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Disunited Irishmen - what happened when plotters of 1798 fell out

There was little unity when the leaders of the United Irish rebellion found themselves held in a remote Scottish jail, writes Ken Dawson

At the end of last year Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon announced that the Fort George military base near Inverness will close by 2032 as part of a restructuring of the MoD's estate. The decision was made despite ferocious opposition from locals, former soldiers and the actor Hugh Grant, whose grandfather had once served there as an officer.

While its iconic status as a historic fortress and museum is secure, visitors from Ireland north and south should - if given the chance - visit this remarkable place with its very strong connection to our own fascinating past.

From the 'Manchester Martyrs' of Fenian folklore to Tom Clarke and Patrick Magee, a number of Irish republican prisoners found guilty of offences committed in Britain have served their sentences in British gaols far removed from family and friends. Such was the experience of the Irish prisoners held at Fort George between 1799 and 1802.

In the aftermath of the Great Rebellion of 1798, senior figures within the structure of the Society of United Irishmen were languishing in prisons throughout Ireland. The Dublin gaols of Kilmainham, Newgate and the Bridewell housed a number of prominent figures including Samuel Neilson, Thomas Russell, Thomas Addis Emmet, William James MacNeven and Arthur O'Connor.

Neilson, a son of the Presbyterian minister in Ballyroney, Co Down, was a founder and leading member of the Society of United Irishmen, which had been formed in Belfast in October 1791 as a pressure group that aimed to reform the exclusively Protestant Irish Parliament and increase political representation for Irishmen of all denominations.

As a proprietor and editor of the influential newspaper The Northern Star, Neilson had helped to propagandise the United Irish cause, forge links with the Catholic Defenders organisation and oversee the transformation of the United Irishmen into a popular revolutionary movement. Arrested in Belfast in September 1796, Neilson was released from Kilmainham two years later, only to reassume his place at the head of the conspiracy. He was again detained on the day the rebellion erupted, May 23, 1798.

Thomas Russell had been despatched to Belfast in 1790 with the 64th Regiment of Foot. Arrested on the same day as Neilson, he would be the United Irishmen's longest-serving prisoner. Thomas Addis Emmet, older brother of the famous Robert, was a brilliant lawyer who would later become Attorney General for the State of New York.

MacNeven was perhaps the foremost Catholic figure in the United Irishmen, an intellectually gifted doctor of medicine. O'Connor, a former MP in Dublin, was a Cork-born aristocrat, with impeccable social connections to senior English politicians like Charles James Fox.

The 1798 rebellion cost as many as 30,000 lives as the visionary project of 1791 descended into a sectarian bloodbath. The insurgency crushed, attention became focused on what should be done with the leaders of the United Irishmen. For the authorities in Dublin Castle, the danger was that the brilliance of defence barristers such as John Philpott Curran would prevail in the courtroom, reducing the chances of successful convictions. It was at this stage that a remarkable proposition was put forward by the prisoners.

Chief among the sponsors of this deal was Neilson, himself vulnerable to the gallows due to his outspoken views and undoubted political extremism. In return for telling the government about the entirety of the United Irishmen's plans (but without incriminating anyone), the prisoners would be allowed to depart Ireland for a country not at war with Britain.

On the government side, another Ulsterman, Chief Secretary Robert Stewart (Lord Castlereagh), saw the attraction of such a deal. Saving the expense of trials and the possibility of legal defeat was a price worth paying.

But when the US ambassador to Britain, Rufus King, stated that nation's objections to the influx of Irish prisoners, the plans changed and the government was forced to look at more creative solutions.

With release and expatriation ruled out, the prisoners would be detained indefinitely, far away from their homes. The castles at Edinburgh and Stirling were considered and dismissed due to their proximity to large populations. Instead, the military fortress at Fort George was considered the perfect location.

And so, on March 19, 1799, 16 United Irish prisoners (including Neilson, Russell, Emmet, MacNeven and O'Connor) were taken aboard the Ashton Smith, which was anchored near Ringsend.

The ship sailed north to pick up four additional inmates who had been lodged on the prison ship Postlethwaite in Belfast Lough: the Rev William Steel Dickson, William Tennent, Robert Hunter and Robert Simms.

After a rough 11-day passage, during which Neilson became perilously ill, the prisoners disembarked at Gourock and were transmitted to Fort George, arriving on April 9.

They were met by the kindly Lieutenant-Governor James Stuart, a half-brother of the Earl of Moray. In contrast to the conditions experienced in the damp and overcrowded Dublin gaols, the prisoners would each have their own room equipped with a fire and glazed windows. Invalid soldiers would serve them dinner consisting of mutton, lamb, beef, veal and, on occasions, crab and lobster.

A number of prisoners suffered from ill-health, including Neilson, Tennent and Roger O'Connor (the brother of Arthur).

His wife and three of their children were permitted to reside at Fort George, a privilege that would later be extended to Mrs Emmet.

Samuel Neilson's only son, William Bryson Neilson, was allowed to stay with his father from the summer of 1801 until the prisoners were released a year later.

Perhaps inevitably given their close proximity to each other and the enforced separation from family and friends, the prisoners were prone to disagreements and, in some cases, ill-disguised hatred. Robert Hunter, a Belfast shipbroker and United Irishman, supplied information to the authorities alleging that Neilson and Russell were continuing to plot rebellion from inside the fortress.

Hunter's fellow prisoners had their suspicions, and he wrote to his handlers that: "I did not know the moment my life would be attempted."

Another prisoner, the dentist Edward Hudson, complained that the others were ganging up on him because he refused to support their continuing conspiracy. Avoiding verbal communication, he wrote to one of the other internees, the lawyer William Dowdall, stating that: "I can no longer think of you as a friend... our intercourse in future cannot extend beyond the civility of the table."

The most toxic relations were those between Thomas Addis Emmet and Arthur O'Connor. Their enmity originated from their differing views on how the rebellion of 1798 was to have been planned and executed.

O'Connor believed that Emmet had acted in a way that brought shame to republicanism by casting aspersions about his character and attempting to poison the minds of the others towards him and his brother, Roger.

Writing to one of the other prisoners, William Tennent, O'Connor noted how Emmet had contrived to create a faction against him, using "flattery, bullying, and brutality, slander" to ostracise him as a prelude to assassination. Word of the disagreements reached Ireland, with Lady Moira spreading the gossip in a letter to a friend: "They are all quarrelling at Fort George." Thomas Russell, she alleged, had knocked one of his fellow prisoners (William Dowling) to the ground, and 16 of the detainees were refusing to speak to O'Connor.

Thomas Addis Emmet reportedly managed to convey a request for a set of duelling pistols to be secreted into Fort George so that his differences with Arthur O'Connor could be settled once and for all. The duel did not occur, but it was close to being revived when the prisoners were finally released in 1802.

Today, Fort George is visited annually by thousands of people, many of them interested in the story of the British Army regiments (most recently the Black Watch) that were, and still are, stationed in this most impressive fortification with its sturdy defences and stunning views over the Moray Firth.

But with the fort's closure planned, the importance of its role in Ireland's complex historical narrative is one that deserves not to be forgotten. For a time, those deemed to be the most dangerous men in the kingdom were its reluctant residents.

Kenneth L Dawson is deputy principal of Down High School in Downpatrick and was joint editor of 1798 Rebellion In County Down (1998). His new publication, The Belfast Jacobin: The United Irishman Samuel Neilson, will be published by Irish Academic Press later this year

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