William James MacNevin

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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MacNevin, William James, M.D., a distinguished United Irishman, was born 21st March 1763, at Ballynahowna, County of Galway, where his father possessed a small estate inherited from an ancestor who in the Cromwellian settlement was consigned to Connaught. His uncle, Baron MacNevin, lived at Prague, where he was physician to the Empress Maria Theresa. Thither young MacNevin, precluded by the Penal Laws from obtaining an education at home, was sent when about eleven years old, and there he resided ten years, received a classical education, and passed through the medical college — finishing his professional studies at Vienna, where he graduated in 1783. Next year MacNevin commenced as a physician in Dublin, and soon worked into extensive practice. He became an active member of the Catholic committee, was returned from Navan in 1792 as representative to the Catholic Convention held in Back-lane, and took a firm stand with Tone in opposition to the pusillanimous policy of Lord Kenmare.

Entering cordially into the views of the United Irishmen, he joined the body at the solicitation of FitzGerald and O'Connor — taking the oath from Miss Moore of Thomas-street, the friend of Lord Edward FitzGerald, and an enthusiast in the national cause. He never shrank from danger, and with Bond and McCormack arranged with Colonel McSheehy, Tone's aide-de-camp, relative to the proposed descent by the French on the Irish coast, and also conferred personally with Tone in Paris. In after life he often referred to the delightful evenings he spent with other leaders of the party at Frascati, Blackrock, in the company of Lord Edward, his wife, and his sister, Lady Emily FitzGerald. On 12th March 1798 he was seized, with the principal leaders of the party, and imprisoned at Kilmainham. He joined the other state prisoners in their agreement with Government, and was removed to Fort George, Scotland. [See EMMET, THOMAS ADDIS.]

He lightened his subsequent imprisonment by study — translating many of the Ossianic legends into English, and noting traditions from the mouths of the Scotch soldiers of the fort. For the use of his friend Emmet's children he compiled a grammar. He passed the summer and autumn of 1802, after his liberation, in travelling through Switzerland; and next year he joined Emmet in Paris, and entered an Irish Brigade as captain. Deceived and disappointed at the failure of all hopes of an invasion of Ireland, and concerned at the fatal issue of a duel in which he acted as second, he sailed from Bordeaux for the United States in 1805, and landed in New York on the 4th of July.

With favourable introductions, and among old friends, he soon felt himself at home, and his rise in the honours and the emoluments of the medical profession was rapid. He occupied several important medical positions in New York, and married in 1810. In 1820 he published an exposition of the Atomic Theory; his other works were an edition of Brande's Chemistry, Argument in opposition to a Union, Rambles in Switzerland, Pieces of Irish History, Nature and Functions of an Army Staff. Mr. MacNevin was an accomplished scholar, and spoke German, French, Italian, and Irish. During his long career in America he continued to take a warm interest in Catholic Emancipation and the different movements which agitated his native country. He died at the residence of his son-in-law, Thomas Addis Emmet, Jun., near New York, 12th July 1841, aged 78. The most striking features of his character were imperturable coolness and self-possession, combined with remarkable simplicity of mind, and singleness of purpose.

Sources

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

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