The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilsonand the United Irishmen

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Irish Academic Press
ISBN 9781911024750

Reviewed by Sylvie Kleinman

Sylvie Kleinman is Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin.

Firmly admired by his fellow United Irishmen, Samuel Neilson (1762–1802) did not attain martial glory nor die a sacrificial death in 1798. With hisreputation tarnishedby accusations of reckless drunkenness, he was hardly material for nationalist myth-making and has remained hidden in the shadows of iconic heroes. Yet his place in the Irish pantheon was unquestioned in a semi-centennial print, The United Irish Patriots of 1798, conveniently for one nicknamed ‘the Jacobin’ by Tone, on the far left of the group. A congenial Neilson looks serenely but directly at the viewer, this depiction taken from the same portrait as the one gracing the cover of Dawson’s most welcome,painstakinglyresearched and pioneering biography of a pivotal figure of early Irish republicanism. It conveys character, and Neilson was undeniably a man of boldness and determination. A founding member of the first Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791, he was, most significantly for a movement seeking political reform and social regeneration, the editor of and driving force behind their ground-breaking and highlyinfluential newspaperThe Northern Star, which sought to abolish distinctions beyond reason or religionand bring about a ‘union of Irishmen’. In the words of Nancy Curtin, Neilson undeniably stands out as a proactive organiser and shrewd strategist even before the shiftto an insurrectionary strategy and mass mobilisation. At the time of his (first) arrest in September 1796, the informer Bird deemed him ‘at the head of the conspirators’. Seventeen months of incarceration in the harsh conditions of the rapidly overcrowded Kilmainhamtook its toll on his robust health, and on his sobriety, but he resumed his seditious activities when released in February 1798, filling vacancies at the apex of the United Irishmen after the catastrophic arrests of the Leinster leaders. Aless cautious and audacious command structure, geared up to go forth without the French, assumed prominence and includedLord Edward Fitzgerald, the Sheares brothers and Neilson.

A grey area casting doubt over his personal integritywere the fateful ten minutesafter he had left Fitzgerald’s final hiding place, supposedly leaving the hall door ‘open’(as if, after the dragooning of Ulster, a closed one would have deterred Major Swan). While not accusing him of treachery, Thomas Moore had none the less impugned Neilson’s characterwhen later recounting the arrest of the iconic citizen-lord(in the days before the informer Magan had been unmasked). Neilson’s daughters ensuredthat future histories would not repeat this calumny. While Dawson is frank about his mission to rehabilitate Neilson’s reputation,he remains quite balanced and interprets narrative accounts cautiously. He addresses the layered mistruths and distortionsmostly by going straight to primary sources, many never cited before, and does not portray his subject as infallible. Most damning was Pakenham’s characteristically flippant depiction of Neilson as ‘shambling, and latterly a slave to drink’. While coordinating the Dublin rising on 23 May, he had been waylaid in a pub, stumbledloudly towards Newgate to reconnoitre a plan to rescue Fitzgerald and Thomas Russell, fought ‘heroically’ but was arrested; this ‘recklessness’had placed him behind bars at a critical moment. Though mostly painstaking and accurate, Dawson does not directly refute the story but incorrectly points to Packenham’s source as ‘problematic’; it is in fact very complimentary towards Neilson, and Packenham’s own erroneous footnote is not corrected. But overall the book is solidly argued. Dawson’s recreation of the conjectural dilemmas that Neilson faced in a tense capital crawling with informers, and when steering the Kilmainham pact negotiations with a duplicitous government, is gripping, and a stark reminder of the individual suffering of those who survived the rebellion and were condemned to perpetual banishment.

Guided by James Kelly’s statement in 1994 that he was a figure of importance whose ‘fragmented biography’ was the key to unlocking Ulster radicalism, Dawson’s narrative is a cautious assemblage of many sources, at times only speculatingowing to the incomplete material available to the historian. Some may take issue with longish narrative passages recreating the context for Neilson’s actions in the absence of direct insights, given that no diary was kept and private correspondence was either destroyed or lost. But Dawson never over-exploits the material he has tracked down; his style is fluidand accessible, his language precise and his trawl of primary sourcesexhaustive. This book brings us as close to the truth—the lifeblood of its subject—as we ever will be.

The methodology is one of ‘total’ biography and Dawson directly engages most empathetically with far more than just politics, namely with what mattered to Neilson—his Presbyterian faith and family. Personal letters yield moving extracts: his only sonWilliam joined him for a time in the ‘dreary mansion’ of Fort George and, aged eight, wrote home that he was ‘snug’ there with his father and they ‘sometimes played shinney’. Neilson was stern about ‘indifferent writing’ and ‘short’ letters from his wife Anne. Wanting to hear ‘minutely’ from her, he was attuned to the humanity of his children, asking for their ‘own thoughts, conveyed in their own manner, without prompting’.Neilson died in solitary exile but had been an intimate friend of Oliver Bond, admired by Drennan, Martha McTier and Tone. This book frames his profound influence and agency, and a similar exercise is now needed with respect to Thomas Addis Emmet.


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