Neilson was born in Ballyroney, County Down, Ireland, the son of Presbyterian minister Alexander, and Agnes Neilson. He was educated locally. Samuel was the second son in a family of eight sons and five daughters. At 16 years of age, Samuel was apprenticed to his elder brother, John, in the business of woollen drapery in Belfast. At the age of 24 he established his own business.
Despite his commercial success, Neilson was naturally drawn to politics and had early on been a member of the reformist Volunteer movement. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, he suggested to Henry Joy McCracken the idea of a political society of Irishmen of every religious persuasion. He tone was not a founder member) established the United Irishmen in Belfast. The following year he launched the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star, which effectively threw away his fortune. As its editor he was a high profile target for the authorities and was prosecuted for libel several times, being twice imprisoned between 1796-98.
Plans for rebellion
Along with several other "state prisoners" (persons imprisoned indefinitely without charge) Neilson was released in February 1798 following several petitions by influential friends, on grounds of bad health. Upon release he immediately involved himself in the United Irishmen aligning with the radicals among the leadership who were pressing for immediate rebellion and opposed to the moderates who wished to wait for French assistance before acting.
The United Irishmen were however, severely penetrated by informers who kept Dublin Castle abreast of their plans and discussions. In March 1798, information of a meeting of the United Irish executive at the house of Oliver Bond led to the arrest of most of the leadership, leaving Neilson and Lord Edward Fitzgerald as the only figures of national importance still at liberty. They decided to press ahead as soon as possible and settled on 23 May as the date for the rebellion to begin.
As the date loomed closer, the authorities went into overdrive to sweep up the rump leadership and on 18 May Lord Edward was betrayed in his hiding place and critically wounded while resisting capture. Neilson, now with responsibility for finalising plans for the looming rebellion, decided that Fitzgerald was too valuable to do without, and decided to try and rescue him from Newgate Prison in Dublin. Wary of confiding his plans too early for fear of betrayal, Neilson went on a reconnaissance of the prison but was spotted by chance by one of his former jailers and after a fierce struggle, he was overpowered and dragged into the prison.
Imprisonment and exile
Neilson was indicted for high treason and held in Kilmainham Jail with other "state prisoners" for the duration of the doomed rebellion outside. After the execution of Oliver Bond, and the brothers John and Henry Sheares, Neilson and the remaining prisoners agreed to provide the authorities with details of the organisation of the United Irishmen, plans for the rebellion etc. in return for exile. Following the suppression of the rebellion, he was transferred to Fort George in Scotland and in 1802, he was deported to the Netherlands. From there he made his way to America, arriving in December 1802, but died suddenly of a stroke in New York, on 29 August 1803.
Columbian Centinel (Boston, MA), Sep. 14, 1803, p. 2: DIED]---At Poughkeepsie, Mr. Samuel Nielson, late of Belfast, Ireland, and editor of the " Northern Star," a spirited revolutionary paper.
- "Samuel Neilson". Dictionary of Ulster Biography. Retrieved 2008-07-09.