Sam McAllister’s Sacrifice, or, Greater love hath no man . . .

On this day in 1799, Irishman Sam McAllister gave his life at the siege of Derrynamuck in Wicklow so that nationalist hero Michael Dwyer could escape. Dwyer, a Wicklow-born United Irishman, had taken to the wilderness after the rebels of 1798 were defeated and spent the next few years engaged in a guerrilla war against the king’s forces. Although he was not especially prominent among the leaders of the actual rebellion, his refusal to accept defeat made him locally beloved during his lifetime, and a legend after his death. 

About Sam McAllister, one of Dwyer’s closest associates, not much is known.[1] Based mostly on the fact that he had deserted from the Antrim militia, it has always been assumed that he came from the north; indeed, contemporary reports referred to him as a northerner. He seems to have been highly regarded by everyone, though this might be due partly to his heroic death. Dwyer himself claimed that McAllister’s spirit appeared to him on several later occasions, at least once saving his life again.[2]

What actually happened at Derrynamuck on the night of the 15th is not entirely clear. However, reports of the incident agree on a number of points.[3] Dwyer and his men had taken shelter from a cold, snowy night in three cottages clustered together. Someone tipped off the authorities, and before the men had time to flee the cottages were surrounded. Dwyer asked that the families who lived in these houses be allowed to leave, as they had not sheltered the outlaws willingly, and this was granted. Thereafter, those of Dwyer’s men in the first two cottages surrendered fairly quickly, leaving Dwyer and three others – including Sam McAllister – holed up in the third cottage. The house was set fire and a gunfight ensued, during which two of the men were killed and McAllister’s shooting arm rendered useless by a bullet. At that point, the Antrim desesrter made a fateful decision: He opened the door of the cottage and deliberately stepped into the line of fire. He was killed immediately.

If McAllister’s intention was to buy Dwyer time, it worked. Apparently acting on his comrade’s suggestion, Dwyer used the distraction to duck out of the house and run for his life. He alone escaped capture or death at Derrynamuck, and his campaign against British rule continued until 1803. According to Wicklow historian Chris Lawlor, the importance of that campaign is to be found not in its negligible accomplishments but in the hope it gave to “a Nationalist Ireland that was crying out for heroes” after the defeat of the 1798 rising.[4] If not for McAllister’s self-sacrifice, that hope might have died at Derrynamuck on this day in 1799. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]McAllister is the spelling now accepted for his name, but contemporary reports also used McAlister and McCallister [Charles Dickson, The Life of Michael Dwyer with Some Account of His Companions (Dublin: Browne & Nolan Ltd., 1944), pp. 180, 218]. If his life is not well known, his death has not been forgotten: Aside from numerous songs written about it (most recently ‘Michael Dwyer’s Escape’ in 1991), McAllister was honoured in 1904 with a memorial statue in nearby Baltinglas.
[2]Dickson, p. 180; J T Campion, Michael Dwyer, or the Insurgent Captain of the Wicklow Mountains: A tale of the rising in ’98 (Dublin: H. G. Gill & Son Ltd.), p. 79.
[3]In the 1940s, Charles Dickson searched out the records and accounts that survive; he summarise their content and quotes from many of them in his Life of Michael Dwyer. ‘Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chief’,  a paper delivered by Chris Lawlor at the University of Melbourne in 2006, and intended to separate what facts can be known from the many fictions, reached the same conclusion.
[4]Chris Lawlor, ‘Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chief’, a paper delivered at the University of Melbourne, 1 August 2006.
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4 thoughts on “Sam McAllister’s Sacrifice, or, Greater love hath no man . . .

  1. My grandmother Elizabeth McAllister was born on St Pats Day in the year of 1896. She came to the America when she was about 7.

    Looking for more information.
    Thank you in advance

    Cheryl Mueller

    • I would suggest you contact the Clan McAlister of America (www.clanmcalister.org). They are actively researching the genealogy of many McAllisters (all spellings) in the New World and have a large database with information about various immigrants and their descendants.

  2. According to family stories (not verified) Sam McAllister was a brother of my 4 x great grandmother Mary McAllister who married Hugh Breen/O’Brien who lived in the townland of Aghadavoyle, County Armagh.

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