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Betsy Gray

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Betsy Gray.

And the Hearts of Down.

Betsy Gray is arguably one of the better known figures in the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 rebellion in County Down, due in no small way to the publication in 1896, of W G Little's book 'Betsy Gray or the Hearts of Down' The legend of Besty Gray endures to this day, it is virtually impossible to separate the few verifiable facts from the many myths which have endured over the three centuries since her death.

We do know that Betsy Gray was a young Presbyterian woman, the daughter of a Protestant farmer, and that she was killed along with her brother George and lover Willie Boal, shortly after the Battle of Ballynahinch. Where she was born is not exactly clear, Little places her birthplace at Gransha, near the Six Road Ends south east of Newtownards. In the Dromara area some contend that she was born in Tullyniskey near Waringsford village in the parish of Garvaghy, and that her parents were John and Rebecca Gray and not the farmer Hans Gray which is Lyttle’s contention. To add further confusion to the matter Mary Ann McCracken sister of hanged leader of the rebellion in County Down Henry Joy McCracken stated that Betsy was a native of Killinchy County Down. Some suggest that Mary Ann possibly mistook the place name ‘Tullyniskey’ for ‘Killinchy’ as the latter was a contemporary of the time, is seems probable that her version may be the closest to the truth.

Betsy's father, brother George and lover Willie Boal, were all members of the United Irishmen. Betsy was not officially a member of the organization, however she was to play a significant role in events in 1798. In June, George Gray and Willie Boal were involved in the rescue of Colonel Bryson from Newtownards Jail after which they they went to Ballynahinch to join the battle against the British forces commanded by General George Nugent.

There are various versions of Betsy's involvement in the battle, at this distance in time it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. One states that she rode into battle on a white horse, dressed in green and brandishing a sword, and that she was leading the Hearts of Down, the attack was initially successful the Monaghan Militia who held a position in the town square were dislodged and pursued down Market street. Upon hearing a bugle call which may have been the Militia sounding the retreat, the insurgents took this to be the arrival of government reinforcements and themselves began to retreat, which culminated in a complete rout, Betsy, George and Willie Boal attempting to escape in the direction of Lisburn

Several members of the Hillsborough Yeomanry two of which are said to have been Thomas Nelson and James Little both from Annahilt captured them in Ballycreen. at the farm of Samuel Armstrong, during the struggle Betsy's hand was cut off by one of the soldiers (Jack Gill) with a sword when she attempted to save her brother, Nelson then shot her in the head, at the same time George was shot also

This version of the story is the most popular and may be the closest to the truth, one clergyman recalled that other families would not sit in the same pew as the Little's, and that their children were stoned on their way to school, after Mrs. Little was seen wearing Betsy's earrings.

Poem commenting

Betsy Gray.

No tombstone marks that hallowed grave
Near the road to Lisburn Town
And never a spade disturbs the spot
Where sleeps the hearts of Down

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