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When a beacon of liberty was cruelly snuffed out


The presses of the Northern Star newspaper, through which Presbyterians in Belfast spread a gospel of progressive politics, were silenced for good 220 years ago. Kenneth L Dawson, the author of a forthcoming biography of the paper's founder, Samuel Neilson, explains why the city became a cauldron of radicalism.

Two hundred and twenty years ago, members of the Monaghan Militia attacked the Belfast premises of the Northern Star newspaper in Wilson's Court (one of the entries connecting High Street to Ann Street), smashed its presses and threw the type and machines into the courtyard below.

This violent act marked the end of a remarkable publication, which offered a criticism of government policy and served as an agent of politicisation during a decade that culminated with the paroxysm of the 1798 Rebellion and its most immediate consequence, the Union between Britain and Ireland.

The Belfast News-Letter, which had been established by the Joy family in 1737, had enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the town and across the province, save for the brief lifespan of the reformist Belfast Mercury in the 1780s.

The News-Letter was itself a moderate and progressive newspaper, but the political excitement caused by the American and French revolutions, and the increasingly audible calls for concessions to Ireland's beleaguered Catholic majority in an age of enlightenment, created the opportunity for a bold new alternative.

During 1791, plans for a second newspaper were being prepared and finalised. Chief among the organisers were men who would also form a new political association in Belfast, the Society of United Irishmen, the objectives of which would be to promote a fundamental reform of the blatantly unrepresentative Irish parliament in Dublin, the abolition of sectarian divisions and the replacement of the terms Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name of Irishman.

These men - William Magee, William Tennent, Robert Caldwell, John and Henry Haslett, Gilbert McIlveen, Thomas Milliken, William and Robert Simms, John Tisdall, William McCleery, Thomas McCabe and Samuel Neilson - most of them Presbyterian, would transform the life of the town by publishing the Northern Star, a twice-weekly newspaper which called for change, mocked the rulers of the country and endorsed the armies of revolutionary France, even after Britain went to war against the French in early-1793.

The proprietors of the new paper had written to men of influence across the province of Ulster in the autumn of 1791 to canvass support for the enterprise. While some respondents questioned the need for a second newspaper, others were enthusiastic and the plans took shape with the acquisition of the printing presses and premises.

The leading figure in the scheme was Samuel Neilson, whose textile business in Waring Street had allowed him to accumulate a large personal fortune. A leading member of the reformist First Volunteer Company in Belfast, Neilson's energies were also expended on the formation of the United Irishmen and the development of a radical political vision.

In the prospectus for the newspaper, Neilson declared the Northern Star, which would guide reformers like a political compass during these turbulent times, would appeal for support on the grounds of "spirit, impartiality and independence". Neilson became the editor and lead proprietor.

Neilson cheekily advertised the new publication in Henry Joy's News-Letter in late 1791 "with a view to the better dissemination of useful intelligence". Priced at two pence, the Northern Star would be published on Wednesdays and Saturdays (although these days would change in the light of increasing rivalry between the two newspapers) and would soon outsell its more established competitor, with as many as 4,000 readers being exposed to its political and satirical content.

Opportunities were created for public readings, so that illiterate workers and farmers could also be exposed to the radical message. The Protestant Ascendancy, which dominated Irish politics through the parliament in Dublin, was lampooned ruthlessly and the claims for equality of Presbyterians and Catholics promoted.

The aristocracy was attacked in Neilson's editorials, which criticised the ruling class for spending its time on "idle gratifications and despicable pursuits, when the hereditary Legislators of a country shew no respect for public opinion". After the sale of the News-Letter in late 1794, it adopted a more conservative position. As competition and tension increased, the two rival newspapers suffered attacks upon their distribution and delivery networks, with paperboys and agents being stopped and copies of newspapers stolen or destroyed.

With the outbreak of war between Britain and France in February 1793, the pro-French position of the Northern Star became the object of government oppression. In April, a party of soldiers attacked a number of houses and businesses associated with the radical cause, including the office of the Star. The proprietors of the newspaper would be charged on two occasions with publishing advertisements and political commentaries that were deemed to be seditious.

While these actions appeared to intimidate the owners for a time, the Star continued to print both allegations of injustice and accounts of aggressive tactics and bias against the magistrates, aristocracy and military. The emergence of the Orange Order in the middle of the 1790s provided the Northern Star with a new target.

In late 1796, for example, it published a letter from a reader in the district of Tullylish, who alleged an atrocity carried out on the family of a James McArdel by "vile wretches who call themselves Orangemen". Further examples of excess, such as the forced dispersal of a wake in Newry by the military and the drunken behaviour of militia regiments in parts of Armagh and Tyrone, were published, although little reference was made to the equally provocative attacks carried out by the Defender allies of the United Irishmen in south Down, Tyrone and Armagh.

As part of the government's campaign against the developing militancy of the United Irishmen, Neilson was arrested in September 1796, alongside other leading radicals such as Thomas Russell, Henry Haslett and Charles Teeling. Over the next few months, other employees of the Northern Star (such as the compositor Samuel Kennedy, Thomas Storey, William Kean and William Templeton) were arrested and confined.

The editorial duties fell upon Robert and William Simms until they, too, were incarcerated shortly after a second attack on the offices of the Star in early-February 1797. This was a result of the publication of a public address to the electors of Carrickfergus by the firebrand former MP Arthur O'Connor, wherein he declared himself a republican. O'Connor posed a question about the legitimacy of British policy in Ireland: "Could French invaders do worse than establish a system of corruption and unfairness as exists in Ireland already?" Coming so soon after an attempted French invasion in Co Cork just weeks before, O'Connor's outspokenness - and the Northern Star's willingness to publish his address - prompted the authorities to order Colonel Lucius Barber of the Royal Artillery to arrest the Simms and take steps to prevent future publication.

By the end of the month, the Northern Star was again being printed, with a new editor, Thomas Andrew Corbet, replacing Robert and William Simms. However, things were not running smoothly for the troubled newspaper. Mounting debts, the arrests of its employees and the resorting to an inferior brand of paper combined to undermine the newspaper's quality.

Corbet was forced to print that the Star would no longer be delivered to anyone who had not paid in advance. Increasingly exasperated, he informed his readers that "The plunder of the office - the consequent derangement of the Printing Materials - the imprisonment of ALL the proprietors and the inexperience of the Printer, will plead a powerful apology with a generous public, for any inaccuracies, mistakes or delays that may unavoidably occur in the management of the business".

With problems mounting, the newspaper would run into more trouble in May 1797. General Gerard Lake, the commander-in-chief of the Crown forces in the province of Ulster, was convinced that the Northern Star would have to be muzzled if the authorities wanted to maintain control of the district.

He wrote to Henry Pelham, the Chief Secretary, that the newspaper would need to be forcibly put out of business: "Surely the Northern Star should be stopp'd, the mischief that it does is beyond all imagination. May I be allowed to seize and burn the whole apparatus?" Lake's wishes would be carried out soon enough.

After four members of the Monaghan Militia were executed at the military camp at Blaris Moor, near Lisburn, in May 1797 for encouraging soldiers to take the United Irishmen's oath, other men of the same regiment attempted to place an advertisement in the Northern Star proclaiming their loyalty to the Crown. When the Star refused to print the wording of the advert, because it sullied the reputation of Belfast, members of the regiment went on the rampage in the town, forcing the newspaper to close once and for all.

The presses were destroyed and the office ransacked before the troops were recalled by the regiment's commander, Colonel Charles Leslie of Glaslough. Shortly afterwards, members of the artillery arrived to finish the job. Samuel Neilson's newspaper would never again be published.

The demise of the Northern Star deprived the United Irishmen of its most important propaganda tool in Ulster and beyond. From its editorial debut in January 1792, the newspaper had communicated the news of the developing revolution in France, the campaigns for the abolition of slavery abroad and the ideas of thinkers such as Thomas Paine. But the Star also provided an outlet for the pens of radicals closer to home. Thomas Russell, Rev James Porter (the outspoken Presbyterian minister in Greyabbey) and the lawyer William Sampson had all contributed delicious satirical pieces for publication such as The Lion of Old England, Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand and The Trial of Hurdy Gurdy, allowing readers to make fun of the aristocracy and the legal system.

The presses of the Northern Star also provided encouragement for an Irish cultural revival, publishing the magazine Bolg an tSolair, which provided a useful resource for students of the Gaelic tradition at a time when Patrick Lynch of Loughinisland was making a living as a teacher of Irish in Belfast.

Before the age of a genuinely free Press, Samuel Neilson's Northern Star was a beacon of liberty, which encouraged discussion and promoted knowledge at a time of exciting political change in Europe. Its remarkable story presents us with an interesting sidelight on a truly momentous decade, during which Belfast was a hub of political debate and intellectual diversity.

Two hundred and twenty years ago, the presses through which Belfast Presbyterians set out a template for political change and encouraged widespread political discourse were silenced.

It is a part of our past that deserves to be acknowledged.

  • Kenneth L Dawson is deputy principal of Down High School in Downpatrick and was joint editor (with Dr Brian Turner and Dr Myrtle Hill) of 1798 Rebellion in County Down. His latest publication, The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen, will be published later this year by Irish Academic Press

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