Drennan, William

William DrennanWilliam Drennan (May 23, 1754-February 5, 1820), a physician, poet, educationalist and political radical, was one of the chief architects of the Society of United Irishmen. He is also known as the first to refer in print to Ireland as “the emerald isle.”

Born in Belfast in 1754, William was the son of the Revd Thomas Drennan (1696-1768), minister of Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church, under whose ministry, according to Alexander Gordon his nineteenth century successor, the doctrine of the Trinity first ceased to be preached in that church. Thomas Drennan was a contemporary and friend of John Abernethy and James Duchal, leaders of the Irish Presbyterians who did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession, and had been assistant to Francis Hutcheson at an academy in Dublin, before Hutcheson’s appointment to the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow University in 1730. Thomas Drennan was himself educated at Glasgow University and was ordained to the ministry of the congregation of Holywood, county Down in 1731. In 1736 he moved to Belfast’s First congregation where he remained until his death. He was a powerful influence on his son. His religious convictions served as the foundation of William’s radical political ideas. Later in life Drennan boasted, “I am the son of an honest man; a minister of that gospel which breathes peace and goodwill among men; a Protestant Dissenting minister, in the town of Belfast; who[se] spirit I am accustomed to look up, in every trying situation, as my mediator and intercessor with Heaven”.

In 1769 William embarked upon studies at Glasgow where he developed an abiding interest in the study of philosophy. Drennan later listed among his inspirations the works of John Locke and such English radical dissenters as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley. He graduated in Arts in 1772. In 1773 he commenced the study of medicine at Edinburgh, graduated in 1778 and then set himself up in practice in Belfast. He worked as a doctor throughout his professional life, specialising in obstetrics. He moved to Newry in 1783 and to Dublin in 1789.

Like many Ulster Presbyterians, Drennan was an early supporter of the colonists in the American War of Independence. On his return to Ulster he became active in the Volunteers, local companies of men raised up to defend their homes in the event of a French invasion. Partly inspired by events in America, the Volunteers also became involved in political action. They elected Volunteer Conventions with the intention of pushing for political reform.

Drennan came to national attention with the publication in 1784 and 1785 of his Letters of Orellana, an Irish Helot, the earliest expressions of his support for radical constitutional reform, Catholic emancipation and civil rights. By 1785, however, with the political influence of the Volunteers on the wane, Drennan began to voice plans for an organization of radicals dedicated to far-reaching political reform. His plan took concrete form in 1791 when, writing to his brother-in-law Sam McTier, he devised the manifesto of what became the Society of United Irishmen. The secret Society, with ceremonies similar to the freemason’s, was to be “a benevolent conspiracy—a plot for the people—no Whig Club—no party title—the Brotherhood its name—the rights of man and the greatest happiness of the greatest number its end—its general end, real independence to Ireland and republicanism its particular purpose—its business, every means to accomplish these ends as speedily as the prejudices and bigotry of the land we live in would permit”.

By then resident in Dublin, Drennan became one of the leaders of the United Irishmen in that town. As the Society grew, the government became increasingly alarmed at the prospect of its actually fomenting a revolution. In May 1794 Drennan was arrested on a charge of seditious libel, the charge related to an address he had written for the Dublin Society of United Irishmen. He prepared his own defence for the trial, but his lawyer wisely prevented its delivery. Although Drennan was charged with publishing his address, rather than writing it, against all the odds his lawyer managed to secure his acquittal by exposing the false testimony of the prosecution’s main witness. A recent commentator has noted of his ‘Intended Defence’, “[A]s political rhetoric it is magnificent; as a plea in mitigation one can only shudder at its likely results”. In it Drennan professed himself “one of that division of Protestants who regard no authority on earth, in matters of religion, save the words and the works of its author, and whose fundamental principle is that every person has a right, and in proportion to his abilities, is under an obligation, to judge for himself in matters of religion; a right, subservient to God alone, not a favour to be derived from the gratuitous lenity of government”.

The United Irishmen eventually moved away from Drennan’s program of reform and closer to violence and rebellion. Although his ‘Wake of William Orr’, written after the hanging of a county Antrim farmer for administering the oath of the United Irishmen in 1797, had encouraged the rebels, he withdrew his support and played no part in the doomed uprising of 1798. While deploring the violence to which his countrymen and co-religionists resorted, he remained a consistent opponent of the union with Great Britain, brought about in 1801.

In 1800 Drennan married Sarah Swanwick, a member of a dissenting family from Shropshire. His marriage brought him into the circle of such literary, reformist and Unitarian figures in the north-west of England as William Roscoe and William Shepherd.

In 1807 Drennan retired from medicine and returned from Dublin to Belfast. He remained active in a number of important projects. He founded and edited the radical Belfast Monthly Magazine and was a leading supporter of the Belfast Academical Institution, a pioneering attempt to bring to Belfast both secondary and higher level education, open to pupils from both sides of the religious divide. The foundation stone of the Institution was laid in July 1810. The same year Drennan was elected one of the ‘Visitors.’ He delivered the formal address at the opening of the school in 1814. Its original vision notwithstanding, the Institution ultimately failed to attract large numbers of Catholic pupils, and its collegiate department was ultimately denied the chance of becoming Belfast’s first university.

Drennan’s poetic output, though not large, included some powerful and moving pieces. He is chiefly remembered today for “Erin”, 1795, in which he penned the first reference in print to Ireland as “the emerald isle”:

Nor one feeling of vengeance presume to defile
The cause, or the men, of the Emerald Isle.

Drennan died on 5 February 1820 and was buried in Clifton Street burial-ground in Belfast. With deliberate symbolism his coffin was borne to the grave by three Catholics and three Protestants.
There are large holdings of material relating to William Drennan in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the most important of which is the Drennan-McTier correspondence of 1,460 letters mostly between William Drennan and his sister Martha McTier. A full list of these holdings can be found in the bibliography of the third volume of Agnew, Jean, ed., The Drennan-McTier Letters, 3 vols (1998-9). Important source material can also be found in John Francis Larkin, ed., The Trial of William Drennan on a Trial for Sedition, in the Year 1794 and his Intended Defence (1991) and Alexander Gordon, Historical Memorials of the First Presbyterian Church of Belfast (1887).

Drennan’s A Letter to his Excellency Earl Fitzwilliam (1795) was a plea for non-sectarian suffrage and equal rights for all. Some autobiographical pieces, the ‘Intended Defence on a trial for Sedition, in the Year 1794’, and other prose and poetry were published by Drennan in Fugitive Pieces in Verse and Prose (1815). William Bruce anthologized some of his verses in his collection of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1801). Richard Aspland incorporated others in his Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Unitarian Worship (1810). Drennan’s poetry was collected in Glendalloch, Other Poems by the Late Dr Drennan (1859).

The most useful biography of Drennan is contained in a memoir by his sons in Glendalloch, Other Poems. Other biographies are by Robert Spears, in Record of Unitarian Worthies (1876), and Henry Morse Stephens, in the Dictionary of National Biography (1888). Richard R. Madden, The United Irishmen. Their Lives and Times, 2nd series, 2nd edn (1858) gives the standard 19th-century account of Drennan’s involvement with the United Irishmen. Two recent studies of Drennan are Ian McBride, ‘William Drennan and the Dissenting Tradition’, in Dickson, David, Keogh, Dáire and Whelan, Kevin, editors, The United Irishmen. Republicanism, Radicalism and Rebellion (1993) and Tom Moore, ‘William Drennan’s Vision’, The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, (February 2001).

Article by David Steers
Posted January 26, 2002