May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, by Fergus Whelan, Irish Academic Press, €29.95, ISBN: 978-1788551212
Conor Cruise O’Brien once asked Éamon de Valera what was his opinion of Edmund Burke. The then president replied that he was not an admirer as Burke was not a republican. The response is perhaps explained by the importance of republicanism in Fianna Fáil’s political self-image. But not everyone was convinced by this. The veteran anti-Treatyite Austin Stack refused to go along with de Valera’s new party, lamenting that republicanism in Ireland was simply a term used to try to appear more truly Irish than your opponent. Problems around the term persisted. During much of the conflict in Northern Ireland Provisional Sinn Féin struggled to demonstrate how their “republicanism” was compatible with their sectarian killing machine.
The political ideal of republicanism in Ireland had its origins in the United Irishmen of the 1790s, which was the era of William Drennan, the subject of this interesting and worthwhile study. Burke is frequently criticised by Fergus Whelan, who contends that while the subject of his book, William Drennan, was right Edmund Burke was wrong.
On one level it is easy to be uncomfortable with Burke – the supposed founder of modern conservatism. The fact that his name and image are so often invoked by groups of wealthy young male conservatives is jarring. But the subtlety and nuance of his thinking is frequently overlooked by many of his modern admirers. His opposition to the East India Company, his conditional support for the American Revolution, calls for Catholic Emancipation and opposition to the slave trade mark him out as a progressive and reforming politician (though emerging research suggests he may not have been as pure as previously believed in regards to slavery). However, his view that reform was based on constructively using the constitutional and legal process and by building on established systems rather than removing them mark him as perhaps the founding figure of parliamentary politics rather than of conservatism.
His belief, however, that Irish Catholics should have full equality to both reconcile Ireland with Britain and set Ireland on equal terms with Britain would today seem problematic for nationalists of all hues. Indeed, Burke was by no means a separatist, rather wishing that Ireland was on an equal footing with the rest of the kingdom. The fact that Ireland and then Northern Ireland were never integral or equal parts of the United Kingdom suggest that Burke’s analysis was wanting.
But then again if the analysis or results prove wrong it does not necessarily mean the sentiment or intent was. Burke, through his family background, was aware of the poverty and lack of opportunities Catholics in Ireland faced thanks to the penal laws and concluded that working legally to achieve reform was a better course than putting already vulnerable people at risk through radicalism. The unprecedented carnage unleashed by the British state in response to 1798 arguably validates that point of view, as does O’Connell’s legal path towards Emancipation in 1829.
But one can’t say that Whelan’s criticisms are not justified. He correctly emphasises that Burke was no democrat, that he saw poor people as having no place in political life, that he contributed to the instigation of anti-radical riots and used unnecessarily inflammatory language. He also contends that Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France cast a long shadow on British government policy and helped persuade Britain to go to war with France in 1794 and even contributed to the length of the conflict. Burke was an influential man but geo-political power structures, shifting alliances, a fear of French power predating the revolution, along with ideology, helped contribute to the longevity of Britain’s war with republican and then imperial France. By 1815 the context was considerably different from when Edmund Burke was writing ‑ so Whelan could be criticised here.
In contrast Whelan rightly praises the egalitarianism and anti-sectarianism of William Drennan. Drennan, a Belfast unitarian, was a founding member of the United Irishmen and helped form their initial policies. He was a prolific writer of pamphlets and an avowed radical. However, he was long thought to have retreated from a more active role in radical politics after he was put on trial. Whelan is at great pains to point out that this characterisation of Drennan is wrong and that he did continue to contribute to the work of the United Irishmen after his arrest. He also frequently criticises the often repeated belief that Drennan was anti-Catholic. Indeed, in many respects this book is an attempt to rehabilitate Drennan and place him squarely in the forefront as one of the most influential and important radical figures from this period in Irish history.
However, there is much in Whelan’s study that would surprise subsequent generations of Irish republicans. He establishes that much of Drennan’s republicanism came from Presbyterian biblical literalism. At its most extreme this tradition rejected the concept of the Trinity, considered that the clergy of any denomination were a man-made force that impeded rather than strengthened connections to God and accordingly the non-biblical ceremonies of both the Catholic and Anglican Church were equally apostate in nature. The belief in a personal connection with God and dislike of intermediaries fuelled a commitment to the complete separation of church and state and a dislike of both religious and secular authority. As part of the dissenting tradition he accordingly identified with the parliamentarian and Cromwellian forces in the English Civil War against the autocratic and high church (perhaps even Catholic) Charles I, expressed disapproval of the restoration of Charles II and considered William of Orange to be one of the greatest figures in British history. His support for Catholic Emancipation was not driven by sympathy for the doctrines of the Catholic Church but rather a belief that the state had no business interfering in religion. In his defence in court he declared that he was first and foremost a Protestant Dissenter and his work was in the tradition of other Protestant Dissenters.
Towards the end of his life Drennan feared Catholic domination of new Ireland which would extinguish or leave no room for the tradition of Protestant Dissenters. It is perhaps ironic that since nineteenth century politics in Ireland became largely a matter of representing the grievances of the Catholic constituency, much of the inspiration for Drennan’s republicanism would be anathema to modern nationalist Ireland. Similarly, as nationalism (or republicanism) became more Catholic in composition the radical Presbyterian tradition retreated in favour of the emerging Ulster loyalist tradition in the nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that as early as the eighteenth century Drennan seems to have viewed the North as different from the rest of Ireland – but that is by no means to suggest he was a type of early partitionist.
The other irony is that perhaps Drennan towards the end of his life began to embrace the ideals of Burke, which he had castigated early in life. Indeed, perhaps through fear of Catholic domination of a new Ireland or fear that Catholic grievances would continue to fester in a way that excluded Protestants, he envisaged using the union constructively to achieve reform and equality for all in Ireland within a greater United Kingdom. Burke’s vision was similar, but he was never inspired by a fear of Catholics – unlike Drennan, Burke was from a Catholic background and his support for Catholic Emancipation came from a position of empathy and not just reason. The violence of the reaction to the rebellion of 1798 and the sheer might of the British empire might also have inspired Drennan’s shifting politics: as Whelan notes, Drennan had most definitely been in favour of physical force before the rebellion.
Whelan is at pains to point out that Drennan was no bigot and was consistent in his support for Catholic Emancipation and had many Catholic friends and colleagues, and according to his wishes, his coffin was carried by three Protestants and three Catholics. He argues that any references Drennan made in his private correspondence that appear disparaging of Catholics are rather directed at the Catholic Committee, which worked for Catholic Emancipation, and not at Irish Catholics as a whole. I would not dispute this. However, I am often struck that today some people who appear to be most vocal in their belief in Irish unity will at the drop of a hat make jokes about Protestants and unionists. Indeed, mockery of Protestantism in nationalist Ireland is so common that it is now simply a part of our culture. Similarly, Drennan no doubt existed in a culture where mockery of Catholics was common and ingrained; he may have may made anti-Catholic comments privately but publicly he was pro-reform and emancipation. This habit of casual contempt has persisted and exists among other seemingly ecumenical figures. Belfast-born academic and Christian apologist C.S Lewis had a certain respect for the Catholic church, and certainly would not have held the view of some Protestants that Catholics are not real Christians. He would also frequently express his love for all of Ireland, often holidaying in the South. However, in private he and his brother would frequently refer to Irish Catholics as “bog trotters”.
Whelan’s book is wide in its scope. It covers Drennan’s early life as a medical student in Edinburgh through to his reflections on the American revolution, involvement in the Volunteer movement of the 1780s, his support for the French revolution and criticism of Burke, through to the rise and fall of the United Irishmen, his disillusionment with Napoleon Bonaparte and the eventual softening of his views and identification in later life with the Whigs. At points the narrative falters – the section on the 1798 rebellion itself is regrettably short.
However, this is no fault of Whelan as the source material for this book is largely drawn from Drennan’s own correspondence between himself and his sister. Martha Drennan was just as radical as her brother and a significant influence on his life. She would often suggest topics on which to write to her brother, and where and when to publish. Whelan notes that during the rebellion Drennan simply produced no letters, so his own contemporary views on events are hard to discern. Indeed, separately the correspondence between brother and sister give an excellent insight into the social life, views and society in which the Drennans existed as a medical doctor and radical moving between Dublin and Belfast in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Whelan emphasises Drennan’s continued involvement with the United Irishmen up to the rebellion and suggests that he successfully escaped coming into the field of view of spies and informers. He cannot, however, quite identify Drennan’s role in the run up to the uprising – but again this is due to lack of source material. Drennan was unusual in that unlike most prominent United Irishmen he avoided death, imprisonment or deportation. In later life he continued to contribute to Irish life in his native Belfast by writing for the Belfast Monthly Magazine, where the evolving nature of his politics post-1798 can be traced ‑ perhaps most notable is his significant contribution to the founding of the Belfast Academical Institute, along with other United Irish veterans, as a liberal and reformist school in the city.
This is a well-researched and interesting book, valuable for its rehabilitation of Drennan’s reputation and presentation of the significance of his work, and indeed also for demonstrating ing how greatly removed from the vision of its founders is the Irish republicanism of today.
Thomas Earls FitzGerald is a historian of modern Ireland, his first book Combatants and Civilians in Revolutionary Ireland 1918-1923 was published by the Routledge in 2021