John Neilson, United Irishman & master builder

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 1999), News, News, The United Irishmen, Volume 7

A stone monument was publicly dedicated to John Neilson in Maplewood Cemetery, Charlottesville, Virginia on 17 April 1999. Born in Ballycarry, County Antrim in the 1770s, he was apprenticed to the architect Hunter in Belfast. In 1798, Neilson was banished for seven years for his part in the rebellion; a brother Samuel was banished for life and died en route to the West Indies; the youngest brother William was hanged, age fifteen, after the battle of Antrim. John Neilson was naturalised in Philadelphia in 1804, and came to be employed by Thomas Jefferson as master-builder/architect at Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, as well as at the new University of Virginia. Neilson lived in Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill section for several years; he died in 1827.
In his large library were numerous works on Irish culture and history, including MacNeil’s Poems, a report of a secretary of the United Irishmen, and Harsop’s Irish Rebellion. He also left behind fiddle strings, and editions of Fielding, Swift, Pope, and Greek and Roman writers. A portrait of Neilson was to have been sent to his widow Mary, then living at Loughmore, Carrickfergus. Neilson’s other beneficiaries were at Islandmagee. A portion of his estate, according to his will, went to Mary Ann McCracken ‘the friend of my family and sister of the late Henry Joy McCracken’.
Readers are referred to Madden’s The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times, as well as to Michael Durey’s Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic (Kansas 1997).

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