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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 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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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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Publication of the First Issue of the “Northern Star”

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

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

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

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

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

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