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


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Birth of Robert Simms, Founding Member of the Society of United Irishmen

Robert Simms, Irish radical, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen (Cumann na nÉireannach Aontaithe) in Belfast, and proprietor of the Northern Star newspaper, is born into a Presbyterian family in Belfast on March 20, 1761.

Simms is the owner of a paper mill in Ballyclare with his brother William Simms, one of twelve proprietors of the Northern Star. A close friend of Theobald Wolfe Tone, he is one of the founders of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791 and the author of “Declaration and Resolutions of the Society of United Irishmen of Belfast.” He serves as the first Secretary of the Society, drafting many of its early letters, pamphlets and papers.

Following the French declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, the movement is outlawed and goes underground from 1794 as they become more determined to force a revolt against British rule. Simms, along with his brother William and Thomas Addis Emmet are arrested, but swiftly acquitted. The leadership is divided into those who wish to wait for French aid before rising and the more radical elements that wish to press ahead regardless. However, the suppression of a bloody preemptive rebellion, which breaks out in Leitrim in 1793, leads to the former faction prevailing and links are forged with the revolutionary French government with instructions to wait sent to all of the United Irish membership.

In 1795, along with Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and Thomas Russell meet atop the summit of McArt’s Fort, overlooking Belfast, and, in Wolfe Tone’s words, “took a solemn obligation…never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.” The Simms brothers are again arrested in 1797 and held in Newgate Prison. From there he is transported along with Russell and Emmett to Fort George, Scotland. In his absence, the printing press and building housing the Northern Star is burned.

Upon his release, Simms is appointed as Commander of the United Army in Antrim. The appointment is met reluctantly however, as he feels his lack of military experience counts against him being an effective leader. In addition, many leaders are beginning to agitate for a rising without French aid. He is unwavering in his rejection of this idea. He resigns his position on June 1, 1798 after falling out with the leadership on this issue when most had changed their minds. He is replaced by Henry Joy McCracken who leads the Society in the Battle of Antrim. Simms is accused by many of cowardice and indecision for his refusal to launch an insurrection in Antrim.

Simms is nonetheless arrested and again imprisoned in Fort George with Emmet and William James MacNeven and is released in 1802. When Robert Emmet‘s failed coup is launched in 1803, the Simms brothers do not participate. He dies at the age of 82 in 1843.

Simms is a friend of the naturalist John Templeton and his son, also Robert Simms, is one of the founders of the Belfast Natural History Society.


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Founding of the Society of United Irishmen

society-of-united-irishmenThe Society of United Irishmen, a liberal political organisation that initially seeks Parliamentary reform, is founded in Belfast on October 14, 1791. It evolves into a revolutionary republican organisation, inspired by the American Revolution and allied with Revolutionary France. It launches the Irish Rebellion of 1798 with the objective of ending British monarchical rule over Ireland and founding a sovereign, independent Irish republic.

The enthusiasm for the French Revolution sees great Irish interest in Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man released in May 1791. A couple of months later the Belfast Volunteer company gathers to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. It is intended that a new radical society is to be announced during the celebrations which William Drennan, who is to give a declaration, asks to add in resolutions. Drennan refuses due to the short notice of the request and suggests that Theobald Wolfe Tone be asked.

Tone’s reformist radicalism has advanced beyond that of the Whigs, and he proposes three resolutions for the new society, which he names the Society of United Irishmen. The first resolution is for the denouncing of the continuing interference of the British establishment in Irish affairs. The second is for the full reform of the Irish parliament and its representation. The last resolution calls for a union of religious faiths in Ireland to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen” and seeks to give Catholics political rights. This last proposal, however, is quietly dropped by the Belfast Volunteers to ensure unanimity for the proposals amongst the people.

This seems to delay the launch of the new society and by August 1791 Tone, in response to the rebuff of his third resolution, publishes the popular and robust An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, which argues why they should be included in attempts at reform. That October, Tone is invited to a debate on the creation of a new society by a group of people including Samuel Neilson. Here he finds that his resolutions are now found a few months later to be “too tame.” A new set of resolutions is drafted and agreed upon on October 14, which the Belfast branch of the Society of United Irishmen adopts on October 18, and the Dublin branch on November 9. The main problem they identify for Ireland is the issue of national sovereignty.

All attendees at the first meeting of the Belfast branch are Protestant. Two, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, are Anglicans and the remainder are Presbyterian, most of whom are involved in the linen trade in Belfast. Along with Tone and Russell, the men involved are William Sinclair, Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, Henry Haslett, Gilbert McIlveen, William Simms, Robert Simms, Thomas McCabe, and Thomas Pearce. After forming, the Society names chandler Samuel McTier as its first President.