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Northern Star

Jim Smyth

The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen, by Kenneth L Dawson, Irish Academic Press, 272 pp, €22.99, ISBN: 978-1911024750

A striking feature of all the commemorative buzz and commentary around the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion was a strong sense that previous commemorations in their own right constitute significant moments in Irish history. In that sense 1998 can be, and to an extent at the time it was, read as the centenary of 1898. And just as the commemorative politicking of 1898 attracted the attention of later historians, as Ian McBride predicted in 1999, “future historians will surely scrutinise this mother of all anniversaries for evidence concerning the national pulse in the era of the Celtic Tiger and the Good Friday Agreement”. In national narratives round figure anniversaries of great events turn on “sites of memory”, at whose gates public remembering, historical interpretation and present-day politics collide. Some historians dissented from the prevailing narrative on the meaning and significance of the rebellion, which they considered sanitised and inaccurate, but all were agreed on the strides that had been made, in terms of both research findings and reconceptualisation, over the preceding two decades. In retrospect, the publication of Marianne Elliot’s seminal essay on “The origins and transformation of early Irish republicanism” in 1978 has a satisfying chronological neatness, and its contrast with the received wisdom at the time is instructive.

Elliot’s principal subject, subsequently elaborated in her first book, Partners in Revolution, is the relationship between the United Irishmen and France, but arguably her most important contribution to the nascent reassessment of the 1790s was the fresh prominence she accorded Defenderism. To place that in historiographical context, RB McDowell depicted Defenders as “rural rioters” – familiar Irish agrarian types swept into a revolutionary maelstrom; meanwhile in 1981 a state of the art review of eighteenth century studies concluded that, because of lack of documentation, “it is unlikely” that a more detailed picture of these “localized secret societies with a largely illiterate membership” would ever be possible. Elliot, on the contrary, declared that the Defenders “were never a peasant movement”, and demonstrated both their organisational and ideological sophistication, certainly as compared to their “agrarian” Whiteboy predecessors. The crucial role played by the Defenders in Kenneth L Dawson’s account of the revolutionary politics of the 1790s, Belfast Jacobin, illustrates how categorically that once “shadowy” insurgency has, since the 1970s, been rescued from the obscurity of posterity.

Defenderism is significant because exemplary of wider processes of politicisation, and the concept of popular politicisation in turn challenges older depictions of the rebellion as a spontaneous – “peasant” and sectarian – jacquerie, especially in Wexford. Here a sequence of essays by Louis Cullen, cumulatively a tour de force of forensic source analysis and bold reinterpretation, set a new research agenda for scholars of the 1790s, although the influence of British Marxist “history from below”, specifically the work of EP Thompson and George Rudé, must also be acknowledged. Detail aside, even critics of the new paradigm accept that great gains in our understanding of this period have been achieved. They did, however, raise a major objection to the politicisation thesis, as they understood it: to what extent were the political motives of the rebels polluted by atavistic sectarian passions? It is a pertinent issue, to say the least, and in 1998 it coalesced around the question of what happened at Scullabogue barn.

On the evening of June 5th, 1798, as defeated insurgents fled the battle of New Ross, a barn at Scullabogue confining over a hundred loyalist/Protestant prisoners, including women and children, and a handful of Catholics, was set on fire. All perished in the conflagration. That horrific sectarian atrocity besmirched the rebel cause, and was swiftly deployed by the authorities to discredit the rebel forces, especially among Ulster Presbyterians, in many ways the authors of the Irish republican project. The scale, ferocity and sectarianism of state-directed terrorism before, during, and after the rebellion in no way excuses Scullabogue, nor did United Irish leaders, such as Thomas Cloney, attempt to excuse it.

By foregrounding sectarian episodes revisionist critics of the prevailing narrative sought to expose the air-brushing of inconvenient facts from the progressive, internationalist, pluralist, republican-secular, “Fellowship of Freedom” construction of events as set out in the officially sponsored commemorative programme. “We must,” demanded a government statement “discard the now discredited sectarian version of ’98, which was merely a polemical post-rebellion fabrication.” The critique of that authorised interpretation reached far beyond routine academic disputation however, into the style and presentation of commemoration, and the presentist “agenda” of “commemorationist” historians, “retained” by government, and detected, Faustus Kelly-like, in “certain quarters”.

In his essay “Remembering 1798” Roy Foster gleefully eviscerates the theme-parking and repackaging of the bicentennial festivities, verbally skewering “surreal” battle re-enactors (Ceci n’est pas une pike?), fancy dress exhibits, and even a ’98 puppet show (although the Ulster Museum’s effort is unexplainedly exempted from stricture). A seemingly superfluous reference to The Rose of Tralee hints at the source of the disdain. This rebuke is an (entertaining) exercise in what – just a few years earlier – the English Marxist historian Raphael Samuel called heritage-baiting, “a favourite sport of the metropolitan intelligentsia”; a sport, moreover, which, in Samuel’s view, “historians have been only too ready” to play. And there is, to be sure, much to disdain in the retailing of touristy kitsch and the commodification and trivialising of the past. Most damningly, Spitfires, stately homes and so on furnish “vulgar English nationalism” with an exceptionalist and consolatory myth. And, as it turned out, the wages of nostalgia are Brexit.

Samuel scorned the cultural elitist attitudes which inform heritage-baiting, and made some shrewd observations about the primacy of the printed word over the visual and the artefact in the professional historian’s training and practice, but such reflections did little, on this side of the Irish Sea, to blunt revisionist hostility towards the Great 1798 Road Show. It is not hard to understand why historians wished to honour the memory of the United Irish rebellion. Uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, a secular republic and, for some among the leadership, Paineite social justice, were (and are) laudable objectives. The counter-commemorationist impulse was perhaps more varied: professional distaste at the wilful tailoring of the past to suit present political purposes, or ideological disposition, for example. It may also be, in view of their censure of government subvention, that certain historians, schooled in the rehabilitation of landlordism and the extenuation of state agency, felt a novel frisson in their sticking it, finally, to the man. After all Herbert Butterfield, a Protestant nonconformist and self-described “historian against all governments” – and by one account a formative influence on Irish-style revisionism – rejected orthodoxy and “Official History” wholesale and in principle.

What has never been made clear are the Dublin government’s reasons for sponsoring politically correct commemoration. Ian McBride’s allusion to the Celtic Tiger and the Good Friday Agreement is nonetheless suggestive. At a most basic level there was more money available than ever before to spend on cultural projects. But to conclude that historians in receipt of public funds to support conferences entered thereby into some sort of Faustian pact is a bit of a stretch. A more serviceable explanation for shifts in official policy concerning commemoration is the impact of the peace process. In response to the escalating crisis in the North the southern state distanced itself from, and in certain quarters repudiated, its armed republican inheritance; as argued most forcefully by Conor Cruise O’Brien, traditional nationalist history helped to legitimise the Provisional IRA campaign of violence. Rebel ballads were banned from the airwaves and, in 1976, prohibitions placed on public commemoration of the 1916 Rising. That attempt, in Cruise O’Brien’s words, to “cleanse the culture”, also left the state open to charges that it had ceded “ownership” of the nation’s foundation myth to “the men of violence”.

The IRA ceasefire in 1994, the lifting of state censorship (Section 31) and the gradual, grudging acceptance of Sinn Féin as a “normal” political party, freed up the government to revisit contentious legacies. From the 150th anniversary of the Famine through to the current decade of centenaries, the state played a direct role in commemoration at a level not seen since 1966. It is in that context that the events of 1998 should be understood. If some public pronouncement was plodding and monochromic, the premier academic production resulting from that year, 1798: A Bicentenary Perspective (2003), boasts thirty-four contributors, and is not wanting in range, variety, rigour, nuance or scholarship. By alleging that some of their professional colleagues were complicit in the promotion of a state-sanctioned agenda, certain historians, obligated to confute myths, risked conjuring new ones of their own.

The magnitude alone of the 1798 rebellion commands our attention. Thomas Pakenham’s often recycled (including by this writer) estimates of thirty thousand fatalities, with Wexford accounting for twenty thousand of them, have been revised downwards. Cullen arrives at a figure of approximately 5,600 for the county, while Tom Dunne puts the death toll in New Ross at 1,500, as opposed to Pakenham’s three thousand. Tom Bartlett suggests around ten thousand fatalities in total. Even so, the numbers remain shocking. Roughly twice as many people died over the course of three months in 1798 as in three decades of the Troubles. Three times as many people were killed in New Ross in one day as in the bloodiest year of the troubles, 1972. Thus by any metric the rebellion was largely a Wexford affair, and that is registered in the ballad tradition; it is in Ulster, however, where the pulse of the 1790s raced most briskly, above all in “The Athens of the North”, the town of Belfast. And it is there that the counterfactual note of the revolutionary decade resonates most hauntingly.

At the end of Belfast playwright Stewart Parker’s Northern Star or McCracken’s Night Thoughts, Henry Joy, on the run after the defeat of his United army at the Battle of Antrim, and facing certain death high upon the gallows tree, reflects upon his home town:

Why would one place break your heart more than any other? A place the like of that? Brain-damaged and dangerous, continuously violating itself, a place of perpetual breakdown, incompatible voices, screeching obscenely through the smoky dark wet. Burnt out and still burning … we can’t love it for what it is, only for what it might have been, if we’d got it right, if we’d made it whole.

Henry Joy McCracken’s place in the United Irish pantheon has always been secure, whereas, notes Kenneth Dawson, Samuel Neilson’s is “semi-detached”. And yet Neilson, merchant, volunteer and Presbyterian church elder, was a prime mover in the secret committee which founded the first Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791, one of the proprietors and editor of the immensely influential Northern Star, and in 1798, with William Sampson, representative of the state prisoners who negotiated a pact with Dublin Castle whereby they would give evidence (which would not incriminate others) of their “conspiracy” in exchange for exile (in the event postponed by almost four years’ imprisonment in Fort George, Scotland).

It is not the case that Neilson is marginalised by historians, rather his posthumous reputation has been buffeted, first by Thomas Moore, who described him in his 1831 biography of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, as “flighty and inconsiderate” and even insinuated that he had a hand in Lord Edward’s capture, and second, by the charge of debilitating alcoholism. The first accusation is demonstrably false, while the second warrants some comparative analysis. As any reader of Wolfe Tone’s diary knows, both he and his friend Thomas Russell were fond of a drink and no strangers to hangovers. The informer William Bird complained of his United Irish confreres “that they seldom say much till they are nearly drunk, and by the time I get them in that plight, I am little better myself. And tho’ they were to open their hearts ever so liberally, I stand a fair chance of forgetting it by morning.” Nor, in the eighteenth century – if the prisoner’s friends or family could afford it – did gaol entail total abstinence. Mary Ann McCracken scolded her brother for drinking too much in Kilmainham.

Tone dubbed Neilson “The Jacobin” for good reason. Some sources are less reliable than others, and the evidence of paid informers is notoriously pockmarked by hearsay and exaggeration, but the aggregate testimony to Neilson’s character and leadership is nonetheless corroborative and compelling. Castle spies placed him “at the head of the conspirators” and considered him “the most violent, [and] determined” among them. Dr William Drennan’s sister, Martha McTier, a woman steeped in the world of Belfast radical politics, deemed him “a firebrand”, indeed he described himself as “an incendiary”. The conclusive proof of Neilson’s revolutionary credentials, however, is the company he kept, and the close interest taken in them by government.

On Friday September 16th, 1796, a detachment of cavalry led by lords Downshire, Westmeath, the renegade Whig Castlereagh and the solicitor general John Pollock, swept through the streets of Belfast rounding up leading United Irishmen on charges of high treason. Among those arrested were Russell, Rowley Osborne, formerly chairman of the Irish Jacobin club, and Neilson. Henry Joy’s detention was deferred due to clerical error, the warrant being made out for “James McCracken”; significantly, the eighteen-year-old Defender commander, Charles Teeling, was also taken into custody that day in nearby Lisburn.

Dawson sets out to fix his subject firmly front and centre of the United Irish enterprise, and he succeeds. Neilson was a principal in the founding of the first, open society, and an architect of the secret underground movement, of the alliance with the Defenders, and, probably, of the co-option of masonic lodges; when the strategic initiative shifted from Belfast to Dublin, Neilson shifted with it. But there is even more to be said of him and of the trajectory of his political career. This Irish “Jacobin” sacrificed his liberty and his considerable business interests, risked his life and brought misery to his beloved wife and children, wrote, travelled, organised and recruited for a militantly republican ideal. “The lower classes much admire[d] him.” There were others of that type, such as Russell and McCracken (who observed that “the rich always betray the poor”); a type comparable to the full-time republican plotters in Restoration England, or, more closely still, to contemporary European counterparts like the masonic utopian Philippe Buonarroti, or the radical egalitarian Gracchus Babeuf. Samuel Neilson, in short, was one of Ireland’s first professional revolutionaries, and like so many who have pursued that profession, he died in exile. Belfast Jacobin is a fine and necessary act of historical reclamation.


Jim Smyth is professor of history in the University of Notre Dame and editor of Remembering the Troubles, Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland.



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