Thomas McCabe and slavery

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—I was delighted to see that Laurence Fenlon’s piece on ‘Ireland, slavery and the slave trade’ (HI 28.5, Sept./Oct. 2020) recognised the key role played by the jeweller and watchmaker (and United Irishman) Thomas McCabe in preventing that appalling trade from being set up in Belfast in 1786.

The plan to set up ‘a company for slave ship trading’ had been hatched by Waddell Cunningham, one of the city’s most prominent merchant princes, and was being publicly discussed and promoted. In fact, a prospectus had already been drawn up and was awaiting the (expected) signatures of his fellow merchants. There are different accounts of what McCabe actually said at the public meeting at which the proposal was launched. In Cathal O’Byrne’s As I roved out (1946) McCabe is quoted as saying, ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document’. Whatever the form of his denunciation, the words clearly had the desired effect and no such company was ever set up. At this distance one can only salute the courage of McCabe in speaking out so publicly—and effectively—against the plans of his fellow businessmen.

In fact, McCabe went further in his identification with the victims of the immoral trade when, a few years later, his premises were attacked and smashed up by a drunken group of soldiers from a nearby barracks, who probably targeted him because of his prominence in the United Irish movement. He refused to repair the window of his shop after the attack, leaving it as a visible testimony to the thuggish behaviour of the military, but he did erect a new sign outside, which read ‘Thomas McCabe, an Irish Slave, Licensed to sell Gold and Silver’. This sign apparently became quite well known in the city and clearly had an effect on his fellow United Irishman Wolfe Tone, who, ever after, referred to him in his diary as ‘the slave’.

The story of this brave man (and his perhaps even more famous son, William Putnam McCabe—sometimes referred to as the ‘Green Pimpernel’ because of his audacious escapades during and after the 1798 Rebellion) will feature in a new book on the history of McCabes in Ireland which we have compiled during the recent lockdown and which we hope to publish shortly.—Yours etc.,

BRIAN McCABE
Clan McCabe Society

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