Two Ulster Patriots (Dr. William Drennan and Mrs Martha McTier)

By James Winder Good

Originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Volume 10, No. 38, June, 1921

DR. WILLIAM DRENNAN is still remembered as the poet of the United Irishmen. The title, though Drennan would not have quarrelled with it, is not strictly accurate. It is true that the passion which burns with such sombre intensity in "The Wake of William Orr" ranks that poem, not only as the finest written by a contemporary, but as amongst the finest of all the verse inspired by the movement which claims Orr as its first martyr. Yet Drennan was less the poet of the United Irishmen than a poet who helped to make the United Irishmen a reality. He can scarcely be described as the "onlie begetter" of the movement because the idea was germinating in the minds of many of his associates. But he was the first to outline a practical scheme, and his enthusiasm did much to overcome apathy and rally recruits to the cause.

Drennan was also, though this is not generally known, a vivid prose chronicler of events and a singularly penetrating and candid critic of the men and movements of his time. If the world is ignorant of this, the world, I hasten to add, is not to blame, for the simple reason that the letters in which Drennan recorded his impressions, comments, and opinions are still unprinted. After his death his papers were packed into an old box where they lay for many years. Mrs. Adam Duffin of Dunowen, Belfast, a descendant of the poet, in whose possession the letters now are, has devoted herself with patient care to sorting and arranging the mass of manuscript. It would not be easy to exaggerate the difficulties of the task. Drennan's correspondence, mainly with his sister, Mrs. McTier, runs to more than a thousand letters, ranging over a period which covers the whole term of Grattan's Parliament, the struggle for Reform culminating in the '98 rising, the passing of the Union, and the years of reaction that followed the triumph of Pitt and Castlereagh. These letters were huddled together without sequence or coherence, and, since many of them lacked either date or post-mark, the task of fitting them into chronological order was exceptionally difficult. Mrs. Duffin's industry and insight triumphed over all obstacles, and she has completed her labours as editor by appending to the letters a valuable series of biographical and explanatory notes.

It is imperative that the correspondence should be published. Apart from their value as a footnote to history the letters reveal Irish life as well as Irish politics from a new angle. Drennan and his sister are artists, not mere annalists; and it was their good fortune to live in a period and move in circles that enabled them to do more than chronicle small beer. Their letters may not possess the headlong vivacity and the romantic thrills of Wolfe Tone's inimitable "Journals." They are indeed to Tone's records much as the novels of Richardson to those of Fielding, with the clatter of tea-cups more in evidence than the clink of claret glasses and the gossip of quiet folk in middle-class parlours substituted for moving adventures by flood and field.

Drennan was a remarkable man, and his sister Matty shows herself in these letters a still more remarkable woman. Belfast has advanced by leaps and bounds since she went up and down its streets, criticised its celebrities and politicians, dissected the sermons of its preachers, and cracked jokes or played whist in its drawing-rooms. The little town she knew and loved has expanded into a great city, but I question if its teeming thousands can show many women of her mental stature. Not indeed that other places are entitled to throw stones at Belfast on this score. Mrs. McTier's shrewd wit, her admirable judgment, her passionate loyalty to great ideals, and the skill with which she analyses the thoughts of others and records her own are gifts that would have won her distinction in any community. She lived all her days in Belfast, and as Drennan practised as a physician in Dublin from 1789 till his retirement in 1807, the correspondence between them covers the progress of events throughout the most dramatic period of the eighteenth century in what were then the two great centres of revolutionary opinion in Ireland.

Drennan came to Dublin a strong enthusiast for Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. Naturally, he exalted Grattan, and his thumb-nail sketch of "the little man so genteely ugly," marching to the hustings in company with Lord Henry Fitzgerald in May, 1790, has more bite and expressiveness than a score of conventional portraits.

"I have just seen Grattan and Fitzgerald proceeding to the hustings at the head of more than 1,400 men, 18 of the Corporation, bands of music playing, etc., Grattan advancing on his light fantastic toe, hope elevating and joy brightening his crest, his eye rolling with that fine enthusiasm without which it is impossible to be a great man. Some distance behind walks Napper Tandy in all the surliness of republicanism, grinning most ghastly smiles, and as be lifts his hat from his head the many-headed monster raises a shout that reverberates through every corner of the Castle. . .. Let me take another glimpse at Grattan. When all that mighty multitude shall be dead and forgotten as if they had never been, that little man there with the triangular phiz, so genteely ugly, so full of soul —his name shall live as a redeemer of Ireland."

Later he writes after a visit to the House of Commons:—

"My chief entertainment was observing Grattan; for, excepting him, Ponsonby, and (I think) J. Corry, I could have made as good a speech as any I heard from either side. Grattan is without exception the most singular speaker that ever, with such a figure, voice and manner, made an oration. His voice was totally lost at every third or fourth sentence, and his action was violent to a degree of fury which is felt because it is genuine enthusiasm, and he makes the other speakers who are young men throw about their arms and struggle in their throat in order to seem energetic and give some sincerity to their declamation."

Drennan was not long a spectator at the pageant of Dublin political life. His means were limited, largely because his absorption in other affairs did not tend to increase his practice as a physician. In 1796 we find him bemoaning the fact that he had made only fifteen guineas in four months, and he writes as if an income of £300, which he never realised from his profession, meant positive affluence. Fortunately in Dublin in the last decade of the eighteenth century there was, on the side of the Reform party at least, no snobbery either of birth or wealth. Drennan was soon on terms of intimacy with political leaders, reforming peers, popular preachers, and all the glittering stars who scintillated in the Four Courts or blazed in fierce debates in the Parliament in College Green. He tells his sister of dining en famille with Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Pamela.

"They were both very civil, and I think the latter a very interesting little woman; and Nature, it is said, never shows herself greater than in little things. . . . They have a fine ruddy-faced republican boy, and our dinner was in the same stile, a nice Turkey, nice salmon, and Potatoes which were from a farm of his own, and so far of noble extraction."

This was decidedly a more comfortable meal than Drennan enjoyed when he was invited to take pot-luck with John Philpot Curran. "We dined," he says regretfully, "in the study, in the midst of dirt and confusion. Bad servants or rather none, good meat ill-dressed, good wine, though not even a screw in the house—all at sixes and sevens." But if Curran failed as a host he triumphed as an entertainer, and Drennan describes him as "a marmozet of genius." When Drennan had guests at his table, the fact that his purse was badly lined did not lead him to stint the fare. This is his idea of his supper at a quiet dance: "Two quarters of lamb, breast of veal, 12 chickens (large), Ham, Tongue, Crabs, Blamange, Cheese, cakes, custards, lemon cream, Tartlets, almonds, raisins, oranges, figs, and French plums." Pinched moderns who can still taste the flavour of war-bread and margarine will learn with envy that this supper was given in the thick of the European struggle with Napoleon.

Drennan, as I have said, came to Dublin an admirer of Grattan, and that admiration persisted. Though conspicuously and essentially a moderate, he was a moderate who wanted to better Grattan's pace. His musings on this subject led him early in 1791 to sketch the outline of an organisation which was to all intents and purposes that of the United Irishmen.

"I should much desire that a society were instituted in this city having much of the secresy and somewhat of the ceremonial of Free-Masonry. ... A benevolent conspiracy—A Plot for the People—No Whig Club—no party Title—The Brotherhood its name—the right of Man and the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers its End. Its general end Real Independence of Ireland, and republicanism its particular purpose. Its business, every means to accomplish these ends as the prejudices and bigotry of the Land we live in would permit. . . .

The means are manifold—publication, always coming from one of the Brotherhood, and no other designation. Declaration—a solemn and religious Compact to be signed by every member, and its chief and leading principles to be conveyed into a symbol worn by every one of them round their body next the heart.

Communication with leading men in France, in England, and in America, so as to cement the scattered and shifting sand of republicanism into a body . . . and when thus cemented to sink it like a casoon in the dark and troubled waters, a stable, unseen power."

"You are not, I believe, a republican," he says to Sam McTier, his brother-in-law, to whom the letter is addressed, "but not many years will elapse till this persuasion will prevail, for nothing else but the public happiness as an end, the public will as the power and means of obtaining it is good in Politics, and all else is job."

The seed sown by Dr. Drennan fell on fruitful ground. Within a few weeks the Society of United Irishmen took definite shape, and Drennan was appointed to draft the Test. In the Society he naturally came into close contact with Wolfe Tone. The two men, however, had little in common, and from the first they seem to have pulled strongly in different directions. Tone opposed Drennan's Test as "too rhetorical and too argumentative," and Drennan, very strangely, got it into his head that Tone of all people was inclined to subordinate the wider issue of combining all sections into unity to the special business of acting as the champion of purely Catholic interests and claims.

Drennan was also the author of the famous Address to the Volunteers which some years later formed the subject of a State prosecution. Even before his trial and acquittal Drennan no longer felt happy in the United Irish movement. He was, as I have said, a moderate in grain, and the swing to the left of the Society, which naturally followed the speeding-up of the Government's policy of repression, did not meet with his approval. Drennan's doubts and difficulties as set forth in these letters give a tragic picture of the plight of a moderate man in a revolutionary epoch. His judgments on the merits of various issues as they arose were nearly always sane and sound. But the detachment which enabled him to take a view unclouded by passion had its weak side in a lack of driving-force. He did not possess the power to impose his views on others, especially in face of strong opposition, and the fierce controversies which are meat and drink to the born politician harrowed his sensitive soul. Even at the height of his enthusiasm for the movement he was sadly perturbed by the taunts and libels of its enemies. "Here there is such denunciation and abuse of us and our Society," he writes in 1793, "that it is hard to bear; publicly called and stigmatised as men without all religion, without all principle; and for the first time it makes me melancholy as the end must be to alienate everyone from me and make me an exile in the midst of society."

On more than one occasion his sister takes him roundly to task. Here is an outspoken letter in answer to his complaints of ill-treatment.

"I hate croakers and, above all, affected ones. You panted for fame. You got it. You were read, praised, admired, prosecuted, cleared, and abused. What would you have more? Could you suppose that in this career you would not make enemies, that you would not be painted in dirty colours? Even here I think you have escaped wonderfully, and I would rather suppose you were nettled that your abilities have not drawn forth some more dignified switching than silly paragraphs in a newspaper."

But Drennan's croaking was not, as this letter might suggest, a matter of hurt vanity. At the worst it was a temperamental defect. And it is important to note that, though he disliked alienation from his fellows, he never abandoned his convictions or modified his expression of them either to placate his enemies or to please his friends. He stood firmly to the end by the original Test of the United Irishmen and the Address to the Volunteers. His complaint was that the Test was superseded by "ties of a stronger and coarser stuff " which sought to commit him to methods of which he disapproved.

In 1796 we find him writing:—

"I have always, as a man of candour and simplicity, hated and detested the idea of a plot and conspiracy of which a people should never have occasion. Everything I wrote I published, and I have always kept out of the way of those who acted in a complotting manner, not with a view of conniving, but telling them, as some well know, my nature and inclination was against any such methods."

The weakness of his position was that he had no real hope that the policy he advocated would save the situation. In the same year, 1796, he utters this confession of despair.

"Some time ago I thought there might be some sort of union effected between the political parties, and I was going to write privately to Mr. Grattan on the subject, but I dropt that intention and several others of a similar kind from a conviction of their inefficiency. Administration would just as soon concede a republican form of government as a reform in the present government; and there is no real distinction of parties now, whatever name they may take, than the English and Irish Interests. How is it possible to reconcile them? The English mode of Uniting is known by the experience of centuries. The Irish mode of Uniting is by separating, and a nation of blunderers can do no better."

Drennan's prophecy of a drift "from what may be called Civil Anarchy to Civil War" was tragically fulfilled. The first blow fell on Belfast, and Mrs. McTier's breathless letter describing Lake's swoop on the Northern , leaders sounds a note only too familiar to Irish readers to-day.

"Since 10 o'clock this morning Belfast has been under military government; a troop of horse is before my door, a guard on Haslet's, which is near us, one at Church Lane, the Long Bridge, and every avenue to the town. Haslet is taken; Neilson and Russell have been walking the streets till about an hour ago when, the Library having been broken up and a search being made for them, they delivered themselves up. ... They are taken up for high treason. I hope there will be no irons. Neilson will be easily killed, though he looks bluff. Russell I feel for as if a younger, rasher Brother, tho' during years of intimacy I never heard a worse sentiment than his Book contained, and to those he has been consistent."

Dublin was soon exposed to a similar visitation. In Drennan's words: "You hear no other conversation in this city than of Defenders, of plots, of discoveries, of arrests, of executions. It has to me the smell of a great jail. I am often accosted with 'Are you here yet?' which is one of the sentences that would make a man wish to stay and has that effect on me." But Belfast was the real martial law area, and Mrs McTier in a letter written on St. Patrick's Day, 1797, analyses with insight and passion the feelings of the community over whom General Lake was driving his iron harrow.

"Every day produces something which a few years ago would have created amazement. . . . Murders and assassinations are dreadful subjects, but common here, and the natural consequence of what I often witness—men torn from their friends and Country, and put on board a tender without trial or anyone here at least knowing for what. The higher officers are well liked and do not seem to relish the searching business, in which some of the Church magistrates go beyond them. The country people treat the Officers well, ask them to breakfast, etc., and give them old rusty guns. Several good ones are sent in since General Lake's proclamation, and I believe many found hid in ditches.

I have one which . . . shall never, if I can help it, be raised against the people. It was bought and used for a far different purpose. Like an Idiot I registered it, at a time when fools bluster'd and ten pound frightened me. If they come for it I will not falsify, but they shall never get Sam McTier's gun. I was right when I told you half-way business would not do in Belfast. . . .

Whatever you may think of Belfast in Dublin, people here are flocking to it from the country; even Government Country Squires. Where can they go without money? Londonderry, it is said, is going to sneak into Newton after being guarded by soldiers all the Winter at Mt. Stewart. His Father seldom bolted his windows. Not a penny of rent is paid him. . . .

You seem to think I ought to fly. Why, I have not one fear. 'Tis only the Rich are alarmed, or the guilty. I am neither. . . .

Tho' one would think the power of the Proclamation sufficient for any purpose in a Town where I can walk from one end to the other without a servant, at nine o'clock, yet I have reason to believe other strong measures are hatching, and will be enforced whenever the Town goes out of the peace. . . . Indeed a stranger entering the Town wou'd be struck by the sounds of innocence, for the children are eternally crying "ba-ee, ma-ee" after every yeoman, while the Mothers run after them crying, if they do not behave themselves, they will be put on board the Fleet."

From this on the tragedy deepens in both towns. The correspondence in the months preceding the Rising of '98 is concerned rather with domestic than public affairs. Mrs. McTier discovered that her letters were being opened in the post, and she revenges herself with a series of very effective thrusts at the postmaster who did Lake's dirty work. But she realised, and made her brother realise, the necessity of discretion. We know, as the price of grimmer experiences than Drennan was called upon to endure, that life even in revolutionary eras moves for the most part in the old ruts. Thus in announcing that "domiciliary visits are to be paid by night as well as day," Drennan adds: "No apparent alteration takes place, and the play-house, the Promenade, etc., take place as usual." London actors and actresses, however, "were fearful of venturing into Ireland as too real a stage of Terror and Pity." Curfew was not enforced in Dublin, but those who ventured abroad did so at their own risk. "There are military patrols," Drennan informs his sister, "that go about the streets, and it is said in the Castle knots that this City has become the Headquarters of Treason. Did they meet me at night I could safely say that I was not Cinna the conspirator but the Poet, though they might treat me to a touch of the bayonet for my bad verses."

The most objectionable part of the military occupation was the practice of billeting soldiers in private houses. On one occasion Drennan, having protested against a demand for lodgings by two soldiers, had a squabble with the notorious magistrate, Swan, who "began to abuse me, not very like a magistrate, calling me rebel, traitor, that my life was indulged to me by the Government, that he would go and send 50 soldiers to the house." Mrs. McTier had the gift of taking things philosophically. "My mother," she tells her brother, "had four soldiers for two or three nights. She, like you, argues the affair, and never mends the matter. My Pride always prevents anything but compliance, and I am never ill-treated. I cannot bear intercourse with these sort of gentry. Those who do their duty do right. Those who go beyond are only gratified by your complaints." Incidentally, Mrs. McTier gives us a flashlight picture of life in Belfast during those June days that witnessed the failure of the Rebellion in Down and Antrim.

"Sunday afternoon eight soldiers, a woman and child were sent to me, and by Major Fox on horse-back desired to make their quarters good. I opened the door myself, and they immediately rushed into the parlour. I told them and the Sergeant my situation. He pressed me to bed them, which I offered to do if he insisted on it, but that I and my family must leave the house. He behaved well the instant they were well treated. I gave them good Ale, though they pray'd for water, being just off their march from Newton, where they had been fighting all day. I pitied them much. Two were wounded. They took a shilling apiece, and we parted with civility on all sides."

The suppression of the Rising was followed by the scheme to suppress the Parliament and establish the Union, which Drennan, as far back as 1792, had divined, was the real object of Castle policy. "The report of an Union," he remarks caustically a couple of months after the Rebellion, "will not have any immediate effect on the price of houses, tho' I think it will reduce a good deal the value of men in this country." But Drennan had by this time become, politically at least, a hopeless pessimist. He scoffs, and perhaps he was justified in scoffing, at a meeting of protest in the Exchange of about 1,000 of different parties——" Oranemen, opposition men, democrats, Catholics, and Presbyterians, the omnium gatherum of the day, forced by fear into a short cordiality." "The whole business," he adds, "was rather melancholy, perhaps adapted to the time, and might have been accompany'd with the Dead March and the muffled drum." But remembering Drennan's own refusal to adopt heroic remedies—a refusal for which I admit he advanced excellent reasons—this outburst at the crisis of the Union agitation is not worthy of him.

"Strange, I like my Country; I dislike my countrymen. They certainly are men, for they beget children, but they are not Countrymen. They are party men, placemen, shop-men, liverymen—any men but Countrymen. And all the rout in Dublin proceeds from the low valuation of the rent of their shops and houses. Dare the People of Ireland, even like the People of Scotland whose Covenant was their country, dare they make a Solemn League and Covenant, and swear with their hands uplifted to the Most High God (as the Covenanters did) that they will maintain their country. No, they dare not. They are halting between two opinions, and Pitt takes the advantage of it."

Thousands of Irishmen, who had dared as much as the Scottish Covenanters "to maintain their country," Were in prison or exile, and thousands more were mouldering in unmarked graves on the battle-fields of Antrim, Down, and Wexford. Drennan was right in his contempt for the men who were murmuring against the Union after they had placed Pitt and Castlereagh in a position that enabled them to accomplish their purpose. He was wrong in confounding these time-servers and self-seekers with the Irish people. His sister rose to nobler heights. In a letter congratulating Drennan on the birth of his son, written shortly before the Union Bill became law, she breathes an aspiration for her countrymen in words as memorable as any uttered by the greatest of national leaders:—

"I know that your son, if he lives, must see better times; but I wish him educated in them no worse than his Father. Oh! till that time let Irishmen remain sulky, grave, prudent, and watchful, not subdued into tame servility, poverty and contempt, not satisfied till time blunts their chains and feelings, but ardent to seize the possible moment of national revenge, never to lose hope of it till obtained, and then in proud and glorious safety—scorn it."

What I have written may give the impression that the correspondence is little more than a running commentary on political happenings. Such a view would be wholly false. Keen as was the interest of Drennan and his sister in political affairs, they had time for a multiplicity of other things as well. They took books as seriously as they took statesmen, and their comments on them are more acute than those of the vast majority of contemporary critics. Unlike Macaulay, Mrs. McTier did not fall into the error of regarding Boswell as a fool who had written a masterpiece by accident. "What a fascinating book is Boswell's Life of Johnson," she cries ecstatically after devouring the volumes straight from the press, "and how improved is the present stile of biography." Her brother's enthusiasm rivalled her own. "It is," he replies, "the first work of the kind since the days of Plutarch." Gibbon, Rousseau, Volney, Tom Paine, Godwin, Mary Wolstonecraft, even Crébillon, found their way into Mrs. McTier's hands, and were submitted by her to shrewd and searching criticism. Her brother invariably sent his productions to her, and she never allowed her pride in him to blunt the edge of her comments. Drennan himself, though always pestered by money troubles, steadily refused to publish anything by subscription. "This," he writes, "is the mere Mendicancy of Literature, and tho' often done by the honourable author craft of London we in Ireland are not in the habit."

Mrs. McTier was anything but the conventional bluestocking, though she could easily have held her own with the best of the blue-stockings of her day. As the recipes which stud her letters after Drennan's marriage show, she was a notable house-wife, and she can descend from high politics to give her brother hints like this: "You do not wear your fine cravats in the right way; to show them to advantage they ought not to be folded in plasters, but put round the neck as you would tie a pocket handkerchief in a wisp." Nor was she in any sense a prig. She relished cards as well as books and politics, and Drennan at one time seems to have feared that she was inclined to play for too high stakes, a common failing of the period from which Presbyterian Belfast was not free. "This will be a gambling winter in Belfast," she writes in one of her letters. "Guineas and notes fly about the card tables even among young girls. At the last coterie 'tis said General Goldie lost 130 guineas." Her reply to her brother's mild remonstrances is deliciously human.

"While I stuck to 6d. whist I was night after night push'd into a corner from which there was no escape with a particular set of silly, scolding, virulent, chiming old women. I determined to escape this bondage. I play Casino, unless I get to a gentleman's set, where I play shilling and half-crown in the rubber. It interests me. I am politely treated, not stunn'd with talk. I play as well as any of them, and when I lose too much will quit it."

Again, unlike the majority of her contemporaries, she did not hold the view that what was good for her must necessarily be bad for those who filled a lower position in the social scale. Drennan was in principle a convinced democrat; in practice he always has doubts of what he calls somewhere "the timid staring people." Mrs. McTier has a more robust faith, largely because "the people" were not to her an abstraction but men and women like herself. At a time when the Hannah Mores and their kind were attempting to tame the masses with soothing moral tracts, Mrs. McTier plumped boldly for real education and knowledge of public affairs. As far back as 1795 she writes:—"So much have I gained by newspapers, and so ardently have I seen them sought for and enjoyed by the lower orders, that I intend to institute for their good a gratis newsroom with fire and candles, a scheme which you may laugh at, but if followed in country towns might have a wonderful effect." This was in its essence much more revolutionary doctrine than the gospel preached by the majority of the professed revolutionists of the period.

More than a century before any one had divined the possibilities of this weapon, the closing of the Belfast shops and warehouses on the day the Earl of Fitzwilliam left Dublin after his dismissal as Lord Lieutenant led Mrs. McTier to foreshadow the possibilities of a general strike as a political instrument.

"Were this to be the case all over the kingdom it would be a curious situation. Would not the People find themselves easily and freely got up in a Mass? Might not important matter start into their heads, and rush into their hands? Might not they waive ceremony with Lord Moyra, and take it into their head to protect the country themselves and save him that trouble? . . . Might not the Capitol, the Castle, be surprised? But this, I suppose, is all the fears of a weak woman."

Had there been more "weak women" of the type of Mrs. McTier Irish history would probably have been more cheerful reading. I am conscious that what I have written does scant justice to Drennan and his sister, and indicates very inadequately the richness of the banquet which this correspondence provides both for the student of history and the student of human nature. But even these samples, looted almost at random, may do something to whet the appetite of readers and stimulate a demand for the publication in permanent form of these memorable letters.


See also:—

William Drennan, M.D.

Poems by William Drennan:—

The Wake of William Orr
O Sweeter Than the Fragrant Flower
The Wild Geese
My Father
When Erin First Rose
A Song from the Irish