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New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 72-85
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The Burning of Freeduff Presbyterian Church, 1743
On October 13, 1743, Randle Donaldson received news that the Freeduff Presbyterian Church had been burned to the ground. Donaldson, a former high sheriff with considerable landholdings in South Armagh, had little doubt about who had committed this outrage. His certainty was confirmed when he and William Richardson, another member of the Armagh gentry, collected evidence about the incident. The information, taken from members of the Freeduff congregation, was both consistent and wholly circumstantial; all understood the crime to be sectarian in nature. The Reverend Alexander McCombe's testimony is an apt representative; McCombe stated that he was sure that "evil disposed persons of the Papist religion" had destroyed his meeting house.1 Ellinor Mulligan's evidence is the most interesting and potentially insightful. Mulligan, who recently had traveled from Raffry townland near Strangford Lough to join McCombe's congregation and reside in the area, stated that a man, she presumed a papist, had told her on the road that she had better not settle in the region, where discounted rents were being used to attract Presbyterian colonists. If she did so, it was intimated that her cattle would be houghed—that is, have their hamstrings cut—and she would be burned off the land. According to Mulligan, the man also mentioned Rev. McCombe, who was said to be acting like a "little king" in the area and would soon be getting his reward.2 Whatever the variant, no informant questioned the general consensus that local Catholics were responsible.
Things did not stop there. With the considerable help of the Reverend Hugh Hill, the Anglican rector of Creggan Parish and an important landlord himself, the major landowners of the Fews region sent a petition on to the government in Dublin. Signed by a fairly wide array of the central and south Armagh gentry, [End Page 72] the petition itself is an interesting document. After surveying the improvements that Protestant settlement had brought to this previously "wild and uncultivated district," the petitioners expressed their fear that the church burning "has intimidated any more Protestants to come and settle there and we greatly apprehend will drive the present Inhabitants away."3 With this in mind, the petitioners asked the government to offer a reward to aid in the capture of the arsonists. Acting quickly on this request, officials issued a proclamation offering a hundred pounds to "anyone who within three months would inform as to who set fire to the Meeting House at Freduffe, County Armagh on 13 October 1743."4 Despite these efforts, no individual was ever charged or convicted for the crime. There was, however, a collective punishment to be doled out. At the Spring Assizes of 1744, a special fine was levied on the Catholics of Creggan Parish to aid in the reconstruction of Freeduff Presbyterian Church.5 Clearly, the burning of this meeting house was widely viewed as a sectarian atrocity and elites anxious to maintain and increase Protestant settlement in the area could not allow such assaults on their nascent Presbyterian community to go unpunished. For all intents and purposes, the matter ended there.
In their landmark studies of the evolution of communal identities in Ulster, Sean Connolly and Marianne Elliott provide brief descriptions of the 1743 Freeduff church burning, with each citing the important roles played by such controversial settlement communities in keeping sectarian enmities alive.6 Yet no one has examined these events in any depth. On one level, of course, it is easy enough to understand why historians have failed to devote much attention to this church burning. After all, no one died and the destruction of a thatched-roofed meeting house was not even much of a burning by Armagh's increasingly lofty standards of violence. If these colonization projects played such key roles in the construction of communal identities in the north of Ireland, however, then surely more detailed consideration and study is warranted.7 What follows here is a preliminary analysis of one...