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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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Death of William Sampson, United Irishman, Author & Lawyer

william-sampsonWilliam Sampson, member of the Society of United Irishmen, author and Irish Protestant lawyer known for his defence of religious liberty in Ireland and the United States, dies in New York City on December 28, 1836.

Sampson is born in Derry, County Londonderry, to an affluent Anglican family. He attends Trinity College Dublin and studies law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. In his twenties, he briefly visits an uncle in North Carolina. In 1790 he marries Grace Clark and they have two sons, William and John, and a daughter, Catherine Anne.

Admitted to the Irish Bar, Sampson becomes Junior Counsel to John Philpot Curran, and helps him provide legal defences for many members of the Society of United Irishmen. A member of the Church of Ireland, he is disturbed by anti-Catholic violence and contributes writings to the Society’s newspapers. He is arrested at the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, imprisoned, and compelled to leave Ireland for exile in Europe.

Shipwrecked at Pwllheli in Wales, Sampson makes his way to exile in Porto, Portugal, where he is again arrested, imprisoned in Lisbon, and then expelled. After living some years in France, and then Hamburg, he flees to England ahead of the approach of Napoleon‘s armies where he is re-arrested. After unsuccessfully petitioning for a return to Ireland, he arrives in New York City on July 4, 1806.

In the United States, Sampson successfully continues his career in the law, eventually sending for his family. He sets up a business publishing detailed accounts of the court proceedings in cases with popular appeal. In 1809 he reports on the case of a Navy Lieutenant Renshaw prosecuted for dueling. That same year he handles a case against Amos and Demis Broad, accused of brutally beating their slave, Betty, and her 3-year-old daughter where Sampson succeeded in having both slaves manumitted. The authorities in Ireland had disbarred Sampson, which causes him some bitter amusement, as it does not affect his work in the United States.

Sampson’s most important case in the United States is in 1813 and is referred to as “The Catholic Question in America.” Police investigating the misdemeanor of receiving stolen goods question the suspects’ priest, the Reverend Mr. Kohlman. He declines to given any information that he has heard in confession. The priest is called to testify at the trial in the Court of General Sessions in the City of New York. He again declines. The issue whether to compel the testimony is fully briefed and carefully argued on both sides, with a detailed examination of the common law. In the end, the confessional privilege is accepted for the first time in a court of the United States.

William Sampson dies on December 28, 1836 and is buried in the Riker Family graveyard on Long Island in what is now East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. He is later reinterred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he is now buried in the same plot as Matilda Witherington Tone and William Theobald Wolfe Tone, the wife and son of the Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone, and his daughter Catherine, the wife of William Theobald Wolfe Tone.


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Birth of Henry Charles Sirr

Henry Charles Sirr, Irish soldier, police officer, wine merchant and collector, is born in Dublin Castle on November 25, 1764. He is the founder of the Irish Society for Promoting Scriptural Education in the Irish Language.

Sirr is the son of Major Joseph Sirr, the Town Major (chief of police) of Dublin from 1762 to 1767. He serves in the British Army from 1778 until 1791 and is thereafter a wine merchant. In 1792 he marries Eliza D’Arcy, the daughter of James D’Arcy. He is the father of Rev. Joseph D’Arcy Sirr, MRIA and of Henry Charles Sirr.

In 1796 Sirr is appointed acting Town Major of Dublin. He is responsible for the arrest of Irish revolutionaries Lord Edward FitzGerald, Thomas Russell and Robert Emmet.

In 1802 Sirr is mulcted £150 damages, and costs, for the assault and false imprisonment of John Hevey. His lawyer in this case refers to his “very great exertions and laudable efforts” to crush the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The opposing lawyer, John Philpot Curran, tells a long tale of a grudge held by Sirr against Hevey, the latter a prosperous businessman and a Yeoman volunteer against the Rebellion, who has happened to be in court during a treason case brought by Sirr. Hevey recognises the witness for the prosecution, describes him in court “a man of infamous character,” and convinces the jury that no credit is due to the witness. The treason case collapses. Sirr and his colleague had then subjected Hevey to wrongful arrest, imprisonment incommunicado, extortion of goods and money, and condemnation to hanging. Curran implies that these techniques are typical of the methods used by Sirr and by others to suppress the Rebellion.

In 1808 the Dublin police is re-organised and his post is abolished, but he is allowed to retain the title. Niles’ Register of March 24, 1821 remarks that “Several persons have been arrested at a public house in Dublin, by major Sirr, charged with being engaged in a treasonable meeting, and committed to prison. We thought that this old sinner, given to eternal infamy by the eloquence of Curran, had gone home.”

Sirr is an avid collector of documents and curios. He sells McCormac’s Cross and other valuable antiquities in exchange for second-rate copied paintings. The remains are given by his older son, Joseph, to Trinity College, Dublin at some time between 1841 and 1843. It now forms the Sirr Collection of the Trinity College Library, Dublin.

Henry Charles Sirr dies in 1841 and is buried in the churchyard of St. Werburgh’s Church, while his victim, Lord Edward FitzGerald, is buried in the vaults of the same church.


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Execution of the Sheares Brothers

Brothers John and Henry Sheares, both Irish lawyers and members of the Society of United Irishmen, are executed in Dublin on July 14, 1798 during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The Sheares brothers are the sons of Henry Sheares, a liberal banker from County Cork who also sits in the Irish Parliament for the Borough of Clonakilty. Henry attends Trinity College, Dublin, buys an officer’s commission and then studies as a lawyer, being called to the bar as a barrister in 1790. John qualifies as a barrister in 1788.

In 1792 the brothers go to Paris and are swept away by the popular enthusiasms of the French Revolution. They meet leaders such as Jacques Pierre Brissot and Jean-Marie Roland, both of whom are to be executed in 1793. In particular they witness the introduction of the guillotine, on which 1,400 are to die in 1792. On the boat from France to England they meet Daniel O’Connell, then a student, who is disgusted by the increasingly bloodthirsty nature of the revolution. O’Connell remains an advocate of non-violence thereafter.

The brothers join the United Irish movement upon their return to Dublin in January 1793, when it is still legal, and John begins to write articles for the Press, a nationalist paper. However, France declares war on Britain, and by extension on Ireland, in February 1793. The Society’s initial aims of securing Catholic emancipation and universal suffrage are unsuccessful, amounting to the administration’s 1793 Relief Act. Its stance becomes more radical, and in turn the Irish administration fears a group inspired by France, banning it in 1794.

The Sheares brothers principally organise the movement in Cork, while continuing with their legal careers. A Mr. Conway, one of their keenest members in Cork, informs the administration of their activities. During 1793 the brothers also join the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen, where another spy, Thomas Collins, passes on their names. Their other two less famous brothers enlist in the British army and are killed in action. On the arrest of most of the United Irish “Directory” members in March 1798, John is chosen as a replacement on the approach to the outbreak of rebellion. His main act at this point is to decide on the date – May 23.

The Directory fatally stays in Dublin, where the United Irish have less support. Already quietly betrayed by Conway and Collins, John also befriends Captain Warnesford Armstrong from County Down, who claims to be a busy member of the party there. John never verifies this, and Armstrong informs the authorities of the brothers’ whereabouts, also appearing as a witness in the ensuing trial. They are arrested on May 21 and indicted on June 26.

Inevitably the brothers are tried on July 12, as the rebellion is at its height, and are hanged, drawn and quartered two days later outside Newgate Prison. Their lawyer is John Philpot Curran who, with Sir Jonah Barrington, obtain a stay of execution in the hope that Henry will recant, but the brothers are already dead. They are buried at Dublin’s St. Michan’s Church. Visitors are brought to their coffins on a tour of St. Michan’s vaults.

(Pictured: The coffins of the Sheares brothers in the crypt of St. Michan’s Church)