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Rebel, rebel: Two key figures in United Irishmen examined in new biographies

Two key figures in the Society of United Irishmen receive overdue reassessment in a brace of benchmark biographies, writes Kenneth L Dawson

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Remembering the past: Fergus Whelan at the grave of William Drennan

Remembering the past: Fergus Whelan at the grave of William Drennan

Remembering the past: Fergus Whelan at the grave of William Drennan

At a time when life is curtailed by the necessity of social distancing and our immediate future viewed with anxiety, there is perhaps an opportunity to find some solace in our past.

Looking backwards has often been considered a dangerous occupation in this contested place, but with more time to read, the publication of two new books provides an opportunity for us to learn about a fascinating period in our history.

As the 1790s dawned, Belfast was a thriving commercial centre, bursting with political excitement.

The heady enthusiasm for the principles of the American and French revolutions was felt powerfully in Belfast, a largely Presbyterian town, whose prosperous citizens found themselves disempowered by a political and legal system designed to preserve a privileged Anglican elite.

Grievances were articulated by Volunteer companies and, from 1791, by the Society of United Irishmen, an organisation midwived in Belfast.

Two of the figures associated with the decade of the United Irishmen, both Presbyterians, are the subjects of new publications which should attract considerable interest here.

William Drennan (1754-1820) receives timely biographical treatment from the respected Dublin author Fergus Whelan.

Born to the Rev Thomas Drennan, the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Lane, and his wife, Anne Lennox, Drennan was one of the most influential radicals of the time.

It is Drennan who is often credited with the notion of establishing the United Irishmen, a society aimed at removing sectarian divisions and promoting national independence.

His writings criticised the governance of Ireland, espoused the cause of national unity and, later, opposed the principle of a political union between Britain and Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Rebellion of 1798.

While not a participant in the rebellion, Drennan was a consistent advocate for change and his enlightened ideas continued into the new century.

Returning to Belfast, he was a founder of the Academical Institution (Inst), which opened in 1814 with a liberal and enlightened ethos.

A political thinker, poet and polymath, Drennan's funeral in 1820 saw his remains being carried by six Protestants and six Catholics.

Whelan's study of Drennan relies heavily, as it should do, on the letters that Drennan wrote to - and received from - his sister, Martha McTier and others.

The letters were transcribed a number of years ago through the monumental efforts of Jean Agnew and Maria Luddy from the Women's History Project and the Irish Manuscripts Commission.

Whelan's engaging account analyses Drennan's intellectual influence and political agency and is a timely addition to our understanding of the United Irishmen.

If the name William Drennan is familiar to many, that of Henry Joy McCracken is probably more recognisable. Born in 1767, he was the third son of Captain John McCracken and his wife, Ann Joy, whose father had launched the Belfast News-Letter in 1737.

Like Drennan, Henry Joy McCracken had a formidable sister, Mary Ann, to whom he was devoted.

Despite his fame and martyrdom, it is arguably the case that Mary Ann's imprint on her hometown is even greater than that of her brother.

Apprenticed in the textile industry, McCracken was passionate about the need for political change, but while Drennan was the wordsmith of the United Irishmen, Harry McCracken was the activist.

Associated with leading figures in the United Irishmen from the outset, McCracken would become a charismatic and dashing young radical, developing the society into an insurrectionary movement and leading the attempts to combine the largely Presbyterian United Irishmen of Ulster with their potential allies in the Catholic Defenders.

McCracken was arrested in October 1796 and conveyed to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. Released the following year in ill-health, he re-engaged with revolution and led an effective coup against Robert Simms, the reluctant commander of the United Irish military machine in Co Antrim.

When Ulster rose - somewhat belatedly - in rebellion in June 1798, Henry Joy McCracken marched at the head of the insurgents at the Battle of Antrim.

McCracken was apprehended as he sought to escape the country.

Declining the opportunity to save himself, he faced a court martial just yards away from the family home and was hanged in Cornmarket on July 17, 1798.

Jim Smyth, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is perfectly placed to write this short, but excellent biography of McCracken, part of the Life and Times New Series published by UCD Press.

Smyth's readable account also acknowledges how McCracken has been remembered - and disremembered - in Ulster, a process detailed by the Israeli historian Guy Beiner in his recent, ground-breaking study of the vernacular history of the 1798 "Turnout".

Our collective understanding of this exciting period in our history has been enhanced by these two welcome biographies, which are thoroughly recommended at a time when the past is a safe point of refuge.

These are, indeed, the times that try men's souls.

Kenneth L Dawson is the author of The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen (Irish Academic Press, 2017)

Belfast Telegraph