A Book Review by Hugh Vaughan
Kenneth Dawson: The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2017.
While living in the eastern Sydney suburb of Waverley I cherished the cliff-top walk along the eastern beaches. The walk runs along the famed Waverley cemetery and, as I also enjoy cemeteries I naturally ventured into it and to my surprise I found a huge memorial to the United Irishmen of 1798.
It is the final resting place of the Wicklow Chief – Michael Dwyer, a well-known historical figure in Ireland, who took part in the 1798 Rising in Wexford but ended up in Australia. The monument is of white Carrara marble, bronze and mosaic, nine metres wide and seven metres deep, and is raised over the vault containing the bodies of Michael and Mary Dwyer. Two bronze wolfhounds couchant sit on the front terminals at each side above a white marble cross with intricate Celtic intertwining.
There is also a plaque with a bas relief of Henry Joy McCracken, a Belfast-born United Irishman. Coincidentally, McCracken’s bust was unveiled in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin in September 2017. The sculpture marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of McCracken. The Belfast Presbyterian cotton manufacturer was a leading member of the Society of United Irishmen, established in Belfast, a socially progressive and prosperous town, in October 1791. He became, in death, the symbol of the 1798 Rebellion in Ulster, after his hanging in Belfast in the same year.
Another, lesser known Ulsterman forged an important role in the Society in Belfast according to Kenneth Dawson in his scholarly and well-researched book, The Belfast Jacobin, Samuel Neilson, another wealthy Presbyterian from Rathfriland, County Down. Other renowned figures of the United Irishmen were Thomas Russell, Theobald Wolfe Tone, William Drennan, Robert Emmett, and of course Henry Joy McCracken. Neilson was editor of the movement’s newspaper, The Northern Star and has not been written into history like the others mentioned. As editor, from 1792, Neilson was to be a principal figure in shaping the United Irishmen’s ideology, criticising government policy and lampooning the ascendancy class, before the newspaper was suppressed by the military.
Samuel Neilson joined Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell at the inaugural meeting of the United Irishmen in 1791, forming a radical front that would challenge the political realities of the day in increasingly strident ways, culminating in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, an uprising against British rule in Ireland lasting from May to September 1798, in which 30,000 died. The United Irishmen was a Republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, looking directly to France for military assistance in the uprising and were the main organising force behind the rebellion. They had hoped the local militia would join them: many had signed up but spies had made the authorities aware of this, in particular a notorious informer named William Bird.
Nielson was arrested in 1796, on the word of William Bird. Released, and re-arrested in 1798 he eventually ended up in Fort George, Scotland, where his health and fortune further declined, freely mixing with as many as 19 other Republican prisoners, but far from family and friends before being released in 1802 and migrating to the USA where he died from yellow fever the following year.
The Society of United Irishmen was populated by many Presbyterian and wealthy industrialists and merchants that evolved into the revolutionary movement that culminated in the 1798 rebellion. As editor of the Society’s newspaper, Neilson performed a central role in promoting the movement’s agenda in reform and finally into conspiracy.
According to Dawson, he is mentioned in books and journals about this period but this is his first biography. He was important in the Belfast connection
I think if you understand Neilson, you unlock the door to the United Irishmen, particularly in Ulster. So, I think he is vitally important.
Dawson says he tried to write an objective view of his research, that was not as easy to uncover as would have been for any of his more infamous colleagues. One of those, Wolfe Tone named Neilson The Belfast Jacobin. The Jacobin Club at the time of the French Revolution was the most radical, so Tone thought that it was an appropriate nickname for his friend.
Catholicism and Presbyterianism were regarded as second class faiths. Anglicanism was the dominant force, so grievances born out of this discrimination fed into Neilson’s view of who were the oppressors. Dawson comments,
Like many others, he would have been outraged by the military excesses committed across Ulster in the middle of the decade, provocative actions that pushed many into the swelling ranks of the United Irishmen or the Defenders.
The Defenders, a catholic agrarian secret society, allied themselves with the United Irishmen.
The research by the author, a 10-year labour-of-love demonstrates the importance of Neilson’s role in the rebellion, orchestrating the movement’s agenda in Belfast, often through The Northern Star, but also in clandestine meetings with fellow activists.
The Belfast Jacobin is an academic treatise and details the minutiae of a plethora of the characters and circumstances of the Ulster machinations that led to Neilson’s progress from a prosperous reformist to an impoverished Jacobin ‘terrorist’ – a term The Jacobin Club revered. Neilson referred to himself as ‘an unfortunate persecuted northern incendiary’.
Dawson’s book, a forensic study, refers to a rich source of archives, bringing to life the day-to-day, month-by-month radical journey of his subject and his fellow conspirators that finally led to the rebellion. He believes Neilson’s lack of notoriety is due to his anonymous death of fever in exile rather than on a scaffold.
If you are interested in the momentous decade of 1790s of Irish radicalism, in particular, the milieu of Belfast and Ulster, this is a must-read book.