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The 'Forgotten Patriot' should be celebrated

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Samuel Neilson

Samuel Neilson 1761-1803 (c. 1795)
Unknown 19th century (after Charles Byrne 1757-1810)
© National Museums Northern Ireland 
Collection Ulster Museum

Samuel Neilson Samuel Neilson 1761-1803 (c. 1795) Unknown 19th century (after Charles Byrne 1757-1810) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum

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National Portrait Gallery London

Dr William Drennan

Dr William Drennan

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Samuel Neilson Samuel Neilson 1761-1803 (c. 1795) Unknown 19th century (after Charles Byrne 1757-1810) © National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum

What can be said of Samuel Neilson?

There is not the romance of some of the characters associated with other United Irishmen – Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, or Lord Edward Fitzgerald – yet here was a man who was connected with most of the important events during the short existence of the Society of United Irishmen, from 1791 to 1803.

When one reads Neilson's letters to his family from Fort George in Scotland, where he was imprisoned from 1799 to 1802, one can't help but be impressed by the positive attitude he takes to his situation.

He knew that he would never be allowed to return home. He had sacrificed his comfortable life as a merchant and caused his family to rely on friends and family for their existence during his imprisonment.

Besides the loss of his property, he sacrificed his health and his liberty, believing that mere existence was of little value compared to the cause to which he devoted his life.

Neilson was born in 1761 at Ballyroney, between Dromara and Rathfriland in Co Down. His father Alexander was a Dissenting minister.

He received a liberal education, excelling in maths, and entered the woollen-drapery trade, serving his apprenticeship in his brother John's shop in Belfast

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Shortly after his marriage to Nancy Bryson in 1885, he set up his own business at Waring Street. By 1792, he owned property estimated at £8,000.

Neilson, along with many other Belfast Presbyterian merchants, found his interest in politics when he joined the Belfast Volunteers.

The Volunteers were founded across Ireland in March 1778, when regular troops left for America. Many of the Belfast Volunteers would later become members of the Society of United Irishmen.

The idea of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter into a common brotherhood that Wolfe Tone would name the Society of United Irishmen came from Dr William Drennan.

Drennan, a Belfast-born doctor, wrote to his brother-in-law, Samuel Mateer in May 1791 suggesting the formation of the radical group.

Drennan, Mateer and Neilson all had associations with the First and Second Presbyterian Churches in Rosemary Street, well-known for their radical views.

The United Irishmen decided to publish their own newspaper, called the Northern Star. It was published at Wilson's Court from 1792 to 1797, when it was closed down on government orders.

The aims of the paper were "Parliamentary reform, founded on a real representation of the people; also to the union of the people of all religious persuasions."

In January 1792, the first edition of the Northern Star was published. There were 12 partners – all Presbyterians and respected members of the merchant classes. Neilson held 13 shares, while the rest had between one and three shares each.

Neilson was also the editor and, with his enthusiasm, the paper achieved a circulation of 4,000-5,000. It was viewed by the authorities as the mouthpiece of the United Irishmen and, when Britain declared war with France in 1793, it came under greater scrutiny.

Contributors included three Presbyterian ministers – Reverends Porter, Kelburn and Steel Dickson.

Rev Porter was the editor of the satirical Billy Bluff and Squire columns, aimed at the Earl of Londonderry and his agent and spy, Rev John Cleland. The unfortunate Porter was to pay dearly. He was later tried by a court martial and hanged.

In 1797, up to 70 members of the Monaghan Militia, who were then serving in Belfast, were suspected of also being United Irishmen. Four of them were found guilty of treason and hanged at Blaris camp.

A short time later, men of the Monaghan Militia, acting on government orders, entered the Northern Star's printshop at Wilson's Court. When they left, the presses were damaged beyond use.

Neilson, who had become sole proprietor and editor of the paper, was by that time languishing in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol. After the failure of the United Irishmen uprising in 1798, Neilson, along with 90 other United Irishmen, was deemed too dangerous to be allowed to remain in Ireland and, under the Banishment Act, a decision was taken to either exile or transport them.

Neilson, along with Rev Sinclair Kelburn, William Tennant, Thomas Russell and others, were shipped off to Fort George in Scotland in 1799. He was not released until June 1802.

After a clandestine return via Dublin to Belfast to say farewell to his family, he left for America. He had hoped to set up a newspaper there and had plans to bring over his family. Tragically, it was not to be.

Neilson died at Poughkeepsie in New York State in August 1803, aged 44, leaving Nancy to bring up five children in Belfast.

Nancy was able to start a small business, which enabled her to bring up her children and give them a good education.

Henry Joy McCracken's sister Mary said of Nancy: "A very superior woman, a most exemplary wife and mother; for whom I had the highest esteem".

Nancy was 48 when she died and is buried at Newtownbreda – more than 3,000 miles from her beloved Samuel.

It would be a fitting tribute to Samuel Neilson, in this the 210th anniversary of his death, if Belfast could settle on some way of marking the life of this extraordinary citizen – the 'Forgotten Patriot'.


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