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

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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