Samuel Neilson, the forgotten hero of 1798
The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen explores a significant but neglected figure from Belfast’s radical past
Samuel Neilson: organiser of Belfast’s developing militancy and leading orchestrator of the rebellion of 1798
In the public consciousness, the great rebellion of 1798 produced a number of celebrated patriots who sit at the top table of Irish political martyrology: Theobald Wolfe Tone; Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Fr John Murphy among others. What is less heralded, however, is the role played by Ulster Presbyterians in the genesis, development and climax of a sophisticated political project started by the Society of United Irishmen in 1791.
Samuel Neilson, the subject of my new biography, was a son of a Presbyterian clergyman, Rev Alexander Neilson, who ministered the congregation in Ballyroney, close to the town of Rathfriland in Co Down. 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 The sense of injustice grew during the years that regular troops were withdrawn to serve in North America against the armies of George Washington.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 controversy. 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. Samuel 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 Dr William Drennan (another son of the Presbyterian manse) and 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 radical 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 Belfast, the Star was a remarkable publication, informing the town’s citizens 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 the Star soon outsold its long-established rival, the Belfast Newsletter. 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.
The book details the infiltration of the United Irishmen in Ulster by informers and uncovers new evidence of the targeted assassination of those suspected of undermining the republican cause. Among those implicated in the dark campaign is Henry Joy McCracken, undeniably the most famous of the United Irishmen in Ulster.
Neilson was arrested in September 1796 on the information of the notorious informer William Bird and imprisoned in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. Conditions were harsh and he suffered from both ill health and financial impoverishment. 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 23rd, 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, Neilson 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 America, where it was his intention to start a newspaper. It was not to be. Neilson fell victim to illness 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.
Tone, 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, Samuel 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