God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, by Fergus Whelan, New Island Books, 304 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1848404601
In March of this year, Dublin was treated to the peculiar spectacle of the Ancient Order of Hibernians leading an Easter commemorative parade through the streets. Behind the flag of the Vatican, and with a band playing “Faith of our Fathers”, the attempt to link the Catholic faith and Irish separatism was far from subtle, and indeed far from new. While there were Protestant revolutionaries in the ranks of the 1916 generation, such as the Citizen Army bomb-maker Seamus McGowan, the very first pages of the story of Irish separatism were written by Protestant radicals and the Society of United Irishmen.
Fergus Whelan, as a trade unionist and historian, has done much to highlight this tradition of political dissent. This study centres on one of the most remarkable United Irishmen, but a man whose name has faded into relative obscurity by comparison with those of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet or Lord Edward Fitzgerald. While such figures secured their place in the pantheon of Irish radicals through participation in the events of 1798 and 1803, Archibald Hamilton Rowan spent those most dramatic of years in exile.
As with many of his contemporary radicals, he was born into a highly privileged background. Whelan notes that his mother, Jane Hamilton, made the decision to give birth to her son in England in 1751, to deliberately remove him from the dangers she perceived of an Irish upbringing. If she hoped to raise a thorough “English aristocrat, loyal to his class and kind, unconcerned about the oppression, poverty and religious divisions of his native country”, then she failed spectacularly, as all of these would later motivate and enrage Rowan. The earliest seeds of discontent may have been planted by his father, Gawin Hamilton, something of a political radical himself, who mingled in London in company that included Dr Charles Lucas and John Wilkes.
Lucas, who is commemorated today by a statue inside Dublin’s City Hall, campaigned tirelessly against the corruption of Dublin Corporation in his time, and in the Hamilton home one writer would later claim he “would shake his silver locks in fury at the ruthlessness of the English administration in Ireland”. Yet Lucas and Wilkes, who would seek parliamentary reform in Britain, were not cranks. Rather they were committed radicals, with deep-rooted ideas of democratic reform. Being around such men may have shaped the young Rowan, but so did education, a privilege of his social class. Enrolled at Cambridge University from 1768, his father placed him in the care of John Jebb, an Anglican clergyman who would later resign from the Church of England, and who became what Whelan describes as “a Unitarian radical reformer … unpopular not only with the government and the university establishment, but with most of his fellow scholars as well”. When the Volunteer movement in Ireland sought guidance from Jebb in August 1783 in relation to its programme of reform, he advised them strongly against submitting any petition to parliament on the basis that a petition “transfers authority from the senders to the sent … It calls upon them to reform themselves, which a corrupt body of men never did, nor can do.”
Education was not the only door opened by wealth; Rowan travelled extensively after his time at Cambridge, visiting Holland, South Carolina and Portugal, before arriving in France as a twenty-two-year-old in 1773 and remaining there for eleven years. His time in France was dramatic both politically and personally, and he would meet Benjamin Franklin on a number of occasions. In a sphere of life more dangerous than politics he mingled with George Robert Fitzgerald, a notorious high-flying Irish duellist who convinced the young Rowan to act as his second. For Rowan’s life after Cambridge, Whelan draws on his autobiography written later in exile for his children’s consumption, believing he would not see them again. It is, as Whelan notes, “not surprising that a memoir written for his children has little to say about politics and nothing at all about sex”. Yet Rowan may have had plenty of time for both, earning a reputation for getting “into various scrapes, especially with married women”. He did marry in Paris, taking the hand of Sarah Dawson, a woman from Lisanisk near Carickmacross but who had been primarily raised in London. Described as “strong- minded, persistent and loyal”, she would remain a constant comrade in his life.
Rowan, with Dawson in tow, arrived in Dublin in the 1760s. His position in life would have afforded him the ability to mingle within the elite circles of the city, but he instead emerges as something of a champion of the poor. The clichéd and hackneyed idea of eighteenth century Dublin as a playground of the rich, defined by sedan chairs, duelling and heavy drinking, has been gradually eroded over time, as scholars such as David Dickson in his masterful Dublin: The Making of a Capital City have demonstrated the deep class divisions that existed long before the Act of Union. When Benjamin Franklin visited Dublin in the 1770s, he felt compelled to write that “the appearances of general extreme poverty among the lower people are amazing”. Whelan brilliantly and movingly tells the tragic story of young Mary Neal, a working class child of only twelve years who was raped in April 1788. Infuriated by a cover-up that sought to protect the powerful at the expense of a child, Rowan published a pamphlet that detailed a campaign of lies unleashed against a working class family. He even interrupted a meeting of the influential Dublin barristers’ dining club to raise the issue of Neal’s mistreatment. He was later presented with an address from the goldsmiths of the city, praising his efforts on behalf of “indigent and oppressed innocence”.
Another aspect of Dublin history well covered is the intersection of religion and politics, in particular among the Presbyterian and Unitarian congregations of the capital. The Great Strand Street Meeting House for example emerges as a centre not only of faith but of radicalism. It may surprise some readers that figures central to the pantheon of Irish separatism often found political inspiration in the figures of Cromwell and William III.
Like many of his contemporaries, Rowan was greatly moved by the events of the French Revolution. Tone remarked that the historic events brought an end “to the days of apathy and depression” in Irish radical circles, dividing the world “into two great parties, the Aristocrats and the Democrats”. While founded as a reformist movement, the Society of United Irishmen drifted towards radicalism and ultimately, following its suppression, separatism. Whelan gives us a sense of the internationalism of the movement: not alone were the United Irishmen influenced by global events, they maintained global contacts. They sought to “make all Irishmen Citizens and all Citizens Irishmen”, though the very openness of the movement would in some ways prove its demise. Heavily infiltrated from the beginning, Dublin Castle knew as much about it as many within its ranks.
That Rowan was imprisoned by the authorities for seditious libel says much of the manner in which the United Irish movement was viewed as a threat by the authorities. Indeed Whelan believes that for the authorities, there was a hope that “by bringing its most illustrious, popular and courageous member to the gallows, it would put an end for once and for all to the Society of United Irishmen”. When John Philpot Curran defended him in the courts, he felt confident in proclaiming that “there is not a man in this nation more known than [Rowan for his] extraordinary sympathy for human affliction”. Conditions in the Newgate Prison were curiously relaxed; United Irishmen were even renowned for running up wine bills that would make the Dublin Castle elites blush. It was these relaxed conditions that allowed Rowan to bribe an under-jailer with £100 on the pretence he wished to visit his home in Dominick Street on legal business; instead, he seized the opportunity to flee the country, fearful of the noose.
Rowan would spend the most remarkable years of the United Irish story in exile. He was imprisoned for a period as a British spy upon arrival in France, before embarrassed authorities released the Irish radical realising he was not a foe but a friend of France. He would mingle with Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris, and even meet Robespierre, who questioned him on conditions in Ireland. As the French revolution devoured itself, he witnessed the ruthless effectiveness of the guillotine at close quarters. Rowan ultimately left France for Philadelphia, still maintaining a loving and inquisitive correspondence with Sarah in Ireland.
If there is an event absent from this study, it is the United Irish rebellion of 1798. Yet this can be traced to Rowan’s correspondence, where Whelan notes the rebellion “is scarcely mentioned”. Rowan had been fearful of an abortive insurrection in Ireland, but he maintained a great personal loyalty to fallen friends, never criticising those who had gambled on insurrection, and later publicly defending the characters of men such as Samuel Neilson. While the rebellion arguably set in motion a series of events that culminated in the Act of Union, Rowan welcomed the union, believing that the Irish Parliament was “one of the most corrupt assemblies that ever existed”. Rowan supporting the Union seems perplexing; in a review of this book, the critic Frank MacGabhann has speculated if this was merely “a necessary first step if he wanted the return of his lands and fortune”. Rowan wrote that the union would “take a feather out of the rich man’s cap … but will put many a guinea in the poor man’s pocket”. Did it? While Belfast thrived as an industrial city in the years that followed, Dublin witnessed enormous decline. On its streets, many were less enthusiastic than Rowan. A popular contemporary verse asked:
How did they pass the Union?
By perjury and fraud;
By slaves who sold their land for gold,
As Judas sold his God.
Whelan has presented a compelling case that Archibald Hamilton Rowan was not merely an influential member of the Society of United Irishmen but that he was viewed by both the authorities and his fellow members of the society as its leading light. As with his last work, Dissent Into Treason, the book raises sometimes uncomfortable questions for both the contemporary republican and unionist political movements. To some unionists, Protestant and dissenting voices like Rowan’s are mere “eccentric and dangerous egotists and traitors”, while republicans may ignore the fact that for men like Rowan the principles of Unitarianism may have been as influential as the gospel of Thomas Paine.
Donal Fallon is a historian and author based in Dublin. He is co-editor of the Dublin history website Come Here To Me (www.comeheretome.com) and his most recent publication is a biography of Major John MacBride, published as part of the Sixteen Lives series by O’Brien Press.