“…Henry Downes, a private of the King’s County Regiment, shoemaker by profession, hung from a tree at the Yellow Walls near Malahide…”1
The 1798 rebellion was one of the bloodiest and most tragic episodes in Irish history with atrocities committed on both the rebel (United Irishmen) and loyalist (British Government) sides.
One such episode occurred near Blessington in Co. Wicklow and is recounted in the memoirs of Joseph Holt, a commander in the rebel forces, who fought against British forces in County Wicklow from June to October, 1798. Holt came originally from a Wicklow family of protestant loyalists but became a member of the Society of United Irishmen in 1797.2
Holt’s men were short on provisions and acting on a tip-off, were marching towards Blessington to engage with “several corps of cavalry…with a great quantity of cattle in a park, under their protection.”3
Just outside Blessington, Holt’s forces met with a man named Jonathan Eves. Eves lived in nearby Balliboy. Holt described him as “half Quaker, half protestant, a good but no party man” and considered him “a valuable friend.”3 During the conflict Eves and his daughters had taken several wounded British soldiers into their home and nursed them back to health.
Eves was apprehended and captured – presumably because of his background and his sympathies towards the crown forces. His captor was Henry Downes, a deserter from the King’s County Regiment who had come over to the rebel side. He was originally a shoemaker from Birr, County Offaly (King’s County).1
The plan was for Eves to be tried for his actions following the raid on Blessington. Seeking to protect his friend, Holt planned to try him personally and acquit him. However, he “had too much to attend to, to try him [Eves] myself, and knowing I should acquit him, I thought to take him out of harm’s way, and I ordered him to be sent to headquarters, there to be kept till my return.”3
As he was about to ride onwards to Blessington, Holt heard a shot and turned around to see Eves lying dead on the road.
Downes called out to him: “General, I have saved you the trouble of trying him, I tried him myself and shot him.” “More villain you” was Holt’s reaction.3
Later that day, Holt attempted to have Downes made accountable for his actions but was cautioned against it by his officers, presumably as it would not have been popular with the men under his command.
When the rebellion was eventually suppressed, Downes was tried by the ruling British administration and found guilty in April 1799 of the murder of Jonathan Eves. His punishment was execution and he was “hung from a tree at the Yellow Walls near Malahide…”1
It was commonplace at the time for executions to be carried out in the open air, hence the reference to the hanging tree.4
Downes was executed on 05 April 1799 at the barracks that once stood at Barrack Bridge because the regiment he deserted from – the King’s County – was based there.6
A newspaper report describes how:
Friday, Downes, the deserter from the King’s county militia….was sent under a guard to the headquarters of the regiment at Malahide, there to be executed, pursuant to the sentence of a court martial.7
Another deserter named Wall, from the Dublin City Militia, was hanged with Downes.8
A song, ‘Erin’s Martyr’was composed in Henry Downes’ memory and published in 1803 in a book called “Paddy’s Resource or the Harp of Erin attuned to Freedom, being a Collection of Patriotic Songs selected for Paddy’s amusement”.1
It portrays Downes as a heroic figure fighting for the liberty of his country who was ultimately wronged and unjustly executed. Its dedication reads “Sacred to the memory of Henry Downes, who was hanged at Malahide, for joining the Irish Army, and fighting for the liberty of his native country!”
It includes lines such as:
“Young Downes for Ireland’s freedom fought, on Erin’s verdant plains” and “’I’ll fight till death, for Ireland’s good’, says Erin’s martyr Downes.”
Downes’ trial and execution is described in the verse:
At length by Sirr’s myrmidons^ hemm’d,
Then by court martial tried,
And (by that court, alas! condemn’d)
Was hanged at Malahide
Some 150 years before Downes’ execution, the 1641 rebellion was also a period of unrest and violence in Ireland. One account5 describes how “a party of the English, quartered at Mallahyde, hanged a servant of Mr. Robert Boyne’s at the plough, and forced a poor labourer to hang his own brother; and soon after they hanged 15 of the inhabitants of Swords, who never bore arms, in the orchard of Mallahyde; they likewise hanged a woman bemoaning her husband hanged among them.”
*Henry Charles Sirr (1764–1841), deputy ‘Town Major’ of Dublin between 1796 and 1808 who was also responsible for the arrest of United Irishmen Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Robert Emmet. He escaped at least three assassination attempts, including the one referred to above.
^ A follower who carries out orders without question.
1. Madden, Richard Robert. Literary remains of the United Irishmen of 1798: and selections from other popular lyrics of their times, with an essay on the authorship of “The exile of Erin.” J. Duffy, 1887.
2. Moore, Tony. Death or liberty: rebels and radicals transported to Australia 1788-1868. Pier 9, 2010.
3. Holt, Joseph. Memoirs of Joseph Holt, General of the Irish Rebels, in 1798: in Two Volumes, Volume 1. Colburn, 1838.
4. Keenan, Desmond. Ireland Within the Union 1800-1921. Xlibris Corporation, 2008.
5. Curry, John. An historical and critical review of the civil wars in Ireland, from the reign of queen Elizabeth to the settlement under king William – With the state of the Irish Catholics from that settlement to 1778. R. Conolly, 1810.
6. O’Donnell, Ruán. The Rebellion in Wicklow, 1798. Irish Academic Press, 1998.
7. Saunders Newsletter, 08 April ,1799.
8. Cullen, Luke. Insurgent Wicklow, 1798: The Story as Written, Part 3. Kestrel Books, 1998.