On 31st July 1803 the Downpatrick diarist Aynsworth Pillson recorded that there was great alarm in Downpatrick by a ‘report that Rebels were marching upon us from the surrounding neighbourhood.’ In fact, by 31st July the attempt to raise County Down in rebellion was well over, having never amounted to much beyond a gathering of a dozen or so men at a field near Downpatrick on the evening of the 23rd July.

The chief mover behind the attempt to raise the north in line with Robert Emmet’s attempts in Dublin and Leinster was Thomas Russell. He was one of the most important United Irish leaders in the early 1790s and a chief ‘fermenter’ of rebellion in 1795 and 1796 before he was arrested in Belfast. Released from prison in 1802, he was determined to revive the insurrectionary spirit of 1798 and he travelled to County Down in May 1803 where he met with various United Irish leaders.

Perhaps Russell, who according to his great friend Martha McTier had grown ‘flighty’ as a result of his imprisonment, seized too willingly on reports that hundreds of men armed with muskets and pikes were drilling in Comber, or listened too eagerly to men like William Metcalfe who, in summer 1803 stated that, Saintfield and Ballynahinch were ‘anxiously waiting for invasion’. But whatever the case, Russell returned to Dublin reassured that thousands would rally to the cause. Before his departure he appointed James Corry, a shoemaker from Downpatrick and James Drake a horse dealer from near Seaforde, as his deputies to organise events on the ground around Downpatrick and Loughinisland.

Corry and Drake appear on no lists of leading United Irishmen from the 1790s. Perhaps they had been rank and file members, or joined in the period following the rebellion, or were Defenders, or had in some way impressed Russell with their abilities but they certainly appear to have been inexperienced, if not downright incapable of their task.

Within the Down County Museum collection is an important collection of documents relating to the 1803 rebellion that includes 10 depositions sworn by men caught up in the rebellion that were used in the trials of Russell, Drake and Corry.

Andrew Williamson of Downpatrick testified that on 3rd July, Corry boasted that a rising would take place in three weeks’ time, drank the health of Bonaparte and asked Williamson if he would make 1000 or 2000 metal breastplates with ‘success to Bonaparte’ on them. Williamson was so sceptical of this talk he ignored it until reports of the events of 23rd July reached him. Later, when Corry told a John Tate that he would get him a commission in the rebel army, Tate taunted him with ‘you fool you, why would they trust such as us with one’.

James Drake appears to have been no more successful. The day before a rising was to take place, Patrick Doran deposed that Drake was in the public house of James Smith in Annadorn, in the company of Thomas Russell, and told Doran that he should join in the proposed rebellion. Dornan said that ‘none but fools and madmen’ would join in whereby Russell became angry with Drake, saying ‘James this will not do’.

Russell went on to inform Doran that there was a store of arms and ammunition in Dublin and the ‘business’ would be done in one hour throughout the Kingdom. How this was to be achieved when Russell, Drake and Corry were still trying to recruit small numbers of individuals into the rebel army is not clear.

On 23rd June, Drake was still knocking on doors, telling John Rooney of Drumgooland that there was to be an insurrection that night and that local men should proceed to Seaforde to capture Mr Forde and take what ammunition they could. He told John Johnstone (or McShean) the same story and that Russell had said the men of Killinchy (prominent in the 1798 rebellion) were already marching to Loughinisland.

One of the longest albeit incomplete depositions, is that of John Tate, a shoemaker from Downpatrick who accompanied Corry to a hill in Ballyvange on the evening of 23rd July to await the appearance of a fire from the direction of Seaforde which would indicate that the ‘business’ had begun.  He said the 13 or 14 people waited on the hill in expectation of a crowd of 5000 to come up and march to Downpatrick, disarm the army and yeomanry and then march on to Saintfield and meet with the County Antrim rebels. No such fire or force appeared and they went home. The next day they went to Loughinisland to see what had happened only to be told that Russell, Michael Maguire, Drake and a few others had assembled the night before waiting on the people to rise but none turned up.

Despite the insurrection being very much a damp squib, dozens of people were arrested on charges of treasonable activity in Counties Down and Antrim. In addition to Russell, Drake and Corry, Downpatrick Gaol (now Down County Museum) held a number of men ranging from the well-known United Irish leader, James Weatherspoon, to the Downpatrick silk dyer, Charles Mulholland. Three of those whose depositions are held by the museum, Patrick Doran, James Fitzpatrick and Henry Smith were brought to Kilmainham Gaol and lodged there for a while as part of the case against Russell.

Some of the witness statements used in the trials of Russell, Drake and Corry are on display in the museum. They provide a fascinating insight into the attempted rising in County Down in 1803 and the activities of Russell, Drake and Corry who were all executed for high treason at the front of the Gaol in October 1803.

Pictured above is a sketch by Steve Murphy of the execution of Thomas Russell at the gatehouse of the Gaol in October 1803.