Samuel Neilson, United Irishman

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Neilson, Samuel, a distinguished United Irishman, was born in September 1761, at Ballyroney, County of Down, of which place his father, Rev. Alexander Neilson, was Presbyterian minister. He received a liberal education, displayed peculiar ability in mathematics, and when about sixteen was put to business with his elder brother, John, a woollen draper in Belfast. In September 1785 he married and commenced business on his own account; and when he gave himself up to politics, had amassed a fortune of about £8,000. Like most leaders of the United Irishmen, he commenced his nationalist career in the ranks of the Volunteers. In 1790 we find Neilson actively engaged on a committee to secure the return, in the liberal interest, as member for the County of Down, of Robert Stewart, afterwards Lord Castlereagh.

In the summer of 1791 he suggested to McCracken, in Belfast, the idea of a society of Irishmen on the basis of perfect religious equality, and he acted in conjunction with Tone in establishing the Society of United Irishmen for the promotion of Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. Strictly speaking, Neilson was the originator, and Tone the organizer of the Society. In January 1792 he established and became editor of the Northern Star, the organ of the United Irishmen in the north. He was one of the committee chosen to give effect to the resolutions of the Dungannon Reform Convention of 15th February 1793.

Down to the year 1795 it is probable that the leaders of the United Irish movement in Dublin would have been satisfied with Catholic Emancipation and Reform, while on the other hand there can be little doubt that from a much earlier date Neilson and his northern associates entertained, in common with Tone and Russell, the idea of complete separation from England. Neilson, as editor of the Northern Star, tided over various prosecutions and actions for libel, until September 1796, when his office was ransacked by the military, and he, Russell, and several others were arrested, conveyed to Dublin, and committed to Newgate.

Solitary confinement was at first enjoined, but the rigour of their treatment was soon relaxed, and when their numbers were increased to some four hundred, separation became impossible. Relatives and friends were allowed to visit them, and altogether their confinement was much less strict than that of political prisoners at the present time. From Newgate they were removed to Kilmainham. Broken down in health and spirits, he was in February 1798 liberated on his own recognizances and those of his friend Mr. Sweetman, on condition that he should not join any treasonable committee. This agreement he kept in the letter, but not in the spirit — forwarding the arrangements of the Leinster Directory by every means in his power, and at night, with Lord Edward FitzGerald, making occasional excursions into the neighbourhood of Dublin to prepare plans for the contemplated insurrection. During the two months of Lord Edward's concealment in Dublin, before his arrest "on 18th May 1798, Neilson was actively engaged in bringing him intelligence of the movements of the Government, conveying his instructions to the leaders, attending meetings of the Directory, and communicating with the northern delegates.

On the 23rd May, while reconnoitring Newgate with a view to the rescue of his friend and leader, he was arrested after a desperate resistance, in which he was severely wounded. On 26th June he was indicted for high treason, with Bond, Byrne, McCann, and the two Sheares brothers. When brought up for trial, loaded with fetters, Neilson indignantly refused to plead or to name counsel, and made a vigorous protest against his imprisonment:— "I scorn your power and despise that authority that it shall ever be my pride to have opposed. Why am I kept with these weighty irons on me, so heavy that three ordinary men could scarcely carry them?"

All the prisoners except Neilson were put on their trial and capitally convicted; and all those tried, except Bond, were found guilty and executed. Neilson's life was saved by the compact made between certain state prisoners and the Government, under which, for the purpose of staying further executions — seeing that all hopes of successful insurrection were over — they agreed to disclose their plans and objects, without implicating individuals. Examinations of Neilson and other leaders ensued before Committees of the Lords and Commons, reports of which were published by Government. The prisoners declared these to be garbled, and procured the insertion of an advertisement in the Dublin papers, impugning their accuracy, and emphatically denying the statement that "they had acknowledged their crimes, retracted their opinions, and implored pardon." The Government were much incensed at this proceeding, and partly in consideration of the refusal of the American minister to permit the deportation of any prisoners to the United States, broke through the agreement, and sent Neilson and his companions into confinement at Fort George, in Scotland. Neilson was detained there from 9th April 1799 to 30th June 1802. The prisoners were treated with great kindness by Governor Stuart, and no restrictions were imposed further than were necessary for their safe custody. They were even allowed to bathe under the walls of the fort. Neilson, by sacrificing his daily pint of wine, was allowed to have his eldest son rationed with him. He superintended this son's education, and kept up a constant correspondence with his wife.

In June 1802 Neilson and his companions were deported to Holland, and set at liberty. Writing to his friend Rowan at this period, he says: "Neither the eight years' hardship I have endured, the total destruction of my property, the forlorn state of my wife and children, the momentary failure of our national exertions, nor the still more distressing usurpation in France, have abated my ardour in the cause of my country and of general liberty. You and I, my dear friend, will pass away, but truth will remain." A month after his liberation he formed the rash project of visiting his family and friends in Belfast before leaving for the United States, and, with Anthony McCann, (Campbell's "Exile of Erin") crossed to Drogheda. The authorities got wind of their arrival, seized the vessel, and imprisoned the captain; but Neilson managed to reach Dublin in safety, and was concealed by his friends. He proceeded to Belfast, where he secretly saw his relatives, and returning to Dublin, lay hidden at the house of a friend at Irishtown for some weeks, until the American vessel could sail in which his passage was taken.

Neilson succeeded in reaching the United States, and was about making arrangements for the reception and settlement of his wife and family, when he was seized with yellow fever, and died at Poughkeepsie, State of New York, 29th August 1803, aged 41 — or, according to the inscription that marks his resting-place at Poughkeepsie, aged 44. His widow, a noble-spirited woman, embarked in business in Belfast, and her five children attained respectable positions in life. She died in November 1811, and was buried at Newtown Breda. The eldest son, William, a promising young man, died, also of yellow fever, in Jamaica, 7th February 1817, aged 22. It is not necessary here to examine the baseless charges that have been made against Samuel Neilson in connexion with the arrest of Lord Edward FitzGerald.

Sources

329. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Second Series: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 2 vols. London, 1843.

331. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 4 vols. London, 1858-'60.

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