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The Fencibles in the Family

It is often felt that in the absence of painted portraits we can never know the colour of the eyes of the dim silent and often immobile figures of a family tree. But among Manx records are the old registers of the Corps of Manx Fencibles, which faithfully list the physical qualities by which a soldier can be identified. Manxmen of course have given military service in other forms, but only between I779 and 1811 were units of the regular army raised and maintained on the Island. It has been said by those who are interested in such things that the Manx Fencibles, standing shoulder to shoulder, covered more ground than a similar number from any other regiment in the British Army. Certainly they were not the tallest. The lower limit of height was 5' 3", 'except for growing lads' who might be accepted at the age of 15, and 5' 2". Their average height was about 5' 6". Four corps in all were formed and served : 1779-1783, 1793-1802, 1795-1802, 1803-1811, the first being called The Manx Fencible Corps, the others The Royal Manx Fencibles. Normally they formed the Island garrison, but some served in Ulster at the end of the 18th century and took part in the suppression of the Irish Rebellion.

Eight of our families had sons who served, mostly men born about 1780. There was a Robert, a James, a Richard, a Thomas, and 4 johns. The first four can be identified with confidence. Robert was a weaver, from Marown, 26 years, 5' 6", fair complexion, round visage, grey eyes and dark hair. He enlisted first in 1796, and again in 1803. He would be the son of john and Ann (Brew) (MrV). (His younger brother, Edward, who died in a shooting fatality in 1799, was then described as a private in the Fencibles).

Richard, a tailor of Patrick, was 25 when enlisted by Major Stewart in 1807. We have already met him as the patriarch of Patrick Kissacks (ArIII), the son of john and Ann (Corham), born 1780, with the relevant vital statistics :- 5' 7", dark complexion, blue eyes, black hair.

When Thomas (the oldest of them) married Ellinor Gell at German in 1794 he was styled the Fencible. Enlisting in the 3rd Corps in 1803, he was credited with 9 and a quarter years previous service, and his age given as 40. That suggests the son of Thomas and Jane (Cain) (MrIII). He is described as a labourer born Malew, 5' 4", swarthy, round face, hazel eyes, black hair.

There is comedy and tragedy in the story of James. Comedy where , two James enlist on January 9, 1799. One was "5' 2", fresh complexion long visage, grey eyes, dark hair, born Onchan, Cordwainer, age 16, Enlisted by the Colonel," the other :- "5' 4", fresh complexion, long visage, grey eyes, dark hair, born Onchan, a shoemaker, aged 17, Enlisted by Lieut. Kewley". The feeling of both the Colonel and the Lieutenant can be imagined once the truth came out, for bounties were paid both to each recruit and to each enlisting officer. At least we get a glimpse of the situation in a letter from the Paymaster, writing from Moneymore on March 10, 1800, to Lieut. Kewley :

'You will give Kissack a short time to par for his son's discharge, and if he does not, I will send instructions to have him taken up and sent here a prisoner, that he may be tried by court-martial for being an imposter. I will afterwards oblige him to serve abroad for life or get a good flogging'.

(in the same letter he adds the grim news :

'We have been busily employed after these damned rebellion defenders, many of whom are hung and many more under sentence. Their leader, Archer, will be hanged, drawn and quartered and gibbetted tomorrow'.)

However James survived, and in July 1803 was re-enlisting for the 2nd Corps, with 4 years previous service. It is possible he married in 1804, if DmXII refers to him. But his unresolved tragedy is that on the morning of Sunday, March 8, 1807, his body was taken from Douglas harbour, and buried the next day in St. George's.

He would have been the son of James and Elizabeth (Crow) (OnIV), and a brother of the Flaxdresser's father, Thomas. Cordwainer is not only his trade, but is the trade assigned to Thomas on the marriage-certificate of his younger daughter, Isabella, and makes it probable that their father, James, was also a shoemaker.

But the 4 Johns set a genealogical puzzle, part of which is to assign them to families, and part to assign them to incidents. One we know, was from Lonan, enlisted by the Chaplain on July 7, 1795, aged 15, 5' 2", brown complexion, round visage, blue eyes, dark hair. His initial reference is LoIII, but he was living at the '51 census in Cattlemarket St., Douglas , aged 72, with wife Catherine, aged 64. In 1802 he volunteered into the 43rd Regiment.

Another, aged 15, was enlisted by Capt. Tobin. He was from Lezayre, fresh complexion, round face, blue eyes and dark hair. He was probably a drummer in Capt. Christian's Company, in June and July, 1797 His dates correspond with the son of Philip and Catherine (Corteen) (LzXXI).

The other two Johns are from Maughold One was enlisted by the Colonel in September, 1799, aged 17. He had a sallow complexion, a round visage, grey eyes and black hair, a labourer. In 1801 he was one of the 120 men who in March volunteered for the line, and were marched to Newry. He was posted to the 38th Regiment. His will (1813) shows he was the son of William the Merchant (MgXIII (*1)).

The other John of Maughold is older. When enlisted in 1804 by Capt. Christian, his age is given as 27, and his trade as Tailor. He was 5' 5?", fresh complexion, hazel eyes, dark hair. He may have married Catherine Quayle in 1809. When their son John married in 1856, his father is described as Tailor (MgXVIII), but John of (LoIII) may equally have been her husband.

It used to be said in the services in the last war, that commanding officers met only the defaulters under their command. The same fate befalls the genealogist in respect of his ancestry. There are four crimes laid at the doors of John Kissack in the Fencibles' Punishment-book. At Whitby, whither the Company of Capt. Bacon had moved in 1796, John was confined 24 hours in the Black Hole for 'wilfully breaking his bayonet'. He would have been John of Lonan, only 16 years. A fellow officer`s diary describes Capt. Caesar Bacon as a man of 'hasty and rather ungovernable temper'.

The other three cases took place in Ulster in 1800. At Strabane in January, 1800, John Kissack and Dougal MacDougal of Capt. Christian's Company were sentenced to 300 lashes for being absent from parade on January 17. On December 2 the same year, John Kissack of Capt. Christian's Co. was sentenced again to 300 lashes 'for throwing burning turf in the Guard Room'. The answer to this Who-done-it I feel must be the one-time drummer boy of that company, the John of Lezayre.

But the worst crime remains . At Omagh, on June 3, 1800, Jo Kissack of the Major's Co. was sentenced to 400 lashes, for 'striking and abusing and tumbling down stairs Henry Corlett of the said Company, and ending his life'. Evidence showed that Corlett had spat on Kissack as he was cleaning his breeches.

My verdict would be that the unhappy man here would have been the sallow-faced John from Maughold, sadly the son of the Merchant. He was the biggest of them all at 5' 4?", he was only 17 when enlisted the previous September, and the following March he got out of the Fencible by volunteering for the 38th Regiment. None of the others appear as defaulters. Equally no Kissack ever seems to have been promoted. It was in every case when on overseas service, particularly under the fearful and inhuman conditions of the Irish Rebellion, that the incidents occurred. Today it is impossible to imagine the stress under which these Manx-bred youths must have existed. Or could it have been the blacksmith son of Margaret Kinnish (MgXI))?

The story of the Royal Manx Fencibles was written by B. E. Sargeaunt in 1947, and he records one other connection between the family and the Regiment. When conditions permitted, as for instance at harvest time, the Fencibles were allowed to work on occasion for civilian employers. Seemingly, the Merchant of Ramsey used this faculty in a way that casts a shadow on his reputation for respectability. In December, 1806, Sergeant James Redhead was court-martialled for some undisclosed crime and was stripped of his stripes. The Court were told that it was at the instigation of Mr. Kissack of Ramsey, and the C.O. ordered that no N.C.O., drummer or private should on any account be permitted to work for Mr. Kissack. Within a month Redhead had his rank re-instated.

The presence of the Fencibles in Northern Ireland tantalisingly raises the question whether one of them could have been the John Kissack to whom a family over there traces itself. He served with the 40th Regiment of Foot, and they treasure his medal for service in the Peninsular War at Ortes, Toulouse and Vittoria. Their tradition is that he was born in 1793 and married Anne McKeon in 1824 in Derry. The family later lived in Moneymore and Magherafelt.

The dates however are too much out of phase to suggest that he could either himself have come from the Island about 1799, or that he could have been the son of a Fencible who did. A study of such microfiches of Irish registers as are available provides evidence of entries of the name (in one spelling or another) :- Births, Robert 1792, John 1794, James 1796. (These in Dromore, Co. Down, and spelt Kishog.) John Kissick, b. 1824, Lifford, Donegal. Marriages, John Kissock to Maria Reid, 1824, Shankhill, Belfast, Maria Martha Kissick to Jas. Robt. McNichol, 1835, Down, and Rosanna Kisack to John Wilson, 1854, Ballymena.

The inference is rather that there was a constant connection with N. Ireland, instanced as early as 1720, in a Lezayre allusion in a will to Joney Kissag, alias Cowle, 'who died in Ireland about 17 years ago', and to her daughter Catherine, who still resided there.

Please note that the copyright of the 'Seed of Isaac' and 'The MacIsaacs' remains with the family of Rex Kissack and no part may be reproduced from this site without their permission.


(*1) MgXIII not listed in `Seed of Isaac
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