seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Chartist Leader Feargus O’Connor

feargus-edward-o-connorFeargus Edward O’Connor, advocate of the Land Plan and prominent Chartist leader who succeeds in making Chartism the first specifically working class national movement in Great Britain, is born near Castletown-Kinneigh, County Cork on July 18, 1796.

O’Connor is born into a prominent Irish Protestant family who claims to be the descendants of the 12th-century king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. He is educated mainly at Portarlington Grammar School and has some elementary schooling in England.

O’Connor practices law but exchanges law for politics when he enters the British Parliament in 1832 as a member for County Cork. Unseated in 1835, he turns to radical agitation in England, although he continues to press Irish grievances and to seek Irish support. As a result of his humour, invective, and energy, he becomes the best known Chartist leader and the movement’s most popular speaker. His journal, the Northern Star (founded in 1837), gains a wide circulation.

O’Connor’s methods and views alienate other Chartist leaders, particularly William Lovett, but in 1841, after spending a year in prison for seditious libel, he acquires undisputed leadership of the Chartists. Failing to lead the movement to victory and vacillating in his attitude toward the middle class and toward the People’s Charter, a six-point bill drafted and published in May 1838, he begins to lose power, although he is elected to Parliament for Nottingham in 1847. The failure of the People’s Charter in 1848 marks the beginning of the end for O’Connor, whose egocentricity is already bordering on madness.

The circulation of the Northern Star falls steadily and it loses money. O’Connor’s health is failing, and reports of his mental breakdown regularly appear in the newspapers. In the spring of 1852 he visits the United States, where his behaviour leaves no doubt that he is not a well man.

In 1852 in the House of Commons O’Connor strikes three fellow MPs, one of them Sir Benjamin Hall, a vocal critic of the Land Plan. Arrested by the Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, he is sent by his sister to Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke‘s private Manor House Asylum in Chiswick, where he remains until 1854, when he is moved to his sister’s house. He dies on August 30, 1855 at 18 Albert Terrace, Notting Hill Gate and is buried on September 10 in Kensal Green Cemetery. No fewer than 40,000 people witness the funeral procession. Most Chartists preferred to remember O’Connor’s strengths rather than his shortcomings.


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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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Publication of the First Issue of the “Northern Star”

northern-starThe first issue of the Northern Star, the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen, is published in Belfast on January 4, 1792. It is published from 1792 until its suppression by the British army in May 1797.

The publication of an Irish newspaper that reflects and disseminates liberal views is an early goal of Irish republicans in the late 18th century. By the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in October 1791, the project is well underway and the first edition of the Northern Star appears in Belfast in January 1792. Like the United Irishmen, the first financial backers of the Northern Star are Presbyterian and one of the United Irish leadership, Samuel Neilson, is made editor.

Political content dominates the Northern Star but its publication of local news, as opposed to the focus on British and international affairs of other Irish newspapers of the time, brings it wide popularity. Leading members of the United Irishmen are regular contributors and mixed direct political analyses with cutting political satire. William Orr is among those who contributed to its content and his letters lead to his eventual arrest and execution under the Insurrection Act of 1797. The newspaper also enjoys an excellent voluntary distribution network as its penetration follows rapidly wherever the United Irishmen set up new branches. It was estimated that for each copy of the Northern Star sold there are at least five readers, as the reading aloud of articles from the paper is a regular feature of United Irish meetings.

The newspaper is initially protected from the authorities due to the support of well-connected liberals but following the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France in 1793 and the subsequent banning of the United Irishmen as a seditious body it begins to draw increasing attention. The massive popularity of the newspaper protects it from serious harassment until January 1797 when the establishment goes into a state of panic following the French invasion scare at Bantry Bay. The paper is alleged to be behind the Dublin-based Union Star, a militant, low-circulation newssheet, often posted in public places, which specializes in naming informers, “notorious Orangemen,” and other enemies of the United Irishmen, being regarded by Dublin Castle as a republican hitlist.

The extensive distribution network and potency of the Northern Star in spreading United Irish opinion alarms the authorities and possession of a copy comes to be regarded as an admission of seditious intent. The end finally comes with the uncovering of supposed United Irish infiltration of the Monaghan militia in Belfast, which results in the execution of four soldiers. General Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake, already engaged in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, is quick to put much of the blame on the Northern Star and requests permission to suppress the paper.

As it turns out, official suppression is not necessary as on May 19, 1797, three days after the execution of their ex-comrades, a mob of Monaghan militiamen anxious to prove their loyalty attack the offices of the Northern Star and destroy not only the printing presses but the building itself. The attack results in the demise of the Northern Star to the undoubted satisfaction of the authorities as no action is taken against those involved in the destruction. The Chartist movement later pays tribute to the Northern Star by using the same name for their newspaper that is founded in 1837 by Feargus O’Connor.


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Death of Samuel Nielson, Society of United Irishmen Founder Member

Samuel Neilson, one of the founder members of the Society of United Irishmen and the founder of its newspaper the Northern Star, dies in Poughkeepsie, New York on August 29, 1803.

Neilson is born in Ballyroney, County Down, the son of Presbyterian minister Alexander, and Agnes Neilson. He is educated locally. He is the second son in a family of eight sons and five daughters. At the age of 16, he is apprenticed to his elder brother, John, in the business of woollen drapery in Belfast. Eight years later he establishes his own business.

Despite his commercial success, Neilson is naturally drawn to politics and is early on a member of the reformist Irish Volunteers movement. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, he suggests to Henry Joy McCracken the idea of a political society of Irishmen of every religious persuasion. He establishes the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast. The following year he launches the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star, which effectively throws away his fortune. As its editor he is a high-profile target for the authorities and is prosecuted for libel several times, being twice imprisoned between 1796 and 1798.

Along with several other state prisoners, Neilson is released in February 1798 following several petitions by influential friends, on grounds of bad health. Upon release he immediately involves himself in the United Irishmen aligning with the radicals among the leadership who are pressing for immediate rebellion and oppose the moderates who wish to wait for French assistance before acting.

The United Irishmen are however, severely penetrated by informants who keep Dublin Castle abreast of their plans and discussions. In March 1798, information of a meeting of the United Irish executive at the house of Oliver Bond leads to the arrest of most of the leadership, leaving Neilson and Lord Edward FitzGerald as the only figures of national importance still at liberty. They decide to press ahead as soon as possible and settled on May 23 as the date for the rebellion to begin.

As the date looms closer, the authorities go into overdrive to sweep up the rump leadership and on May 18 Lord Edward is betrayed in his hiding place and critically wounded while resisting capture. Neilson, now with responsibility for finalising plans for the looming rebellion, decides that Fitzgerald is too valuable to do without, and decides to try and rescue him from Newgate Prison in Dublin. Wary of confiding his plans too early for fear of betrayal, Neilson goes on a reconnaissance of the prison but is spotted by chance by one of his former jailers and after a fierce struggle, he is overpowered and dragged into the prison.

Neilson is indicted for high treason and held in Kilmainham Gaol with other state prisoners for the duration of the doomed rebellion outside. After the execution of Oliver Bond, and the brothers John and Henry Sheares, Neilson and the remaining prisoners agree to provide the authorities with details of the organisation of the United Irishmen, plans for the rebellion, etc. in return for exile.

Following the suppression of the rebellion, Neilson is transferred to Fort George in Inverness-shire, Scotland, and in 1802 he is deported to the Netherlands. From there he makes his way to the United States, arriving in December 1802, and settling in Poughkeepsie, New York.  He has little time to enjoy his liberty  before his  sudden death on August 29, 1803 of yellow fever, or possibly a stroke.

Nielson is not idle during his short life in America as he completes plans to start a new evening newspaper in Poughkeepsie and also has plans in the works to establish a version of the Society of United Irishmen in the United States. Since his death, his remains have been moved to three different cemeteries before coming to rest in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in 1880.

(Photograph: (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)