seamus dubhghaill

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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The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 Receives Royal Assent

coat-of-arms-of-the-united-kingdomThe Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, the culmination of the process of Catholic emancipation throughout the United Kingdom, receives royal assent on April 13, 1829. In Ireland it repeals the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Parliament of Ireland of 1728. Its passage follows a vigorous campaign that threatens insurrection led by Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell. The British leaders, starting with the Prime MinisterArthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,  and his top aide Robert Peel, although personally opposed, give in to avoid civil strife. Ireland is quiet after the passage.

In 1778, English Catholics are relieved of the restrictions on land inheritance and purchase. A savage reaction to these concessions produces the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the whole history of Catholic Emancipation is one of struggle against great resistance. In 1791 the Roman Catholic Relief Act repeals most of the disabilities in Great Britain, provided Catholics take an oath of loyalty. In 1793 the army, the navy, the universities, and the judiciary are opened to Catholics, although seats in Parliament and some offices are still denied. These reforms are sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who hopes thereby to split the alliance of Irish Catholics and Protestants. But Pitt’s attempt to secure a general repeal of the Penal Laws is thwarted by George III. Pope Pius VII consents to a royal veto on episcopal nominations if the Penal Laws are repealed, but the move fails. In Ireland the repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782 is followed by an act (1792) of the Irish Parliament relaxing the marriage and education laws and an act (1793) allowing Catholics to vote and hold most offices.

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 permits members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster and to hold all but a handful of public offices. O’Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell as a Catholic, is forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. Peel, the Home Secretary, until then is called “Orange Peel” because he always supports the Orange (anti-Catholic) position. Peel now concludes, “Though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.” Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel draws up the Catholic Relief Bill and guides it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington works tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatens to resign as Prime Minister if the King does not give Royal Assent.

With the Universities Tests Act 1871, which opens the universities to Roman Catholics, Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom is virtually complete.


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First Clash of the Tithe War

battle-at-carrickshockThe first clash of the Tithe War takes place on March 3, 1831 in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, when a force of 120 yeomanry attempt to enforce seizure orders on cattle belonging to a Roman Catholic priest. Encouraged by his bishop, he has organised people to resist tithe collection by placing their stock under his ownership prior to sale.

The Tithe War is a campaign of mainly nonviolent civil disobedience, punctuated by sporadic violent episodes, in Ireland between 1830 and 1836 in reaction to the enforcement of tithes on the Roman Catholic majority for the upkeep of the established state church – the Church of Ireland. Tithes are payable in cash or kind and payment is compulsory, irrespective of an individual’s religious adherence.

After Emancipation in 1829, an organized campaign of resistance to collection begins. It is sufficiently successful to have a serious financial effect on the welfare of established church clergy. In 1831, the government compiles lists of defaulters and issues collection orders for the seizure of goods and chattels. Spasmodic violence breaks out in various parts of Ireland, particularly in counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and Wexford. The Royal Irish Constabulary, which had been established in 1822, attempts to enforce the orders of seizures. At markets and fairs, the constabulary often seize stock and produce, which often results in violent resistance.

A campaign of passive resistance is proposed by Patrick “Patt” Lalor, a farmer of Tenakill, Queen’s County (now County Laois), who later serves as a repeal MP. He declares at a public meeting in February 1831 in Maryborough that he would never again pay tithes and, although the tithe men might take his property and offer it for sale, his countrymen would not buy or bid for it if offered for sale. Lalor holds true to his word and does not resist the confiscation of 20 sheep from his farm, but is able to ensure no buyers appear at subsequent auctions.

Following the clash at Graiguenamanagh, the revolt soon spreads. On June 18, 1831, in Bunclody, County Wexford, people resisting the seizure of cattle are fired upon by the Royal Irish Constabulary, who kill twelve and wound twenty. One yeoman is shot dead in retaliation. This massacre causes objectors to organise and use warnings such as church bells to signal the community to round up the cattle and stock. On December 14, 1831, resisters use such warnings to ambush a detachment of 40 Constabulary at Carrickshock, County Kilkenny. Twelve constables, including the Chief Constable, are killed and more wounded.

Regular clashes causing fatalities continue over the next two years. On December 18, 1834, the conflict comes to a head at Rathcormac, County Cork, when armed Constabulary reinforced by the regular British Army kill twelve and wound forty-two during several hours of fighting when trying to enforce a tithe order reputedly to the value of 40 shillings.

Finding and collecting livestock chattels and the associated mayhem creates public outrage and proves an increasing strain on police relations. The government suspends collections. In 1838, parliament introduces a Tithe Commutation Act. This reduces the amount payable directly by about a quarter and makes the remainder payable in rent to landlords. They in turn are to pass payment to the authorities. Tithes are thus effectively added to a tenant’s rent payment. This partial relief and elimination of the confrontational collections ends the violent aspect of the Tithe War.

Full relief from the tax is not achieved until the Irish Church Act 1869, which disestablishes the Church of Ireland, by the William Ewart Gladstone government.

(Pictured: The battle at Carrickshock, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England’, volume VII – 1895.)


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The Death of Theobald Wolfe Tone

theobald-wolfe-toneTheobald Wolfe Tone, Irish republican and rebel who sought to overthrow English rule in Ireland and who led a French military force to Ireland during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, dies at Provost’s Prison, Dublin on November 19, 1798 from a stab wound to his neck which he inflicted upon himself on November 12. His attempted suicide is the result of being refused a soldier’s execution by firing squad and being sentenced to death by hanging.

Wolfe Tone is born in Dublin on June 20, 1763. The son of a coach maker, he studies law and is called to the Irish bar in 1789 but soon gives up his practice. In October 1791 he helps found the Society of United Irishmen, initially a predominantly Protestant organization that works for parliamentary reforms, such as universal suffrage and Roman Catholic emancipation. In Dublin in 1792 he organizes a Roman Catholic convention of elected delegates that forces Parliament to pass the Catholic Relief Act of 1793. He himself, however, is anticlerical and hopes for a general revolt against religious creeds in Ireland as a sequel to the attainment of Irish political freedom.

By 1794 Wolfe Tone and his United Irishmen friends begin to seek armed aid from Revolutionary France to help overthrow English rule. After an initial effort fails, he goes to the United States and obtains letters of introduction from the French minister at Philadelphia to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. In February 1796 he arrives in the French capital, presents his plan for a French invasion of Ireland, and is favourably received. The Directory then appoints one of the most brilliant young French generals, Lazare Hoche, to command the expedition and makes Tone an adjutant in the French army.

On December 16, 1796, Wolfe Tone sails from Brest with 43 ships and nearly 14,000 men. But the ships are badly handled and, after reaching the coast of west Cork and Kerry, are dispersed by a storm. He again brings an Irish invasion plan to Paris in October 1797, but the principal French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, takes little interest. When insurrection breaks out in Ireland in May 1798, Wolfe Tone can only obtain enough French forces to make small raids on different parts of the Irish coast. In September he enters Lough Swilly, Donegal, with 3,000 men and is captured there.

At his trial in Dublin on November 10, Wolfe Tone defiantly proclaims his undying hostility to England and his desire “in fair and open war to produce the separation of the two countries.” He is found guilty and is sentenced to be hanged. Early in the morning of November 12, 1798, the day he is to be hanged, he cuts his throat with a penknife and dies at the age of 35 in Provost’s Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born. He is buried in Bodenstown, County Kildare, near his birthplace, and his grave is in the care of the National Graves Association.


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Execution of Thomas Russell, United Irishmen Co-founder

thomas-russellThomas Paliser Russell, co-founder and leader of the Society of United Irishmen, is executed for his part in Robert Emmet‘s rebellion on October 21, 1803.

Born in Dromahane, County Cork to an Anglican family, Russell joins the British army in 1783 and serves in India. He returns to Ireland in 1786 and commences studies in science, philosophy and politics. In July 1790 he meets Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitors’ gallery in the Irish House of Commons and they become firm friends.

In 1790 Russell resumes his military career as a junior officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot and is posted to Belfast. The French Revolution in 1789 is warmly greeted in Belfast as are its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. With his keen mind and radical ideas, Russell soon becomes a confidante of Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, Samuel Neilson and others who are to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement. With them he develops ideas of parliamentary reform, to include the bulk of the people, and Catholic emancipation.

Russell leaves the army in July 1791 and attends a convention of the Whig Club in Belfast to mark Bastille Day. The convention is addressed by William Drennan, who proposes a brotherhood promoting separation from England and co-operation with the increasingly radical Cisalpine Club in the pursuit of political and social reforms. However, Russell notes the lack of trust between Dissenters and Catholics which is due to fears that Catholic radicalism can be bought off by religious concessions. Informing Wolfe Tone of his observations, within weeks leads to Wolfe Tone’s publication of Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland to address these suspicions. The pamphlet is extremely well received and provides the impetus for the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast on October 18, 1791.

Pressure from Dublin Castle later forces the United Irish movement to become a clandestine organisation as the would-be revolutionaries seek to continue their slow progress towards challenging the occupying British.

In 1795 Russell, Andrew Henderson, Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson lead a band of United Irishmen to the top of Cavehill overlooking the town of Belfast where they swear an oath “never to desist in our effort until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence” prior to Wolfe Tone’s exile to the United States. The event is noted in Dublin Castle although there is no immediate move to disband or arrest the members of the United Irishmen.

In 1796, Russell publishes an ambitious and far-sighted document, Letter to the People of Ireland, which lays out his vision of social and economic reform for the Irish nation. In addition to his stance on religious freedom, he makes clear his anti-slavery views in the Northern Star on March 17, 1792.

Russell takes an active part in organising the Society of United Irishmen becoming the United Irish commander in County Down. However the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1793 leads to an ongoing campaign against the United Irishmen and in 1796 he is arrested and imprisoned as a “state prisoner” in Dublin. In March 1799 he and the other state prisoners are transferred to Fort George in Scotland, an extensive fortress some miles north of Inverness built in the wake of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46. He is released on condition of exile to Hamburg in June 1802 following a brief cessation in the war with France.

Not content to sit things out in Hamburg, Russell soon makes his way to Paris where he meets Robert Emmet who is planning another insurrection pending the French renewal of the war against England. He agrees to return to Ireland in March 1803 to organise the North in conjunction with James Hope. However he meets with little success as much of the north is subdued following the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and displays little appetite for a renewed outbreak. Finally, finding some support in the vicinity of Loughinisland, he prepares to take to the field on July 23, 1803, the date set by Emmett.

However the plan is badly thought out and quickly collapses, forcing Russell to flee to Dublin before a shot is fired in anger. He manages to hide for a number of weeks but Dublin is a hard place in which to hide in the days following the failure of Emmett’s rebellion as the shocked authorities have launched a massive campaign of raids and arrests in an effort to finally eradicate the United Irishmen.

Thomas Russell is promptly arrested and sent to Downpatrick Gaol where he is executed by hanging then beheaded on October 21, 1803.


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Passage of the First Penal Laws

penal-lawsPenal Laws are passed on September 7, 1695 which restrict the rights of Irish Catholics to have an education, to bear arms, or to possess a horse worth more than five pounds. This is the price the Irish have to pay for their support of King James II in his war against William of Orange.

The Catholic James flees to Ireland and raises an army after he is deposed during England’s Glorious Revolution. His successor, William of Orange, wages war in Ireland from 1689 to 1691, eventually defeating James’s armies and causing the ex-monarch to flee to France. It is Ireland’s last great episode of resistance to British rule until the Society of United Irishmen emerges in the 1790s.

Originally it looks as though the terms will be rather lenient. The draft of the Treaty of Limerick, which ends the war between William and James, contains generous terms for the latter’s defeated supporters in Ireland. Soldiers who fought in James’s army are offered free passage to France to join James in exile. James’s supporters in Ireland are to be allowed to keep their lands and to practice their trades and professions. Finally, Catholics are promised freedom of religion.

William supports these lenient terms because he wants to end the struggle in Ireland. It is costing a great deal of money and diverting military resources he wants to use in his ongoing war against France. Irish Protestants, however, bitterly oppose the treaty’s concessions to Catholics, and successfully water down or remove key provisions from the final draft of the Treaty. They also successfully push for a series of anti-Catholic measures known as the Penal Laws.

The first of the Penal Laws are passed on September 7, 1695. Many more follow over the next 30 years. These “popery laws,” as they are popularly known, sharply curtail the civil, religious, and economic rights of Catholics in Ireland. The most important ones make it illegal for Catholics to marry Protestants, inherit land from Protestants, buy land, carry weapons, teach school, practice law, vote in parliamentary elections, hold public office, practice their religion, own a horse worth more than 5 pounds, and hold a commission in the army or navy.

One particularly devastating law forces Catholic land owners to divide their estates among all their sons, in contrast to the preferred practice of handing most or all of the land to the eldest, unless they convert to the Church of Ireland. This leaves them with a choice between two evils: abandon their Catholic faith in order to save their holdings or allow them to be successively subdivided into oblivion.

It is this law, along with continued land forfeitures, that over the next century and a half push Ireland’s people onto smaller and smaller plots of land. Smaller holdings force Irish peasants to turn to the potato, a high yield crop, for the bulk of their daily diet. By the eve of the Great Famine, more than 60 percent of the Irish people depend on the potato for the main source of food. Thus the Penal Laws create the conditions that turn an accident of nature — the fungus that ravages Ireland’s potato crop between 1845 and 1850 — into a monumental human tragedy.

Some Penal Laws are either repealed or simply ignored in the course of the eighteenth century. By the late-1700s, for example, Catholics are allowed to buy land and practice their religion. But the most debilitating laws, those that deny Irish Catholics basic political, economic, and civil rights, are kept in full force until Daniel O’Connell launches his successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s.

(Source: The Irish Echo, oldest Irish American newspaper in the United States, February 16, 2011)


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Death of Philologist Eugene O’Curry

eugene-ocurryEugene O’Curry, philologist and antiquary, dies of a heart attack in Dublin on July 30, 1862.

O’Curry is born at Doonaha, near Carrigaholt, County Clare, the son of Eoghan Ó Comhraí, a farmer, and his wife Cáit. Eoghan has spent some time as a traveling peddler and has developed an interest in Irish folklore and music. Unusual for someone of his background, he is literate and is known to possess a number of Irish manuscripts. It is likely that Eoghan is primarily responsible for his son’s education.

Having spent some years working on his father’s farm and as a school teacher, O’Curry moves to Limerick in 1824 and spends seven years working there at a psychiatric hospital. He marries Anne Broughton, daughter of John Broughton of Killaderry near Broadford, County Limerick on October 3, 1824. He is a supporter of Catholic emancipation and in 1828 writes a poem congratulating Daniel O’Connell on his election as an MP.

During this period O’Curry is establishing a reputation for his knowledge of the Irish language and Irish history, and, by 1834, is in correspondence with the antiquary John O’Donovan. He is employed, from 1835 to 1842, on O’Donovan’s recommendation, in the topographical and historical section of Ordnance Survey Ireland. O’Donovan goes on to marry O’Curry’s sister-in-law, Mary Anne Broughton, in 1840. O’Curry spends much of the remainder of his life in Dublin and earns his living by translating and copying Irish manuscripts. The catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum (1849) is compiled by him for a fee of £100. He is responsible for the transcripts of Irish manuscripts from which O’Donovan edits the Annals of the Four Masters between 1848 and 1851.

In 1851 O’Curry is elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy and, on the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, he is appointed professor of Irish history and archaeology. He works with George Petrie on the Ancient Music of Ireland (1855). In 1852, he and O’Donovan propose the Dictionary of the Irish Language, which is eventually begun by the Royal Irish Academy in 1913 and finally completed in 1976.

O’Curry’s lectures are published by the university in 1860, and give a better knowledge of Irish medieval literature than can be obtained from any other one source. Three other volumes of lectures are published posthumously, under the title On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873). His voluminous transcripts, notably eight huge volumes of early Irish law, testify to his unremitting industry. The Celtic Society, of the council of which he is a member, publishes two of his translations of medieval tales.

Eugene O’Curry dies of a heart attack at his home in Dublin on July 30, 1862, and is survived by two sons and two daughters. He is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. O’Curry Road in the Tenters area of Dublin 8 is named in his honour.