seamus dubhghaill

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


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Execution of William Orr, Member of the United Irishmen

William Orr, a member of the United Irishmen, is executed by the British on October 14, 1797 in what is widely believed at the time to be “judicial murder” and whose memory leads to the rallying cry “Remember Orr” during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. He is regarded as the first United Irish martyr.

Little is known of Orr’s early life. He is born in 1766 to a Presbyterian farming family and bleach-green proprietor, at Ferranshane outside Antrim town. The family is in comfortable circumstances and, as a result, he receives a good education. His appearance and manner are at the time considered noteworthy as he stands 6′ 2″ in height and is always carefully and respectably dressed, a familiar feature in his apparel being a green necktie, which he wears “even in his last confinement.” His popularity amongst his countrymen is also noted, particularly among the Northern Presbyterian patriots. He becomes active in the Irish Volunteers and then joins the United Irishmen. Sometime in the mid-1790s, he contributes several articles to their newspaper, the Northern Star.

Orr is charged at Carrickfergus Town Hall with administering the United Irishmen oath to a soldier named Hugh Wheatly, an offence which had recently been deemed a capital charge under the 1796 Insurrection Act. The offence is aggravated from a legal point of view because of the allegation that it is a serving soldier whom he is alleged to have administered the oath to. The prosecution makes the most of this “proof” of the “treasonable” aim of the United Irishmen to “seduce from their allegiance” the “men who are the Kingdom’s only safeguard against the foreign foe.”

The United Irishmen know from the evidence of some of their own number that Orr had not administered the oath on the occasion alleged. They also have the evidence of another eyewitness, James “Jemmy” Hope. The soldier witness Wheatly perjures himself and it is proved he is of bad character. The person who did tender the oath is a well known member of the Society, William McKeever, who subsequently escapes to the United States. It is widely believed at the time that the authorities wish to make an example of Orr to act as a deterrent to potential United Irishmen recruits.

The actual case, which does not appear in the course of the proceedings but everyone, according to T. A. Jackson, is “in the know” and fully aware that the United Irishmen’s oath had been administered to a soldier “whether it was Orr or another who administered the oath was merely incidental.”

Orr is represented by John Philpot Curran, and the trial leads to a speech, which, according to T. A. Jackson, “is among the most remarkable of his many remarkable speeches.” It is a charge of libel against the Press newspaper, the journal founded by Arthur O’Connor to replace the Northern Star. The Press had published an open letter to the Viceroy, remarking scornfully on his refusal to show clemency to Orr. Curran’s defence is a counter-attack — an indictment of the Government, root and branch.

The only evidence used against Orr is the unsupported evidence of the soldier Wheatly and after hearing Curran’s defence of the prisoner, “there could be no possible doubt of his innocence.” Even the presiding judge, Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore, is said to have shed tears at the passing of the death sentence, although Orr’s friend, the poet and United Irishman William Drennan expresses his disgust at this display with the words “I hate those Yelvertonian tears.”

The sentence was hardly passed on Orr when regret is to seize on those who had aided in securing that verdict. The witness Wheatly, who subsequently goes insane and is believed to have died by his own hand, makes an affidavit before a magistrate admitting that he had sworn wrongly against Orr. Two members of the jury make depositions stating that they had been “induced to join in the verdict of guilty while under the influence of drink,” while two others swear that they had “been terrified into the same course by threats of violence.”

These particulars are placed before the Viceroy, but Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, is “deaf to all appeals” (including from his sister Lady Londonderry). “Well might Orr exclaim within his dungeon” he said “that the Government had laid down a system having for its object murder and devastation.”

Though his execution is postponed three times, Orr is hanged in the town of Carrickfergus on October 14, 1797, surrounded by an extra strong military guard. It is said that the population of the town, to express their sympathy with the “patriot” being “murdered by law,” and to mark their repugnance of the conduct of the Government towards him, quit the town on the day of his execution.

Orr’s fate “excited the deepest indignation throughout the country” and it is commented on “in words of fire” by the national writers of the period, and for many years after the rallying cry of the United Irishmen is “Remember Orr.” The journalist Peter Finnerty, who publishes an attack on Yelverton and Camden for their conduct in the matter, is later convicted of seditious libel, despite an eloquent defence by Curran.

(Pictured: William Orr from a sketch by E. A. Morrow)


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Death of Oliver Bond, Member of the Society of United Irishmen

Oliver Bond, Irish merchant and a member of the Leinster directorate of the Society of United Irishmen, dies in prison in Dublin on September 6, 1798 following the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Born in St. Johnston, County Donegal around 1760, Bond is the son of a dissenting minister and is connected with several respectable families. In his early years, he works as an apprentice haberdasher in Derry before relocating to Dublin.

In the capital, Bond is in business as a merchant in the woollen trade, and becomes wealthy. Initially, he is based in Pill Lane (now Chancery Street), before moving to 9 Lower Bridge Street in 1786. In 1791, he marries Eleanor ‘Lucy’ Jackson, daughter of the iron founder Henry Jackson, who like Bond is to become a leading United Irishman.

Bond is an early member in the movement planning for a union in Ireland across religious lines to press for reform of the Parliament of Ireland and for an accountable government independent of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom and cabinet. When, following the Belfast example, the Society of United Irishmen forms in Dublin in November 1791, Bond becomes a member.

Bond is secretary of the meeting, with the barrister Simon Butler presiding, when in February 1793 the society passes resolutions which, in addition to the call for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, condemn as unconstitutional the repressive measures of the government, and deplore war against the new French Republic. A result is a summons to appear before the bar of the Irish House of Lords in Dublin where, in consequence of the their defiant performance, Bond and Butler are charged and convicted of libel, fined and confined for six months in Newgate Prison.

Despairing of their efforts to secure full emancipation and advance parliamentary reform, and in anticipation of French assistance, the United Irishmen resolve on an insurrection to depose the Crown‘s Dublin Castle executive and the Protestant Ascendancy Lords and Commons, and to establish Ireland as an independent republic. Bond becomes a member of the United Irishmen’s northern executive committee and of the Leinster directorate, the meetings of which are generally held at his house on Lower Bridge Street.

There, on February 19, 1798, the famous resolution is passed: “We will pay no attention to any measure which the Parliament of this kingdom may adopt, to divert the public mind from the grand object we have in view; as nothing short of the entire and complete regeneration of our country can satisfy us.”

Through the treachery of Thomas Reynolds, Bond’s house is surrounded by military on the morning of March 12, 1798, and fourteen members of the Leinster Directory are seized. The insurrection goes forward in their absence to defeat in the early summer. Following suppression of the rebellion, Bond goes to trial. The efforts of his defence counsel, John Philpot Curran, to discredit Reynold’s testimony are unavailing. On July 27, 1798, Bond is convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.

It is mainly to prevent Bond’s execution that Thomas Addis Emmet and other state prisoners enter a compact with government whereby (without incriminating further individuals) they agree to testify on the activities of Union Irishmen before a parliamentary committee, and to accept permanent exile. With the endorsement of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, the Commander-in-Chief, Ireland, Bond’s sentence is commuted. He survives, however, but five weeks, dying in prison of apoplexy at the age of 36 on September 6, 1798.

Bond is buried in the cemetery of St. Michan’s Church, Dublin. The “enlightened republican” principles of Bond are eulogised by his political associate and fellow-prisoner, William James MacNeven. Bond’s widow Lucy moves with her family from Ireland to the United States, and dies in Baltimore, Maryland in 1843.

The Oliver Bond flats in The Liberties area of Dublin are named after him.


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The Execution of William Michael Byrne

William Michael Byrne, a key figure in the Society of United Irishmen in the years leading to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against the British government, is executed in Dublin on July 25, 1798.

Byrne is one of the two sons of Colclough Byrne of Drumquin, Hackettstown and Mary Galway of Cork, a great grand-niece of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond. He lives most of his adult life at Park Hill in the Glen of the Downs, County Wicklow. In late 1796, he enlists in the yeomanry, serving in the Newtown Mount Kennedy cavalry.

Byrne joins the Society of the United Irishmen in the spring of 1797 and later that same year is appointed by the Leinster committee to organise the half barony of Rathdown. As a delegate for Rathdown barony, he is a well respected and competent figure. With the assistance of his Protestant friend Thomas Miller of Powerscourt, he undertakes the organisation of military and civil branches of the United Irishmen in Rathdown, recruiting 2,000 men by late 1797. In October 1797 he is forced to resign from the yeomen after refusing to swear the oath of loyalty and his activities begin to come to the attention of Dublin Castle.

According to the informant A.B. (Thomas Murray), Byrne attends the inaugural meeting of the United Irishmen’s Wicklow county committee in December. It is held in the Annacurra home of William’s first cousin, John Loftus. Murray’s information tells that Byrne established networks of contacts between the Leinster committee and the Cork United Irishmen along with other contacts in Munster.

Byrne’s career comes to an end when he, along with fourteen other Leinster delegates, are arrested on March 12, 1798 at the house of Oliver Bond. They had been betrayed by Thomas Reynolds, treasurer of Kildare United Irishmen and member of the provincial committee. Reynolds had been informed that plans for an insurrection were about to be finalised by the committee. Byrne is arrested in possession of incriminating documents which are described by Attorney-General for Ireland Arthur Wolfe as being ‘very treasonable printed papers.’

On July 4, 1798 Byrne with four others is brought before a commission of oyer and terminer on charges of high treason. The case mounted by the state against him is based principally on the evidence of Reynolds and also that given by his former comrade William Miller of Powerscourt. The weight of the evidence is overwhelming, rendering an effective defence impossible.

Byrne’s lawyer, John Philpot Curran KC, the leading defence counsel of the period, attempts to cast Reynold’s character and motives in a foul light but it is futile. In his last days, efforts are made to spare his life if he would only express regret for his actions and accuse Lord Edward FitzGerald for having led him to this point. He refuses, meeting his end with great dignity and stoicism.

Byrne is convicted of high treason and executed on July 25, 1798 outside Green Street Courthouse, Dublin.

The Dublin Magazine notes that Byrne “met his fate with a degree of courage perhaps unequalled.” For his service to the state, Reynolds is honoured by Dublin Corporation with the freedom of the city on October 19, 1798, spending much of his life thereafter in fear of assassination.


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Birth of Mary Ann McCracken, Humanitarian & Social Reformer

Mary Ann McCracken, Irish businesswoman, radical humanitarian, supporter of the Society of United Irishmen and a noted social reformer, is born in Belfast on July 8, 1770.

McCracken’s father is Captain John McCracken, a Presbyterian of Scottish descent and a prominent shipowner. Her mother, Ann Joy, comes from a French Protestant Huguenot family, which made its money in the linen trade and founded the Belfast News Letter. Her liberal and far-sighted parents send her to David Manson‘s progressive co-educational school, where ‘young ladies’ received the same education as the boys. She excels at mathematics.

As an adult, McCracken manages a successful muslin business in Belfast, which pioneers the production of patterned and checked muslin. She runs the business together with her sister, and has at least one agent in Dublin.

McCracken is the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen. In the aftermath of her brother’s defeat at the Battle of Antrim on June 7, 1798 she helps Henry Joy and some colleagues hide in the hills of south Antrim, bringing them clothes and money. She is arranging for a ship to take him to the United States when he is recognised by three Carrickfergus soldiers and arrested there on July 7, 1798.

McCracken shares her brother’s interest in reviving the oral-music tradition of Ireland, and is a founding member of the Belfast Harp Society (1808–1813). She supports Edward Bunting in his collecting of traditional music, introducing him to people who can help, acting as his unofficial secretary and contributes anonymously to the second volume of his work The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1809. Bunting lives with the McCrackens for thirty-five years, before moving to Dublin 1819 and thereafter corresponds regularly with McCracken.

McCracken, like her brother, holds radical beliefs and these extend not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery. She is dedicated to the poor of Belfast and from her earliest childhood she works to raise funds and provide clothes for the children of the Belfast Poorhouse, now known as Clifton House, Belfast. Following a visit from Elizabeth Fry she forms the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and is chair from 1832–1855. Thanks to the efforts of the committee a school, and later a nursery, is set up to educate the orphans of Belfast. She takes particular pains to find a suitable teacher, displaying a high level of dedication and compassion for her cause. The committee also inspects the homes where children of the poorhouse are apprenticed out.

McCracken leads the Women’s Abolitionary Ccmmittee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement and continues to promote the cause long after the spirit of radicalism had died in Belfast. By the 1850s, the liberality of the 1790s had largely evaporated in the aftermath of the failure of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the subsequent executions or exile of the leading protagonists.

At the age of 88, McCracken is to be seen at the Belfast docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery is still practised. Her continued campaign long after the deaths of her counterparts serves to demonstrate the strength of radicalism that exists in certain circles of Belfast society at the close of the eighteenth century.

After her brother’s execution in Belfast, McCracken takes over the care of his illegitimate daughter, Maria, which is not universally accepted in her wider family. She lives with Maria and her family until her death at the age of 96 on July 26, 1866. She is buried in grave number 35 at Clifton Street Cemetery.

A blue plaque has been placed by the Ulster History Circle on the house at 62 Donegall Pass, Belfast, where McCracken lived for much of her later life.


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The Battle of Vinegar Hill

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, an engagement during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, takes place on June 21, 1798 when over 13,000 British soldiers launch an attack on Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy, County Wexford, the largest camp and headquarters of the Wexford United Irishmen. It marks a turning point in the rebellion, as it is the last attempt by the United Irishmen to hold and defend ground against the British military. The battle is actually fought in two locations: on Vinegar Hill itself and in the streets of nearby Enniscorthy.

By June 18, the British have surrounded County Wexford with between 13,000 and 18,000 troops and are ready to pour into Wexford to crush the insurgency. The United Irishmen leadership issues a call to all its fighters to gather at Vinegar Hill to meet the army in one great, decisive battle. The number assembled is estimated at between 16,000 and 20,000, but the majority lack firearms and have to rely on pikes as their main weapon. The camp also includes many thousands of women and children who are staying there for protection against the rampaging military.

The British plan, as formulated by General Gerard Lake, envisages the complete annihilation of the United Irishmen, women and children by encircling the hill and seizing the only escape route to the west, the bridge over the River Slaney. Lake divides his force into four columns to accomplish this. Three columns, under Generals David Dundas, James Duff and Francis Needham are to assault Vinegar Hill, while the fourth column, under General Johnson, is to storm Enniscorthy and its bridge.

The battle begins shortly before dawn with an artillery bombardment of Irish positions on the hill. Advance units quickly move against the United Irishmen outposts under cover of the bombardment and move artillery closer as forward positions are secured. The tightening ring forces the United Irishmen into an ever-shrinking area and increases exposure to the constant bombardment, including new experimental delayed-fuse shells resulting in hundreds of dead and injured. At least two mass charges are launched by the United Irishmen which fail to break the lines of the military and the situation on Vinegar Hill soon becomes desperate for the United Irishmen.

Meanwhile, a detachment of light infantry under the command of General Johnson attacks the town of Enniscorthy but meets with fierce resistance. Buildings in the town have been fortified and the initial attack is driven back with the loss of munitions and men. A second attack commences with reinforcements including cavalry, which retake the lost cannon and ammunition while also incurring considerable casualties. The United Irishmen are slowly driven out of the town but manage to hold the Slaney bridge and prevent the British from crossing.

When British troops crest the eastern summit of Vinegar Hill, the rebels begin to slowly withdraw through a gap in the British lines later known as “Needham’s Gap”, so-named because the late arrival of General Needham’s troops prevented a total encirclement of the hill. Although the bulk of the United Irishmen army escape, many are left behind and killed in the routing phase of the battle from both cavalry and infantry attack, but also from the advanced field guns which are switched to grapeshot to maximize casualties.

In addition to conventional casualties, there are also instances of British troops raping the women accompanying the United Irishmen and in Enniscorthy, United Irishmen wounded are burned to death when soldiers set fire to a building used as a casualty station. These atrocities may have been perpetrated in revenge for the execution by the United Irishmen of numbers of mostly Protestant loyalist prisoners of war in the preceding weeks. The United Irishmen abandon much of the supplies they had taken from surrounding areas, and thirteen cannons are captured by the British, a number of which had been taken from the British forces previously.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the United Irishmen force streams uninterrupted towards the Three Rocks camp outside Wexford and, following the decision to abandon the town, split into two separate columns in a new campaign to spread the rebellion beyond Wexford. One immediately sets out to the west, the other northwards towards the Wicklow Mountains to link up with General Joseph Holt‘s forces.

The defeat is therefore not the immediate crushing blow to the Wexford United Irishmen that it has falsely been depicted as, but it does alter the course of the fighting as continued resistance now takes the form of mobile warfare, raids, and large scale, guerilla-type operations.

Casualties for the United Irishmen have been variously reported, with estimates ranging from 400 to around 1,200. Kevin Whelan estimates a figure of between 500 and 1,000 including camp followers, while Archibald McLaren, a British soldier eyewitness, writes that the United Irishmen casualties total about 1,200 men. British casualties are around one hundred.


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The Second Battle of Arklow

The second Battle of Arklow takes place on June 9, 1798 during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 when a force of United Irishmen from Wexford, estimated at 10,000 strong, launch an assault on the British-held town of Arklow, County Wicklow, in an attempt to spread the rebellion into Wicklow and to threaten the capital of Dublin.

A British advance force of 400 is defeated at Tuberneering on June 4. This rebel victory punches a hole in the dragnet the military has attempted to throw around County Wexford and also yields them three artillery pieces. The town of Arklow has been evacuated in the ensuing panic but the rebels content themselves with taking the town of Gorey and staying within the Wexford border. On June 5 the rebels attempt to break out of County Wexford across the River Barrow and to spread the rebellion but are halted by a major British victory at the Battle of New Ross. When the rebels finally move against Arklow, the town has been reoccupied by a force of 1,700 men sent from Dublin under Francis Needham, 1st Earl of Kilmorey, who quickly fortifies the town with barricades and has artillery positioned on all the approaches to the town.

The rebel army that forms for attack on the afternoon of June 9 is a combined force of Wexford and Wicklow rebels led by Billy Byrne, Anthony Perry, Conor McEvoy, Edward Fitzgerald, and Fr. Michael Murphy. The British in Arklow consist of approximately 1,000 militia from counties Antrim and Cavan and 150 regular cavalry supported by 250 Yeomanry. They are joined by 315 Durham Fencibles (Princess of Wales’s Fencible Dragoons) arriving an hour before the rebels.

The area surrounding the town and the approaches is covered by scrub and the rebel strategy adopted is to advance under cover attacking the town simultaneously from several points. Before the action begins, the rebels under Esmonde Kyan open fire upon the town with some of the artillery captured at Tuberneering and have some success by scoring a direct hit on a British artillery position, destroying the cannon and killing the attendant crew. The main assault is quickly launched but at all entry points the Irish are thrown back by the musket fire of the well-trained and disciplined militia and volunteers, and canister shot from the 3 pounder battalion gun brought by the fencibles. An attempt by the British to turn the Irish failure into a rout is defeated when pikemen and sharpshooters drive a cavalry charge back across the River Avoca, but an attempt to force a way into the town through the outlying fishing port is bloodily repulsed.

As Irish casualties mount, the lack of ammunition and proper leadership begin to work against them, and after Fr. Murphy is killed leading a charge, their attacks start to fade. As nightfall comes, the rebels begin to withdraw under cover of darkness and collect their wounded. They are not pursued or molested by the garrison who are, unknown to the rebels, down to their last three or four rounds per man and are themselves at the brink of defeat.

While rebel casualties are estimated at about 1,000 no full casualty list seems to exist on the British side, but are probably in the region of 100 dead and wounded. The defeat at Arklow marks the third failure to extend the fight for Irish independence beyond the borders of County Wexford following the other bloody repulses at New Ross and Bunclody. The Irish strategy now changes to a policy of static defence against the encroaching British armies.


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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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House of Lords Votes for the Acts of Union

The House of Lords votes on February 10, 1800 for the Acts of Union which sees Ireland lose its own parliament, direct rule is imposed on Ireland, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is created. The acts come into force on January 1, 1801, and the merged Parliament of the United Kingdom has its first meeting on January 22, 1801. Both acts remain in force, with amendments, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but have been repealed in the Republic of Ireland.

Before these Acts, Ireland had been in personal union with England since 1541, when the Parliament of Ireland had passed the Crown of Ireland Act 1542, proclaiming King Henry VIII of England to be King of Ireland. Since the 12th century, the King of England had been technical overlord of the Lordship of Ireland, a papal possession. Both the Kingdoms of Ireland and England later came into personal union with that of Scotland upon the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

In 1707, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland were united into a single kingdom: the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Irish Parliament at that time was subject to a number of restrictions that placed it subservient to the Parliament of England and, following the union of England and Scotland, the Parliament of Great Britain. Ireland, however, gained effective legislative independence from Great Britain through the Constitution of 1782.

By this time access to institutional power in Ireland was restricted to a small minority, the Anglo-Irish of the Protestant Ascendancy, and frustration at the lack of reform among the Catholic majority eventually led, along with other reasons, to the Irish Rebellion in 1798, involving a French invasion of Ireland and the seeking of complete independence from Great Britain. This rebellion was crushed with much bloodshed, and the subsequent drive for union between Great Britain and Ireland that passes in 1800 is motivated at least in part by the belief that the rebellion was caused as much by reactionary loyalist brutality as by the Society of United Irishmen.

Furthermore, Catholic emancipation is being discussed in Great Britain, and fears that a newly enfranchised Catholic majority will drastically change the character of the Irish government and parliament also contributes to a desire from London to merge the Parliaments.

Complementary acts have to be passed in the Parliament of Great Britain and in the Parliament of Ireland. The Parliament of Ireland had recently gained a large measure of legislative independence under the Constitution of 1782. Many members of the Irish Parliament jealously guard this autonomy and a motion for union is legally rejected in 1799.

Only Anglicans are permitted to become members of the Parliament of Ireland, though the great majority of the Irish population are Roman Catholic, with many Presbyterians in Ulster. In 1793 Roman Catholics regain the right to vote if they own or rent property worth £2 per acre. The Catholic hierarchy is strongly in favour of union, hoping for rapid emancipation and the right to sit as MPs, which is delayed after the passage of the acts until the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.

From the perspective of Great Britain, the union is desirable because of the uncertainty that followed the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the French Revolution of 1789. If Ireland adopted Catholic Emancipation, willingly or not, a Roman Catholic Parliament could break away from Britain and ally with the French. Also the Irish and British Parliaments, when creating a regency during King George III‘s “madness”, gave the Prince Regent different powers. These considerations lead Great Britain to decide to attempt merger of the two kingdoms and their Parliaments.

The final passage of the Act in the Irish Parliament is achieved with substantial majorities, in part according to contemporary documents through bribery, namely the awarding of peerages and honours to critics to get their votes. Whereas the first attempt had been defeated in the Irish House of Commons by 109 votes against to 104 for, the second vote in 1800 produces a result of 158 to 115.

In the first Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the members of the House of Commons are not elected afresh. By royal proclamation authorised by the Act, all the members of the last House of Commons from Great Britain take seats in the new House, and from Ireland 100 members are chosen from the last Irish House of Commons: two members from each of the 32 counties and from the two largest boroughs, and one from each of the next 31 boroughs (chosen by lot) and from the University of Dublin. The other 84 Irish parliamentary boroughs are disfranchised, all being pocket boroughs, whose patrons receive £15,000 compensation for the loss of what is considered their property.

(Pictured: Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1952 used by Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI)


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Death of William Drennan, Physician, Poet & Political Radical

William Drennan, physician, poet and political radical, dies on February 5, 1820 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 born on May 23, 1754 in Belfast, the 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 in Belfast 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 Trial & Conviction of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading Irish revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen, is tried and convicted of treason by a court-martial in Dublin on November 10, 1798 and sentenced to be hanged.

When the Irish Rebellion of 1798 breaks out in Ireland, Wolfe Tone urges the French Directory to send effective assistance to the Irish rebels. All that can be promised is a number of raids to descend simultaneously around the Irish coast. One of these raids under General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert succeeds in landing a force near Killala, County Mayo, and gains some success in Connacht (particularly at Castlebar) before it is subdued by General Gerard Lake and Charles Cornwallis. Wolfe Tone’s brother Matthew is captured, tried by court-martial and hanged. A second raid, accompanied by James Napper Tandy, comes to a disastrous end on the coast of County Donegal.

Wolfe Tone takes part in a third raid, under Admiral Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart, with General Jean Hardy in command of a force of 2,800 men. He certainly knows before departing that the odds against them are incredibly long. Most of the United Irish organization has already spent itself in Wexford, Ulster, and other places. There is one slim reed of hope for success – the news from Hubert, who is sweeping the British before him in Mayo with his 1,000 Frenchmen and Irish rebel allies. Wolfe Tone once said he would accompany any French force to Ireland even if it were only a corporal’s guard, so he sails off with Hardy’s Frenchmen aboard the Hoche.

They are intercepted by a large British fleet at Buncrana on Lough Swilly on October 12, 1798. Escape aboard one of the small, fast ships is Wolfe Tone’s only hope to avoid a hangman’s noose but he refuses to transfer from the large, slow Hoche, which has little choice but certain sinking or capture. He refuses offers by Napoleon Bonaparte and other French officers of escape in a frigate before the Battle of Tory Island. “Shall it be said,” he asks them, “that I fled while the French were fighting the battle of my country?”

The Hoche withstands an attack by five British ships for several hours, with Wolfe Tone commanding one of her batteries. Inevitably the masts and rigging of the Hoche are shot away and she strikes her colors. Wolfe Tone is dressed in a French adjutant general‘s uniform, but there is little chance of him avoiding detection with so many former acquaintances among the British. He is thrown into chains taken prisoner when the Hoche surrenders.

When the prisoners are landed at Letterkenny Port a fortnight later, Sir George Hill recognises Wolfe Tone in the French adjutant general’s uniform in Lord Cavan’s privy-quarters at Letterkenny. At his trial by court-martial in Dublin on November 8, 1798, Wolfe Tone makes a speech avowing his determined hostility to England and his intention “by frank and open war to procure the separation of the countries.” Recognising that the court is certain to convict him, he asks that “the court should adjudge me to die the death of a soldier, and that I may be shot.” His request to be shot is denied.

On November 10, 1798, Wolfe Tone is found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on November 12. Before this sentence is carried out, either he attempts suicide by slitting his throat or British soldiers torture and mortally wound him. Military surgeon Benjamin Lentaigne treats him just hours before he is due to be hanged. The story goes that he is initially saved when the wound is sealed with a bandage, and he is told if he tries to talk the wound will open and he will bleed to death.

A pamphlet published in Latin by Dr. Lentaigne some years after Wolfe Tone’s official “suicide” refers to an unusual neck wound suffered by an unnamed patient which indicates that “a bullet passed through his throat.” This leads to speculation that Wolfe Tone may have been shot.

Theobald Wolfe Tone dies on November 19, 1798 at the age of 35 in Provost’s Prison, Dublin, not far from where he was born. He is buried in Bodenstown Graveyard in County Kildare, near his birthplace at Sallins, and his grave is in the care of the National Graves Association.

(Pictured: “Capture Of Wolfe Tone Date 1798,” a drawing by Mary Evans Picture Library, the UK’s leading source for historical images)