There is very little documentary evidence about Roddy McCorley, either about his life in general or about his exact role in the Battle of Antrim and the 1798 Irish Rebellion.
However, there is at least one contemporary source of information. A letter printed in the Belfast Newsletter gives an account of McCorley’s execution.
His name is given as Roger McCorley. It’s not certain whether this is a simple mistake on the part of the writer or whether Roger was his full Christian name.
This is an extract from a letter written on Sunday 2nd March 1800 and published in the Belfast Newsletter.
Upon Friday last, a most awful procession took place here, namely the execution of Roger McCorley who was lately convicted at a court-martial, to the place of execution, Toome Bridge, the unfortunate man having been born in that neighbourhood.
As a warning to others, it is proper to observe that the whole of his life was devoted to disorderly proceedings of every kind, for many years past, scarcely a Quarter-sessions occurred but what the name of Roger McCorley appeared in a variety of criminal cases.
His body was given up to dissection and afterwards buried under the gallows…thus of late we have got rid of six of those nefarious wretches who have kept this neighbourhood in the greatest misery for some time past, namely, Stewart, Dunn, Ryan, McCorley, Caskey and the notorious Dr. Linn. The noted Archer will soon be in our Guard-room.
The extract has to be treated cautiously but it gives an interesting insight to McCorley and the way he was viewed by his detractors at the time of his death.
The song Roddy McCorley refers to his exploits as a rebel leader but there is no reference to that in the letter. Instead, it refers to McCorley as a criminal “devoted to disorderly proceedings of every kind”.
It puts him alongside a group of “nefarious wretches” who have brought misery to the neighbourhood.
This is a reference to the Archer gang, made up of former rebels who had become outlaws as they tried to avoid capture by the British and hopefully escape to America.
They started out as a quasi rebel group, attacking loyalists but it seems they may also have turned to common crime to fund their activities and perhaps pay for a passage to America.
As the letter suggests, most were captured and executed.
The letter is helpful but we have to remember that it was almost certainly written by a loyalist who would have been opposed to the rebellion and would have regarded all action against British rule as a crime.
The writer is already prejudiced against McCorley and likely to exaggerate his crimes and overlook his achievements.
It is also the case that while the “outlaws” may have been condemned by loyalists, they would have been accepted by many nationalists who saw them as opponents of the Crown and British rule.
According to the oral tradition, McCorley was said to have been executed on Good Friday. This, of course, would give the story an extra power and poignancy. However, the letter shows that this could not have been the case.
The letter was written on Sunday 2nd March and refers to McCorley being executed on the previous Friday.
That would have been 28th February. Easter is a movable feast but it is not possible for Good Friday to fall that early.
It seems the story may have been embellished over the years so that a Friday just before Easter time gradually became thought of as Good Friday itself.