On the 9 June 1798, United Irishmen occupied Saintfield, Co. Down after the town’s garrison had withdrawn. Later that day, the rebels successfully ambushed a military force under the command of Colonel Stapylton, inflicting heavy losses and forcing the government troops to retreat along the road to Comber and Belfast. The details of the battle are outlined below using the first-hand account of Ensign Michael J Sparkes who wrote to Captain Payne two weeks after the Battle on 223rd June 1798.  This letter, pictured above, is held in the Down County Museum Collection.

Before the battle, the rebels controversially took revenge on perceived wrongs and injustices by the local (and loyalist) McKee family who were surrounded in their home, attacked and ultimately burnt to death when their house was torched.   Meanwhile, the military commander at Newtownards, Colonel Stapylton, had set forth for Saintfield to quell the rising with a force of between 350-400 troops. According to Sparkes, this force consisted of ‘270 of our regt. [York Fencibles] 50 yeoman Inftry. 30 yeoman cavalry [and] two field pieces, (6 pounders).’

Although the exact number of United Irishmen at Saintfield is unknown, they did however outnumber the government troops and had time to prepare an ambush for the approaching government troops. The rebels lay in wait on either side of the Comber Road, on ground described by Sparkes as ‘advantageous to them’. Rebel musketeers (approx. 1,200 according to Sparkes) were positioned behind the hedges lining the road, a body of pikemen were hidden in Doran’s Wood below the road (the site of Saintfield High School today) and the main force of pike on the high ground above the road.

Stapylton’s force arrived in the early evening and despite sending men forward to scout the road and the village, failed to discover the rebels lying in wait. When the United Irishmen opened fire, the first man to fall was the Reverend Robert Mortimer of Comber who accompanied the Newtownards Yeoman cavalry.

After the initial confusion caused by the ambush, Captain Chetwynd’s Light Company managed to climb of the road through the hedges only to be attacked by the main force of rebel pikemen.  Both Chetwynd and the United Irish leader of the pike, McKinstry were both killed in the ensuing hand to hand combat.

Sparkes writes that the government forces were eventually able to bring their two cannon to bear, firing cannister shot at close range resulting in ‘dreadful slaughter’ amongst the rebels and causing them to flee in ‘every direction’.  The government forces were able to dislodge the rebels from the hill but owing to a lack of heavy cavalry and conscious of their heavy casualties, Stapylton ‘thought it prudent to return to Cumber [sic]’.

The ferocity of the engagement is described by Sparkes later in his letter where he details,  ‘one fellow ran furiously at me with a pike, but I had the good fortune to ward off the thrust with my sword and instantly laid the villain dead at my feet. Another fired a musket within three yards of me, but by chance I then happen’d to leap on the gun limbers to take out some canister shot and the ball just grazed my hand. I received a slight cut of a pike over my right eye and trifling wound from a ball in the right hand, but neither of them were such as to require surgical aid or to prevent me from doing my duty.’

Its estimated that the government forces suffered approximately 60 dead with as many wounded and Sparkes believed that 300 were killed, with ‘the fields for two miles round cover’d by those who attempted going off, but who died in the ditches and fields from loss of blood and fatigue.’

The United Irishmen in Co. Down were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Ballynahinch a few days later on 13 June 1798, with Sparkes stating ‘the rebellion is over in this county’.