William Putnam McCabe

McCabe, William Putnam, a United Irishman, was born near Belfast, about 1775. [His father, Thomas, a watchmaker and part owner of a cotton-mill, died about 1827. He was a man of liberal principles, and it was on account of his indignant remonstrances that, in 1786, the project of fitting out slavers by Belfast merchants was abandoned.] Young William was somewhat wild in youth. His connexion with the United Irishmen dated from Tone's visit to Belfast in 1791; and he soon became one of the most active organizers and propagators of the principles of the society, and was noted for his ability in eluding the law by his powers of disguise and mimicry. For some time he attracted large gatherings for the propagation of his principles under notifications that "a converted Papist would preach the Word in —, on —, and explain how he became convinced of the true doctrines of Presbyterianism." His field of operations was chiefly in Leitrim and Roscommon. He also helped to rouse the County of Wexford.

A Wexford gentleman afterwards assured his biographer that he had met him on twenty different occasions, and had not recognized him once until he revealed himself. In May 1798, he was arrested in Dublin while acting as one of a body-guard to Lord Edward FitzGerald. He managed, however, to persuade his guard of Scotch soldiers that he was a countryman of theirs wrongfully arrested, whereupon they signed a memorial in his behalf, and he was at once liberated. We next find him in Cork, and then in company with the French during Humbert's campaign. After Ballinamuck he escaped to Wales, where he lay concealed for some time. About 1801 he made his way to France, where he married. He made frequent visits to England and Ireland on political errands, and being specially named in the Banishment Act, ran great risk of arrest and execution.

His establishment of a cotton factory at Rouen gained Napoleon's special favour. In 1807 he was able to lend Arthur O'Connor £4,792 — a transaction that led to much litigation between them even in the Irish courts, at a time when their personal appearance would have rendered them both liable to a sentence of death. In 1814, having ventured to Ireland, he was arrested and imprisoned, but was ultimately deported to Portugal. He came again in 1817, in company with his daughter, a beautiful girl of about sixteen years of age. Again arrested, he was imprisoned in Kilmainham for a year and a half. Two years afterwards he visited Scotland, and was again imprisoned. There was, perhaps, some excuse for the Home Secretary's rejoinder to the plea of his friends, that he only travelled on his own business: "It might be true that Mr. McCabe never went to any part of England or Ireland except upon business of his own; but it was very extraordinary that, in whatever part of the King's dominions his own business brought him, some public disturbance was sure to take place." He died in Paris, 6th January 1821, aged about 46, and was buried in Vaugirard cemetery.


65. Byrne, Myles: Autobiography. 3 vols. Paris, 1863.

330. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Third Series: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 3 vols. Dublin, 1846.