Archer, Thomas (d. 1800), rebel, was born in Castle Street, Ballymena, Co. Antrim. A presbyterian and a shoemaker's apprentice, he enlisted in the Antrim militia. On the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion he deserted from his regiment to join the rebels who occupied Ballymena on 7 June 1798. A small group of loyalists, led by Robert Davison, a schoolmaster, defended the town's markethouse but were eventually forced out. Archer, whose physical courage and military training gave him a leadership position, was prominent in the fighting. But his position as a militia deserter meant he could expect no mercy from the authorities.
After the collapse of the rebellion, Archer led a gang of eight or ten associates in the Ballymena area, robbing, torturing, raping and killing loyalists, houseburning and attacking Orange halls ‘from Ahoghill to the Braid and from Connor to Rasharkin’. His targets included the Moravian community at Gracehill, which he disliked for offering refuge to loyalists in 1798, though it had also sheltered rebels; he regularly raided it, on one occasion bursting in during a communion service and holding a gun to the minister's head. The gang had many sympathisers among the local population who sheltered them and prevented the authorities from acquiring intelligence of the rebels’ movements. Archer's motives were more political than criminal; his associates were reported to urge the people to undertake a new rebellion and said he was not responsible for any deeds of great violence. His decision to continue the struggle rather than escape overseas reflected both residual United Irish hopes for a new insurrection and an unwillingness to leave his parents, to whom he was greatly attached.
Archer was betrayed by an associate and captured on 3 March 1800 in the Star Bog near Ballymena, being severely wounded in the struggle. He was tried by court martial on 5 March 1800 and sentenced to ‘death, dissection and the gibbet’. He was hanged from an ash tree at the Moat, Ballymena, and his attempt at a last speech was shouted down. His body was left hanging in an iron cage for several months from 22 March in terrorem; eventually, friends cut it down secretly and buried it. In all, the Ballymena court martial tried over 100 men: 16 were executed, 16 flogged and transported, 23 went into voluntary exile, and 10 were condemned to serve in the army or the fleet. This marked the virtual end of organised United Irish resistance in Antrim, although there was a recurrence of gang violence around Ballymena in 1801, involving ‘the same people who harboured Archer’, and there were ineffectual rebel gatherings at the time of Emmet's rebellion in 1803.
Archer was never as serious a threat to the government as his nearest southern counterpart, Michael Dwyer (qv), but the different courses taken by political opinion in Antrim and Wicklow also help to account for the disparity in their posthumous reputations. For the anonymous conservative who wrote Old Ballymena, the rebels were a mere canaille. His account of Archer is predominantly contemptuous, though with dashes of pity: he states proudly that he has not bothered to record all the available oral traditions about the rebel. The protestant romantic nationalist, Alice Milligan (qv), writing in the late 1890s in her proto-Sinn Féin monthly, Shan Van Vocht, glorified Archer and gloated over the story that his friends subsequently flogged his betrayer to death with thorn branches.
The 1990s renewed interest in the last armed defender of the ‘Ballymena Republic’. In Tom McCaughren's children's story, In search of the liberty tree (1994), Davison and Archer (the former presented somewhat more sympathetically) are both brave men doomed by their political loyalties. Loyalist discontent with British government policy encouraged attempts to reclaim the Ulster United Irishmen as Ulster rebels rather than precursors of contemporary nationalists. The Ulster-Scots balladeers Willie Drennan and Bob Speers wrote and performed an unpublished dramatic monologue in 1998 with songs supposedly recounted by a fictional comrade-in-arms of Archer. The view of Archer as a glamorous, doomed outlaw, in the style of American westerns, is summed up in Drennan's ballad, ‘Tom Archer was an outlaw’. McCaughren unveiled a plaque on 2 December 2002 at the Moat commemorating Archer and eight other United Irishmen hanged on the same spot. The Mid-Antrim Historical Society organised the ceremony and both unionist and nationalist political representatives attended.