Skip to content

James Porter 1753-1798

"The story of James Porter is one of the saddest in the history of our church..."

The story of James Porter is one of the saddest in the history of our church, and his fate may serve as a warning to ministers of the gospel who devote to politics the time and talents that ought to be exercised in their own profession. (From The High Presbyterian, March 1906)

The Porter family were “Plantation Settlers” in the Parish of Conleigh, Co Donegal Parish Church, and were connected with the Presbyterian congregation of Ballindrait. (The area had been inhabited for centuries and a three-headed ancient statue was found on the Porter farm and is now displayed in the Belfast museum.) “The Porter family had for generations resided near Ballindrait” (Sean MacLoinsigh, Donegal Annual, Vol 8 No. 1)

In 1676 Robert Porter (James’s grandfather) sat in the Presbytery as a representative elder from the congregation. He was the son of Alexander Porter (whose wife’s maiden name was Sims)and was born at Tamna Wood, near Ballindrait school house. James was the eldest of eight children, four sons and four daughters. His father, Alexander, was a farmer and owner of a flax-scutching mill on the river Deal, on its north bank some distance up-stream from the ancient bridge which gives the village its name. “He was a man of small stature, and I believe, of little education, but, I have been told, was superior in manners, appearance and intelligence to his class in that country generally, from whence he received the “sobriquet” of “The little gentlemen”. His means were very limited as he was unable to give his children much education. He died early in life leaving a large family and was soon followed by his wife. At the time of his death he resided at a place called Tammanay Wood” (by James Porter, 1844).

From Estate records of the Right Hon the Earl of Erne it appears that in 1768 James Porter was tenant of this small farm at Tamna Wood and had a “Tuck” mill at Ballindrait on the north bank of the river a few yards west of the bridge. There still exists in Ballindrait a beautifully engraved sun-dial made in 1771 by James Porter for his relative Andrew Stilly and inscribed “by James Porter, anno 1771; for latitude 54′ 58′ for Andrew Stilley” (now in a small historical museum of the Presbyterian Church in the Assembly Buildings, in Belfast). On 25th October 1969, Donegal Historical Society placed a plaque on the wall of the house at Tamnawood, Ballindrait, in memory of the Rev. James Porter (reported by Belinda Mahaffy)

“The courageous Rev. Porter was born in Tamnawood,
And trying to right Ireland’s wrongs he shed his noble blood
But the pen is mightier than the sword when writing rebel stuff,
And soon the Yeos all got to know the pen man Billy Bluff.”

When a boy, James Porter, was distinguished for the rapidity for which he acquired knowledge and for the extent of his attainments. At the time the Rev Robert Law, a preacher who had turned teacher, was conducting a classical school at Ballindrait and it is almost certain that from him young Porter acquired a good part of that knowledge for which he was distinguished in his youth. He developed a strong liking for what were called in those days the “natural sciences” or natural history.

After leaving school he worked in his father’s farm and mill. Having a taste for mechanics he soon acquired skill sufficient to make most of the repairs necessary in the machinery. During the long winter evenings the young Porter was accustomed to read books and probably he continued his studies in classics.

Once on a day, as a young lad, without a word to anyone, he left his father’s house dressed in his Sunday suit, and, taking a couple of his own shirts off the hedge where they were drying, as he passed the road, went away, like King of Ireland’s son in the old stories, to seek his fortune. “He left home as a consequence of some disagreement with his grandfather” (by James Porter 1844) No word was ever after heard of him by his parents until he became the ordained minister of Greyabbey.” (From “As I Roved out – A Book of the North)

When he was 20 years of age his father died. James gave up the farm and mill to a younger brother and after trying for a time for suitable positions, he at length became tutor to the family of Mr Alexander Knox of Eden Hill, Co. Down (an uncle of his mother, who lived not far from the residence of his maternal grandfather). Being a remarkably fine looking young man with good conversational powers he won the heart of a young lady in the family (Miss Anne Knox) to whom he was married in 1780 by the Rev Robert Black of Dromore, afterwards the celebrated Wm Black of Derry . Many years after Porter’s untimely end Dr Black told Rev Wm Porter of Limavady that Mr James Porter was at the time of his marriage the handsomest man he had ever seen. “The match did not meet the approbation of her family; they, on the contrary, disapproved of it. Their circumstances and station in life they thought enabled her to make a better choice. Be this as it may, however, he received no property from her parents tho’ they soon became in some degree reconciled to the connection, and he and Anne resided there (at Eden Hill) for a few years with her father”. (by James Porter 1844)

After the ceremony was performed the bride’s grandmother wished the bride and groom “great happiness” but added that she saw small signs of it. (“But there are sma’ signs o’t.”)

Soon after this marriage Mr Porter opened a school in Drogheda and at the same time continued his own studies with diligence. About 1784 he entered the divinity class of Glasgow University, his previously acquired attainments being accepted by the Presbytery as equivalent to a degree in the arts. He got his degrees at Glasgow in the manner that the great number of Presbyterian clergymen at that time got theirs. He taught school during the summer months and in the winter went over to Scotland. After studying for three sessions he was licensed in 1786 or 1787 by Bangor presbytery to preach the gospel.

After being an unsuccessful candidate for the Presbyterian congregation of Ballindrait he received, through the good offices of Robert Black, a call to Greyabbey, vacant by the resignation of Dr Stevenson. No subscription was required of him, and the test questions, drawn up by Andrew Craig, were Arian in complexion. This call he accepted and on the 31 July 1787 was ordained, being then 34 years of age. “There were three isles in the church. The present church was built in 1860 on the site of Porter’s church and with the same materials. His portrait still hangs in the vestry”. (Rev W.J. Wharton)

“In 1796 or 1797 my father resided on a small farm of about 14 acres forming part of the estate of the Rev. Hugh Montgomery of Rosemount, from whom it was rented. He had previously resided in the village of Greyabbey and also in the farmhouse of Ballynestor in the same neighbourhood. Cabinvale was the name my father gave the little snuggery where my memory was born. It was a long, low, thatched cottage about half a mile from Greyabbey, on the left-hand side of the road leading to Donaghadee, and stood near the road, from which it was separated by a small strip of green sod without enclosure or shrubbery. The building was not unlike the engravings of the cottage in which Burns, the poet, was born, perhaps rather better, but still an humble dwelling. Here, attending to his farm, his professional duties and the care of his children, his life passed in peace and poverty. The life of a Presbyterian clergyman was at that time a life of constant struggle. With the education and manners of gentlemen they were unable to live as such, but had frequently to earn their support by the sweat of their brow. It was genteel starvation. To this we add, as in my father’s case, the consciousness of talent and the promptings of a mind which no doubt sided with the people and eagerly longed for better government for their sake as well as his own, I cannot conceive a situation requiring more fortitude, philosophy and Christian resignation. (By James Porter’s son James)

“A few miles outside the former town the road was unspeakably beautiful, arched over as it was with evergreens, where the shimmering shafts of sunlight fell through the glancing leaves in a dazzling shower of green and gold, and the Lough, seen here and there, gleamed like a sheet of beaten silver in the evening light. (From “As I Roved Out – A Book of the North”)

Greyabbey, the name as applied to the village, is certainly not a misnomer. It is the greyest place we have ever seen – grey walls, grey paint, grey stucco, grey stone, grey pebble-dashing: there is not a splash of colour anywhere. Even the sunlight seemed unable to relieve the drab greyness. There seemed to be a grey cloud over all the neighbourhood – as well there might – and the intensity of the silence of its main street could almost be felt. Here and there a grim-faced woman – like another Fate – stood in her doorway knitting, and at the street’s eastern end, where a man filled a white enamelled bucket at the village pump, the complaining of its rusty handle was the only sound to be heard in all the place.

To the right of the main street, the top of the road leads to the ruins of the great Cistern Abbey, founded in the year 1193 by Afreca, wife of John de Courcy, and daughter of Godfred, King of the Isle of Man.

A certain type of historian will tell you with much unction that the Abbey was burned in 1572 by Brian MacPhelim O’Neill, but what the said historian will not tell you is that this ‘desperate remedy’ was resorted to by the Irish Chieftain to save his people from the ‘desperate ill’ of having the holy place taken over by the English vandals and used as a fortress by them. (The nave of the Abbey church was restored in the 17th century and used as the parish church. The church consisted of a square-ended presbytery, transepts with pairs of square E chapels, central tower and aisle-less nave.)

Our way lay to the left at the top of the main street, and this led us to our destination, the house – it is a remodelled one – that was once the manse in which lived the Rev. James Porter. The story as we had it was that he was hanged outside the manse door, but there is not a tree about the place and no bush in front of his door that would be high enough on which to hang a leprechaun.

The likelier story is that he was hanged outside his Church, and as we stood by the door of the place under the trees we fell to speculating as to which of the trees it was that was heavy with the “black and bitter fruit” on that 2nd day of July so long ago, when the Rev. James Porter. Presbyterian Minister of Greyabbey, died for Ireland.”

In this congregation Mr Porter’s stipend was about 50 pounds a year besides which he had 12 pounds of bounty which was raised in 1792 to about 32 pounds annually. This slender income he tried to increase by cultivating a farm. In this occupation his mechanical tastes came into operation and he endeavoured to introduce improved agriculture implements. Having mechanical tastes, he fitted up a workshop, and constructed models of improved farming implements. At the same time his duties were never neglected. He gathered an extensive library, he bought or constructed the instruments necessary for performing physical experiments and above all he attended most diligently to the duties connected with his office as minister of Greyabbey. By this and other means he did much to promote the physical wellbeing of his flock, to whom he was in all respects an assiduous pastor. He was said to be an Arian, but there seems no evidence of his attachment to a special school of theology.

At first he did not embark on the stormy sea of politics. His tastes were more literary and scientific than political, very often he delivered lectures on Natural Philosophy and performed experiments by way of illustration. These lectures were adorned with such a native simplicity of eloquence as riveted the attention of his audience and rendered his efforts exceedingly popular. Among his audience were sometimes members of Lord Londonderry’s family.

Happy for James Porter had he kept to literature, science and theology and left others to struggle in the arena of politics!

Being kind hearted and unselfish he was pained of the oppression of the people among whom he lived. At that time tenant farmers had many grievances of which the present generation know nothing. Landlords fixed whatever rents they chose to impose on their tenants who either had to pay what was demanded or to give up their holdings. In like manner every farmer no matter what might be his religion was compelled to pay further to the episcopal rector of the parish. It seems that the Presbyterian farmers of Ulster at this time did not complain so much of oppression by the State as of oppression by those who claimed the fruits of their labours and administered justice among them.

Well aware of the conditions under which the Presbyterians of Ulster then existed, Mr Porter interested himself deeply in enlarging the numbers of the United Irishmen, whose ranks in County Down alone numbered more than 43,000 men. All over Ulster he travelled, ostensibly delivering lectures on “Natural Philosophy”, but in reality ‘swearing in’ United Irishmen.”

It is stated on what seems to be good authority that Mr Porter never became a United Irishman nor did anything more unlawful than express his sympathy with those who suffered political and religious oppression. This he did by attacking abusers in the press, on the platform and sometimes even in the pulpit. At that time there were neither police nor stipendiary magistrates and consequently the sentence of order and the local administration of justice was in the hands of landlords’ agents and realtors who were often misguided informers. Mr Porter sympathised strongly with the sufferings then endured by the Presbyterian farmers and he applied the lash of satire to some of their oppressors and others in stories signed “Billy Bluff” which appeared in the Northern Star (Belfast 1796). In this story of Ulster life the Rev. Cleland, who built Stoormont, is referred to as “Noodledrum”. When attacking the system that prevailed he spoke in bitter terms of certain persons by whom that system was represented in his own neighbourhood “Lord Mountmumble” was the Earl of Londonderry, (a model landlord, he endowed schools, built chapels and houses for tenants. Despite his good works hardly anyone liked him and made himself one of the most disliked men in Irish history. He committed suicide in mysterious circumstances.) “Squire Firebrand” Mr Montgomery of Greyabbey, and “Billy Bluff” Billy Lowry, bailiff and spy on Mr Montgomery’s estate. Lord Londonderry recognised his own likeness and waited for revenge.

Although Mr Porter joined the Volunteer Movement in 1778 he took no prominent part in it and he never became a United Irishman. He was not publically known as a politician until after the suppression of the Volunteer Movement by the Convention Act of 1793. One effect of this arbitrary measure was to come into alliance with the secret society of United Irishmen those who, like Porter, were in favour of parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation, but were now debarred from the holding of open meetings for the agitation of constitutional reforms.

In 1794 he became a contributor to the Northern Star, founded in 1792 by Samuel Neilson. For this paper he wrote anonymously a number of patriotic songs which were afterwards reprinted in “Paddys Resource”. In 1796 he contributed a famous series of seven letters by “A Presbyterian”. The first, dated 21st May was published in the number for 27-30 May. They were at once reprinted, with the title “Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand”, Belfast 1796. This admirable satire deserves the popularity which it still enjoys in Ulster. The original of “Billy Bluff” as William Lowry, bailiff of Greyabbey estate, “Squire Firebrand” was Hugh Montgomery of Rosemount, proprietor of the Greyabbey estate.

The characters are broadly drawn, with a rollicking humour which is exceedingly effective without being malicious; the system of feudal tyranny and local espionage is drawn from the life. Witherow well says that “in these pages of a small pamphlet there is, on the whole, a truer picture of country life in Ireland in the last decade of the eighteenth century than in many volumes, each ten times its size”. He refers to the aristocracy as a ‘fungus on society’ with ‘rotten roots, filthy stems, and spongey heads’, in which Lord Londonderry (father of Lord Castlereagh) was portrayed as Lord Mountmumble, amusingly characterising Paddy’s Resource as ‘Paddy’s Race-horse’ through the mouth of the obsequious Billy;

The good Witherow laments that the exigencies of realism compelled a divine to represent a County Down dialogue (of that date) as interlarded with oaths, which fail to please ‘a grave and sober reader’. (From As I Roved Out – A Book of the North)

(From A.T.Q. Stewart, “The Summer Soldiers” The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down. Pub. Beackstoff Press, Belfast 1995):

Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Dublin barrister had just published “An argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”. This pamphlet had greatly impressed the Belfast men and though Tone and Drennan were jealous of each other and Tone complained that he had little influence in the society’s affairs, it was he who gave the movement its name (replacing Drennan’s Irish Brotherhood) and he who is forever associated with it in the popular mind.

The society was initially open and constituted, agitating for a reform of the Irish parliament and the removal of the Penal Laws against Catholics, though many of its members felt, like Drennan, that this could be achieved only if Ireland was entirely separated from England.

Even before they founded their political club, the Belfast radicals had been planning to launch a newspaper to disseminate their views. In September 1791 a committee of Belfast businessmen met to outline the preliminary steps. Robert Caldwell, Samuel Neilson and Robert Simms were deputed to write to prominent liberals in various parts of Ulster, asking them to recruit subscribers, and twelve partners raised the initial capital of £2,000. Again all of them were Presbyterians, and their vocations indicated the level at which the Society of United Irishmen then found support. William Tennent, John Boyle and the brothers Robert and William Simms were merchants, William Magee was a printer and bookseller, Samuel Neilson and John Haslett were woollen drapers, Henry Baslett was a shipbroker, William McCleary, a tanner, Robert Caldwell, a banker, Thomas McCabe, a watchmaker and John Robb, a clerk.

The first edition of the Northern Star appeared on 1 January 1792. Well printed and produced, it was an instant success, thanks largely to an excellent system of distribution. It had agents in every part of Ulster and even Liverpool and Edinburgh.”

Later, in 1796, Porter, whose name was now a household word in Ulster, went through the province on a lecture tour. (Belinda Mahaffy says that he was such a good speaker and so handsome that he was the equivalent of a “pop star” and drew huge crowds wherever he went). His subject was natural philosophy; he showed experiments with an electric battery and model balloons. He had previously given similar lectures in his own neighbourhood, and there is no reason for supposing that he now had any object in view apart from the advancement of popular culture, though the authorities suspected his lectures were the pretext for a political mission.

He had written for the Northern Star with the signature “A Man of Ulster” and he began another series of letters on 23rd December 1796 addressed, with the signature of “Sydney”, to Arthur Hill, second Marquis of Downshire. In these he attacked the policy of Pitt with extraordinary vehemence, and the publication of the paper was for some time suspended by the authorities.

Meanwhile, on Thursday 16 February, the government fast-day of thanksgiving for “the late providential storm which dispersed the French fleet off Bantry Bay”, Porter preached at Greyabbey a sermon, which was published with the title “Wind and Weather”, Belfast, 1797. This, which was perhaps the most remarkable discourse ever printed by an Irish divine, is a sustained effort of irony, suggested by the text “Ye walked according to….. the prince of the power of the air”. (Eph ii 2) Its literary merit is considerable.

He kept clear of everything forbidden by law. He knew well that he was obnoxious to the local authorities and when the rebellion of 1798 broke out he was a marked man; a large reward was offered for his apprehension and he retired to a place of concealment to the house of Johnson of Ballydoonan, two miles from Greyabbey, from which he ventured to visit his family at night. Afterwards he sought concealment in a cottage among the Mourne mountains on the verge of his parish. There is no evidence of any knowledge on his part of the plans of the insurgents; it is certain that he committed no overt act of rebellion, and all his published counsels were for peaceable measures of constitutional redress.

“The Rev. James Porter had no one to plead on his behalf, and was indeed not expecting to be arrested. Whatever his earlier affiliations, he seems to have played little or no part in the Rebellion. His son James Porter, who became attorney-general of Louisiana, has left an account of the days which followed, recalled from the memories of childhood. (The Hanging Day (p.250) (From A.T.Q. Stewart, “The Summer Soldiers” The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down. Pub. Beackstoff Press, Belfast 1995)

Story by James Porter junior:

“My father, conscious of having committed no offence did not attempt to fly. He remained with his family. To his and my mother’s great surprise, and to her dreadful consternation he was arrested a few days after and placed with many others who had already preceded him, in the market house of Newtownards, then converted into a prison. He remained for a short time in complete suspense, wholly unconscious of the charges which might be made against him. He did not however continue long uninformed of the measures it was intended should be taken against him. My mother, whose sagacity and good sense you may perhaps remember, said from the moment of his arrest that she was certain the hatred of Lord Londonderry would cost her husband his life. The first official notice he had of his offence was in the written charges preferred against him, and on which the young officer who handed it to him, with an air of perfect nonchalance, and humming a loyal tune as he turned on his heel and left him, told him he must prepare for trial. This document is a correct specimen of the humanity and tenderness which then prevailed in Ireland and, I believe, is unique in its kind. Perhaps no man was ever tried on charges so vaguely and informally prepared. Lord Londonderry, General Nugent and Co., Atherton ought all three to have been hanged on the same tree for such a mock-trial and real murder.

As soon as James Porter read it, he wrote a letter to the commanding officer begging to know what offence he was charged with. He hoped it would be so specified that he might learn with certainty what he was called on to meet. He protested his innocence, affirmed he could disprove and allegation, if he knew it beforehand, and could have the aid of authority to summon his witnesses. No answer was returned to this fair and proper request, nor the slightest notice taken of it.

On the following day (30 June) Porter was taken under guard and conducted before a court marshal consisting of the officer commanding the dragoons at Newtownards, two captains and four subalterns. To his dismay he perceived that the Earl of Londonderry had taken his seat among them and he found, as the trial proceeded, how potent was his influence and how fearfully it was brought to bear upon him. The first accurate information he had of the crime alleged against him were the questions put to the witnesses. They were two in number. They deposed to the same facts with perfect precision to the minutest circumstance, and from their oaths he learned that his offence was that at the head of a body of rebels he had stopped a King’s messenger.

He was charged with being “in divers Treasonable Rebellious and Seditious acts contrary to His Majesty’s peace, his Crown and Dignity”.

Captain Matthews of Inshargy informed the court that he had sent his servant, George McChesney, from Portaferry at about 6 am on 10th June with a letter to Colonel Stapleton at Newtownards requesting reinforcements. He did not meet his servant for two days, when he learned that he had been stopped at noon near Newtownards by Rev. Porter who took him to a plantation and demanded his letter. He was held two hours. Porter had the letter sent to a captain of the rebels.

McChesney then stated that he had a letter for Captain Fowler, delivered it and was given a reply to give Colonel Staplton. He could not find him, so he went to Killinatirny bridge between Greyabbey and Newtownards. Here he met Rev. Porter who took hold of his horse and led him to where he was forced to hand over his papers. He was kept in confinement in Greyabbey.

The weaver and dyer of Greyabbey, named Robert Millar, said that he knew Porter. He said that he met him on Pike Sunday accompanied by two pikemen. He confirmed all that had been offered in evidence already. He told the court, in answer to a question, that Porter had tried to persuade people in Greyabbey to join the rebellion on 10th June at the request of the other leader of the rebel forces, Rev. Montgomery.” (By Patrick Power)

“A despatch rider or messenger, taking a message to Portaferry, was captured by a party of insurgents. None of the captors could read, so they took the message to Porter’s house and insisted that he should read it for them, which he did. Mr Porter was not present at the capture of the messenger and was in no way responsible for it.” (Mrs Montgomery)

Astonished, confounded at this unexpected charge, his presence of mind did not abandon him. He proclaimed in most energetic terms his innocence and complained of the surprise such a course of proceeding had produced. He demanded time to procure evidence to prove the falsity of the charge – or to so explain the circumstance as to take from him any imputation of criminality.

“Gentlemen: During the course of this mock trial I was repeatedly interrupted when putting questions to that self-convicted witness, who stands before you to swear away my life and the lives of other men, to save his own. And I do most solemnly appeal to you as to the dreadful injustice of passing sentence of death on such evidence. You were much disappointed when the post-boy could not identify me, and he was the only person who could recognise the individual who committed the offence. But, because there was a large reward for my apprehension, you were determined you would find a person who should accomplish your purpose, although at the expense of violating everything sacred in a court of justice. Else why put me on my trial and give a verdict against me on the sole testimony of a renegade and notorious paid informant?

Therefore, pause, gentlemen, before passing sentence of death upon me, who, in the course of a laborious and active life, never concealed his sentiments, but expressed the honest convictions of his mind, verbally and in writing, upon all occasions, when he thought the interests of his country were concerned. I pray God He may open your eyes to the iniquitous evidence now before you, or you will be guilty of the blood of an innocent man.” (Sean MacLoinsigh)

Time was refused. “The decision was accepted by the condemned man with the utmost courage in the following words addressed to the court ‘Then sentence just pronounced has had the effect of rousing my indignation and giving energy to my spirit; and if mercy, which I do not expect, from this court, does not avert the awful calamity that awaits me, what will become of my beloved wife and children, who are endeared to me by the tenderest ties of love, duty and affection? They will be desolate wanderers and will experience all the horrors of anguish and despair. May the God of all worlds, who is the searcher of hearts, pardon my many weaknesses and errors and, as I freely forgive all my enemies, may God in his infinite mercy forgive them also.” (From Teacher, Pastor and Patriot by Rev J.H. Bewglass)

(James Porter, his son) He was ordered to withdraw, and was taken back to a place of confinement. In a few minutes after it was announced to him that he was found guilty and that he would be executed in sight of his own meeting-house on the third ensuing day.

Nothing now remained for him but to prepare to die, and as his life had been without reproach, his death was without fear. A stranger could not have discovered from his countenance or language that anything extraordinary had occurred to him. But the event overwhelmed my mother with grief. She, however, on the succeeding day of that on which the sentence was pronounced rallied a little and determined to make a last effort to save her husband’s life. He told her that it would be unavailing and he only yielded his consent to her attempting it in pity to her agonised feelings.

With her seven children, the youngest in her arms, she walked to Mount Stewart, waited upon Lady Londonderry, represented to her in wretched condition, and implored her interference. The countess and her daughter, Lady Elizabeth (aged 19), who was soon to die of consumption, were much affected by her plight, and Lady Londonderry at once agreed to write a letter to General Nugent. Mrs Porter’s hopes were raised, but before she left the room, Lord Londonderry entered and asked the purpose of her visit. It was explained to him, and the letter exhibited which his wife had just written. He instantly, and in the most peremptory terms forbade her interference and directed her to add a postscript to the letter, and, handing it to Mrs Porter told her she might make what use of it she pleased. Lady Londonderry had written:

“The wife of Mr Porter, the dissenting minister off Greyabbey, solicits me in a state of absolute despair to address you on behalf of her husband, who is accused of being a leader in the rebellion. She asserts that he never was engaged in the transaction at any time and that his being found amongst them was accidental. How this may be I cannot presume to say. I only know that Mr Porter is a man of sense and acquirements, whose interest it could hardly be to overturn the government by which he was protected. Perhaps, however you are better informed, but the great humanity of your character which is considered to be equal to your fairness, spirit and ability, exposes you to importunity and perhaps to impertinence which I would rather risk at this moment than await an opportunity of giving a mind like yours occasion to make inquiry. I hope therefore to be sanguine in asking at the urgent request of this most wretched woman whether the sentence may be changed to transportation or any other penalty but life, a life important to the wife and seven children. At best my ignorance of the extent of his delinquency will, I trust, induce you to excuse my presumption.”

If the document is genuine, Londonderry had obliged her to add the postcript: “L. Does not allow me to interfere in Mr Porter’s case. I cannot therefore, and beg not to be mentione.d I only send the letter to gratify the humour.” Mrs Porter told her son that nothing in her life ever filled her with so much horror as his lordship’s smile as he handed her the letter with the postscript added. Tradition has it that Mrs Porter later waylaid Lord Londonderry’s carriage in vain hope of prevailing by personal entreaty, but Londonderry bade the coachman “drive on”. The sentence, however, was mitigated by remission of the order for quartering. “Then, said Porter to his wife, I shall lie at home tonight.”

She did not give up even then, and at once set out in a carriage for Belfast, again accompanied by all her children, in the hope of speaking to Nugent directly. “I was then twelve years of age’, wrote James Porter. “I remember the rain fell in torrents. We were well drenched, and I recollect the effect produced on me by the heads of the condemned rebels which were stuck up in Belfast. Those of Dickey and McCracken were among them.” His mother was sent away from Nugent’s door, with the declaration that there was no answer for her.

On the morning of the day which terminated my father’s life (2nd July 1798) he got into a carriage at the hour of 11 o’clock and was conducted by a guard of cavalry from Newtownards to Greyabbey where a temporary gallows was erected on a small hill which overlooked the meeting-house (not only in sight of the meeting house – but with a refinement of cruelty such as fiends only could have imagined – commanding on the other side a near view of his cottage where his wife and children were waiting in a horrible state of agony for the lifeless body of a husband and a father. Whether Lord Londonderry or Atherton suggested this worse than Boeotian torment on a dying man I do not know, I will not attribute it to either, for fear of depriving the other of the credit) where he had officiated as a pastor for ten years.

My mother rode with him to the place of execution. During the ride the conversation turned on her future course in life. He directed her to send his sons to America as soon as they were of age to leave her and told her that he had had too many evidences in his life of God’s providence to doubt that she and her daughters would be protected and provided for.

Arrived at the fatal spot my mother kissed him for the last time. “He walked to the gallows with a firm step and dignified bearing singing the 35th Psalm and praying earnestly.” (Rev Bewglass) There was scarcely any one present, but the military, at the execution. It was intimated to the tenants of Lord Londonderry that it was his Lordship’s wish they should attend, but I believe nothing but force could have drawn fifty men in the Barony to have witnessed a spectacle which so shocked public feeling. The account, therefore, of his conduct in his last moments could only be gathered from the soldiers. They, I have been told, were much impressed by his firmness and resignation. It is stated he prayed for his family, asked forgiveness of his God for the sins he must have committed in life, declared he forgave his enemies and hoped God would do so – he then gave the fatal signal and was launched into eternity. His struggles, I have learned, were severe, and his death must have been painful.

“A tradition still exists at Greyabbey that after the rope was drawn and just before drawing his last breath, he gave a kindly look towards his informer, who slunk away from the crowd.” (Sean MacLoinsign)

When she returned to the manse, the children were all at the door, waiting for her arrival. She did not sit down. In an hour after, the body she had left in health and strength and all the pride of manly beauty was delivered to her a corpse. She had it carried into the room, and I remember that until the next morning no solicitation or entreaty could tear her from its side. Nor would she sit down. She stood and looked on it with her hands clasped. Not a tear fell, not a word escaped her lips” (by James Porter’s son James, 1884)

“For some time after his death, his widow and daughters resided in a small cottage near Greyabbey. The children were accustomed to run around barefoot, but were most distinguished in appearance. On more than one occasion, they attracted the attention of Lord Londonderry’s family, who were driving past and stopped to question them. Being previously warned by their mother the children were always careful not to reveal their identity. After some time the family moved to Belfast.” (Sean MacLoinsign)

Anna’s right to an annuity from the widow’s fund was for some time in doubt; it was paid with arrears from 1800. She lived a further 25 years and died in Belfast on the 3rd November 1823.”

‘Porter inherited no fortune from his family. His income, by his profession, sufficed for the maintenance of his family; but, at his death, they were left in straitened circumstances. The only passion he indulged in, that crippled his resources, was, the purchase of books, and apparatus, for experiments in natural philosophy. His library was very extensive, and his scientific instruments, and objects connected with illustration of natural philosophy, were far superior to any of the kind, which, at that day, were known in his part of Ireland’ (Memoir of the Rev James Porter)

Before long he was discovered and arrested in June 1798 and taken to Belfast, but removed to Newtownards for trial by court-martial. The charge against him was that he had been present with a party of insurgents who, between 9 and 11 June, having intercepted the mail between Belfast and Saintfield, Co. Down, had read a dispatch from the commanding officer at Belfast to a subordinate at Portaferry, Co. Down. Mr Porter solemnly denied the charge. The evidence against him was given by two people, one an informer (a United Irishman, who had turned informer), and the other a man who could not even identify him. Porter’s cross-examination of this infamous witness was interrupted. He made an impressive appeal to the court, affirming his innocence, and referring to his own character as that of a man “who in the course of a labourious and active life, never concealed his sentiments”. On the unsupported evidence of this wretch Porter was condemned for a crime that he never committed. He was sentenced to be hanged and quartered.

Even then his wife did not relinquish hope. She was told by the military authorities that Londonderry could suspend the execution. Accompanied by her seven children, the youngest 8 months old, she made her way to Mountstewart to beg her husband’s life from Lord Londonderry who possessed the power of suspending executions and who was then at his family seat not far distant.

Londonderry’s daughters had attended Porter’s scientific lectures; and one of them, Lady Mary Elizabeth Stewart, then labouring under a fatal disease and soon to be numbered with the dead tried with tears to persuade her father to grant Mr Porter a reprieve, but all in vain. The wound inflicted by “Billy Bluff” and “Lord Mountmumble” was too deep to be healed and the tears of a dying daughter. Lord Londonderry permitted a clergyman of the church into which he had been baptised himself and with which he was still connected to be punished for a crime of which he was innocent.

Tradition has it that Mrs Porter waylaid his lordship’s carriage, in a vain hope of prevailing by personal entreaty, but Londonderry bade the coachman “drive on”. The sentence, however, was mitigated by remission of the order for quartering.

Miss Stewart, overwhelmed with grief, conveyed the sad news to Mrs Porter, and Mrs Porter to her husband, who remarked “Then my dear, I shall sleep home tonight”.

‘The place chosen for his execution was selected, in a spirit of fiendish cruelty, unnecessarily wanton, and outrageous to the feelings of the family, and the congregation of the unfortunate Christian minister. A local carpenter was forced to build a scaffold on a green knoll, between his dwelling and the meeting house, and in full view of both, and there on the 2 July 1798 James Porter was hanged for the penalty of a crime that he never committed in order that the private spleen of a petty tyrant might be gratified. It is reported that the members of his congregation were forced to witness the hanging.

At the gallows he sang the 35th Psalm and prayed; his wife was with him to the last. He was buried in the churchyard at Greyabbey; a flat tombstone gives his age “45 years”

“Plead my cause, O’ Lord with them that strive with me;
fight against them that fight against me.”

(From As I Roved Out – A Book of the North) A ballad was made on the execution of Mr Porter, in which the Minister of Greyabbey himself is supposed to be speaking:

“When Erin’s brave sons made an offer for freedom,
Like them, I was ready to die in the cause;
I was known to be brave, I was chosen to lead them,
My thoughts were to conquer and gain just applause.

We fought – we were beaten, and I was betrayed,
By a much-valued friend I was sold to the foe,
Like Judas, that false one – I ne’er will upbraid;
You may view my cold corpse when my body lies low”

The issue of the “Belfast News-Letter” of July 3rd 1798, contained the following casual note:

“The Rev. James Porter, dissenting minister of Greyabbey, found guilty, also sentenced to be executed on the 2nd, was put in execution yesterday at the rear of his own meeting-house at Greyabbey – head not severed.”

“With the exception of those, whose hearts were insensible to the ordinary emotions of humanity, whose faculties were limited to bounds of intelligence, as narrow as those which circumscribed their feelings, amongst all classes, the fate of the minister of Grey Abbey excited universal sympathy.’ (Memoir of the Rev James Porter)

Engraved on the stone in the graveyard are the following words:

Sacred to the memory of the Rev James Porter Dissenting Minister of Greyabbey who departed this life July 2, 1798 aged 45 years.

Also his wife Anna Porter alias Knox who died 3rd November, 1823 aged 70 Years

Also Eliza Porter a child

Mr Porter’s family consisted of two sons and six daughters, seven of whom lived to years of maturing, the youngest Eliza died as a child. His two sons and a daughter, went to America.(Ships carried many Newtownards people away to a new life in America. There was at least one emigration agent for a Belfast shipping company located in the town in this period. (A history of Newtownards by Trevor McCavery pp91)

Alexander Porter:

James Porter’s eldest, Alexander was born in 1786 in Armagh. He was educated at Strabane, was only 11 years of age when his father was hanged. In June 1798 he carried the flag of the United Irishmen at the battle of Ballynahinch (12th June 1798) in County Down. In the battle he had many narrow escapes and the flag was shot to pieces. When the United Irishmen were defeated there, he escaped from the battlefield. He made his way to the home of his father’s cousin, Andrew Stilley of Ballindrait, (now Mr George Gibbons’ farm) who sheltered him.

But after a time, he was recognised. He was then hidden by a neighbour, a tailor named Donald McGinley from Guystown. When things quietened down a bit, in 1801, a Porter uncle came with his younger brother James and took them off to America, and sent them to high school and later to university. (by Belinda Mahaffy) (The uncle (James?) Brought to USA 2 sisters, 2 nephews as well as Alexander and James.

‘He was educated in Tennessee, and brought up to the profession of the law. He was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1807, and practised for many years at St Martinsville in Louisiana. He was raised to the supreme bench at the age of thirty-two; and, it is said, “fourteen years of intense application enabled him and his co-adjutors, Matthews and Martin, to build up the beautiful fabric of civil law, which has commanded the praises of Kent and Story, and elevated Louisiana to the highest pitch of American jurisprudence.” (Memoir of The Rev James Porter)

He became a member of the House of Representatives in 1816-18, Associated Justice of the Supreme Court 1821-33 and then established “Oakland” plantation where he raised cane sugar, imported cattle, maintained a race course and stables. He was a Governor of Louisiana, and became a member of the US Senate in Dec 19, 1833-37 and was re-elected in 1842. He died on 13th January, 1844 (aged 58) at his plantation, Oak Lawn in the State of Louisiana, after years of failing health.

April 9, 1844 The remains of the Honourable Alexander Porter which were brought from his late residence in the Steamer Westwood, were, on Sunday last, committed to the tomb in the cemetery near the city. A procession was formed at the Wharf and proceeded to the grave where a brief but impressive discourse was pronounced by the Rev. Dr. Edgar. The remains of this distinguished man now rest in peace beside the body of his wife who died in this city some twenty-five years ago. Alexander married Susan Massengill and had 7 children – James A., Matilda, Penelope, Jane Eliza, Alexander M., William, and Robert M.

The Honourable Alexander Porter was one of those who framed the Constitution of Louisiana; he was representative of that State in the Senate, a judge on its Supreme Court and Judge of La.1821–1833, U. S. Senator from La. 1834-1837 Re-elected 1843 and served until his death. He refused being placed in nomination for the office of Governor, more than once. He was the only Irishman in the Senate of the United States. On the announcement of his death, the Senate and House of Representatives adjourned, after passing resolutions of condolence, and issuing orders for mourning for the space of thirty days. The national flag, in the Place d’Armes, was suspended at half-mast.’ (Memoir of the Rev James Porter)

James Porter

James became Attorney General for the State of Louisiana.(see Appleton – Encyclopaedia of American Biography 1888). He acquired a large sugar plantation. He had one daughter, Mary, who died at Oxford on 29th December 1927.

• Rebecca, Alexander Porter’s sister married Mr Allison.

Of Porter’s five daughters, four married. The girls were so pretty that they attracted attention wherever they went, although they tried to keep incognito. In addition everyone knew them as the daughters of a hero and star.

• Ellen Ann married John Cochrane Wightman, Presbyterian minister of Holywood.

• The second, Matilda, married Andrew Goudy, Presbyterian minister of Ballywater. They had two sons and a daughter; Alexander who was born near Ballywater in February 1809 and died in Dublin on 14th December 1858 was one of the most brilliant and trenchant debaters in the Presbyterian church in Ireland in the last century. Stories of his wit are still told in the North West. He took a leading part in the Courts of the Church for many years. His elder son, Henry, was Regius Professor of Civil Law in the University of Oxford and the younger son Alexander, has filled the office of Reader of Slavonic languages in the University of Cambridge. His daughter, Emily J., died in Bath.

• The third, Isobella, married James Templeton, Presbyterian minister of Ballywater;

• The fourth, Sophia married William Dickey Henderson of Belfast. She kept up correspondence with her distinguished brothers in the United States; extract from one of the letters:

“The Rising in Ireland in 1798 was the struggle of serfs to gain admission to God’s daylight. It was a glorious struggle and as a lad I was in the thick of it at Ballynahinch, where I bore the green banner of liberty with its golden uncrowned harp.

We honour those who fell in battle and died for Ireland. But in my sober opinion now, if the Society of United Irishmen had maintained its inception command not to have recourse to open rebellion, the cause of liberty could have been brought to the doors of Westminster to the shame of that Parliament into granting the parliamentary reforms so many died for, but were achieved later by the sheer force of the clamour of Ireland’s great general public and their able advocates” (Sean MacLoisigh) (Colin J. Robb, “Judge Porter, in Sunday Press 2/6/1957).

• The sixth, Eliza died as a child.

Scroll To Top