Gray, Elizabeth (‘Betsy’) (d. 1798), heroine of the 1798 rebellion, may have been the daughter of the widowed farmer Hans Gray (d. 1807) of Six Roads Ends, Gransha, Co. Down. However, as her story quickly lent itself to myth-making, establishing precise facts is not easy. The earliest written record is to be found in the account of the battle of Ballinahinch written by Charles Hamilton Teeling (qv) in 1828, in which he refers to a poem by Miss Balfour dating from 1810. Her place of origin is uncertain: Mary Ann McCracken (qv) states in a letter to R. R. Madden (qv) that she came from Killinchy, townland of Six Roads Ends, where a derelict house is known locally as ‘Betsy Gray's cottage’, while later claims by a descendant maintain that she was born outside Warringsford, in the parish of Garvaghy in the townland of Tullyniskey; a 1788 rental registry lists a John Gray, who had a daughter Elizabeth born in 1780, and who was a tenant on the Warringsford estate.
According to tradition, both her brother George Gray and her lover William Boal were active in the United Irish movement and fought under the rebel commander Henry Monro (qv) at the battle at Ballinahinch, Co. Down, on 12 and 13 June 1798. While it has not been claimed that she was a member of the United Irish movement, she may have been a camp follower, or one of the many women posted at the insurgent camp at Ednavady Hill. Varying accounts mention her heroically riding into battle on a white horse (or a pony), carrying a green flag or alternatively bearing a sword and participating in the fight. According to James Witherspoon's account, she fought beside her brother and lover, who remained with her during the retreat. After the defeat of the United army they fled Ballinahinch and headed in a north-westerly direction. On reaching the townland of Ballycreen, all three were overtaken by a party of the Hillsborough yeoman cavalry and killed. Their bodies were buried by a Matthew Armstrong and two local farmers in a dip, the grave marked in the vale of Ballycreen by a log of black oak. Her death was one of the most notorious atrocities of the 1798 rebellion and, for several decades, the descendants of the yeomen were spurned in the local church, and their children stoned at school.
Popularly regarded as ‘Ulster's Joan of Arc’, Gray soon became the subject of many popular ballads and other literary compositions. According to the poet and publisher William McComb (qv): ‘Many rude ballads were composed at the time, on the death of ‘Bessie’, and a rough map representing the battle scene with our heroine mounting on a pony and bearing a green flag, was to be seen hung up in many a cottage’(McComb, 132).
Her reputation proved enduring and the successful semi-fictionalised novel by Wesley Guard Lyttle (1844–96), Betsy Gray, or the hearts of Down (1899), found favour with both catholics and protestants of Co. Down, as did the play ‘For the land she loved’ (1915) by P. J. Bourke (qv). However, the romantic dimension of her story sat uneasily with the gruesome details of the manner in which ‘the hearts of Down’ were killed. One of the cavalry men brutally sliced off Betsy's hand with a sword and, according to another local tradition, the wife of one of the murderers was seen wearing Betsy's earrings and green petticoat in church.
A monument in Ballycreen, erected to her memory in 1896, became contentious during the 1898 centenary, when local loyalists smashed it to pieces to prevent its exploitation by nationalists, and their exclusive claims on her memory. Bits of the granite, removed as souvenirs, were transported and cherished throughout the world. Her story has evolved over time, and latterly she is increasingly claimed as part of the presbyterian Ulster-Scots tradition. Portraits of her, said to have been ‘the fairest maiden to be found through Killinchy's woods and dales’, adorned local cottages, and a miniature is thought to have been painted by Edward John Newell (qv).