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Friday, 5 February 2016



5‭ ‬February‭ ‬1820:‭ ‬The death of William Drennan,‭ ‬United Irishman,‭ ‬on this day.‭ ‬He was born in Belfast in‭ ‬1754‭ ‬and educated locally and at Edinburgh University where he graduated as a Medical Doctor in‭ ‬1778.‭ ‬He returned home and practised in Belfast,‭ ‬Newry and later moved to Dublin in the fateful year of‭ ‬1789.‭ ‬He became interested in Politics and Poetry.‭ ‬His family background was Presbyterian but he personally was a non conformist.‭ ‬But he was proud to be the son of a Presbyterian Minister all the same:

I am the son of an honest man‭; ‬a minister of that gospel which breathes peace and goodwill among men‭; ‬a Protestant Dissenting minister,‭ ‬in the town of Belfast‭; ‬who[se‭] ‬spirit I am accustomed to look up,‭ ‬in every trying situation,‭ ‬as my mediator and intercessor with Heaven.

Drennan came to National attention when in‭ ‬1784‭ ‬and‭ ‬1785‭ ‬his‭ ‬Letters of Orellana,‭ ‬an Irish Helot were published.‭ ‬These were the earliest expressions of his support for radical constitutional reform,‭ ‬Catholic Emancipation and civil rights.

However as political events both at home and abroad hotted up in the early‭ ‬1790‭’‬s he dabbled deeper into the burning issues of the day.‭ ‬Along with Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell he was instrumental in the foundation of the United Irishmen,‭ ‬at the time an open body with strictly legal aims and methods.‭ ‬It is generally considered that Drennan was the guiding hand in the initial philosophical basis of the new body.‭ ‬He had proposed even before it was established that any such organisation should be:

A benevolent conspiracy—a plot for the people—no Whig Club—no party title—the Brotherhood its name—the rights of man and the greatest happiness of the greatest number its end—its general end,‭ ‬real independence to Ireland and republicanism its particular purpose—its business,‭ ‬every means to accomplish these ends as speedily as the prejudices and bigotry of the land we live in would permit.

In‭ ‬1795‭ ‬he wrote his poem‭ ‘‬Erin‭’ ‬which is credited with the first use of the term‭ ‘‬the Emerald Isle‭’ ‬to describe Ireland:

Nor one feeling of vengeance presume to defile‭
‬The cause,‭ ‬or the men,‭ ‬of the Emerald Isle.‭

However Drennan was not of a sanguinary turn of mind and he recoiled from the prospect of Revolution to bring about the overthrow of the British Regime.‭ ‬Notwithstanding this withdrawal in‭  ‬the year‭ ‬1794‭ ‬he was charged with Sedition and narrowly escaped conviction.‭ ‬At first he wished to address the Court and make a highly charged political statement but his lawyer talked him out of it.‭ ‬If he had done so it was generally considered he would have convinced his accusers of his guilt in their eyes.‭

But his days of danger were now over and as his active political life receded he used his pen to attack Tyranny.‭ ‬His poem‭ ‬The Wake of William Orr in‭ ‬1797‭ ‬stirred passions that were to foment further opposition towards Orr’s executioners and the Government that paid them.‭ ‬However he kept well clear of the terrible events of‭ ‬1798.‭

In‭ ‬1800‭ ‬he married an English Lady,‭ ‬Sarah Swanwick,‭ ‬and spent some years in the north of England moving in the Literary and Social circles there.‭ ‬In‭ ‬1807‭ ‬he gave up Medicine and returned to Belfast.‭ ‬He founded and edited the radical‭ ‬Belfast Monthly Magazine and was a leading supporter of the Belfast Academical Institution,‭ ‬a doomed attempt to bring to Belfast both secondary and higher level education,‭ ‬open to pupils from both sides of the religious divide.

He died on‭ ‬5‭ ‬February‭ ‬1820‭ ‬and was buried in Clifton Street burial-ground in Belfast.‭ ‬His coffin was borne to the grave by three Catholics and three Protestants.