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


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The Execution of Father James Coigly

Father James Coigly (Coigley, Quigley, O’Coigley), United Irishman and Catholic priest, is executed by hanging at Penenden Heath, a suburb in the town of Maidstone, Kent, England, on June 7, 1798.

Coigly is born in August 1761 in Kilmore, County Armagh, second son of James Coigly, farmer, and Louisa Coigly (née Donnelly). In the absence of seminary education in penal Ireland, he serves an apprenticeship with a local parish priest. He is ordained to the priesthood at Dungannon, County Tyrone, in 1785 and goes on to study at the Irish College in Paris, where he takes the unprecedented step of initiating legal proceedings against his superior, John Baptist Walsh, which ends in a compromise after the intervention of the Archbishop of Paris. Coigly, who has been described as “no friend of the revolution,” leaves France in October 1789, after a narrow escape from a revolutionary mob.

Coigly returns to Ireland where he holds a curacy in Dundalk from 1793–96. He finds the inhabitants of County Armagh engaged in a civil war, and religion made the pretext – the Armagh disturbances. There is no suggestion that his religious views are not orthodox. He sees himself not as a politician, but as a priest attempting to reconcile parties. He quickly immerses himself in the politics of the region, riding through Ulster in an attempt to unite Catholic and dissenter. Yet, while he represents his efforts in 1791–93 as an isolated effort to restore peace, there is little doubt that his mission merges into the “uniting business” of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson, and John Keogh. Almost certainly a Defender, he represents a key link between that organisation and the United Irishmen. He cooperates in their efforts to expose the tyranny of the Orange Order and his profile is heightened, in late 1796, after the arrest of the Ulster leadership of the United Irishmen. He becomes particularly conspicuous in 1797 and, with a general election in the offing, possibly writes an influential anonymous pamphlet, A view of the present state of Ireland (London, 1797), attributed by Francis Plowden to Arthur O’Connor.

More significantly, Coigly makes several forays to England to forge alliances between the United Irishmen and British radicals. In 1796 he carries communications from the secret committee of England to the French directory, and makes at least two crossings to France in 1797, endeavouring to rekindle French interest in Ireland after the failure of the French expedition to Ireland in December 1796. His final mission in February 1798 ends in disaster when he is arrested at Margate, as he prepares to cross to France along with John Binns and Arthur O’Connor.

The arrests electrify government circles, since O’Connor is publicly associated with the Whig opposition. No effort is spared to secure his conviction, including the manipulation of the jury. Yet while O’Connor is acquitted, Coigly is found guilty of high treason and sentenced to die, on the slender evidence of seditious papers found in his coat pocket. The administration immediately attempts to reverse this embarrassment. Coigly is offered his life in return for the incrimination of O’Connor, and the vicar apostolic refuses him final absolution unless he obliges. His refusal seals his fate.

Awaiting execution, Coigly pens a propagandist narrative of his life for publication. It appears in three editions, which Benjamin Binns claims has a circulation of 40,000 copies. In it the priest condemns his judicial murder, Lord Camden, his ‘Irish Sanhedrim,’ and the Orange Order. He is executed on June 7, 1798 at Penenden Heath, Maidstone. His death is overtaken by the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Forgotten in the general narrative history of 1798, his social radicalism and diplomatic missions set him among the most significant Irish radicals of the 1790s.

On June 7, 1998, a memorial was unveiled to Coigly in the cemetery at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. In the oration, Monsignor Réamonn Ó Muirí reads from a letter Coigly wrote from prison. While he assured Irish Catholics of his attachment to “the principles of our holy religion”, Coigly addressed himself to Irish Presbyterians.

(From: “Coigly (Coigley, Quigley, O’Coigley), James” by Dáire Keogh, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Birth of Count Daniel Charles O’Connell, French General & Uncle of “The Liberator”

Count Daniel Charles O’Connell, French general and count in the French nobility, is born on May 21, 1745 in Derrynane, County Kerry, twenty-first among twenty-two children of Donal Mor O’Connell, a Catholic landowner, and his wife Mary, daughter of Daniel O’Donoghue of Glenflesk, near Killarney.

O’Connell is tutored at home in Latin and Greek, and before he is sixteen he leaves with his cousin, Murty O’Connell, to join the French army. On February 13, 1760 he becomes a cadet in the Régiment de Royal Suédois. He spends almost his entire career in France or serving abroad with French regiments, but remains in close contact with his family, being in constant correspondence with the head of the clan, his brother Maurice O’Connell, who is almost twenty years his senior, and later arranging army appointments for a host of young nephews and cousins.

O’Connell serves with the Royal Suédois in the last two campaigns of the Seven Years’ War and is made assistant adjutant (sous-aide-major) of the regiment. At the close of the war, he is recommended for the military academy of Strasbourg (1765–66). He has a talent for self-advancement and is well regarded by his seniors, being tall, strong, handsome, disciplined, industrious, and sober. He has an almost morbid horror of drink, and his great boast is that he has never wasted a moment of his time or a farthing of his money.

Appointed to Col. Meade’s regiment of Lord Clare’s Irish Brigade with the rank of captain in October 1769, he sets sail immediately for Mauritius. Two years later he is allowed a visit home to Kerry for the first time in eleven years. In 1775 the death of Lord Clare’s son and the extinction of the title results in the reduction of the Irish Brigade, and destroys O’Connell’s chance of promotion. He devotes himself to the study of chemistry, literature, and the military. A published study, Discipline of the army, comes under the notice of the military authorities, who obtain for him a Cross of Saint Louis, a pension of 2,000 livres a year, and the rank of lieutenant-colonel with which he is posted to his old regiment, the Royal Suédois, in 1778. With them he serves at the taking of Menorca in 1781 and is severely wounded at the Great Siege of Gibraltar in 1782 but manages to save the life of Charles Philippe, Count of Artois, the future Charles X. For these services he is made a count, one of only twenty-two people outside the royal family to receive this honour, and is made colonel of the German regiment of Salm-Salm in French pay, which at a grand review of 30,000 French troops in Alsace in 1785 is pronounced the best regiment. He begins to move in court circles and in 1788 kisses the hand of Marie Antoinette and rides in the king’s coach.

In 1788 O’Connell recommends to his brother Maurice the college of Saint-Omer as a suitable school for his nephews, Maurice and Daniel O’Connell, but taking belated notice of the gathering revolutionary storm, tries unsuccessfully to dissuade them. During the French Revolution of 1789 he allegedly announces his readiness to move his regiment into the capital to disperse revolutionary mobs, but is not able to obtain the king’s permission. In 1790 his men mutiny, leaving him in the anomalous position of a colonel without a regiment. A protégé of the Ancien Régime, he nevertheless remains in Paris in 1790–91, serving the nouveau régime as a member of a commission engaged in revising army regulations.

In 1792 O’Connell joins Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick‘s émigré army at Koblenz and takes part in the disastrous Battle of Valmy in Berchini’s regiment. Ever cautious, he serves as a private, refusing any command so that his name would not be mentioned in France. In November 1792 he is in London, almost penniless and bent on concealing that he had served against the republic. An alibi is procured and attested at Tralee to the effect that O’Connell had been in Ireland all the time, and was forwarded to Paris to prevent the confiscation of property.

In London O’Connell petitions William Pitt the Younger to reconstruct the Irish Brigade in the service of George III. Six regiments are raised, with O’Connell appointed colonel of the 4th, but the scheme is only partially realised as three of the regiments are sent to the West Indies and Nova Scotia, where they succumb to pestilence. By 1798 the brigade has entirely ceased to exist, though he retains his full pay as a British colonel, which he draws to the end of his life. At this period his name is mooted by Gen. Henry Clarke and Theobald Wolfe Tone as a possible commander of their troops. Clarke gives his opinion that O’Connell is a good parade officer but has no genius in command, to which Wolfe Tone replies that he “was in favour of his being employed for I know he hates England.”

In 1796, O’Connell marries Martha, comtesse de Bellevue (née Drouillard de Lamarre; d. 1807), a young widow with three children, at the French chapel in Covent Garden. In 1802 he takes advantage of the peace of Amiens to return to France. On the renewal of war the couple is detained by Napoleon as British subjects, and remain virtual prisoners in France until the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814. Back in favour, O’Connell receives the rank of lieutenant-general in the French army and commander of the Order of Saint Louis. His fortunes revive, he advances a large sum to his nephew Daniel to save him from bankruptcy in 1815 and comes to his rescue again in 1818, though by this date he has already settled the bulk of his fortune on his great-nephews. He follows his namesake’s career with keen interest, but his advice is invariably cautious and is not much heeded. After the French Revolution of 1830 he refuses to take the oath of allegiance to Louis Philippe I and is struck off the military list, though he becomes a naturalised French citizen in 1831.

O’Connell dies on July 9, 1833 at the Château de Bellevue at Meudon, near Blois, and is buried at the cemetery at Coudé. He has no children and his title, though not his fortune, descends to his godson, the Baron d’Eschegoyen’s second son, who takes the name O’Connell. A portrait by Paul Guérin hangs in Derrynane House.

(From: “O’Connell, Count Daniel Charles” by Bridget Hourican, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Death of Robert Briscoe, Fianna Fáil Politician

Robert Emmet Briscoe, Fianna Fáil politician who serves as a Teachta Dála (TD) in the Oireachtas from 1927 to 1965, dies on March 11, 1969.

Briscoe is born in Dublin on September 25, 1894, the son of Abraham William Briscoe and Ida Yoedicke, both of whom are Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. The original family name in Lithuania is believed to have been Cherrick or Chasen. His brother Wolfe Tone Briscoe is named after Theobald Wolfe Tone, one of the leaders of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. His father is the proprietor of Lawlor Briscoe, a furniture factory on Ormond Quay which makes, refurbishes, imports, exports and sells furniture, trading all over Ireland and abroad.

Briscoe is active in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Féin during the Irish War of Independence and accompanies Éamon de Valera to the United States. He speaks for the Sinn Féin cause at public meetings there and is adamant that being a “Hebrew” does not lessen his Irishness. He is sent by Michael Collins to Germany in 1919 to be the chief agent for procuring arms for the IRA. While in Germany in 1921 he purchases a small tug boat named Frieda to be used in transporting guns and ammunition to Ireland. On October 28, 1921 the Frieda slips out to sea with Charles McGuinness at the helm and a German crew with a cargo of 300 guns and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Some sources cite this shipment as “the largest military shipment ever to reach the IRA” consisting of 1,500 rifles, 2,000 pistols and 1.7 million rounds of ammunition. On November 2, 1921 the Frieda successfully lands its cargo near Waterford Harbour.

In June 1922 during the Irish Civil War, Briscoe is involved in an incident with fellow anti-treaty IRA members who attack pro-treaty politician Darrell Figgis at his home. They enter the house and assault Figgis, cutting off his well-prized beard in the process. This traumatises Figgis’ wife Millie, who had been under the impression Briscoe and his fellow assistants had come to kill Figgis. In November 1924 Millie commits suicide, expressing in a suicide note that she was suffering from depression as a result of the 1922 attack. Figgis himself commits suicide in 1926.

In his biography, Briscoe recalls an incident of being recognised by a pro-Treaty opponent during the Civil War. He merely turns and walks away, confident that his enemy will not shoot him in the back.

Elected to the Dáil in the newly independent Ireland, Briscoe works with Patrick Little to bring through a law limiting the interest that can be charged by moneylenders and also, as he writes, “made it illegal for a married woman to borrow money without the knowledge and consent of her husband, for these foolish ones are always the easiest prey of the moneylenders.”

During World War II, Briscoe, at this time a member of Dáil Éireann, comes under close scrutiny from the Irish security services. His support for Zionism and his lobbying on behalf of refugees is considered potentially damaging to the interests of the state by officials from the Department of Justice. He is an admirer and friend of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his campaign to liberate the Jews. Between 1939 and 1940, he along with John Henry Patterson, a former commander of both the Zion Mule Corps and later the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, are involved in fund raising for the Irgun in the United States. Jabotinsky while head of Irgun visits Dublin to receive training in guerrilla warfare tactics against the British under the instruction of Briscoe. During the period Briscoe describes himself as the “Chair of Subversive Activity against England.” He wishes for Ireland to give asylum to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, but does so discreetly in order not to be accused of compromising the neutrality policy of the Fianna Fáil government.

After World War II Briscoe acts as a special advisor to Menachem Begin in the transformation of Irgun from a paramilitary group to a parliamentary political movement in the form of Herut in the new Israeli state. The party later becomes Likud. As he had already been a key figure in the formation in his own Fianna Fáil party out of the Anti-treaty IRA post Irish independence but not before a bitter Civil War, he prompts Begin to make the transition immediately after the Altalena Affair in order to avoid a similar civil conflict.

Briscoe serves in Dáil Éireann for 38 years and is elected 12 times in the Dublin South and from 1948, Dublin South-West constituencies. He retires at the 1965 Irish general election, being succeeded by his son, Ben, who serves for a further 37 years. In 1956, he becomes the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, although he is not the first Jewish Mayor in Ireland. That title belongs to William Annyas, who was elected Mayor of Youghal, County Cork in 1555. He serves a one-year term and is re-elected in 1961. His son Ben is also a Fianna Fáil TD, and he too serves as Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1988–1989.

Briscoe’s memoir, For the Life of Me, is published in 1958.


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Birth of Thomas Russell, Founding Member of the Society of United Irishmen

Thomas Paliser Russell, founding member and leading organiser of the Society of United Irishmen, is born in Dromahane, County Cork, on November 21, 1767.

Born into an Anglican family with a military tradition. Russell is intended for an ecclesiastical career in the Church of Ireland, but in 1783 sails with his brother’s regiment to India and fights at the battle of Cannanore. He is, however, disgusted by what he regards as “the unjust and rapacious conduct pursued by the authorities in the case of two native women,” and returns disaffected to Ireland in 1786. After briefly studying for the church ministry, he spends the next four years as a half-pay officer in Dublin pursuing studies of science, philosophy and politics.

In 1790, Russell meets Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitors’ gallery of the Irish House of Commons and a lifelong friendship begins. At the end of the year, he is commissioned to Belfast as an ensign in the 64th infantry regiment of foot. Being convivial, good looking, charismatic and charming, he fits quickly into Belfast society. He is deeply religious and holds strong millennialist beliefs. On the other hand, he is also of a restless nature, drinks heavily, and is highly promiscuous.

Russell becomes a founder member of the first Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791, writes for the Northern Star, and acts as secretary for the Dublin United Irishmen. He is the most socially radical of all United Irish leaders, an outspoken opponent of slavery and industrial exploitation.

Russell posts bail for a friend in order to secure his release from a debtor’s prison. When the friend defaults, Russell has to sell his ensigncy in July 1791. After several months, and to avoid further debt, he accepts the offer of Thomas Knox, 1st Viscount Northland, the father of an old army friend, to become seneschal (a kind of stipendiary magistrate) to the Northlands’ manor court at Dungannon. However, he resigns within a year, apparently disgusted by the sectarian animosities there. His financial situation worsens until he becomes librarian at the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (the later Linen Hall Library) in 1794.

Russell is arrested on September 16, 1796, is charged with treason, and detained without trial in Newgate Prison, Dublin, until March 1799. He is then sent to Fort George in the north of Scotland. The longest serving United Irish prisoner, he is released in June 1802 on condition of exile to Hamburg. However, he soon makes his way to Paris where he meets Robert Emmet who, with William Putnam McCabe are advancing the plans for insurrection pending the French renewal of the war against England. Having little confidence in the French, however, he returns to Ireland in March 1803 to organise the North in conjunction with the veteran of the Battle of Antrim, James Hope. However he meets with little success as much of the North is subdued following the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

In 1803 Russell joins a general insurrection that is to take place throughout Ireland with blows being struck simultaneously at Dublin, Belfast, and Downpatrick. Unknown to him, Robert Emmet is unable to secure help and promised firearms. In Dublin after a brief street battle on the evening of July 23, 1803, Emmett calls off the rising.

Russell manages to hide for a number of weeks in Dublin but is caught in the authorities’ dragnet on September 9. He is sent under heavy escort to Downpatrick Gaol. There, convicted of high treason, he is hung and beheaded on October 12, 1803. His remains are buried in the graveyard of the parish church, Down Cathedral, in a grave paid for by his friend Mary Ann McCracken.


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Birth of Charles Edward Jennings, Soldier & Revolutionary

General Charles Edward Saul Jennings, Irish soldier and revolutionary who serves France in the eighteenth century and is sometimes romanticised as Brave Kilmaine, is born on October 19, 1751 in Sauls Court, Dublin.

Jennings is the second son of Theobald Jennings, a physician of Polaniran (Ironpool), Tuam, County Galway, and Eleonore Saul, daughter of Laurence Saul, a wealthy Dublin distiller. Educated privately in Dublin, he leaves Ireland in 1769, settling in Tonnay-Charente in the south of France, where his father had set up practice. His father had, several years previously, assumed the fictitious title of ‘baron of Kilmaine’ in the hope of improving his position in French society, and he subsequently assumes the same title.

In 1774 Jennings joins the Royal Dragoons as a trooper, transferring in 1778 into the Légion de Lauzun, a corps made up mostly of foreign volunteers. After the campaign in Senegal (1778–79) he returns to France and is commissioned as a sous-lieutenant. He then campaigns with Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, during the American Revolutionary War and teaches cavalry tactics at Metz on his return. Promoted to captain in 1788, at the outbreak of the French Revolution, he is stationed at Verdun and, despite a short period in prison, continues to serve with his regiment. In 1791, when several of the regiment’s officers flee from France, he remains and is one of the first officers to swear allegiance to the national assembly.

Promoted to Chef d’escadron in April 1792, Jennings serves under Charles François Dumouriez during the invasion of the Netherlands, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Valmy and the Battle of Jemappes, where he reinforces the French centre at a critical point, ensuring victory. A series of rapid promotions follow. He is made a colonel in January 1793, a general of brigade in March 1794, and a general of division in May1794.

After a series of reverses in the summer of 1793, in which the French lose the fortress-towns of Condé and Valenciennes, the committee of public safety appoints Jennings to command the Armée du Nord on May 15, 1793, with the rank of full general. In August, in order to preserve his force in the face of overwhelming opposition, he retreats from a position 120 miles north of Paris known as ‘Caesar’s camp.’ Although the allied army swings away to invest Dunkirk, he is arrested and imprisoned for endangering the city, and remains in prison until after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794. Within a few days, due to the turbulent political situation, he is rearrested and not released until December 1794. In May 1795 he cooperates with Napoléon Bonaparte in suppressing the Jacobin uprising in Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris and, having reestablished his credentials, commands the cavalry during the invasion of Italy (1796). Bonaparte regards him highly, and he distinguishes himself at the Battle of Lodi on May 10, 1796, seizing the city of Milan five days later. He defeats a large Austrian force in the Battle of Borghetto before investing and taking the fortress-town of Mantua in February 1797.

When peace terms are agreed with Austria, Jennings returns to France, taking command of the centre column of the Armée d’Angleterre, which had been raised to invade Britain and Ireland. However, his deteriorating health makes some observers question his suitability for such an appointment. An associate of Thomas Paine and James Napper Tandy, and a friend of Wolfe Tone, he is forced to watch the gradual reduction of his army as Napoleon diverts troops for his campaign in Egypt. Tone is at first suspicious of him, given that many Irish-born French officers had deserted the revolutionary cause, but comes to admire him.

After the defeat of Admiral Bombard’s expedition to Ireland and Tone’s arrest on November 3, 1798, Jennings requests that the French government should take a senior British prisoner as hostage and subject him to the same treatment as Tone. After Tone’s death he assists Matilda Tone and her children. In early 1799 he is appointed military governor of Switzerland but is forced to resign due to his failing health.

In a fragile condition Jennings leaves Switzerland and returns to Passy in Paris, where his domestic griefs and chagrins add to the poignancy of his bodily sufferings, for his constitution is now completely broken up. He dies of dysentery on December 11, 1799, at the age of 48. He is buried with full military honours.

Jennings is historically honored at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where his name can be seen on the inside triumphal arch, on the Northern pillar, Column 05. Underneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (World War I). There is a personal portrait of Jennings in the ‘Hotel de Ville’ (City Hall) at Tonnay-Charente, where his father Dr. Theobald Jennings practiced as a physician.

A monument was erected in Jennings’s memory in Tonnay-Charente in the 19th century. Rue du Général Kilmaine, a street in Tonnay-Charente, is named in his honour in the 19th century.


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Birth of Thomas Devin Reilly, Revolutionary & Journalist

Thomas Devin Reilly, Irish revolutionary, Young Irelander and journalist, is born in Monaghan, County Monaghan, on March 30, 1824.

Reilly is the son of a solicitor and completes his education at Trinity College, Dublin. From early on he espouses the republican beliefs of Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet and writes for The Nation and John Martin‘s The Irish Felon in support of economic and political improvements for the working class. He is more interested in the realities of the common man than high idealism.

As a member of the Irish Confederation during the Great Famine, Reilly together with John Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor advocate the refusal to pay rents, retention of crops by small tenant farmers and labourers to feed their own families, and the breaking up of bridges and tearing up of railway lines to prevent the removal of food from the country.

Reilly is involved in the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 and is forced to flee to the United States where he becomes active in U.S. political affairs in support of Irish independence. He is reported to be the founder of The People newspaper in New York City which folds after six months in 1849.

James Connolly claims that as the editor of the Protective Union labour rights newspaper for the printers of Boston, Reilly is a pioneer of American labour journalism and that Horace Greeley believed of his series of articles in The American Review on the European situation “that if collected and published as a book, they would create a revolution in Europe.”

It is possible that Connolly confuses The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which is known for its political activism, with The American Review, which for a time had Edgar Allan Poe as an editorial assistant. Other sources refer to Reilly as being editor of the New York Democratic Review and later the Washington Union.

Thomas Devin Reilly dies at the age of 30 on March 5, 1854. He is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., together with his infant child Mollie and wife Jennie Miller from Enniskillen.


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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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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)


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First Meeting of the Dublin United Irishmen

James Napper Tandy convenes the first meeting of the Society of United Irishmen in Dublin on November 9, 1791. The group had met the previous month in Belfast.

Spurred on by Theobold Wolfe Tone’s pamphlet titled An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, these young radicals propose three resolutions, which are to guide the new movement forward and which leave a lasting impression on generations of Irish men and women.

Firstly, that there exists the need for “a cordial union among all the people of Ireland.” Secondly, that a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament is needed and, thirdly, that this reform should include “Irishmen of every religious persuasion.” The new organisation immediately tries to bring about change and Wolfe Tone, through his work as secretary of the Catholic Committee, organises a Catholic Convention in Dublin in 1792.

Although a Catholic Relief Act is passed in 1793, which rescinds some of the harsh Penal Laws, the United Irishmen soon turn their attention to France where they are heavily influenced by the French revolutionary ideals of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

When the United Irishmen are proclaimed a secret society and members arrested, Wolfe Tone travels to the United States and then France, making known his objectives for Irish Independence and that he wishes:

“To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means”

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 soon follows and, although achieving initial success is brutally suppressed, thereby ending the ideals of the United Irishmen in uniting the people of Ireland.

(From: “Society of United Irishmen formed in Dublin 09 November 1791” posted on November 9, 2019, Irish News Archives, http://www.irishnewsarchives.com)