Irish rebel, American patriot – William James MacNeven

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Emmigration, Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Volume 23

 Left: William James MacNeven. (NLI)

Left: William James MacNeven. (NLI)

At eleven sharp on the morning of 12 March 1798, a force of thirteen sergeants and a servant, under the command of Justice of the Peace William Swan, descended on the house of Oliver Bond, a wealthy cloth merchant, on Bridge Street in Dublin. Disguised in their street clothes and supplied with the secret password, ‘Where is McCann?—Is Ivers of Carlow come?’, they gained entrance to a very important leadership meeting of the United Irishmen. Armed with a long warrant, they seized fourteen top leaders of the movement for Irish independence, as well as whatever incriminating paperwork they could find. Once again Ireland would be betrayed by a traitor and spy. Deprived of most of its leaders, the great rebellion that would follow would consume an estimated 30,000 lives and leave a bitter memory of deceit, martyrdom and fear.
Meanwhile, at a nearby location on Inns Quay, at the home of another eminent clothier, William Stubbs, two of the top leaders of the United Irishmen had avoided the trap. Noticing the commotion at Bond’s house, Stubbs sent his young apprentice upstairs to warn Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Dr William James MacNeven of their grave danger. After he had given his warning, the boy later reported, ‘one long and earnest look passed between the two conspirators’, then MacNeven turned to him and said, ‘Very well, boy—that will do’. Half an hour went by and, surprisingly, MacNeven and Fitzgerald made no move to flee. When Stubbs saw that ‘a body of soldiers crossed over Church Street bridge, and advanced toward our house’, he again sent the boy to warn the men of their imminent danger of arrest. By that time it was already too late, as the house was surrounded and ‘sentinels were placed at every door’.

‘Let them come, boy’
When the boy confronted MacNeven with these alarming facts, his response was ‘Let them come, boy’. Such a calm reaction was typical of a man who, one friend claimed, ‘would have walked to the scaffold with the same air and aspect of composure with which he would have gone to bed’. When one of the officers confronted MacNeven, demanding ‘Dr MacNeven?’, he immediately responded, ‘That is my name’. When told, ‘You are my prisoner and I will be obliged by your surrendering all your private papers into my hands’, MacNeven immediately gave up his keys, adding that the room they were in and the next one were the only ones he occupied in the house, and that he was free to search them. MacNeven, whose lifelong habit was to think of others before himself, probably had Fitzgerald’s precarious situation in mind. For what followed, if true, was one of the most remarkable examples of bureaucratic concreteness ever imagined. Instead of arresting Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who would later have a £1,000 bounty on his head, the militia captain said that his instructions were to arrest Dr MacNeven and ‘I will not go beyond them’. When the soldiers returned an hour later, now frantically looking for Lord Edward, they were sorely disappointed. Fitzgerald eluded capture until 19 May, when Mary Moore, one of the brave women of 1798, was tricked by another spy into disclosing his final hiding place. It had been Fitzgerald who brought MacNeven into the United Irish movement, but Mary had administered the oath. MacNeven would fall in love with this patriotic woman.

Both MacNeven and Fitzgerald had a lifelong interest, and some training, in military science, but they differed widely about the tactics required to bring about independence. MacNeven felt strongly about a need for leadership, training and discipline, and argued that this could only be supplied by the command structure of a French expeditionary force, similar to Rochambeau and the American Revolution. Fitzgerald argued for quick action in Dublin, followed by something more similar to what is now called guerrilla warfare. In early February the two leaders held a secret meeting in Dublin’s Shakespeare Gallery. While pretending admiration of the artwork, they continued their debate over strategy, neither converting the other. MacNeven later complained that ‘once his lordship made his mind up on a point, he was little influenced by the counsel of any man’. But there is little doubt that MacNeven stubbornly held to his own strategy after it was clear that France was not committed to a full invasion to free Ireland. Years later, one of MacNeven’s contributions to the American cause, in the War of 1812, would be a book on the essential need for discipline provided by good officers. In his history of the 1798 uprising, Pieces of Irish history, published in America in 1807, MacNeven argued that the tragic outcome had vindicated his position. Historians continue to argue the point.

Incriminating documents
At the time of his arrest MacNeven was unaware that, of all the leaders apprehended, he was the most likely to hang. Not only was he the leading Catholic on the United Irish executive but also the government’s Continental spy system had intercepted highly incriminating documents from his face-to-face negotiations with the Directory in Paris. The evidence included his detailed plans for an invasion, with recommended landing sites and the composition of officer staff required to maintain order. It is no wonder that his arrest warrant accused him of ‘treasonable practices’.

After a stay in Kilmainham jail, MacNeven, along with most of the others arrested, was transferred, under armed guard, to Fort George, near Inverness, Scotland. A Scottish newspaper reported that ‘the spirit of sedition was not quenched in them’, after MacNeven had questioned one of the waiters in a restaurant along the transport route about the number of troops in the area and the loyalty of locals to England. The news report noted that MacNeven ‘was struck with astonishment’ when told that the Scottish people were all loyal. His confinement lasted from April 1799 until the temporary peace with France under the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.

Exiled, MacNeven first visited his relatives in Prague before deciding to walk across Switzerland at a very critical period in that country’s history. His book about his adventures, A ramble through Swisserland, is a little-known world classic. Part tour guide, part history, it is also an important political treatise, comparable to the best work of Tocqueville and Rousseau. MacNeven did not give up on his desire to gain French assistance to free his native land. After negotiating with the French foreign minister, Tallyrand, he later joined Napoleon’s Irish Legion as a captain. As an officer in France, MacNeven, who was no stranger to duelling himself, was caught up in the infamous Sweeny/Corbet affair. After Napoleon decided on an invasion of Egypt instead of Ireland, a thoroughly disillusioned MacNeven decided to follow his best friend Thomas Addis Emmet and emigrate to America.

Habsburg Education

A view of Vienna in the eighteenth century, by Bernardo Bellotto. MacNeven received his medical degree from the University of Vienna, one of the most advanced schools in the world at the time.

A view of Vienna in the eighteenth century, by Bernardo Bellotto. MacNeven received his medical degree from the University of Vienna, one of the most advanced schools in the world at the time.

Unlike the Protestant United Irish leaders, for MacNeven the apartheid-like penal laws of Ireland were not an abstraction but an existential reality. As a young boy, he wandered the battlefield of Aughrim, near his home in East Galway, dreaming of the military exploits of his O’Kelly ancestors and of what might have been if only the Catholic side had been victorious: an Ireland where children would not need to hide in order to get an education, or where a little boy like him would not need to leave his family, friends and familiar surroundings to live in Prague in order to have any future prospects.

MacNeven was sent to live with his uncle, who, as one of Maria Theresa’s personal physicians and head of the medical school of Charles University, had been made a baron, living in a baroque palace and summering in a castle. All the leading artists, scientists and political leaders visited the baron. Mozart performed a concert for him. It was there that the young MacNeven gained the easy sophistication that he would demonstrate in America, where his many élite friends included Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

MacNeven would receive his medical degree from one of the most advanced schools in the world, the University of Vienna. It was there that he learned the progressive science that he would introduce to America, including atomic theory and the latest lab techniques, earning him the title of ‘founder of American chemistry’. He would bring his American medical students into his laboratory and to the bedside of patients; he helped to build Rutgers Medical School; as state physician, he pioneered public health procedures, analysed drinking water and provided free care. At the urging of the governor, he did early work in forensic medicine and on the geology of the Erie Canal.

American patriot

The MacNeven monument in St Paul’s churchyard, Lower Manhattan.

The MacNeven monument in St Paul’s churchyard, Lower Manhattan.

Appropriately, MacNeven arrived in New York City in the midst of the Fourth of July celebrations of 1805. He had rejected settling in the South because of his long-standing abolitionist views. He brought to America a firm commitment to democratic social justice, combined with a scientific pragmatism. Among his many social welfare innovations was the very first unemployment agency, out of his own funds, with job advertisements placed in immigrant newspapers. He separately funded an employment agency for women, and got men jobs on projects like the Erie Canal. Concerned with the growing corrupting problems of urban immigrant life, he came very close to getting the US Congress to provide funding to give the Irish and others land on the frontier for farming. He helped found the first immigrant bank. His pamphlet offering practical advice about life in America had wide circulation in Ireland, and, with its glowing descriptions of freedom, it helped to spark the great boom in emigration.

MacNeven was elected to city government, and he was appointed head of many important organisations. He argued that religions benefited most when they avoided political entanglements, and he reached the highest rank of any Catholic in the Masons. He championed radical reformers, such as the elderly Thomas Paine, the feminist Fanny Wright and the socialist Robert Owen. He threw himself completely into the war effort in 1812, helping to raise and command an Irish unit and to ensure that America had the military it needed.

At a very advanced age, MacNeven showed his courage and commitment to justice by opposing the very popular Andrew Jackson’s unconstitutional actions, resulting in violence against himself and his family. But when he died the people knew that they had lost their greatest champion, and turned out for the largest funeral in New York’s history.

George Ingham is the author of Irish rebel, American patriot: William James Macneven, 1763–1841 (Seattle, 2014).

Further reading

T. Bartlett et al. (eds), 1798: a bicen-tenary perspective (Dublin, 2003).
D.A. Wilson, United Irishmen, United States: immigrant radicals in the early republic (Ithaca, 1998).


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