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Dissenting Radical

Donal Fallon
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…

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