He was the son of a miller, and a local leader of the rebellion in Duneane, County Antrim. A young Presbyterian radical, he and his family had been evicted from their farm before the rebellion due to the death of his father. After the rebellion he went into hiding for almost a year but was betrayed, captured by British soldiers and court-martialled in Ballymena.
He was executed on Good Friday 1799 in the town of Toomebridge "near the bridge of Toome" which had been partially destroyed by rebels in 1798 to prevent the arrival of reinforcements from west of the River Bann. His body was then dissected by the British and buried under the road that went from Belfast to Derry until the mid 1800s, when he was dug up and given a proper burial in an unmarked grave.
Wikipedia (quoting as a source: "The Summer Soldiers" - The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down" - A.T.Q Stewart (1995))
From the website of the Rody McCorley Society (see below)
As I have said, Rody was immortalised in ballad by Ethna Carberry (1866-1902, the pseudonym of Anna MacManus, née Johnston) of which there are several versions. I have included two here. The first is the original poem and the second the later and more famous version often heard today.
I have seen a number of variants of this poem and cannot find a definitive source, but this seems to be the original:
The hero now I speak of, he was proper tall and straight,
Like to the lofty poplar tree his body was complete,
His growth was like the tufted fir that does ascend the air,
And waving o'er his shoulders broad the locks of yellow hair.
In sweet Duneane this youth was born and reared up tenderly,
His parents educated him, all by their industry,
Both day and night they sorely toiled all for their family,
'Till desolation it came on by cursed perjury.
'Twas first the father's life they took and secondly the son,
The mother tore her old grey locks, she says "I am undone
They took from me my property, my houses and my land,
And in the parish where I was born I dare not tread upon."
"Farewell unto you sweet Drumaul, if in you I had stayed,
Among the Presbyterians I ne'er had been betrayed,
The gallows tree I'd ne'er have seen had I remained there
For Dufferin you betrayed me, McErlean you set the snare."
"In Ballyscullion I was betrayed, woe be unto the man,
Who swore me a defender and a foe unto the crown,
Which causes Rody for to lie beneath the spreading thorn,
He'll sigh and say 'Alas the day that ever I was born'."
Soon young Rody was conveyed to Ballymena town,
He was loaded there with irons strong, his bed was the cold ground,
And there young Rody he must wait until the hour has come,
When a court-martial does arrive for to contrive his doom.
They called upon an armed band, an armed band came soon,
To guard the clever tall young youth down to the Bridge of Toome,
And when young Rody he came up the scaffold to ascend,
He looked at east and looked at west to view his loving friends.
And turning round unto the north he cried "O faithless friend,
'Twas you who proved my overthrow and brought me to this end.
Since 'tis upon Good Friday that I'll executed be,
Convenient to the Bridge of Toome upon a Gallows Tree."
They called on Father Devlin, his reverence came with speed
"Here's is one of Christ's own flock", he said, "ye shepherds for to feed"
He gave to him the Heavenly Food that nourishes the soul
That it may rest eternally while his body is in the mould
And looking up unto the Lord he says, 'O Lord receive
Here is my soul, I do bestow my body unto the grave
That it may rest in peace and joy without the least surprise,
Till Michael sounds his trumpet loud, and says, "Ye dead rise"
This poem throws a lot of light upon Rody, but must be read with care. It is wrong in the date (probably being the source of the Good Friday date) and surprisingly introduces "Father Devlin" after clearly stating that Rody was Presbyterian.
The second and more famous version is the song written in the 20th century, based on Ethna Carberry's poem (there are many versions of this and I cannot confirm that this is the original):
Oh Ireland, Mother Ireland,
You love them still the best,
The fearless brave who fighting fall
Upon your hapless breast;
But 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.
Up the narrow street he stepped,
Smiling and proud and young;
About the hemp-rope on his neck
The golden ringlets clung.
There’s never a tear in the blue, blue eyes,
Both glad and bright are they
As Rody McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
Ah! when he last stepped up that street,
His shining pike in hand,
Behind him marched in grim array
A stalwart earnest band!
For Antrim town! for Antrim town!
He led them to the fray
And Rody McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
The grey coat and its sash of green
Were brave and stainless then
A banner flashed beneath the sun
Over the marching men
The coat bath many a rent this noon,
The sash is torn away,
And Rody McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
Oh, how his pike flashed to the sun!
Then found a foeman’s heart!
Through furious fight, and heavy odds,
He bore a true man’s part;
And many a red-coat bit the dust
Before his keen pike-play
But Rody McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
Because he loved the Motherland,
Because he loved the Green,
He goes to meet the martyr’s fate
With proud and joyous mien,
True to the last, true to the last,
He treads the upward way
Young Rody McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
In popular folklore Rody McCorley, or Rodai Mac Corlai, was one of the Protestant leaders of the Society of United Irishmen. After the Rebellion of 1798 he was betrayed and hanged on 1 March, allegedly Good Friday, 1799. So far the legendary character.
Rody McCorley was born in Duneane, County Antrim, somewhere in the 1770's. The religious background of his mother, née McErlean, is undisputed Presbyterian, whereas the religion of his father is at least questionable. According to some sources Rody's father, a corn mill owner, was a rather prominent member of the Defenders. This piece of information is as inconsistent as it can get. If he actually owned the mill he was most likely Protestant, because Presbyterians as well as Catholics were subject to the same Penal Laws. Protestant and Presbyterian Defenders, on the other hand, were extremely rare because the organisation was almost exclusively Catholic. We have to bear in mind the possibility that somewhere down the road of history the phrase worked at a mill became miller and eventually mill owner. In addition McCorley is known as a Catholic surname. In conclusion Rody's father might have adhered the Catholic religion.
Even more puzzling is what had become of McCorley's father. Some assume that he was arrested and hanged for stealing sheep. Others suggest that he was caught making pikes and subsequently transported. Whatever the case might have been, Rody's father apparently just vanished from history and his mother got remarried with a irrefutable Presbyterian man from Oldtown.
The chronology is problematic, but there's a good chance that Rody McCorley was raised in the Catholic tradition. This dissident idea is supported by Rody's association with the Defenders and the appearance of Father Devlin in the second last verse.
Undisputed is the fact that he took part in the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798, disputed however is his role in this revolt. Some assume that Rody McCorley was just one of the masses, while others attribute a higher ranking to him.
Anyway, after the revolt it was impossible for the rebels to return home and gangs of wandering insurgents roamed the roads of Ulster. The name of Rody McCorley pops up in association with a gang led by Thomas Archer. For about a year this gang of highwaymen prowled County Antrim until Rody McCorley was betrayed. Probably, as indicated in the fifth verse, a relative from his mother's side tattled his hiding place to the English. Rody McCorley stood trial and was sentenced to death.
McCorley was transported from Ballymena to Toomebridge and hung by his neck on the bridge over the River Bann, whereupon his body was dissected and buried in the Belfast to Derry road. Everybody travelling from Belfast to Derry had to walk over his body. Obviously his execution was a warning, although it is not clear whether the warning was meant to address rebels or robbers.
The date of his execution is also subject of dispute. Folklore has it that the hanging took place on 1 March 1799, Good Friday according this ballad. This date is also inscribed on a commemorative headstone in the old graveyard at Duneane. Either folklore or the ballad is incorrect. Please bear with us for a moment: In Western Christianity Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after after 21 March, the spring equinox. As a result Good Friday, the Friday preceding Easter, always falls between 19 March and 23 April. In all fairness we have to admit that 1 March 1799 was a Friday indeed, but on this earth there's no way that Good Friday ever falls on 1 March of the Gregorian calendar.
Probably the most reliable source of information is provided by the Belfast Newsletter issued on Tuesday 4 March 1800. The article under the heading Extract From A Letter From Ballymena reads Upon Friday last, a most awful procession took place here, namely, the escorting of Roger McCorley, who was lately convicted at a Court Martial, to the place of execution, Toome Bridge, the unfortunate man having been bred in that neighbourhood, as a warning to others [...] his body was given up for dissection and afterwards buried under the gallows.. Apart from the first name of the hanged man this report is consistent with what is known about the execution of Rody McCorley, which leads us to the conclusion that the execution took place on 28 February 1800. A marginal note to silence the geniuses in our midst: No, 1800 wasn't a leap year since leap years are defined as years evenly divisible by 4 are leap years, with the exception of centennial years that are not evenly divisible by 400. But even then the Friday before Tuesday 4 March would be 29 February.
In the 1850's the bridge was in need of major repairs. Coincidently a nephew of Rody, Hugh McCorley, was put in charge of the job. Hugh carefully exhumed the remains of his relative in 1857 and put them to rest in the graveyard of the old Church of Ireland at Duneane. Some authors find evidence for a Protestant Rody McCorley in the fact that he was buried near the Church of Ireland. Catholic burial grounds however were next to non-existent and it was common practise to commit everybody regardless of their religion to the earth of Protestant cemeteries.
McCorley's grave was initially marked with a headstone which soon was destroyed. Nowadays his grave is unmarked and apparently no one knows its exact location.
Rody McCorley's body might be at rest, his memory is still haunting the river crossing in Toome as turned out with the opening of a new bridge over the River Bann in April 2004.
Sinn Féin suggested to name the bridge after the Catholic rebel Rody McCorley and, because Rody was a famous Protestant local leader of the non-sectarian United Irishmen, some Unionists supported this proposal. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) passed over this once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfil a Republican idea backed by Unionists by arguing that McCorley had been merely a brigand and persisted on the neutral name Toome Bridge. Soon thereafter explosives were found near the bridge and Sinn Féin members erected signs naming the bridge after Rodai Mac Corlai.
Unfortunately I have been unable to contact them for further detail, as their contact pages do not work.
It is told that Rody's father, who owned a cornmill in the Townland of Lismacloskey in the parish of Duneane, was an early recruit to the organisation. Rody's mother, a McErlean from Oldtown near Bellaghy, gave birth to several children who died in infancy before giving birth to Rody in the early 1770s. He was born at a time of agitation in Europe, America and Ireland.
There are two versions of what happened to Rody's father. One says that he was transported for stealing sheep, the other that he was transported for making pikes. The truth probably lies between the two. Crown forces would have known the leaders of the defenders were and lacking solid evidence, habeas corpus was still then in force, concocted allegations that would allow them to deal with the leaders without making martyrs of them by hanging. It is not known where he was transported to or even if he survived the journey.
Following the transportation of his father the cornmill passed to Rody's uncle and both he and his mother returned to her family home in Oldtown. They remained there for several years before returning to live with Rody's uncle in the cornmill. There his mother married a man called Orr. Local people who relate this story are often unaware that Samuel Orr, one of the leaders of the United Irishmen came from Randalstown and was probably related to the Orr that married Rody's mother.
The American colonies declared independence in 1776 and were at war with England for several years. The British garrison in Ireland was reduced as troops were sent to the Americas. Then the first signs of revolution broke out in France in 1783. England worried. When the revolution broke out in 1789 England trembled. Fearing similar scenes in England (the execution of the monarchy and the declaration of the rights of man) the Irish garrison was again depleted. And then in Belfast In 1791 the Society of United Irishmen was formed. It was inspired by both the American and French revolutions and took onto themselves the slogan 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'.
It pledged to work reform and 'to put the common name Irishman in place of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter'. Because Catholic peasant life was hard (they were afraid of the landlords, most of whom were government supporters) few joined the ranks of the United Irishmen. Through his stepfather Rody was one of these. Fearing a popular revolution in Ireland and the possible invasion through 'the back door' a Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1793. This gave rights to Catholics and gave funding for a Catholic seminary, Maynooth.
The act also gave rights to the rank and file clergy to raise 'dues' from their parishioners. This toll was to be on top of rents and tithes paid to the Church of Ireland and helped to further alienate the mass of Catholic peasantry who surged to the colours of the Defenders. In recompense for recognition the Catholic hierarchy damned all anti-government agitation. When France and England finally went to war in 1793 the Government asked supporters in the ranks of the landlord class to raise local militias. The landlords forced their tenants to join the ranks, threatening eviction to anyone who would not join, thus making it impossible for United Irishmen and Defenders to avoid this draft. The raising of these companies and the suppression of the United Irishmen in 1794 forced the society to become a secret oath bound organisation. Going underground the United Irishmen planned an armed rebellion and to this end began mustering other groups such as the defenders. The United Irishmen were particularly strong in counties Antrim and Down, so in 1797 the government sent in General Lake to terrorise Ulster into submission.
This succeeded to a great extent and only the most resolute of the United Irishmen remained committed to the idea of rebellion. As the government seemed prepared to pursue a similar operation in the rest of Ireland it was decided to carry out the rebellion as soon as possible even if the French help did not come. The scene was set for revolution. On the 6th June 1798, Henry Joy McCracken issued his general order: 'Army of Ulster, tomorrow we march on Antrim; drive the garrison of Randalstown before you and haste to form a junction with your commander in chief. 1st year of liberty 6th day of June 1798'.
Early in the morning of the 7th, the men of four parishes, namely Drumaul, Duneane, Grange and Connor, met under the leadership of a man called Henderson. Before hostilities began he was superseded by George Dickson, who is described as 'a man of much military tact and undaunted courage'. The body of men marched on Randalstown. Reports from the time describe that the colours tied to their pikestaffs were yellow and white, the colours of the Defenders, rather than the green of the United Irishmen.
The battle of Randalstown took place in the early afternoon and lasted approximately 52 minutes. The Defenders numbered around 500 and the garrison around 120. Heavily outnumbered but not outgunned, the garrison under the command of Lieutenant Ellis fled to the market house, which was their barracks. The Defenders smoked them out using damp straw. When the garrison surrendered they were 'taken out and treated with great kindness, not one was put to death or offered either injury or insult'.
Leading a holding party at Randalstown the insurgent force was then divided. A squad of some 50 men was dispatched to Toome to destroy the bridge. This they did in 14 hours hard manual labour. The main corps, led by Samuel Orr, Dickson and two others named Maginnis and Halliday, set off to join McCracken at Antrim where the battle was just beginning. McCorley was amongst these.
When the column from Randalstown approached Antrim from the north, a party of United Irish horsemen, sheltering in Bow Lane, were in danger of being cut off from the main body of McCracken's men. The horsemen galloped up the street towards the open country where they met the column from Randalstown. Being uncertain of the actual situation in the town the Defender column apparently mistook the horsemen for an attack from a victorious garrison and despite the efforts of their leaders they panicked and scattered.
It was found impossible to rally them into an effective force but several small groups made it into Antrim and fought in the battle. Eventually overwhelmed by government reinforcements the insurgents withdrew. The insurgents, although scattered, were still a force to be reckoned with. To try and diffuse the situation the Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, gave a general amnesty to all those involved in the United Irishmen rising. Significantly this proclamation did not cover the Catholic Defenders, who as a whole remained on the run.
Rody found refuge on the farm of friends in the parish of Drumaul near Randalstown. Here he helped work the land until, according to local Protestant tradition, he was caught by a small patrol of local yeomanry. A man called Nugent who had sympathy with the United Irishmen led the patrol. Although he should have been arrested, the yeomanry gave him 'a good skelping' and let him go.
Fearing arrest and hanging Rody again went on the run. He hoped to make it to Derry and then to America. On his way he met an old Defender comrade, Thomas Archer who was a shoemaker from Ballymena. Archer had continued to act as a Defender even after the collapse of the rising. Rody decided to join him and his band. For several months the band raided the farms of the most cruel of the local yeomanry and took part in ambushing militia patrols.
In December of 1799 the band raided the farm of a leading yeoman called James Love and in the fight killed him. This raid forced General Nugent, the military commander of County Antrim, to post a substantial reward and the offer of free pardons to anyone who would turn the band in. Most of the band was captured early in 1800 in Ballymena. Both Rody and Archer escaped. Rody took his chances and again decided to head for America. Travelling to the port in Derry city he stopped off at Far Ballyscullion beside Lough Beg.
Tired and hungry, Rody approached the farm of the Duffins and asked for food. He was asked in. A member of the Duffin family, mindful of the substantial reward, went to their neighbours, the McErleans, and then with one of them went to get a local yeoman, Sam 'Cruel Sam' Finneston, at the yeoman barracks at Millquarter. While the Yeomen were coming to arrest Rody the old woman of the house was given the job of keeping him there. She kept him from leaving by telling him to wait until the porridge was ready but by adding cold water she kept the pot from boiling.
This gave the nickname to the family 'eke the pot Duffins'. The daughter of the house, feeling guilty, told Rody of the approaching yeomanry. He escaped through the back window but was captured shortly afterwards. He was taken firstly to Toome where he was handed over to the Dumbartonshire Fencibles who were stationed at the barracks here. They hastily arranged a court martial for Rody at Ballymena. At the trial he was described as a Defender. Heavily chained he was forced to walk the eleven miles to Toome to be hung.
The scaffold was roughly constructed. Beside the bridge parapet a post was stuck in the ground, and from it the ground, and from it at the top was a bar at right angles, over which a rope was thrown. This post was so set in the ground that it could be swung round over the water, with the hanging struggling body, as an added insult and indignity. A report of his execution in the Belfast Newsletter, under the heading 'Extract from a letter from Ballymena', of the 4th March 1800 and reads: 'Upon Friday last, a most awful procession took place here, namely, the escorting of Rodger McCorley, who was lately convicted at a Court Martial, to the place of execution, Toome Bridge, the unfortunate man having been bred in that neighbourhood, as a warning to others… his body was given up for dissection and afterwards buried under the gallows'.
The term dissection at the end of that piece disguises the brutality of what happened. Rody was taken from the scaffold and publicly disembowelled, a cruel and inhuman punishment even for those times. The body was buried at the rise of the bridge on the roadway, where all the traffic from Antrim to Derry and back again would pass over it. The body lay there for fifty-two years.
In 1852 a new bridge was to be built and the foreman in charge was Hugh McCorley of Portglenone, Rody's nephew. Hugh, aware of the position of the body organized the work until he found the remains, which were intact. He then had them placed in a coffin and had them brought to the family burial ground in the old Church of Ireland graveyard at Duneane.
Fearing reprisals from the local Orange Order, which was strong at the time, he had them buried quietly but this did not stop local people visiting the grave in large numbers. A headstone was erected but members of the local Orange Order secretly pulled up the stone and threw it down a well. They issued dire threats if a new stone were to be erected. Today the grave remains unmarked and no one knows its exact location.
In recent years a permanent memorial has been erected at the spot of his execution. On it the date of his execution is given as 1799 but more recent research shows that this date is wrong. That Rody was executed in Toome is not disputed but the date of Good Friday seems to come from the Ethna Carberry poem written during the centenary celebrations of the rising.
"In memory of Rody McCorley who was hung here for his part in the 1798 uprising.
May the honour of those who died for Ireland last forever."
"There's never a tear in the blue, blue eyes,
both glad and bright are they.
As Rody McCorly goes to die on the
bridge of Toome today ".
During the rising of 1798, the United Irishmen, in retreat from the battle of Antrim, made a stand here on the bridge at Toome, and in an effort to keep General Knox and his Yeomanry from attacking them from the Co. Derry side, two of the bridges nine arches were destroyed. The General and his troops eventually crossed the river, and defeated and captured most of what remained of the defenders. This resulted in one of them being hanged on the bridge the following year. The young man's name was Rody McCorly and the historian Francis J. Bigger's report of this sad event makes interesting reading, extracts from which are quoted here.
"After the insurrection was over, Rody must have escaped
the Yeomen for sometime, being concealed in safe houses in
Antrim, Derry and Tyrone awaiting his chance to escape to
America. He was captured however in the following spring at
Ballyscullion on the shore of Lough Beg by Samuel Finneston a
local Yeoman. Members of the Dumbartonshire Fencible Regiment who
were stationed at Toome at this time brought the prisoner to
Ballymena where he was court marshalled and sentenced to death by
hanging. Rody now in chains was marched from Ballymena to Toome,
and lodged in what was then a Barracks, situated in the first
building on your right on entering Moneyglass Road. From here, he
was taken to the place of execution on the bridge. The scaffold
was a rudely constructed affair; a stout post was sunk into the
ground and from it at the top, a bar protruded at the right
angles over which the rope was thrown. This post was fixed in
such a position to enable it to be swung around and out over the
river to enable those attending to view the hanging body from
both sides of the river. There was a large platform at the base
on which the masked hangman stood to fix the rope. The execution
took place on the day of all days Good Friday and was witnessed
by a huge crowd of sympathising friends and neighbours. Rody was
attended by Father Hugh Devlin, who ministered to him as far as
the situation permitted. The body was subsequently buried
underneath the roadway where traffic going through would pass
over it. The body of Rody McCorly lay in this unsanctified bed
for over fifty years. Many a traveller trod lightly on the spot
during those years, breathing an inward prayer as they passed by.
The children never played there, and all talked ceased until the
resting place was passed.
During 1852 a decision was taken to replace the bridge by a more modern structure. A large gang of men were engaged in the construction and cutting a new course for the river. The foreman was a giant of a man from Portglenone, a nephew of Rody's by the name of Hugh McCorly. He knew where the remains of the body lay and making sure, with all the activity that was taking place nearby it was not disturbed, he regulated the work to suit his plans. Then came the day to put his thoughts into action. It was a Holiday of Obligation celebrating the feast day of the Saints, Peter and Paul, on the 29th day of June. The remains were found intact not one bone was missing. Reverently they were dug up and placed in a coffin, which was carried shoulder high slowly through the village. The procession passed Gallows Hill, another execution spot on the Randalstown side of Toome, across the bog, by the old Road to Duneane Graveyard; there the remains were laid to rest in the McCorly family plot on the eastern side of the church. Never before was such an assembly of people seen in Duneane, not only did the workmen attend, but the people from a wide surrounding area were there to do him honour and celebrate his Christian burial half a century after his death. Francis J. Bigger states that two simple stones mark the McCorly burial ground, one is of slate the other sandstone."
They bear the following inscription:
THIS STONE BELONGS TO JOHN MCCORLEY
HERE LIETH THE BODY OF
FELIX MCCORLEY WHO DIED
THE 13th of APRIL 1768
AGED ELEVEN MONTHS ALSO
ANN MCCORLEY WHO DIED
JUNE the 1st 1769 AGED 4 YEARS
THIS IS TO THE MEMORY
OF ROGER MCCORLEY
WHO DEPARTED THIS
LIFE MAY 12th 1772
AGED 61 YEARS
It will be noted that Rody McCorly's name is on neither. Sad to say these two simple stones have long since disappeared, whether or not they were in position during Mr. Biggers time he does not say. Today no one seems to be able to give the exact location of the family burial plot. Mr. Bigger in his short history of this sad episode states that the site of the execution is to be found in a field with a grassy bank sloping down to the river and that the owner Francis Grant is prepared to donate a site free of charge to enable a suitable memorial to be erected there. He is of the opinion that a large Celtic cross should be raised on the site of the scaffold, which could be seen by everyone travelling by river, road or rail, on the main arteries between Antrim and Derry. Mr. Grant's offer was taken up and a suitable cross was erected on the riverbank to the rear of the police station. Sad to say this memorial was attacked and partially destroyed during 1969. A fitting memorial has been re-erected and stands on the opposite side of the road from the RUC station.