Gray, Samuel (‘Sam’) (1782–1848), Orangeman and magistrate, was born 18 June 1782 in Ballybay, Co. Monaghan, son of William Gray, innkeeper and property-owner, and his wife (name unknown). Soon after 1798 he joined the yeomanry and the Orange order; by the 1820s he was master of the Ballybay lodge and district master for Castleblayney. By 1821 he was the local tithe proctor and land agent for several local estates. He also kept the York Hotel in Ballybay (which contained an underground cell for the detention of alleged lawbreakers); owned house properties in Ballybay and Castleblayney, which produced an income of £300 a year in the 1830s; and managed a loan fund financed by his friend Moses Bradford, a wealthy landowner and relative of Gray's wife Agnes (by whom Gray had six children). Gray was physically brave and extremely quick-tempered, always carrying pistols to defend against the significant risk of forcible resistance to his revenue-collecting activities. His wealth, political influence, and position within the legal apparatus recruited a gang of followers who enforced his commands and overawed the district; his control of local justice and administration was widely resented by catholics.
On 6 May 1824 Gray and his brother Henry were tried for kicking to death Bernard McMahon, a catholic, during a sectarian brawl on market day in Ballybay; the prosecution was financed by the Catholic Association. Defence and prosecution witnesses directly contradicted one another; the Grays were acquitted and the judge commended Sam for his peacemaking activities. The verdict was widely ascribed to political prejudice.
In September 1828 Gray became a national celebrity by preventing an O'Connellite mass meeting in Ballybay by threatening mob violence; it was said he marshalled 8,000 Orangemen with a skill reminiscent of a regular soldier. Toasts were drunk and ballads composed honouring ‘the protestant hero of Ballybay’; he became a freeman of Dublin and Drogheda, and in April 1829 the landlord-dominated grand jury appointed him high constable of the barony of Cremorne (where Ballybay is located), adding collection of the baronial cess to his other duties.
During the concerted non-payment of tithes by catholics in the 1830s and early 1840s, Gray's gang collected tithes in the parishes of Ballybay and Aughnamullen, often by violence; in 1832 two of his men were acquitted of killing a catholic who resisted seizure of his goods, and in 1834 Gray was acquitted of shooting at a catholic farmer while collecting tithes. He also repeatedly displayed Orange emblems from his house on the twelfth of July and organised Orange parades in defiance of the 1832 party processions act (for which he was unsuccessfully prosecuted in 1835). In the 1834 Monaghan by-election he supported the tory landlord Edward Lucas (1787–1871), but when Lucas proved hostile to the Orange order Gray allied with the local whig interest headed by Lord Rossmore. In February 1838, to the consternation of catholics (and many liberal protestants) nationwide, he was appointed sub-sheriff of Monaghan through Rossmore influence; this post allowed him to select juries. Thomas Drummond (qv), under-secretary for Ireland, ordered the sheriff of Monaghan (widely seen as a catspaw of Gray) to revoke the appointment; when he refused, he was replaced by a catholic sheriff, who dismissed Gray. The ensuing legal and political controversy proved highly embarrassing, as it was widely held that governmental interference with the sheriff's decision was unconstitutional.
Gray was now at the height of his influence; he allegedly refused to allow catholics through Ballybay at night without a passport signed by him. However, relations with Moses Bradford deteriorated when Gray remarried in May 1839 after the death of Agnes (January). When Bradford died in 1840 he left his property to his nephew, Bradford Stuart. Gray took forcible possession, producing a rival will in favour of his son James and another relative of Bradford. After an extensive lawsuit the Gray will, widely believed to have been forged, was set aside. When the sub-sheriff of Monaghan tried to remove Gray from the property on 26 November 1840 he was fired on; later that day Gray attacked two of the principal Stuart witnesses, Owen Murphy and James Cunningham, killing Murphy. Gray was tried for murder on 19 March 1841 and acquitted; the crown then made four attempts between 1842 and 1844 to convict him for shooting at Cunningham. Attempts were also made to charge him with assault and shooting at the sub-sheriff. James Gray and a henchman were transported for perjury in 1843 after obtaining Sam's interim release by forging medical evidence. After one abandonment and two jury disagreements Sam Gray was sentenced to transportation for life. While Gray was probably guilty and had intimidated witnesses and used political influence with jurymen, these repeated prosecutions (supervised by Edward Lucas, now under-secretary) were criticised by conservatives as undermining jury trial and practising double jeopardy. The house of lords ruled that the right of English defendants to peremptorily challenge twenty jurors applied to Irish courts, and its refusal in Gray's case invalidated the verdict (a precedent used extensively by nationalists). Gray was released, financially crippled by legal expenses.
Sam Gray died on 1 September 1848. His family denied claims that he had turned repealer. James (1818–87) became active in Tasmanian politics and converted to catholicism. Another son, Edward (1825–74), was tried for killing a catholic in 1865; a third, William (1821–71), contested Monaghan as an independent liberal in 1874. Sam Gray's name survived for decades as a party cry and a bogeyman for Monaghan catholic children. His career reflects tension between a central administration unable to ignore the O'Connellite challenge from below and the protestant paramilitary ‘armed citizenship’ enmeshed with local administration.