God-Provoking Democrat –The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowan

Fergus Whelan’s account restores from obscurity a neglected United Irishman, writes Frank MacGabhann, but it is not without its flaws

Archibald Hamilton Rowan was an important member of the United Irishmen from its foundation in Dublin in late 1791 until his conviction for seditious libel in January 1794

Archibald Hamilton Rowan was an important member of the United Irishmen from its foundation in Dublin in late 1791 until his conviction for seditious libel in January 1794

Mon, Jan 11, 2016, 13:30


Book Title:
God-Provoking Democrat –The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowan


Fergus Whelan

New Island Books

Guideline Price:

Archibald Hamilton Rowan is one of the lesser-known members of the Society of United Irishmen that shook the political establishment in Ireland in the 1790s. Rowan was born in London of Scottish ancestry and north of Ireland connections who returned, as it were, to Ireland in 1784 at the age of 33.

Fergus Whelan, the author and a respected trade unionist, tells us that the young Rowan had imbibed the gospel of non-sectarianism and Unitarianism in his father’s house with family friends who would come and discuss the political topics of the day with his father. The Unitarians were a sect within Protestantism that denied the doctrine of the Trinity and believed that reason and science were compatible with religion. Like all Dissenters, they were opposed to the concept of a hierarchical church with bishops and, of course, the Pope in Rome. There was no need for any intermediary between man and God. They tended to keep a relatively low profile in England, particularly after the Stuart Restoration in 1660.

Rowan was an important member of the United Irishmen from its foundation in Dublin in late 1791 until his conviction for seditious libel in January 1794. Even before that he had gained a reputation in Dublin for courageous stands in favour of poor people and Catholics, against absolutism in Government and for reform of the parliament in Dublin.

His fight in 1788 against the terrible injustice suffered by Mary Neal, a poor 12-year-old who was brutally raped for two hours by the Earl of Carhampton and then smeared and herself accused, gained Rowan the admiration of Dubliners. His championing of the cause of families of men who had been killed by soldiers while engaged in bull-baiting further endeared him to the people of Dublin. All the more because these cases involved Rowan taking public actions against other wealthy men in situations where he was not involved and could have, like everyone else, looked the other way. A wealthy man due to his lands in Co Down and elsewhere, he was apparently very generous to people in need in Dublin.

Martin Mansergh has said the Belfast-Dublin corridor was never so intellectually fertile as it was during the 1790s. The author paints a vivid picture of that corridor during that decade with the emphasis on the Unitarian aspect to it. Rowan was at the forefront of that intellectual ferment. Unitarians and other Dissenters, along with members of the established chuch, especially Wolfe Tone, Arthur O’Connor and the Emmets, made common cause with Catholics and agitated for Catholic rights.

The author does not make clear to what extent, if at all, the Unitarians’ rational thinking made them fell uneasy, or guilty, that their great-grandparents were usurpers and had expelled the Irish from their lands by force of arms and deprived them of civil and religious liberty. Or whether they used their reason to rationalise it away. He does make it clear that the rational nature of their religion eased their decision to fight for greater manhood suffrage and ultimately, their decision to fight for a republic.

All the main characters are here: Wolfe Tone, Oliver Bond, Napper Tandy, Samuel Neilson, William Drennan, Thomas Russell, Lord Edward, Castlereagh, the Sham Squire and many others. The author’s enthusiasm for the political ramifications of Unitarian thought in Ireland, Britain and in the United States is palpable, thought-provoking and very well-founded. For those who delight in tracing the intellectual foundations of modern democracy, the book will be a joy to read and will open many a door into further reading.

For those who revere the United Irishmen, it will an insight into a man who should be better known and who suffered exile for 11 years. The title of the book comes from a description by a Federalist politician in America of the United Irishmen living there, “the most God-provoking democrats on this side of hell”.

In January 1794 Rowan was tried for seditious libel, an offence punishable by life imprisionment, for distributing a pamphlet of the United Irishmen. There was, of course, a packed jury and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, a light enough sentence given the war with revolutionary France then raging. However, fearing a further prosecution, this time for treason, he escaped from jail in May and fled to revolutionary France, where he was immediately arrested and jailed as a British spy. He spent six weeks in a harrowing jail until the French realised who he was. He witnessed the excesses and fear pervading France and was glad to enter the United States a year later. However, the election of John Adams as president in 1796 ushered in a period of persecution for the United Irishmen in America. Rowan and the others were forced to keep a very low profile.

Rowan’s exile took him to France, the United States, Germany and England. He publicly supported the Act of Union from exile in America. And then in 1805 he got down on his knees at the Court of Kings Bench in Dublin and begged the King’s pardon in order to get his lands and fortune back. Paris, Henry of Navarre had said, is worth a Mass. And Killyleagh and his lands were worth going back on all his principles, at least publicly. After all, his friends, Arthur O’Connor, Thomas Addis Emmet and the others, had all done deals when all was lost. Why not he? And apart from this, he wanted to restore his long-suffering wife to her prior station in life. His wife and children had passed years of hardship and he naturally wanted to rectify this.

The book is very readable and a welcome contribution to our knowledge of the period. However, the author seems prone to making sweeping statements without credible supporting argument or evidence. An example: Rowan was not an Irish nationalist (but was a republican). I believe that it is very difficult to get into a person’s mind two centuries later. But not only has the author achieved that, he has placed him in a category that runs counter to practically the entire thrust of the man’s public life.

The author gives as evidence for this statement the fact that Rowan supported the Act of Union. This support was a necessary first step if he wanted the return of his lands and fortune. The author does not cite any of his writings over his 87 yeas, especially his memoirs, in support of this assertion. It also sets him at odds with the strong belief of his friend, Wolfe Tone, which, I believe, would have dismayed Rowan no end. I believe that the author should have advanced that assertion as an opinion rather than as a fact and furnished credible supporting evidence.

It may be accurate that Rowan considered Catholics to be victims of “priestly superstition”, but it would have been helpful if the author had cited where Rowan expressed this particular expression, and in what context. If he did believe it, it is surely in his memoirs or written elsewhere.

The author also takes to task Irish nationalists of later generations for not paying homage to individuals such as John Hampden, the Puritan politician who died in battle in 1643 during the English civil war, and Sidney Algernon and William Russell, two Englishmen who were executed in 1683 for plotting to kill King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York.

There is a very simple explanation for this. In 1643 and in 1683 the struggle was by Englishmen against their own absolute monarchs, the Stuarts. In 1848, 1867 and 1920 the struggle was by Irish people for separation from Britain, a completely different matter. The author insists that these acts stemmed from a very Protestant and very British world view. In my opinion they did not. They stemmed from an emerging anti-absolutist view of monarchy of people who were proto-democrats and had interests opposed to the monarchy. It would be the turn of Catholic France a century later to lead the fight against absolutism and, in fact, to carry it to its logical conclusion by establishing a republic. The fact that these actions occurred first in Britain (or more accurately, England) did not make it stem from a British and Protestant world view.

The author says that Rowan and William Drennan “have a strong claim to be the originators of modern liberal Unionism”. Unfortunately, the author does not specify which modern liberal unionists he has in mind. It would be interesting to know.

This is the author’s second book. His first book, Dissent into Treason, published in 2010, was an extremely interesting exposition of original and secondary research into the history of the Cromwellian settlers in Dublin and how their descendants, according to the author, formed an integral part of the United Irishmen there and elsewhere. It is well worth reading.

However, the work was marred by a number of unfortunate, sectarian references straight out of Henry Cooke’s and the young Ian Paisley’s sermons, such as references to “Popery” and repeatedly calling King James II of England an “avowed” Roman Catholic – there were no “avowed” Protestants or Dissenters referred to in the book, only “avowed” Roman Catholics. There is, of course, no place for this is in a serious work and it detracts from an otherwise valuable study.

Also, in this centenary year of the Easter Rising in which many Protestants risked their lives to fight for the independence of their country, Whelan’s extraordinary statement that “Non-sectarian republicanism died with [Robert] Emmett . . in 1803” cannot be left unchallenged. What about Mitchell, Davis, Smith-O’Brien, among others, of Young Ireland and Thomas Clarke Luby and many other Protestants in the Fenian movement? In fact, John Devoy would lament each time that he learned in exile in New York that a Protestant Fenian had become a Catholic.

Thankfully, in the author’s current work there are no “avowed Roman Catholics” and popery, where used, is mostly employed properly. However, the author does state that one Rowan ancestor around 1600 is said to have “conned the feckless Conn [O’Neil, the Gaelic chieftain] out of one-third of his property”. Does the author believe that feckless Conn had it coming? If so, tell us why. In Ireland feckless has a vey loaded connotation. It is normally, if not exclusively, used as an epithet by bigoted unionists to hurl at Ulster Catholics. It is practically the exact equivalent of shiftless, used by racist whites in Mississippi in respect of African-Americans. Why is feckless used to describe a fairly obscure Ulster Catholic born around 1565?

Archibald Hamilton Rowan did have a remarkable life in five countries. He was fortunate to have found himself in exile when reform turned into revolution in the mid 1790s. Many of his friends were not so fortunate, especially those revolutionary friends who provoked God far more than this reform-minded democrat. Despite the blemishes, this book is a worthy addition to any bookshelf.

Frank MacGabhann is a lawyer and a critic