Illuminations: Roddy McCorley
By: J. Michael Finn
“There was never a one of all your dead, more bravely fell in fray
Than he who marches to his fate on the bridge of Toome today
True to the last, true to the last, he treads the upward way
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.”
It is well known that the history of Ireland is often found in its poetry and song. This month we will explore the popular poem and song, Roddy McCorley.
The words of the song originally came from a poem written in 1898 by Irish poet, journalist and nationalist Ethna Carbery (1866-1902). Her intent was to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the 1798 United Irish Rebellion. The origin of the melody is unknown, as the tune actually appears in several older traditional Irish songs.
Some of McCorley’s life is unknown and some of it is in dispute. We know that he was born near Toome in the civil parish of Duneane, County Antrim, Ireland. The date of his birth is unknown; it was likely in the 1770s. He and his family were Presbyterians.
A few years before the 1798 rebellion, McCorley’s father, a miller, was executed for stealing sheep. The charges may have been politically motivated in an attempt to remove a troublesome agitator. Following his father’s execution, his family was evicted from their home. In those days in the north of Ireland it was common to evict both Catholics and Presbyterians (since both faiths were not part of the “established church,” that is, the Church of Ireland).
The 1798 United Irish Rebellion was an insurrection launched by the United Irishmen, an underground republican society, composed of both Protestants (known as Dissenters) and Catholics, aimed at severing the connection with England and establishing an Irish Republic based on the principles of the French Revolution.
There is uncertainty as to whether McCorley was actively involved with the predominantly Presbyterian United Irishmen. It is suggested that he was one of the leaders of the United Irishmen at the Battle of Antrim; however, there is no documented evidence to support this claim.
After the rebellion failed, McCorley joined a notorious outlaw gang known as Archer’s Gang, made up of former rebels, and led by Thomas Archer. Some of the gang, like Archer, had deserted from the British Army and fought on the Irish side, and as such were guilty of treason. This meant that they were always on the run in an attempt to evade capture.
The gang attacked Loyalists and participated in other mischief against the Loyalist population around Ballymena. It is believed that McCorley was caught while in hiding, having been betrayed by an informer.
McCorley was arrested and tried by court martial in Ballymena on February 20, 1800 and sentenced to be hanged “near the Bridge of Toome,” in the parish of Duneane. His execution occurred on February 28, 1800.
His body was dismembered and buried under the gallows, on the main Antrim to Derry Road, where the traffic from Antrim to Derry would pass over it. The bridge at Toome had been partially destroyed by rebels in 1798 to prevent the arrival of Loyalist reinforcements from west of the River Bann.
A letter published in the Belfast Newsletter a few days after McCorley’s execution gave an account of the execution and how McCorley was viewed by some (in it he is called Roger McCorley, which may have been his proper Christian name).
“Upon Friday last, a most awful procession took place here, namely the execution of Roger McCorley who was lately convicted at a court-martial, to the place of execution, Toome Bridge, the unfortunate man having been born in that neighborhood. As a warning to others, it is proper to observe that the whole of his life was devoted to disorderly proceedings of every kind, for many years past, scarcely a Quarter-sessions occurred but what the name of Roger McCorley appeared in a variety of criminal cases.
His body was given up to dissection and afterwards buried under the gallows…thus of late we have got rid of six of those nefarious wretches who have kept this neighborhood in the greatest misery for some time past, namely, Stewart, Dunn, Ryan, McCorley, Caskey and the notorious Dr. Linn. The noted Archer will soon be in our Guard-room.”
Thomas Archer was caught soon after McCorley’s execution, probably based on information provided by the same informer who brought about McCorley’s capture. Archer was also tried by court martial on March 5, 1800 and sentenced to “death, dissection and the gibbet.” He was hanged from an ash tree at Ballymena. His death marked the virtual end of organized United Irish resistance in Antrim.
In 1852, it was decided that a new bridge would be erected on the site of the original bridge over the River Bann in Toome. The foreman in charge of the work was a nephew of Roddy, named Hugh McCorley. Knowing where his uncle’s martyred body lay, he carefully laid plans to recover it.
On June 29, 1852, he unearthed his uncle’s remains with the help of a group of friends and relatives, placed them in a coffin, and a funeral was held. It was described as the largest ever seen in the area. McCorley’s body was re-interred in Duneane Churchyard in an unmarked grave, where he rests today (it was not until 1909 that historian Francis Bigger erected a tombstone over the grave).
In April 2009, a memorial Celtic Cross was erected in front of the PSNI (Police Services of Northern Ireland) station in the village of Toome, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The inscription reads as follows: “In memory of Roddy McCorley who was hanged here for his part in the rising of 1798. The dead, who died for Ireland, let not their memory die.”
The popular song Roddy McCorley has been recorded by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, The Kingston Trio, and many others during the folk music revival of the 1960s, and it was recorded in 1995 by Shane MacGowan and The Pogues.
McCorley’s great-grandson, Roger McCorley (1901-1993), was an officer in the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1922). He is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.