Drennan c. 1790
|Born||23 May 1754|
|Died||5 February 1820 (aged 65)|
|Education||University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh|
|Letter to his Excellency Earl Fitzwilliam (1795), Wake of William Orr (1797)|
|Movement||Society of United Irishmen|
William Drennan (23 May 1754 – 5 February 1820) was an Irish physician, poet and radical democrat. In Belfast he moved the formation of the Society of United Irishmen dedicated, in defiance of Protestant Ascendancy and British Crown authority, to representative government for Ireland. After the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion, Drennan sought an avenue to reform in education: he was the leading figure in the establishment of the Belfast [later the Royal Belfast] Academical Institution. As a poet, Drennan is best known for his eve-of-rebellion, "When Erin first rose", and its reference to Ireland as "the emerald isle".
William Drennan (an Anglicization of the Irish clan name Ó Draighnáin) was born in the manse of First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast, in 1754. He was the son of Reverend Thomas Drennan (1696-1762) and Anne Lennox (1718-1806). With his older sisters Martha (Martha McTier) and Nancy, he was one of only three of their eleven children who survived infancy. Although he died when his son was only 14, Thomas Drennan had a considerable influence on William's principles both religious and political. Like his father, Drennan studied at the University of Glasgow, a centre of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Through his father's mentor, the Irish moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), a new generation of Scottish thinkers had drawn on the republican ethos of Presbyterian resistance to royal and episcopal imposition to defend what Drennan called "the restless power of reason". Consistent with the popularisation of Hutcheson by his friend in Scotland Dugald Stewart, linking individual conscience in matters of faith with the collective right to resist oppressive government, Drennan was later to cite John Locke's Treatises on Government as his "prime authority on politics".
After graduating with an MA from Glasgow, Drennan studied medicine in Edinburgh under the experimental chemist Joseph Black and William Cullen "the most influential physician of his generation". Returning to Belfast in 1778 and set up practice specialising in obstetrics. As a visiting physician to the Belfast Poor House, in 1782 he trialled smallpox inoculation, 16 years before Edward Jenner advertised the practice with a paper on his own inoculation experiments in England.
With the Volunteers
Sharing the sympathies of many Ulster Presbyterians (few without kindred in the colonies), Drennan greeted news of Britain's first to defeat in the American War of independence (Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in 1777) as cause to "congratulate the people of Belfast and all mankind". He joined the Volunteers. Ostensibly formed to secure Ireland against a French invasion, the Volunteer companies were soon arming and parading in support of the "inalienable rights" of Irishmen. In 1782 the convergence of Volunteers upon Dublin helped Henry Grattan secured London's recognition of Ireland's legislative independence.
Drennan came to national attention with the publication in 1784 and 1785 of his Letters of Orellana, an Irish Helot. Addressed to his "fellow slaves", they were the earliest expressions of his support for radical constitutional reform. Although still, with most in the Volunteer movement, cautious about "a complete extension of civil franchise" to Catholics, Drennan could not be reconciled to an Irish parliament that remained an almost exclusively an Anglican (Church of Ireland) assembly in the pocket of the Kingdom's largest landowners, or to an unaccountable executive—the Dublin Castle administration—still appointed from London.
When news of revolution in France revived the spirit of Volunteerism in Belfast and its Presbyterian hinterland, Drennan proposed to his friends (fellow Free Masons and Volunteer veterans among them) "a benevolent conspiracy--a plot for the people". "The Rights of Man" (vindicated by Thomas Paine) and "the Greatest Happiness of the Greater Number" (the phrase is Hutcheson's) would be "its end", "Real Independence to Ireland and Republicanism" would be "its particular purpose". At its first meeting in Belfast in October 1791, the "conspiracy", calling itself at the suggestion of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Society of the United Irishmen, resolved on the complete emancipation of Catholics and an "equal representation of all the people" in parliament. Employing, as Drennan had proposed "much of the secrecy and somewhat of the ceremonial of Free-Masonry", the Society spread rapidly across the Presbyterian districts of the north, to Dublin and, in alliance with the Catholic Defenders, across the Irish midlands.
At the first meeting of the Society in Dublin in November 1791 Drennan won unanimous consent for his draft of a solemn declaration or test to be entered into by every member.
I, - AB in the presence of God, do pledge myself to my country, that I will use all my abilities and influence in the attainment of an impartial and adequate representation of the Irish nation in parliament: and as a means of absolute and immediate necessity in accomplishing this chief good of Ireland, I shall do whatever lies in my power to forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interests, a communion of rights, and a union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion, without which every reform must be partial, not national, inadequate to the wants, delusive to the wishes, and insufficient for the freedom and happiness of this country.
In February 1792 Drennan was identified as the author and the test attacked in the pages of the Belfast Newsletter by his father's successor in the pulpit of the First Presbyterian in Rosemary Street, William Bruce. Bruce saw the test as going far beyond what the town had celebrated in the American and French revolutions: Drennan was proposing a universal suffrage. In Ireland this would "give the Roman Catholics who are ten times more numerous as Presbyterians ten times as much power". Bruce recalled that, in his fifth Letter of Orellana, Drennan himself had cautioned that "the Catholics of this day are absolutely incapable of making good use of political liberty". Drennan denied inconsistency. The "circumstances of the times as well as the persons" had changed "in the very manner wished for": "to commercial interest, a middle and a mediating rank had rapidly grown up in the Catholic community" producing an "enlargement of mind", "energy of character" and "self dependence".
In May 1793 Drennan was arrested on a charge of sedition. In response to government's suppression of the Volunteers, an address, published under his name in the Northern Star, called on all active citizen soldiers to stand to arms. He was also being investigated for knowledge of meetings between his friend Archibald Hamilton Rowan (who had fled the country) and an agent of the French Committee of Public Safety, the Reverend William Jackson. Following his successful defence at trial by John Philpot Curran in June 1794, and as the leadership began to seriously consider prospects for an insurrection, Drennan appears to have dropped out of the inner counsels of the United Irishmen. To his sister Martha McTier Drennan wrote: "Is it not curious... that I, who was one of the patriarchs of the popular societies, should... be excluded and treated as a frigid neutralist, until I... throw myself, as other patriot suicides, into the gulf of a prison".
Correspondence with Martha McTier
From his days in Edinburgh Drennan sustained a faithful forty-year correspondence with his sister Martha McTier. She read, sometimes in advance of her brother, most of the radical writers of her time, including Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Laetitia Barbauld.
It may be a testament to his sister's influence that when William Bruce protested that an "impartial" representation of the Irish nation implied that not only Catholics but also "every woman, in short every rational being shall have equal weight in electing representatives", Drennan did not care to disabuse him. He pleaded only for a "common sense" reading of the United Irish commitment to a democratic franchise. It might be "some generations", he proposed, before "habits of thought, and the artificial ideas of education" are so "worn out" that it would appear "natural" that women should exercise the same rights as men. But he allowed that, until that day, "neither women nor reason should have their full and proper influence in the world".
While alerted, following her brother's arrest, that her letters were being opened and read by the authorities, McTier refused to be cowed, assuring Drennan that "in these times I never will be gagged". Yet she often advised caution, seeming to welcome her brother's growing distance from the inner counsels of the United Irishmen. In part this appears to have been concern for her brother's safety, but also an aversion, greater than Drennan's, to revolutionary violence.
When news reached them of the September 1792 massacres in Paris, Drennan proposed that "the murder of the prisoners is one of those things which must be openly condemned and perhaps tacitly approved". With the enemies of the Revolution triumphant under the Duke of Brunswick at Verdun, it was "no time to weigh nice points of morality"--"if a boat escapes from a wreck be sinking with the weight of men, some of them ought to be thrown to the sea." When January 1793 Louis XVI, as citizen Capet, was guillotined, Drennan regarded it as "necessary to save the French Republic", although certain to serve Britain by making war with France popular. His sister, however, confessed herself "turned, quite turned, against the French," and feared that the Revolution was "all farther than ever from coming to good".
For Drennan, the greater problem presented by the course of the French Revolution was not the violence but the impact on Catholic opinion of the overturning of religion. The Catholics, he advised Martha, "are still more religionists than politicians, and the Presbyterians more politicians than religionists". While Presbyterians might be enamoured of "general liberty and equality," for Catholics their creed was still their "first object".
Appeal for "constitutional democracy"
Drennan tried to revive his dwindling medical practice. He had become a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin in 1790 but due, he believed, to his "dabbling in politics", he was never admitted to the Fellowship. Yet undaunted, in January 1795 he addressed to the newly arrived Lord Lieutenant, William Fitzwilliam, at Dublin Castle, a fifty-six page "letter". More copies were to sell in Belfast and the North (for which, Drennan confessed, the letter was "chiefly designed") than any pamphlet of the period save Paine's Rights of Man.
The letter insists that the only plot afoot in Ireland is "the plot of Protestant Ascendancy" to represent Presbyterians as Jacobins engaged in "a reformer, republican and regicide plot", and to "stitch together" the "Catholic Committee, Defenders, United Irishmen,... French emissaries and a monstrous tail of et ceteras" as a "scare crow". Conscious as he was that opinion among the United Irish and Defenders was running in the direction of a French-assisted insurrection, Drennan nonetheless tasks the Lord Lieutenant with averting a "rude and revolutionary collision". He directs Fitzwilliam's immediate attention to reform: "full and final" Catholic Emancipation, the promotion of manufactures to provide employment for the landless, and a system of "universal education" that can "assimilate all religions". But this, he concedes, was but a "bill for partial reform".
In Ireland, the aristocracy had "seconded" the "revolution of '82". Directly represented in one house of parliament, the Lords, they continue to control the other. Two-thirds of the Irish Commons are returned "by less than one hundred persons" [in the case of Belfast and its two MP's by the Marquess of Donegall] Having "the whole return of members to serve in parliament", men of "rank, fortune and connection" in the kingdom are formed into "a political party" in "league... against the population of the country".
In calling for "equality of suffrage" and “constitutional democracy”, "the people in the North of Ireland" are not, as the Lord Lieutenant may have been given to suppose, "infected by what are called French principles". Rather they are "obstinately attached to the principles of Locke as put into practice at the revolution [The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England]... and illustrated in the plains of America". Consistent with "the fundamental article of the British Constitution that holds taxation to be "inseparable" from representation, where people are denied legislative power they have "the same reason to complain as the Americans had lately, on the other side of the Atlantic, or as the Catholics had at our doors".
Fitzwilliam publicly endorsed a bill brought forward by Henry Grattan to repeal the last of the Penal Laws, that which prevented Catholics being sworn as members of parliament. But this was at the cost of his position. With less than three months in post, Fitzwilliam was recalled to London. New evidence suggests Drennan is the author of the "Marcus letters", published in Dublin in 1797–8, which accuse Fitzwilliam's successor, John Pratt, 1st Marquess Camden, of bringing to the people of Ireland only massacre, rape, desolation and terror.
When United Irish leadership still at liberty sought to muster their members in arms in May and June 1798, Drennan continued in Dublin, the heavily garrisoned capital in which no rebel demonstration proved possible. But while "the authorities did not molest him in any way in the run-up or aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion", this was not at the price of Drennan retiring his pen. In January 1799 he published an open letter to the British Prime Minister William Pitt assailing his proposals to abolish the Kingdom of Ireland and to incorporate it with England under the Crown at Westminster. If Ireland was to face "the cruel alternative of uniting forever with England, or separate forever", then "in the name of God and nature" it should "separate".
Belfast Academical Institution
On 8 February 1800, Drennan made "his own union With England": he married Sarah Swanwick from Shropshire. She was, he assured his sister, a spiritual partner, from a Unitarian family, "liberal in her mind and of a democratical turn in politics". When, in 1806, his financial independence was secured by an inheritance from a cousin, Drennan gave up his faltering medical practice in Dublin and, with Sarah, moved back to Belfast.
In the wake of the 1798 rebellion and its bloody suppression, Drennan resolved to "be content to get the substance of reform more slowly" and with "proper preparation of manners or principles"." As a token of this resolve, in Belfast he led a group of Belfast merchants, and professional gentlemen, including the banker and former United Irishman (and state prisoner), William Tennant, in persuading a town meeting "to facilitate and render less expensive the means of acquiring education; to give access to the walks of literature to the middle and lower classes of society; [and] to make provision for the instruction of both sexes... " in a new institution.
His old nemesis William Bruce, now principal of the Belfast Academy, mocked Drennan's proposed system of governance, comparing it to the French constitution which, together, they had celebrated in 1791--"so full of checks that it will not move". The sovereign body of the institution was as an annual general meeting of subscribers. They elected both boards of managers and visitors, but with a complicated system of rotation "to preclude the possibility of the management falling into the hands of a few individuals". The academic direction of was likewise entrusted not to a Principal or a Headmaster, but rather to a group of senior teachers sitting as the Board of Masters. Drennan also proposed that discipline would rely on "example" rather than on the "manual correction of corporal punishment".
The Belfast Academical Institution was otherwise non-denominational, but opened in 1814 with a collegiate department that, for the first time in Ireland, allowed for the certification of candidates for the Presbyterian ministry. Lord Castlereagh immediately discerned "a deep laid scheme again to bring the Presbyterian Synod within the ranks of democracy". His suspicions appeared confirmed when, in 1816, it was reported that at a St. Patrick's Day dinner board members and staff had raised a succession radical toasts to Drennan for his services to the cause of Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary reform, to the French and South American Revolutions, and to "The exiles of Erin" under "the wing of the republican eagle" in the United States. Despite the resignations of the board members present (Drennan at the time was in England), it was several years before the government was persuaded to restore its grant of £1,500.
Belfast Monthly Magazine
From 1808, Drennan began publishing the Belfast Monthly Magazine (BMM). The journal (which was to run for 77 issues) promised that while "intemperate political discussion would be excluded", where facts give rise "to those political differences that agitate the public mind", in "the spirit of true constitutional patriotism" "explanation" would be provided. Drennan found opportunity for such explanation not only in commentary, but in biographical sketches and books reviews.
While regular themes included the need for a general education system, freedom of the press, and abolition of the slave trade, Drennan's chief preoccupations remained the government failure to deliver on the promise of political equality for Catholics, and the "long-drawn-out pointless and wasteful folly" of the war with France (for which he continued to pillory the late Edmund Burke as "the trumpet").
On the Union
In response to the 1800 Acts of Union which abolished the old Kingdom of Ireland and its parliament, Drennan, consistent with his letters to Pitt, was at first defiant. He urged Irishmen to enter into a "Solemn League and Covenant [to] maintain their country". Later, he appeared to relent. The new United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster might in time realise the original aim of his conspiracy: "a full, free and frequent representation of the people" "What", he reasoned, "is a country justly considered, but a free constitution"?
Drennan may have come round to "a tentative acceptance of the Union". Calls for repeal, he suggested, created "division amongst reformers in the two islands" at a time when they should be joining forces "to seek parliamentary reform" (a conviction expressed in his admiration for Charles Fox). But "nowhere in the BMM" is there "indication that William Drennan had moderated his politics or regretted his past involvements".
In his last years, Drennan published two volumes of verse, Fugitive Pieces (1815) and Glendalough and Other Poems (1815), and a translation of the Electra of Sophocles (1817). Drennan's literary output is largely forgotten.
In its day his Wake of William Orr (1797), a eulogy to the eve-of-rebellion United Irish martyr, electrified the public and contributed to the cries of "Remember Orr" at the Battle of Antrim: Ireland Drennan depicts as a:
Heap of uncementing sand!
Crumbled by a foreign weight:
And, by worse, domestic hate.
Thomas Moore, Ireland's national bard, is said to have esteemed When Erin First Rose (1795)--source for the image of Ireland as the "Emerald Isle"—as the most perfect of modern songs. Anticipating the struggle to come, Drennan wrote:
Let no feeling of vengeance presume to defile
The cause of, or the men of, the Emerald Isle
The cause it is good, and the men they are true.
And the Green shall outlive both the Orange and Blue
Drennan died in Belfast in 1820. His funeral followed his instructions: “let six poor Protestants and six poor Catholics get a guinea apiece for carriage of me, and a priest and a dissenting clergyman with any friends that choose.” On the way to the Clifton Street graveyard, his cortege stopped for a few minutes outside what is now the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, the school he had founded. His headstone inscription reads:
Pure, just, benign: thus filial love would trace
The virtues hallowing this narrow space
The Emerald Isle may grant a wider claim
And link the Patriot with his Country's name
With Sarah Swanwick, Drennan had one daughter and four sons. His sons John Swanwick Drennan (a noted poet) and William Drennan wrote a biography of him for Richard Davis Webb's A Compendium of Irish Biography. Through his daughter Sarah, who married John Andrews, of a prominent family of flax merchants, Drennan had several notable descendants, including:
- William Drennan Andrews, judge of the High Court of Justice in Ireland
- Sir James Andrews, 1st Baronet, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
- John Miller Andrews, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland
- Thomas Andrews
- Thomas Drennan, performance artist known primarily for his seminal work 'Journey to the Centre of Drennan'
Pamphlets, Letters, Publications
- A letter to Edmund Burke (1780)
- An Address to the Volunteers of Ireland by the Author of an address to Edmund Burke (1781)
- Letters of Orellana, an Irish Helot to the seven northern counties not represented in the National Assembly of Delegates, held in Dublin, 1784, for obtaining a more equal representation of the people in the Parliament of Ireland (1785).
- Letter to his Excellency Earl Fitzwilliam (1795) 
- Letter to the Right Honorable William Pitt (1799) 
- Second letter to the Right Honorable William Pitt (1799)
- A Protest from one of the people of Ireland against a union with Great Britain (1800)
- Letter to the Right Honorable Charles James Fox (1806)
- Fugitive pieces in verse and prose (1815)
- A Courteous Reply to the Remarks of Presbyter Relative to the Belfast Academical Institution (1816)
- "When Erin First Rose". www.libraryireland.com. Retrieved 18 May 2016.
- Hayes, Randal (May 1999). "William Drennan, his Medical Life" (PDF). Ulster Medical Journal. 68 (1): 4–11. Retrieved 5 October 2020.
- Smyth, Jim (2012). "Wolfe Tone's Library: The United Irishmen and 'Enlightenment'". Eighteenth-Century Studies. 45 (3): 425. doi:10.1353/ecs.2012.0023. S2CID 146389991.
- Ian McBride (1993), "William Drennan and the Dissenting Tradition", in D. Dickson, D. Keogh and K. Whelan, The United Irishmen: Republicanism, Radicalism and Rebellion. Dublin: Lilliput Press. isbn 0946640955. p. 60
- Drennan, William (1991). "Intended Defence on a Trial for Sedition, in the Year 1794". In Larkin, John (ed.). The Trial of William Drennan. Dublin: Academic Press. p. Appendix 128. ISBN 9780716524571.
- "Dr William Cullen". The Cullen Projects (University of Glasgow, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh). Retrieved 5 October 2020.
- Stephens, H. Morse. William Drennan. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 6. Oxford University Press.
- Whelan, Fergus (2020). May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. p. 98. ISBN 9781788551212.
- Agnew, Jean (1999). The Drennan-McTier Letters: 1794-1801.Volume 1. Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission. p. 29. ISBN 9781874280484.
- Whelan, p. 42
- "Category Archives: William Drennan". assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. February 2020. pp. 15–16. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
- Altholz, Josef L. (2000). Selected Documents in Irish History. New York: M E Sharpe. p. 70. ISBN 0415127769.
- William Bruce and Henry Joy, ed. (1794). Belfast politics: or, A collection of the debates, resolutions, and other proceedings of that town in the years 1792, and 1793. Belfast: H. Joy & Co. p. 145.
- Bruce and Joy, p. 135
- Bruce and Joy, p.149
- Johnstone, Robert (1990). Belfast: Portraits of a City. London: Barrie and Jenkins. p. 75. ISBN 0712637443.
- O'Dowd, Mary (2016). A History of Women in Ireland, 1500-1800. New York: Routledge. p. 222. ISBN 9780582404298. Retrieved 18 October 2020.
- National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, Rebellion Papers, 620/20/1. William Drennan, 'Plan of Parliamentary Representation for Ireland'
- Kennedy, Catriona (2004). "'Womanish Epistles?' Martha McTier, Female Epistolarity and Late Eighteenth-Century Irish Radicalism". Women's History Review. 13 (4): 658. doi:10.1080/09612020400200404. S2CID 144607838. Retrieved 18 October 2020.
- Agnew, Jean (1999). The Drennan-McTier Letters: 1794-1801.Volume 1. Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission. p. 415. ISBN 9781874280484.
- Drennan-McTier Letters, Volume 1, p. 445
- Drennan-McTier Letters, Volume 1, p. XLIX
- quoted Johnstone (1990), p. 73
- Drennan, William (1795). A Letter to his Excellency Earl Fitzwilliam (Third ed.). Dublin: J. Chambers. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
- Whelan, p. 190
- Drennan 1795, p. 32
- Drennan 1795, pp. 40-41
- Drennan 1795, p.46
- Drennan 1795, p. 41
- Drennan 1795, p. 47
- Whelan, Fergus (2020). May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. pp. 220–221, 286–287. ISBN 9781788551212.
- Whelan, x
- Drennan, William (1799). Letter to the Right Honorable William Pitt. Dublin: James Moore. p. 17. Retrieved 18 October 2020.
- Agnew, Jean (1999). The Drennan-McTier Letters: 1794-1801.Volume 2. Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission. p. 517. ISBN 9781874280347.
- Johnson, Kenneth (2013). Unusual Suspects: Pitt's Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 155–156. ISBN 9780191631979.
- Bardon (1982), p. 80
- Brooke, Peter (1981). Controversies in Ulster Presbyterianism, 1790-1836. Ph.D Thesis, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
- Fisher, Joseph R.; Robb, John H (1913). Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Centenary Volume 1810-1910. Belfast: M'Caw, Stevenson & Orr. pp. 204–205.
- Courtney, Roger (2013). Dissenting Voices: Rediscovering the Irish Progressive Presbyterian Tradition. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation. p. 170. ISBN 9781909556065.
- Bardon, Jonathan (1982). Belfast: An Illustrated History. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. pp. 191–192. ISBN 0856402729.
- Whelan, Fergus (2020). May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. pp. 273–76. ISBN 9781788551212.
- Belfast Monthly Magazine, iv, 1819, p. 117
- William Drennan, Belfast Monthly Magazine, 7 (1811) quoted in Jonathan Jeffrey Wright (2013), The 'Natural Leaders' and their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast c.1801-1832, University of Liverpool Press (ISBN 9781846318481), p.75
- Address to a town meeting in Belfast, as reported by the News Letter February 13, 1817:
- Read, Charles (1884). The Cabinet of Irish Literature. Vol. 2. London: Blackie & Sons. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
- "William Drennan: Patriot and Radical". Ulster History Circle. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
- "The Clifton Street Cemetery". Culture Northern Ireland. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
- Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography by David Steers
- May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820 by Fergus Whelan, ISBN 9781788551212