyne by Yvonne Jenkins

If I could transport myself to NSW I’d love to get some images of places relating to Nicholas’s life, like the roads he worked on for Governor Macquarie- including Mrs Macquarie’s Drive, the road which goes round the Domain, and Macquarie Place.

Or a recent photo of Moyne, the farmhouse near Little Hartley (now called Moyan Farm, I believe). And Nicholas’s gravestone in the Catholic cemetery in Regentsville.

If you’ve got pictures of any of these, I’d love to hear from you!


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Blogging, Website | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments


Some follow-up thoughts over the past few days.

Story of Ireland

Bob commented on Story of Ireland: 1798, wondering why the last episode of Story of Ireland was rescheduled. It was moved from its regular slot at 1900 on Monday to 1710 on Sunday.
I don’t know either, Bob. There I was thinking “Great! A popular but balanced and fairly detailed history and at prime time!” when – ooops, the rug’s pulled away and it gets stuffed into the wastelands of Sunday afternoon viewing.

The Monday evening slot’s filled by James May and his model railway. Now I know he’s very popular, but this was a repeat – the programme had only been on the night before.
Ironically, the snooze-in-front-of-the-telly 1710 slot was followed by… eek! Richard Hammond and Top Gear and then the first showing of young May’s train tale. Someone was having fun there.

None of which really explains the weird scheduling.

Vinegar Hill

A couple of questions have been asked.

How many rebels/United Irish were there at the Battle of Vinegar Hill?

It’s hard to say. They weren’t regular troops, and there was a large number of women there, many with children (A Rebel Hand pp27-8). And not all the men were armed. But where people have estimated the number, they say it was around 20,000.

Love and marriage

What love affairs did Nicholas Delaney have?

Tricky one, this. I’m sure he wasn’t romantically entangled with Bridget Dolan (Croppy Biddy). If he had been, wouldn’t he have mentioned that when he was on trial for murder and she was the only witness against him?

We don’t know anything about him and women, in fact, until Elizabeth Bayly, his wife, enters the story. And even she’s a mystery. I’ll come back to Elizabeth another time, but you can read about her in A Rebel Hand (pp75 – 80 and more).


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in 1798, Nicholas Delaney | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Story of Ireland: 1798

BBC TV’s Story of Ireland series reached 1798 last week and devoted 13 of its 59 minutes to the United Irishmen and the Irish Rebellion (or Revolution, as presenter Fergal Keane refers to it).

Picture of the 1798 memorial, Carnew, Co Wicklow © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

1798 memorial, Carnew, Co Wicklow © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand

To be fair, the programme covered two centuries, from the aftermath of the Flight of the Earls to the defeat of the Rebellion and the death of Wolfe Tone.

The place of Ireland in the religious wars of the 17th Century, the plantation of Ulster under James VI and I, the arrival of the Scottish Presbyterians, the other Irish Rebellion – of 1641, the depredations of Cromwell and his successors during the Interregnum, the Williamite-Jacobite war, the Irish Ascendancy, emigration to America and Grattan’s Parliament as well. A lot to squeeze into an hour.

And the scene was set well for the story of 1798.

So – what was there to praise about the programme?

It showed the United Irishmen and the 1798 Rising in good historical context – not just the European religious wars, but the revolutionary and republican movements which had seen American independence and the Revolution in France.


Rightly it pointed out that the early high-minded political and revolutionary movement of the (originally largely Protestant) United Irishmen changed as sectarian conflict and terrible military atrocities on a largely defenceless population swept more and more people into conflict.

It leaned quite heavily on Wolfe Tone, though of course he was vital to the story. And it was balanced – although there were multiple atrocities perpetuated by the military, there were also two by the rebels against the loyalists/government supporters, in Wexford and Scullabogue.

What was missing?

But it’s puzzling that little or no mention was made of the yeomen, volunteer regiments which were responsible for many of those atrocities. Since Nicholas Delaney’s story involves yeomen, I may come back to them in another post.

And there was no mention of the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where the rebel/United Irish army was finally crushed in the south-east, and the last pitched battle there – apart from what was more of a skirmish at Ballyellis, Nicholas’s own home.

A story often told

Ever since the last man died and the last woman was raped at Vinegar Hill the story of 1798 has been retold and reinterpreted time and again – republican revolution, nationalist rising, agrarian rising, Catholic rising, early attempt at socialism, anti-English war, anti-Catholic war and much more.

I’m glad that it has now has been told in prime-time on a main BBC TV channel, even if the programme was too rushed for me and made those two surprising omissions.


For more background on the United Irishmen and 1798, try these links from Wikipedia and the BBC. There’s so much on the internet, these seem good places to start. Can anyone suggest other good overviews?


New: Here’s a link to the episode. What do you think?


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in 1798 | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Sentenced to death

On December 5, 1798, Nicholas Delaney and his friend Edward Neil were on trial for their lives. They were charged with ‘taking’ two members of the Yeomanry, John Hope and John Brady and with the murder of Richard Twamley and George Heppenstall.

Bridget Dolan was the only witness against Nicholas. She had already stated that in July 1798 – after the battles of Vinegar Hill and Ballyellis – she had seen two men and a boy brought to the rebel army camp ‘at Ballymanus’. At the time many of the United Irishmen were still holding together, heading for the Wicklow mountains. Some, like Michael Dwyer and Joseph Holt, went on to fight a guerilla war there for some time.


Dolan swore that she saw Ned Neil, ‘armed with a pistol’, and Nicholas, ‘armed with a gun, fire at and wound [Twamley and Heppenstall, who] fell bleeding from the wounds.’ The government men were then piked to death by another man.

This wasn’t the only time Dolan stressed that Nicholas had a firearm. Why, when the typical weapon of the United Irish rebel was a pike?

“Stop you bloody villains!”

Now it was time for the prisoners to defend themselves. Remember, Nicholas was illiterate and there’s no reason to imagine his fellow captives could read or write, either. It must have been terrifying for them, relying on their memories, against all the might of a court whose purpose was to see them dangling from a rope.

The trial transcript is long and confusing and I’m going to cut it down to the basics. Nicholas and Ned called witnesses to prove that they were not the men who killed Twamley and Heppenstall.

One was George Twamley, the brother of the murdered Richard. He and his nephew Robert were captured but not harmed. George told the court that he recognised Ned Neil but not Nicholas among the three rebels who took them. All three were armed with a sword and a pistol each, and one had challenged them, shouting “Stop you bloody villains!”

Wicklow Gaol before its restoration in 1998. Link to 'A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798' website © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

Wicklow Gaol before restoration © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand

No-one else could be found to testify that Nicholas had been there at the killing but Bridget Dolan. Ned tried to discredit her evidence against them:
“On your oath were you bribed to swear against me?”
“I was not.”

Her reputation as a paid informer was obviously well known among the rebel prisoners.

Three other witnesses swore that they saw Nicholas far away from the murder site on July 6th, 1798.


But this was not enough. The court had failed to convict Nicholas for the murders of two other yeomen, John Hope and John Brady, and they brought in Croppy Biddy, with her evidence of his having a gun, to make sure he would hang.

So we don’t know for sure whether Nicholas Delaney was a cold-blooded murderer or an unfortunate United Irishman framed by a liar. All we know is that on December 15, 1799, he was “adjudged guilty of taking Hope and Brady and of the Murder of Richard Twamley and George Heppenstall and is therefore sentenced to suffer death.”


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Nicholas Delaney, Trial | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

I’m staying in on Monday 30th…

and not even answering the phone.

Badge of the United Irishmen, link to website for 'A Rebel Hand'

Badge of the United Irishmen

Why? Because tonight (the 16th) a new TV series, Story of Ireland, began.

Presented by Fergal Keane, it’s a five-parter and tonight’s episode raced from the earliest beginnings to the eve of the Norman invasion. It’s on BBC2 at 1900 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and at 2320 in Scotland.


And on the 30th of May? Well, on that day episode 3, The Age of Revolution, promises to look at the 17th and 18th centuries… and ‘how revolution in America and France paved the way for Ireland’s 1798 rebellion.’


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
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The Trial of Nicholas Delaney: Murderer or Victim?


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.

Croppy Biddy

She was the most notorious paid informer in south-east Ireland and her name lives on as a synonym for liar or traitor.

Photo of statue of Billy Byrne, Wicklow, Co Wicklow © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

Statue of Billy Byrne, Wicklow

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!


© Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014
Posted in Nicholas Delaney, Trial | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments