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


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Archibald Hamilton Rowan Tried for Distribution of Seditious Paper

archibald-hamilton-rowanArchibald Hamilton Rowan, a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, is tried on a charge of distributing seditious paper on January 29, 1794.

Hamilton Rowan is born in the home of his grandfather, William Rowan, in London on May 1, 1751 and lives there with his mother and sister for much of his early life. He is admitted to Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1768, but is expelled from the college and rusticated for an attempt to throw a tutor into the River Cam. He is sent for a period in 1769 to Warrington Academy.

Hamilton Rowan travels throughout the 1770s and 1780s, visiting parts of Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. In 1781 he marries Sarah Dawson in Paris, France. The couple has ten children. He is the godfather of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.

Hamilton Rowan returns to Ireland in his thirties, in 1784, to live at Rathcoffey near Clane in County Kildare. He becomes a celebrity and, despite his wealth and privilege, a strong advocate for Irish liberty. That same year he joins the Killyleagh Volunteers, a militia group later associated with radical reform. He first gains public attention by championing the cause of fourteen-year-old Mary Neal in 1788. Neal had been lured into a Dublin brothel and then assaulted by Lord Carhampton. Hamilton Rowan publicly denounces Carhampton and publishes a pamphlet A Brief Investigation of the Sufferings of John, Anne, and Mary Neal in the same year. An imposing figure at more than six feet tall, his notoriety grows when he enters a Dublin dining club threatening several of Mary Neal’s detractors, with his massive Newfoundland at his side and a shillelagh in hand. The incident wins him public applause and celebrity as a champion of the poor.

In 1790 Hamilton Rowan joins the Northern Whig Club, and by October has become a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, working alongside famous radicals such as William Drennan and Theobald Wolfe Tone. He is arrested in 1792 for seditious libel when caught handing out “An Address to the Volunteers of Ireland,” a piece of United Irish propaganda. Unknown to him, from 1791 Dublin Castle has a spy in the Dublin Society, Thomas Collins, whose activity is never discovered. From February 1793 Britain and Ireland join the War of the First Coalition against France, and the United Irish movement is outlawed in 1794.

Hamilton Rowan’s reputation for radicalism and bluster grow during this time when he leaves Ireland to confront the Lord Advocate of Scotland about negative comments made in respect to his character and that of members of the Society of United Irishmen. As a prominent member of the Irish gentry, he is an important figure in the United Irishmen and becomes the contact for the Scottish radical societies as a result of his visit. Upon his return to Dublin, he is charged and was found guilty of seditious libel, even though he is excellently defended by the famous John Philpot Curran. He is sentenced to two years imprisonment, receives a fine of £500, and is forced to pay two assurities for good behaviour of £1,000 each. In January 1794 he retires to his apartments in Dublin’s Newgate Prison.

In the years following, Hamilton Rowan spends time in exile in France, the United States and Germany. He is allowed to return to Ireland in 1806. He returns to the ancestral home of Killyleagh Castle, County Down, receiving a hero’s welcome. While he has agreed to be a model citizen under the conditions of his return to Ireland, he remains active in politics and retains his youthful radicalism. Following his last public appearance at a meeting in the Rotunda in Dublin on January 20, 1829, he is lifted up by a mob and paraded through the streets.

Hamilton Rowan dies at the age of 84 in his home on November 1, 1834. He is buried in the vaults of St. Mary’s Church, Dublin.


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Birth of William Drennan, Physician, Poet & Political Radical

william-drennanWilliam Drennan, physician, poet and political radical, is born on May 23, 1754 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 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 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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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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Opening of the Belfast Academical Institution

belfast-academical-institutionThe Belfast Academical Institution, later the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, a grammar school in Belfast, is opened on February 1, 1814. Today, locally referred to as Inst, the school educates boys from ages 11 to 18. It is one of the eight Northern Irish schools represented on the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. The school occupies an 18-acre site in the centre of the city on which its first buildings were erected.

The first demands for the school which would become “Inst” comes from a group of Belfast merchants and professional gentlemen. They insist that the existing Belfast Academy under William Bruce does not offer a “complete, uniform, and extensive system of education.” They hope that a new school will give more access to the “higher” branches of learning as well as to those which would fit youths for a practical commercial career. The foundation stone of Inst is laid, in pouring rain, on July 3, 1810 by George Augustus Chichester, 2nd Marquess of Donegall. Donegall owns much of the land in the Belfast area and grants the school a lease for the grounds at an annual rent of £22–5s–1d. The eminent English architect John Soane, who designed the new Bank of England in 1788, offers to draw up plans in 1809.

Construction begins in 1810. Money is collected to pay for the buildings by encouraging rich merchants and businessmen to subscribe one hundred guineas each for the privilege of being able to nominate one boy to receive free education at Inst. The roof of the main building is completed during the winter of 1811. The Institution is formally opened at 1:00 PM on February 1, 1814. William Drennan announces that the aim is to “diffuse useful knowledge, particularly among the middling orders of society, as a necessity, not a luxury of life.” He also refers to the particularly noble and rural setting of the school – in front a fair and flourishing town, and backed by a sublime and thought-inspiring mountain. Until the middle of the 19th century, the RBAI is both a school and a university, a dual function which the Belfast Academy never had.


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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.