DESCRIPTION: Betsy Gray goes to Ballynahinch battlefield. She finds her wounded fiance Willie and brother George. A Yeoman sword cuts off her hand as she pleas for her brother's life. Another Yeoman shoots her. The bodies are found and they are buried in one grave.
EARLIEST DATE: 1925 (Hayward-Ulster)
KEYWORDS: rebellion battle burial death brother sister reunion
Jun 13, 1798 - Battle of Ballynahinch (source: Moylan)
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Hayward-Ulster, pp. 93-95, "Betsy Gray" (1 text)
Moylan 82, "Betsy Gray" (1 text)
NOTES: Hayward-Ulster has Betsy fighting beside Wullie Boal and her brother George. "When adverse fate with victory crowned the loyal host upon that day, Poor George and Wullie joined the flight, and with them lovely Betsy Gray." Their fight, wounding, and death follows. - BS
For the Battle of Ballynahinch, see especially the notes to "General Monroe." The battle was the last stand, or nearly, of the Ulster portion of the 1798 rebellion. The rebels had hardly fought; their lack of discipline caused them to collapse when pressed by the loyalist forces of General Nugent.
It appears this song is essentially accurate; Pakenham, (who generally downplays the worst behavior by British troops), reports on p. 231 that "[no] one knew how many rebels had been killed, but it was assumed about four hundred. The bodies lay unburied in the deserted streets of Ballynahinch, like those at New Ross the week before, food for the local pigs. Other victims of the battle were taken away by night and buried by their relatives. Among them was a young girl called Betsy Gray, who was later to be famous for her part that day. She had fought beside her brother and lover, and they had stayed by her in the retreat, although they could have outridden their pursuers; all three were shot down by the yeomanry."
Stewart, p. 227, reports that "A young woman called Elizabeth Gray, with her brother George and her fiance, Willie Boal, were aboyut to cross the country road when they were apparently seen by a vedette posted at the nearby crossroads. The scene of the encounter was a marshy hollow at Ballycreen, about two miles from Ballynahinch. Betsy Gray (to give her the name by which she is best remembered) had gone ahead of the men and was taken first. When George Gray and Boal went to her aid they were instantly shot down. Then a cavalryman called Jack Gill struck off the girl's gloved hand with his sabre, and Thomas Nelson 'of the parish of Annahilt, aided by James Little of the same place' shot her through the head.... Young Matthew Armstrong found the mutilated bodies, and with the help of two neighbours carried them to a hollow on his property, and buried them there in a single grave, 'leaving those faithful Hearts of Down sleeping the sleep that knows no waking.'"
Much folklore arose as a result, including some versions in which Betsy became the beautiful commander of a force of rebels. Her story eventually inspired Wesley Greenhill Lyttle to write the popular (but not especially accurate) novel Betsy Gray, or The Hearts of Down (1886).
Her story did not end in 1798: "Ballycreen, Country Down... was the burial place of Betsy Gray, a young County Down woman who went out with the rebels at the Battle of Balynahinch... and who was cut down with her brother and her lover. Afterwards she became an Ulster folk heroine and the subject of a popular book.
"Inm 1898 a celebration was planned for her grave; but on the eve of the gathering a group of local loyalists smashed her gravestone to pieces. When the Home Rulersof Belfast arrived for the ceremony, the reins of their horses were cut and their carriages were overturned. As one local put it, 'they meant no disrespect to Betsy's memory,' but 'the local protestants were inflamed because it was being organized by Roman Catholics and Home Rulers. They did not like these people claiming Betsy'" (Bartlett/Dawson/Keough, p. 172).- RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Bartlett/Dawson/Keough: Thomas Bartlett, Kevin Dawson, Daire Keogh, The 1798 Rebellion: An Illustrated History, Roberts Rinehart, 1998
- Pakenham: Thomas Pakenham The Year of Liberty, 1969, 1997 (I use the 2000 Abacus paperback edition)
- Stewart: A. T. Q. Stewart, The Summer Soldiers: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down, Blackstaff Press, 1995
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.