The Battle of Ranny Hill and local History from the late 1700's.

1st May 1813

The Battle of Ranny Hill and local History from the late 1700's. 

"Fánaid juts into the Atlantic from the north-west coast of Ulster. Its glacier-shewn and sea-carved landscape is a patchwork of jagged cliffs and low hills, windblown sand dunes and lake-dotted bog; pockets of sandy soil that require frequent fertilizing are the only areas of arable.  

In the early 1800's, a seventeenth-century template could still be discerned with deceptive ease in linguistic and settlement patterns and, more importantly, in a virulent sectarianism that infused social relations. Fánaid was polarized into two communities - Gaeil (Gaels, Catholics) and Albanaigh (Scotsmen, Protestants, especially Presbyterians) neither of which could find comfort in sectarian head-counting. Catholics outnumbered Protestants by about four to one in the Peninsula itself, but the ratio was reversed in much of the rich flax country between Kerrykeel and Letterkenny. 

Encircled in the ‘respectable’ villages of Tamney, Glinsk and Rosnakill, local Protestants regarded Catholics with feelings of distrust and disdain. Castles built by the Sweeneys, the pre-plantation élite, were an uncomfortable reminder of the ‘civilization’ of the anterior order, while folk memory of atrocities, the disinterment of corpses in Killygarvan and the sacking of Ramelton church in 1641, recalled ‘barbarity’ and stirred a different type of unease.  

Catholics, meanwhile, raked the ashes of am na caorthaíochta (the time of the cattle-raiding, the early penal era) - a vividly remembered if sometimes vaguely periodized cycle of events and rekindled an acute sense of physical and cultural loss. They talked about Protestants laying claim to Catholics’ land, rustling their livestock, disrupting their masses and hunting their priests. In particular, they talked about na trí Sheán (the three Johns) Cunningham, Sproule and Dunlop, whose casual cruelties had come to a sanguinary end when a Catholic crowd killed all three of them. Poll Uí Gheamaill (Gamble’s Hole), Ard an Albanaigh (The Scotsman’s Hillock) and other heights and hollows had associations with sectarian savagery and, while fireside tales melded, they still cast the shadows of communal trauma: Scoilt an Duine (The Person’s Cleft), an inlet in Ballyhoorisky, was pointed out by some as the place where Catholics had slaughtered the last of na trí Sheán and by others as the spot where priest-hunters had butchered a man fleeing an interrupted mass at Lag na hAltóra (The Altar Hollow). 

Critically, the monochrome oppositions which these narratives sustained were new or, more accurately, newly sharpened after 1800. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, social and cultural differentiation within both the Catholic and Protestant blocs had helped to dissipate sectarian animosities and, with the rise of the Volunteers, there had been signs of a new dispensation in Irish society, the possibility of an inclusive national identity displacing older attachments. This process had been particularly pronounced in north-west Ulster, a region characterized by a high level of commercialization, a bristling tension between politically advantaged Episcopalians and numerically superior Presbyterians and also a substantial Catholic community with which ‘union’ was desirable for stability and sustained commercial growth.  

Locally, St Columba’s, Fánaid’s first chapel, was erected about 1785 on a site at Massmount provided by Andrew Patton, lieutenant of the local Volunteer company, for a peppercorn rent; it was one of no fewer than sixteen chapels built with Protestant support in the diocese of Raphoe in the mid-1780s, and although now construed as ‘a monument to a tenacious faith’, its erection was an optimistic act of nation-building. 

In the late 1790s many of the peninsula’s Catholics and Presbyterians displayed a high level of commitment to the United Irishmen’s republican project. Thus, when Dr William Hamilton, the local rector and an active magistrate, supported by a party of Manx Fencibles, detained republican leaders in January 1797, some eight hundred croppies laid siege to the Glebe-house for two days in an attempt to force their release. The attempt failed when reinforcements arrived from Letterkenny, but Hamilton was assassinated a few weeks later and Fánaid was one of the few districts in north-west Ulster where the military expected ‘much trouble’ in the bloody summer of 1798

Retreat from the politics of inclusion after the failed rising was a rapid affair, expedited by the government’s discrediting of the national republican leadership and its encroachments on the ‘free press’. By the 1830s the Volunteers and ‘Unites’ were perceived as an aberration in the dominant Catholic and Protestant narratives of their past, proof only of the mendacity of the reconstructed ‘other’.  

The pull of the old politics had been almost irresistible in the early 1810s, years of escalating tension at regional and provincial levels, punctuated by sectarian rioting at fairs and markets and by widespread trouble when newly formed Orange lodges-initiated coat-trailing marches through Catholic districts on the 12th of July. In north Donegal there had been major disturbances in July 1810 when Orangemen from Ramelton and Milford, armed with guns, pistols and swords, had attempted to parade through Letterkenny, ‘a populous town chiefly inhabited by Catholics’. The following month, the Raphoe Yeomanry disobeyed orders and attempted, again unsuccessfully, to march through the town. 

Ribbon societies, a Catholic lodge-network strongest in south and mid-Ulster, were now organized in the district, and there was a whirlwind of violence between Letterkenny and Milford as sectarian gangs (distinguished by coloured ribbons and other emblems) contested for dominance of public space. Flickering along a sharp sectarian interface, violence assumed a tit-for-tat dynamic: Fánaid and Ros Goill Catholics might be accosted at fairs in Ramelton or Milford and Protestants then beaten at the pig-markets of Rosnakill or Carrigart, or vice versa. Partisan policing by the yeomanry exacerbated the situation; the Milford Rangers, for instance, shot and bayoneted at least three Catholics when clearing the town fair in May 1811

The worst single incident, which threatened to spark a conflagration across a much wider district, occurred in May 1813 when five men died in an affray at Ranny, outside Kerrykeel. Its genesis had an already dreary familiarity: two Catholics who attacked John Williamson, a young Protestant, for sporting an Orange lily on the way home from Milford Fair were themselves severely beaten by their victim’s friends,  

Fánaid Catholics threatened revenge against Protestants if they attended the next fair in Kerrykeel; on the fair day, seven or eight armed Protestants, including Williamson, assembled on a hill overlooking the town; Williamson displayed himself to the Catholic crowd at about four o’clock and ‘several hundreds’ then pursued the party into Ranny; the Protestants fired, killing two Catholics and wounding another before barricading themselves in a house; the Catholics burned the building, killing three Protestants as they tried to escape the flames and then ransacked the village until sunset. 

- A Brief extract from "The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal" 

 by Hugh Dorian*, edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne and Hugh Dorain. 

*Hugh Dorian (1834-1914), born into a smallholding Catholic family in Cashel Glebe at the western end of Kindrum Lake where he was living in the 1850's. Dorian records his years in Fanáid, a region near Lough Swilly at Ulster's outer edge and apparently "beyond the frontier of respectability. Dorian's narrative introduces local customs and practices, provides a first-person account of sectarian divisions that characterized the area, and, most important, witnesses the devastating effects of the Famine on Fanáid's population. The memoir which he completed about 1889 portrays the ways in which the Donegal locals sought to cope with political and religious authorities who controlled their land and their lives, all while struggling to retain their traditional ways.  



The Battle of Ranny - 1934 National Folklore Collection (  

Faction Fighting - 1934 National Folklore Collection (  

Google Maps – Ranny Hill, Kerrykeel  

Historic Maps - Ranny Hill, Kerrykeel  

Photo: A view from Ranny Hill, above the Village of Kerrykeel (abt:1960's)  



Parish of Clondavaddog  

Parish of Killygarvan  

Parish of Aughnish 

Parish of Tullyfern  

Parish of Kilmacrennan  

Parish of Mevagh  

Parish of Clondahorky 

Parish of Gartan 

Parish of Conwal 

Parish of Aghanunshin 

Parish of Raymunterdoney 

Parish of Tullaghobegly 

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