This biography of one of the lesser-known founding members of the Society of United Irishmen is engaging, readable and impressively researched. The stories of United Irishmen like Tone, Drennan and Lord Edward Fitzgerald are well-known – but they were, in many respects, the tip of a very substantial iceberg indeed.
Samuel Neilson (1762-1803) was part of that iceberg, a son of the manse, one of 13 children born to Presbyterian minister Rev. Alexander Neilson. He moved from near Rathfriland, Co. Down to Belfast as an apprentice in his older brother’s woollen business.
The author paints a short but illuminating picture of the town at the end of the 18th Century, pointing up its radical credentials as a “product…of its free-thinking, democratic Presbyterian tradition”.
Significantly, Dawson associates this with the fact that there were very few Catholics in Belfast at this time, “allowing the town’s dissenting majority to express sympathy for the plight of Catholics without feeling threatened in any numerical sense”.
While it was easy to be non-sectarian when there were few to be sectarian against, there was evidence that moderates amongst the liberals were already wary of Tone’s aggressive pro-Catholic stance, preferring gradualism.
Samuel was at the first meeting of the Society of United Irishmen in 1791, along with Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell. He was one of the movers in a newspaper to rival the Belfast Newsletter – the Northern Star, which commenced publication in January 1792, and which he edited.
In the years to 1797, when the paper’s presses were destroyed by elements of the loyalist Monaghan Militia, Neilson’s editorials became more radical and republican, using France as focus. Arrested in late 1796, he remained in custody for 17 months. His health and finances were under severe strain in this period.
After his release, living with a friend in Dublin, he continued to be involved in preparations for a rebellion; but his reputation suffered when it was alleged that, drunk, he had left a door ajar that enabled the Castle authorities to storm the safe house in which Lord Edward Fitzgerald was staying, and in which fracas he was mortally wounded.
In June 1798, Neilson was again arrested and arraigned for high treason. After a protracted quadrille with the authorities, he – with other detainees – were sentenced to banishment. He chose the United States, which seemed to offer the prospects of being congenial.
After a final visit to Ireland, he set sail in October 1802, but did not survive long – he died at Poughkeepsie, New York, in April 1803, and was buried there. Dawson’s account ably demonstrates the complexity of these revolutionaries’ lives, in an environment in which higher motivations and beliefs were sometimes difficult to disentangle from the everyday journeys of life.