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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of William Drennan, Physician, Poet & Political Radical

william-drennanWilliam Drennan, physician, poet and political radical, is born on May 23, 1754 in Belfast. He is one of the chief architects of the Society of United Irishmen and is known as the first to refer in print to Ireland as “the emerald isle” in his poem When Erin first rose.

Drennan is son the son of Reverend Thomas Drennan (1696–1768), minister of Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street. Thomas Drennan is an educated man from the University of Glasgow and is ordained to the congregation of Holywood, County Down in 1731. Drennan is heavily influenced by his father, whose religious convictions serve as the foundation for his own radical political ideas. His sister, Martha, marries fellow future United Irishman Samuel McTier in 1773.

In 1769 Drennan follows in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in the University of Glasgow where he becomes interested in the study of philosophy. In 1772 he graduates in arts and then in 1773 he commences the study of medicine at Edinburgh. After graduating in 1778 he sets up practice in Belfast, specialising in obstetrics. He is credited with being one of the earliest advocates of inoculation against smallpox and of hand washing to prevent the spread of infection. He also writes much poetry, coining the phrase “Emerald Isle” and is the founder and editor of a literary periodical, Belfast Magazine. He moves to Newry in 1783 but eventually moves to Dublin in 1789 where he quickly becomes involved in nationalist circles.

Like many other Ulster Presbyterians, Drennan is an early supporter of the American Colonies in the American Revolution and joins the Volunteers who had been formed to defend Ireland for Britain in the event of French invasion. The Volunteer movement soon becomes a powerful political force and a forum for Protestant nationalists to press for political reform in Ireland eventually assisting Henry Grattan to achieve legislative independence for the Irish parliament in 1782. However Drennan, like many other reformers, quickly becomes dismayed by the conservative and sectarian nature of the Irish parliament and in 1791 he co-founds the Society of United Irishmen with Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell.

Drennan writes many political pamphlets for the United Irishmen and is arrested in 1794 for seditious libel, a political charge that is a major factor in driving the United Irishmen underground and into becoming a radical revolutionary party. Although he is eventually acquitted, he gradually withdraws from the United Irishmen but continues to campaign for Catholic Emancipation.

On February 8, 1800, Drennan marries Sarah Swanwick, “an English lady of some wealth” from Shropshire. They have one daughter and four sons.

Drennan settles in Belfast in 1807. In 1810 he co-founds the non-denominational Royal Belfast Academical Institution. As a poet, he is best remembered for his poem The Wake of William Orr, written in memory of a United Irishman executed by the British. Despite his links with revolutionary republicans, he gradually becomes alienated from the post-Union nationalism of the period. His abiding concern for Liberalism and post union realities make him contemplate his political ideas anew.

Drennan dies on February 5, 1820. He directs that his coffin be carried by an equal number of Catholics and Protestants with clergy from different denominations in attendance.

Drennan’s son, John Swanwick Drennan, is a noted poet who, along with his brother William Drennan, write a biography of him for Richard Davis Webb‘s A Compendium of Irish Biography. Through his daughter Sarah, who marries John Andrews of a prominent family of flax merchants, he has several notable descendants, including William Drennan Andrews, judge of the High Court of Justice in Ireland, Sir James Andrews, 1st Baronet, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, John Miller Andrews, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Thomas Andrews who drew up the plans for the RMS Titanic and was aboard and drowned when she sank, and Thomas Drennan, performance artist known primarily for his seminal work ‘Journey to the Centre of Drennan.’

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First Irish Convict Ship Arrives in Botany Bay

The Queen, the first ship delivering Irish convicts, arrives at the penal settlement of Botany Bay in New South Wales, Australia on September 26, 1791. About 30% of all Australians are of Irish birth or descent. Many emigrated freely but many are descended from convicts transported there in the early years of the colony.

Britain has a policy of transportation. Up until the American Revolution most are sent to the American colonies or the West Indies. By the 1780s, Britain badly needs prison space. Petty criminals are housed on overcrowded prison ships anchored on the River Thames. In 1786, the government decides to start a prison settlement in the new colony at Botany Bay.

The transportation is arranged by a private company and those convicts who arrive there are actually the lucky ones, as conditions on the journey are horrendous and many die en route. The organisers of the transportation ships operate on a contract basis. They are paid a certain amount per head and the less provisions they give the prisoners the more profit they make.

The first two fleets of convict ships sail from England. The first ship to sail directly from Ireland is the Queen, which leaves Cork in April 1791 and joins the third fleet sailing from England. On board are 133 male convicts, 22 females and three children. The youngest on the ship is two-week-old Margaret, daughter of convict Sarah Brennan. The youngest convicts are 11-year-old David Fay and 12-year-old James Blake, convicted for stealing a pair of buckles. The oldest convict is 64-year-old Patrick Fitzgerald from Dublin, who is sentenced to seven years for stealing clothes. Seven men and one woman die on the voyage and within a year, half the men who had sailed on the Queen are dead. Young James Blake dies within a few months of landing.

The last convict ship sails from Ireland to Australia in 1853 and over the course of 60 years, 30,000 men and 9,000 women are transported for a minimum of seven years. While a good number of them are patriots and rebels – United Irishmen and Young Irelanders – the majority are transported for petty crimes.

Transportation continues for more than 60 years and is followed by assisted emigration. More than 100,000 travel on assisted passage during the 1850s alone. Some are assisted on their journey by charitable organisations in an effort to relieve distress. The last transportation ship, the Phoebe Dunbar, sails from Dun Laoghaire in 1853, bound for Perth.


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Benjamin Franklin Begins Visit to Ireland

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence, commences a visit to Ireland on September 5, 1771 where he later reports he has “a good deal of Conversation with the Patriots; they are all on the American side of the Question.”

At the time Franklin is based in London attempting to negotiate on behalf of the American Colonies. Franklin details his views of Dublin and Ireland in a letter to Thomas Cushing, a lawyer and statesman from Boston, Massachusetts. Franklin has a keen interest in Irish affairs, writing in a letter two years prior to visiting the country that “all Ireland is strongly in favour of the American cause. They have reason to sympathise with us.”

As Franklin tours Ireland in 1771 and is astounded and moved by the level of poverty he sees there. Ireland is under the trade regulations and laws of England, which affect the Irish economy, and Franklin fears that America will suffer the same plight if Britain’s exploitation of the colonies continues. During his visit, Franklin also attends two sessions of Irish Parliament as an observer.

Franklin is struck by the contrast between the grandeur of Dublin city itself and the intense poverty of those beyond its core.

Franklin writes to a friend, “The people in that unhappy country, are in a most wretched situation. Ireland is itself a poor country, and Dublin a magnificent city; but the appearances of general extreme poverty among the lower people are amazing. They live in wretched hovels of mud and straw, are clothed in rags, and subsist chiefly on potatoes. Our New England farmers, of the poorest sort, in regard to the enjoyment of all the comforts of life, are princes when compared to them. Perhaps three-fourths of the Inhabitants are in this situation.”

In 1977, the United States Ambassador to Ireland Walter J.P. Curley presents a bust of Benjamin Franklin to the Bank of Ireland to commemorate the visit. Speaking at the unveiling of the bust, the Ambassador notes that  Franklin’s friendship for Ireland was no fleeting whim. He had said “You have ever been friendly to the rights of mankind and we acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude that your nation has produced patriots who have nobly distinguished themselves in the cause of humanity and America.”


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Death of Statesman Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke, statesman born in Dublin, dies on July 9, 1797 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England. He is also known as an author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher who, after moving to London, served as a member of parliament (MP) for many years in the House of Commons with the Whig Party.

Burke receives his early education at a Quaker school in Ballitore, County Kildare. In 1744, he enters Trinity College, Dublin, a Protestant establishment, which up until 1793, did not permit Catholics to take degrees. He graduates from Trinity in 1748. Burke’s father wants him to read Law, and with this in mind he goes to London in 1750, where he enters the Middle Temple, before soon giving up legal study to travel in Continental Europe. After eschewing the Law, he pursues a livelihood through writing.

Burke criticizes British treatment of the American colonies, including through its taxation policies. He also supports the American Revolution, believing both that it could not affect British or European stability and would be an innovative experiment in political development since the Americas are so far away from Europe and thus could have little impact on England.

Burke is remembered for his support for Catholic emancipation, the impeachment of Warren Hastings from the East India Company, and for his later opposition to the French Revolution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he claims that the revolution is destroying the fabric of good society, and condemned the persecution of the Catholic Church that results from it. This leads to his becoming the leading figure within the conservative faction of the Whig Party, which he dubs the “Old Whigs,” as opposed to the pro–French Revolution “New Whigs” led by Charles James Fox.

For more than a year prior to his death, Burke realizes that his “stomach” is “irrecoverably ruind.” Edmund Burke dies in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, on July 9, 1797 and is buried there alongside his son and brother. His wife, Mary Jane Nugent, survives him by nearly fifteen years.

In the nineteenth century Burke is praised by both conservatives and liberals. Subsequently, in the twentieth century, he becomes widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.