Roddy McCorley has come to be seen as one of the great heroes of the 1798 Irish rebellion.
Unlike other some other 1798 heroes such Father Murphy and Kelly the Boy From Killane who were from Wexford, McCorley was from Antrim at the opposite end of the country.
He also differs from the others because little is known about him and exactly what part he played in the rebellion.
Two songs called Roddy McCorley
There are at least two songs called Roddy McCorley. The original was written a few years after the 1798 Rebellion and contains references to contemporary figures who played a part in McCorley’s life and subsequent death.
That song is largely unknown today. The version that has become popular was written by a woman called Ethna Carbery. She wrote it in 1898 to mark the centenary of the rebellion.
It was published in 1904 – two years after her death – and was part of a collection of poems called The Four Winds of Erin.
The story as told by the song
According to Carbery’s song, Roddy McCorley was one of the leaders at the Battle of Antrim – the most important battle to take place in the north of Ireland during the 1798 Rebellion.
He is described as fearless and ferocious in battle, despatching numerous foes as he leads his men into the fray.
There is no documentary evidence to back up this description. Even the most detailed histories of the Battle of Antrim make no reference to McCorley as a leader, or even prove that he took part at all.
The likelihood, therefore, is that the accounts of his exploits were passed down through oral tradition, and while it’s likely that he must have fought bravely to have earned such a reputation, the reports of him as a leader may have become exaggerated.
The sketchy biography of McCorley
There is no doubt that McCorley was a real historical figure because his execution was covered in the Belfast Newsletter in 1800.
However, information about him is sketchy. It’s thought a few years before the rebellion, McCorley’s father was executed for stealing a sheep.
There’s some doubt whether the trial had been fair, and it’s thought the charge may have been politically motivated to remove someone the British regarded as a troublesome agitator at a time of great unrest.