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


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Archibald Hamilton Rowan Tried for Distribution of Seditious Paper

archibald-hamilton-rowanArchibald Hamilton Rowan, a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, is tried on a charge of distributing seditious paper on January 29, 1794.

Hamilton Rowan is born in the home of his grandfather, William Rowan, in London on May 1, 1751 and lives there with his mother and sister for much of his early life. He is admitted to Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1768, but is expelled from the college and rusticated for an attempt to throw a tutor into the River Cam. He is sent for a period in 1769 to Warrington Academy.

Hamilton Rowan travels throughout the 1770s and 1780s, visiting parts of Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. In 1781 he marries Sarah Dawson in Paris, France. The couple has ten children. He is the godfather of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.

Hamilton Rowan returns to Ireland in his thirties, in 1784, to live at Rathcoffey near Clane in County Kildare. He becomes a celebrity and, despite his wealth and privilege, a strong advocate for Irish liberty. That same year he joins the Killyleagh Volunteers, a militia group later associated with radical reform. He first gains public attention by championing the cause of fourteen-year-old Mary Neal in 1788. Neal had been lured into a Dublin brothel and then assaulted by Lord Carhampton. Hamilton Rowan publicly denounces Carhampton and publishes a pamphlet A Brief Investigation of the Sufferings of John, Anne, and Mary Neal in the same year. An imposing figure at more than six feet tall, his notoriety grows when he enters a Dublin dining club threatening several of Mary Neal’s detractors, with his massive Newfoundland at his side and a shillelagh in hand. The incident wins him public applause and celebrity as a champion of the poor.

In 1790 Hamilton Rowan joins the Northern Whig Club, and by October has become a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, working alongside famous radicals such as William Drennan and Theobald Wolfe Tone. He is arrested in 1792 for seditious libel when caught handing out “An Address to the Volunteers of Ireland,” a piece of United Irish propaganda. Unknown to him, from 1791 Dublin Castle has a spy in the Dublin Society, Thomas Collins, whose activity is never discovered. From February 1793 Britain and Ireland join the War of the First Coalition against France, and the United Irish movement is outlawed in 1794.

Hamilton Rowan’s reputation for radicalism and bluster grow during this time when he leaves Ireland to confront the Lord Advocate of Scotland about negative comments made in respect to his character and that of members of the Society of United Irishmen. As a prominent member of the Irish gentry, he is an important figure in the United Irishmen and becomes the contact for the Scottish radical societies as a result of his visit. Upon his return to Dublin, he is charged and was found guilty of seditious libel, even though he is excellently defended by the famous John Philpot Curran. He is sentenced to two years imprisonment, receives a fine of £500, and is forced to pay two assurities for good behaviour of £1,000 each. In January 1794 he retires to his apartments in Dublin’s Newgate Prison.

In the years following, Hamilton Rowan spends time in exile in France, the United States and Germany. He is allowed to return to Ireland in 1806. He returns to the ancestral home of Killyleagh Castle, County Down, receiving a hero’s welcome. While he has agreed to be a model citizen under the conditions of his return to Ireland, he remains active in politics and retains his youthful radicalism. Following his last public appearance at a meeting in the Rotunda in Dublin on January 20, 1829, he is lifted up by a mob and paraded through the streets.

Hamilton Rowan dies at the age of 84 in his home on November 1, 1834. He is buried in the vaults of St. Mary’s Church, Dublin.


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The Suicide of Reverend William Jackson

william-jacksonThe Reverend William Jackson, noted Irish preacher, journalist, playwright, radical, and spy, commits suicide on April 30, 1795 after being found guilty of high treason.

Jackson was born in Newtownards, County Down, in 1737. Much is unclear about his early life. He studies at Oxford and became an Anglican curate. In the 1760s, he moves to London, where he preaches at the Tavistock Chapel and St. Mary-le-Strand. Although he gains some popularity as a preacher, he remains unbeneficed and eventually turns to journalism to support himself.

In 1766, Jackson becomes the editor of The Public Ledger. Under his editorship, the London paper becomes increasingly strident and oppositional in its politics. He is forced to flee to France in April 1777 to avoid a trial for libel that the popular actor and playwright Samuel Foote had initiated. He does not have to stay long in exile because Foote dies on October 21 of that same year.

After Foote’s death, Jackson returns to England. He resumes his political activities by publishing The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America in 1783, with a dedication to the opposition leader, William Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland. But the following year, he is secretly hired by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, to support the government in The Morning Post. Publishing anonymously, he attacks his former allies with his usual vehemence until he is discovered and is soundly damned for his apostasy and finds himself generally excluded from English politics.

Jackson’s next appearance in the public results in yet another scandal. In 1787 he joins forces with “Gentleman” John Palmer. Their goal is to build a new theatre in London. Jackson and Palmer persuade investors to sink more than eighteen thousand pounds into the construction of the Royalty Theatre. However, while there is no law against building a theatre in London, there is a law against operating one without the Lord Chamberlain‘s authorisation. Jackson and Palmer have no such authorisation so the theatre is shut down after just one night. The duped investors initiated legal action. Jackson again flees to France, where he arrives on the eve of revolution.

During his stay in Paris, Jackson is swept up in the revolutionary fervour and becomes involved with the radical British expatriate set there. Swept up in the general arrest of British subjects in 1793, he is released from prison on the strength of his radical commitments. Upon his release, he becomes inspector of horses for Meaux and later in 1793 is commissioned as a spy for the French. Nicholas Madgett, an Irishman who works in the Marine Ministry, recruits Jackson to go to England and Ireland to assess the public’s inclination towards armed revolution.

Jackson arrives in London in early 1794 and becomes reacquainted with John Cockayne, a lawyer he had met two decades earlier. He reveals his mission to Cockayne, who promptly reveals it to the Prime Minister out of fear of being tried for treason himself. When Jackson leaves London for Dublin, he is accompanied by Cockayne. In Ireland they meet with several radical leaders of the Society of United Irishmen, including Theobald Wolfe Tone, James Reynolds and Archibald Hamilton Rowan. Hamilton Rowan, in particular, is tempted by Jackson’s talk of French assistance, and persuades Tone to write up a report for the French, indicating Irish willingness to rise up. Jackson makes the fatal mistake of placing Tone’s report and other letters in the public mail, where they are seized by the authorities. This seizure leads to Jackson’s arrest on April 28, 1794.

Jackson remains in prison for a year before his trial takes place. The delays are at his request, allowing him time to assemble a defence and procure witnesses. During his imprisonment, he writes his last work, Observations in Answer to Mr. Paine’s Age of Reason (1795). His trial takes place in Dublin on April 23, 1795, and he is found guilty. One week later, on the morning of his sentencing hearing Jackson steps into the dock looking terribly ill. As his lawyers make drawn out speeches, hoping to avoid judgment on the technicality of an improperly filed indictment, Jackson’s condition steadily worsens. The judges order that a chair be provided for him and ask that a doctor attend him. He then collapses and dies. An autopsy finds that Jackson had ingested a large quantity of a “metallic poison.” This is likely administered by his second wife, but the inquest pointedly refuses to assign blame.

The effect of Jackson’s suicide is that he had not actually been pronounced guilty of treason by the court, and so his family can inherit his goods and a pension.