Who was the 'Belfast Jacobin'?
To mark the publication of his new biography of United Irishman Samuel Neilson, Ken Dawson explains the significance of a forgotten figure from the city's radical past
When I arrived at Down High School in Downpatrick as a young teacher back in 1991, I was struck by the wealth of history in the county town.
The school was built on the site of the 'new' gaol, while the adjacent Down County Museum, Down Cathedral and the Mound of Down were part of a rich historical tapestry that captivated this blow-in from Belfast.
I learned my trade under the head of department, the late Margaret Curry, who first showed me the place of execution of Thomas Russell, The Man from God Knows Where. It was a school where the teachers 'did' their subject as well as teach it.
Sitting around the staffroom table at lunchtime were friends like the authors David Park and Philip Orr. Meanwhile, the local newspapers - the Down Recorder and Mourne Observer - periodically informed their readers of aspects of Co Down's fascinating past.
It was in the latter that I read a series of articles about the United Irishmen, Presbyterian radicals and the Battles of Saintfield and Ballynahinch by local historian Horace Reid. I was hooked. Thus began the journey that led to the publication of The Belfast Jacobin.
Samuel Neilson was a son of a Presbyterian clergyman, the Rev Alexander Neilson, who ministered the congregation in the Ballyroney meeting house, close to the town of Rathfriland. Existing accounts suggest he was born in 1761, but the family Bible and church records state that September 1762 was the date of his birth.
The young Neilson would follow his older brother, John, to Belfast, and he was apprenticed in the textile business that would make the brothers wealthy citizens of the town.
As a Presbyterian, Neilson was - like his co-religionists in the growing commercial port - unable to vote for the town's two MPs in the Irish parliament, who were elected by a handful of people appointed by the borough's owner, the Marquess of Donegall. The sense of injustice grew during the years that regular troops were withdrawn to serve in north America against the armies of George Washington.
To fill the void, volunteer companies were raised across Ireland, and these soon engaged in political debate as the anticipated invasion by France, Britain's traditional enemy, failed to materialise.
Calls for a reform of the Irish parliament in Dublin struck a chord with the politically literate Presbyterians and a process of intense politicisation began.
Neilson was an active volunteer in Belfast and, when the French Revolution revived the vocabulary of liberty, equality and brotherhood, he assumed a prominent role in the developing radicalism of the town.
In my book, Neilson is placed at the centre of the debate on the formation of the United Irishmen in 1791, alongside the more recognisable names of William Drennan and Theobald Wolfe Tone. The new society aimed to reform Irish parliamentary politics by removing sectarian distinctions and replacing these with the common name of Irishmen.
Neilson's radical reputation in Belfast was such that Tone referred to him as 'the Jacobin', named after the most extreme political club to develop in the early stages of the French Revolution.
Moreover, Neilson's energy in creating and editing the United Irish newspaper, the Northern Star, makes him worthy of biographical attention. Printed in its office on Wilson's Court off High Street, the Star was a remarkable publication, informing the citizens of Belfast of the events unfolding in Paris and highlighting the flaws in a political system that sustained an Anglican minority in Ireland at the expense of Catholics and Presbyterians.
Neilson's newspaper ridiculed government policy and lampooned the ascendancy class. It soon outsold its long-established rival, The Belfast News Letter. A target for military and legal persecution, Neilson's considerable personal fortune was eroded as he struggled to maintain the enterprise.
After the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, the United Irishmen evolved into a militant organisation that sought to deliver revolutionary change in Ireland with the assistance of France.
While Wolfe Tone directed United Irish strategy in Paris, Neilson was to the fore in preparing the ground for an indigenous uprising, a process that included cultivating links with the largely Catholic Defender societies, which had been engaged in sectarian conflict with the emerging Orange Order.
Neilson was arrested in September 1796 on the information of a notorious informer, William Bird, and imprisoned in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol. Conditions were harsh and he suffered from ill health and further losses in his business.
He was released in February 1798, but soon re-engaged in the revolutionary project, becoming a close aide to the United Irishmen's charismatic commander-in-chief, Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
Despite the latter's arrest, Neilson attempted to bring Dublin to a state of revolt, but he was himself detained on May 23, 1798, playing no active part in a rebellion that descended into a vortex of sectarian toxicity, far removed from the idealism of 1791.
With 19 other leading conspirators, Neilson was conveyed to the remote military base of Fort George near Inverness in 1799.
Released in 1802, he and the State prisoners were deported to the free city of Hamburg before going their separate ways.
Neilson returned secretly to Ireland before embarking on a tortuous journey to the United States, where it was his intention to start a newspaper. It was not to be. Neilson fell victim to ill health once again and left New York to avoid the rampant yellow fever that was claiming the lives of thousands.
He died in Poughkeepsie, in August 1803, and lies buried in the town's rural cemetery, a forgotten patriot.
Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and, later, Robert Emmet would achieve political immortality by the public nature of their demise. Samuel Neilson, the Belfast Jacobin, became a footnote in Irish history.
He was a complex man, warm and charming, but also capable of holding grudges and being prone to arguments.
A man of strong Presbyterian faith, he desired the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, but was forever distrustful of Catholics, whom he accused of stepping back and making the Presbyterians take all the risks in the campaign for political change.
As an originator of the United Irishmen, proprietor and editor of the Northern Star, organiser of Belfast's developing militancy and leading orchestrator of the rebellion of 1798, Neilson deserves to be acknowledged in Belfast and beyond as a figure who had a profound impact on the shaping of Irish history.
- The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen is published by Irish Academic Press and will be launched tonight at Down County Museum in Downpatrick. Visit www.downcountymuseum.com for details