Parliamentary independence, won so dramatically with Volunteer support in 1782, had proved a bitter disappointment to those who looked to it as a first step towards essential and radical reform. In the very year of its achievement William Drennan declared that "the collars of the Knights of St Patrick will in time strangle the freedom of this nation" and his warning was swiftly justified. The armed forces, the appointment of judges, and all patronage in Church and State was still controlled by Britain; the landed interest remained supreme at College Green (a), to be exploited by the Westminster government when desirable; parliamentary reform was strenuously opposed; and in 1785 Britain refused, in spite of Pitt’s efforts to the contrary, to modify her crippling import duties on most Irish manufactures, except on terms destructive to the newly won independence. These were serious blows to those constitutionalists who sincerely hoped that the political achievements of ’82 would prepare the way for happier relations between the two Kingdoms.
Nowhere in Ireland was the disappointment more keenly felt than by the enterprising mercantile community in Belfast. While the sole foundation of its new found prosperity was trade it was virtually unrepresented in parliament, for Belfast was a pocket borough, its two members being returned by the handful of burgesses who were nominees of Lord Donegall. Of the 300 members of the Irish House of Commons, 124 were returned by 53 peers, 91 were returned by 52 commoners, 13 were returned mainly by individual influence, and only 72 were freely elected. (1) Shocking as this was for the Protestant interest, the Roman Catholics, numbering approximately nine-tenths of the total population of the Kingdom, were not represented at all. Little wonder, then, that parliamentary reform was the constant preoccupation of the Belfast citizens. Early in 1784 they set out their case in a long petition, forwarded to the independent members for County Antrim for presentation to the Irish House of Commons, and opening thus:
Your petitioners in the most humble and respectful manner, take leave to represent to your Hon House,
That Belfast is a large and populous town, containing above 15,000 inhabitants, carrying on a very extensive foreign commerce, as well as inland trade, and paying annually upwards of £80,000 towards the public revenue.
That this numerous body of people not being represented in your Hon House, are, contrary to the fundamental principle of the constitution, governed by laws to which they give no assent; for although the borough of Belfast sends two Members to parliament, yet those members are returned (under the immediate direction of a noble peer) by five or six Burgesses, in the appointment of whom your Petitioners have no share, and therefore the members so returned cannot in any sense, be deemed the Representatives of your Petitioners. (2)
In the National Convention held in Dublin in 1784, "to press for a more equal representation of the Commons of Ireland," Belfast was represented by Henry Joy, jun, the McCrackens' cousin; the Rev Sinclaire Kelburn of the third Presbyterian congregation -- the McCrackens' minister; the Earl Bishop of Derry -- strange bed-fellow for such staunch Presbyterians -- and two others. Indeed, so intent were these reformers on exploring every avenue which might assist their cause that in 1783 a Volunteer convention meeting in Lisburn had appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Colonel Sharman to communicate with
persons in England, most distinguished for their talents, and their zeal in the cause of liberty, requesting their advice and opinion on this important subject: among these were the Duke of Richmond, Lord Effingham, Mr Pitt, Dr Price, Dr Jebb, Rev Christopher Wyvill . . . and Major John Cartwright. (3)
Of this enterprising committee Henry Joy, jun, then a young man of 30, was secretary. He and his committee, the national conventions, and all that the volunteer movement represented, were the Irish counterpart of the movement for parliamentary reform then so vociferous in Britain. Native and independent though both movements were, their influence on each other was considerable, and they represent a period of "stirring" in the development of the British system of parliamentary government. It is significant that the McCracken family had, through their cousin, this close contact with the leaders of the Yorkshire Association movement, and the names of Joy and McCracken occur in the lists of the prominent citizens who concerned themselves with calling Town Meetings, composing petitions, and generally directing public opinion towards parliamentary reform.
The National Conventions had little practical result. Already some "among the volunteers were sensible, that . . . an attempt to gain their object by compulsion must be hopeless, without the co-operation of the Romanists, and that in case of success by this assistance, the Protestant interest in Ireland would be annihilated. The Convention saw clearly the dilemma to which it was reduced; but they chose what appeared to them the least of two evils, and rather than call in the aid of the great body of Romanists . . . they submitted quietly and tamely to the chastisement of that government whose authority they had insulted, and in a manner defied; incurring by this means the censure of the moderate for their violence, and of the violent for their moderation." (4) It was this dilemma that, very quickly, "annihilated" the moderate party, and there were those in the North who would not tolerate such a choice.
In Belfast the Volunteers were dominated by the progressive element and were enthusiastically sympathetic to Catholic enfranchisement. This was the year, 1784, in which the 1st Belfast Company attended the opening of the first Roman Catholic Church to be built in the town -- a gesture of goodwill considered by the more cautious to be unnecessarily cordial. (5) Throughout the country Protestant support for Catholic enfranchisement was partial and prompted generally by considerations of expediency, but in Belfast it was directed by genuinely altruistic motives; here, for the first time were Irishmen prepared to struggle not only for their own liberty, but for that of their Catholic brothers, who since the Penal enactment’s had enjoyed no legal status in the country at all.
Until the reign of Anne all sections in Ireland had enjoyed the franchise to the same limited extent, but on account of the insecurity of the Protestant succession after the Revolution and the supposed Stuart sympathies of the Catholics in Ireland, legislation of the utmost severity was enacted against the Catholics from time to time between 1697 and 1746. These laws made it extremely difficult for Catholics to practice their religion and severely restricted their freedom to acquire land; they were forbidden to have their own schools and heavy penalties were inflicted on those who sent their children to be educated abroad; they were debarred from the professions [except medicine], from parliament and all public offices and from the franchise. Such abuse of power naturally encouraged the practice of every kind of evasive deception by the Catholics, and fostered the abominable system of proselytising and informing among the Protestants. It should be remembered that Dissenters, practically all Presbyterians, suffered also, though to a lesser extent. The Test Act of 1704 made it necessary for all persons holding public appointments to take Communion in the Established Church within three months of their assuming office. As a result, of the 12 aldermen of the city of Derry, ten Presbyterians were dismissed, as were 14 of the 24 burgesses. In Belfast eight of the 13 burgesses were Presbyterians and had to forfeit their seats. There were similar dismissals from the Bench and other official bodies; no Presbyterians could legally conduct a school, in many instances land would not be let to Presbyterian tenants (6) and if magistrates so wished, church services could be declared illegal and the building of churches prohibited.
The position of the Presbyterian ministers had been further complicated by the refusal of some to take the Oath of Abjuration, not wishing to be bound to the heirs of the House of Hanover, thus laying themselves open to a charge of Jacobitism, with which they had no sympathy at all.
As the years went by and fear of Jacobite risings diminished, penal legislation against both Dissenters and Catholics tended to fall into abeyance. In 1780 the Test Act was repealed and two years earlier the first considerable Catholic Relief Bill was passed: but, while the plight of the Catholics was vastly improved and they were acquiring positions of importance in trade, the professions and the Army remained closed to them and they were still denied all share in the government of the country.
In no part of Ireland was the Catholic population so sparse as in Antrim and Down, and according to an assessment of the population of Belfast in 1756 there were in the town 7,993 Protestants and 556 Catholics. It is true to say that the growing sympathy in Belfast for the Catholic cause was based entirely on grounds of political morality and social justice; but it is also true that in no other part of the country was there so little ground for fearing Catholic action, and that in spite of the dreadful memories of 1641. Indeed so late as 1791 Tone himself wrote that the people of Belfast know "wonderfully little" about the Catholics. (7)
In 1784 the Belfast Volunteers invited to their ranks
persons of every religious persuasion, firmly convinced that a general Union of ALL the inhabitants of Ireland is necessary to the freedom and prosperity of this Kingdom, as it is congenial to the Constitution. (8)
This was a significant and radical move. Nowhere in the three kingdoms had such a gesture of tolerance been made. These Presbyterian Volunteers were groping their way towards a genuine brotherhood of man, based, in their case, on complete religious freedom. Five years had yet to pass before the people of France made their momentous stand in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which was to be hailed with rejoicing in Belfast.
It is necessary to review the causes which led to the intense sympathy felt in Ulster for the French Revolution, for, while the connection between France and other parts of Ireland through religious ties, trade, and the Irish refugees is well known, the closeness of the relationship with the North is not always appreciated.
William III, as compensation for the destruction of the Irish wool trade by the English parliament, had encouraged Huguenot families to settle in Ireland (b) in the beginning of the century in order to envelop the linen industry. This they had done with conspicuous success in Ulster, and by now occupied positions of importance and great respect. There were also considerable trading connections between Belfast and France – for example members of the Black family were long-term residents in Bordeaux in connection with the wine business; we have seen, too, how Captain McCracken, once a prisoner in French hands, had insisted on his children becoming proficient in the French language, and there were many other such links. But the intense interest to be felt in Ulster for the French Revolution, while it was encouraged and fed by these contacts, was due to the religious and intellectual condition of the rising middle class around Belfast.
The Plantation of Ulster in the beginning of the seventeenth century, by English and Scottish settlers under government direction, did not include the counties of Antrim and Down. Down had been planted somewhat earlier by the private enterprise of two hard-headed Scots, Montgomery and Hamilton; and the McDonnells of Antrim, though Catholics themselves, had no scruples about importing Scottish Presbyterians to develop their lands. Consequently, by the middle of the seventeenth century there was a considerable Scottish population in the north-east corner of Ulster. This continued to be augmented by a stream of religious refugees from Scotland, Presbyterian extremists for the most part who, for one reason or another, found themselves subjected in their own country to disciplinary measures which they were anxious to avoid. Covenanters, Burghers, Anti-burghers, Seceders – people who did not understand the meaning of compromise – sailed from the coasts of Cantyre and Ayr to the harbours of Antrim, the route from time immemorial of a two-way traffic between shores that are seldom out of sight. [It is said that 50,000 Scots came to Ulster in the years following 1690. (9)] Here, in the Antrim hinterland they settled, pursuing their independent courses unmolested. Through time some became integrated in the general Presbyterian community, others maintained their separateness with the tenacity of the persecuted, and all of them acted as a stimulus to an independence of mind that already existed.
In addition to this religious intensity, perhaps indeed because of it, there was widespread interest in the new philosophical thought. Locke’s writings were well known, there was close contact with the Scottish philosophers, Rousseau had his admirers even in the country towns, and when Paine published The Rights of Man it was at once hailed in Belfast with rapture, becoming in Wolfe Tone’s phrase "the Koran of Belfescu". So, throughout the Province, but especially in the neighbourhood of Belfast, political, economic and philosophic thought had prepared the community in a remarkable degree for the great upheaval of the French Revolution, and Henry Joy jun, [later to come down so heavily on the side of moderation] could, with sincerity, write that:
the exultation with which they [the people of Belfast] hailed the downfall of civil and spiritual despotism in France in the year 1789, affords a decisive proof of their disinterested solicitude for the universal diffusion of liberty and peace. Their joy was expressed by affectionate congratulations to the French patriots and by annual commemorations of the destruction of the Bastille, conducted with pomp and magnificence, and calculated to impress on innumerable spectators a conviction of the vast importance which they attached to this glorious occurrence, and sensations of gratitude to the divine providence ‘for dispersing the political clouds which had hitherto darkened our hemisphere’. (10)
Indeed, in Ulster, the French Revolution quickly became something more than an external occurrence; amongst the ardent reformers its ideals were regarded as a challenge, and assumed a significance unknown in England or Scotland.
Encouraged by the success of these glorious efforts of the French nation, the friends of Liberty in this country once more turned their undivided attention to the salutary measure of Reform, and renewed those efforts from which they had been so ingloriously compelled to desist in the year 1785. The first appearance of this revival of public spirit in Belfast shone forth on the 6th of March 1790, when it was unanimously resolved at a Meeting of the Belfast First Volunteer Company, that this company do turn out in full uniform on the 17th inst in order to celebrate our 12th anniversary, and elect officers for the ensuing year. (11)
To some, however, the red light of danger was apparent. Lord Charlemont, the Volunteer leader, already apprehensive of the more extreme opinion, inaugurated a Whig Club in Belfast in 1790, similar to that already founded in Dublin.
I think [he wrote to his Belfast friend Dr Halliday], that an institution of this kind would, by holding out a congregation to the true believers at Belfast, be a means of fixing, and even recalling many who might otherwise wander from the faith. (12)
Not that the Belfast Whig Club was by any means reactionary, for within six months of its foundation we find the members, under the chairmanship of Dr Halliday, and with Henry Joy jun as secretary, passing the following resolution:
That considering the French Revolution as one of the most important and universally interesting events which the world ever saw, and as particularly such to the inhabitants of these islands as it promises to lead the way to an orderly and gradual reform of these abuses which have maimed and disfigured the constitution we shall, as men, as Whigs – as citizens of this empire, meet on the 14th of July next, to celebrate that astonishing event, which constitutes a glorious era in the history of man and of the world. (13)
When the day of commemoration arrived the Northern Whig Club formed part of a great procession, with tableaux, organised by the Volunteers, and on this occasion " a green cockade, the national colour of Ireland, was worn by the whole body." (14) At a splendid banquet afterwards in the south wing of the White Linenhall 354 members of the Volunteer companies sat down at a single long table. Among the 27 toasts appear the names of Mr Paine, John Locke, Doctor Franklin, and Monsieur Mirabeau. In spite of the citizens’ love of bonfires none were permitted on this occasion "it having been the idea of the town that not intemperate joy but dignified, rational and deliberate rejoicing should close the scene." (15)
It was magnificent: with all allowances for the flamboyant language of such reporting, one can feel the revived enthusiasm that animated once more the old confidence and desire, and recalled the achievements of 1782.
But when the first glamour departed, difficulties set in. The Catholic issue was now dominant in Ulster, and for many there was the bewildering problem of how to do what seemed right and fair to Catholics as fellow-citizens, and maintain at the same time other cherished ideals – the 18th century version of a recurring problem.
As discussion increased opinions hardened, and the complexities of the situation were not lessened by the arrival in Belfast of Theobald Wolfe Tone, then secretary of the Catholic Committee in Dublin.
Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald are perhaps the best known leaders in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Fitzgerald because of his courage and of his family background, and Tone because through his Autobiography we come into unusually intimate contact with the man and the events in which he was involved. Briefly, Tone was born in Dublin, in 1763, the eldest son of a successful coachbuilder. His father made strenuous efforts to give him a good education with the fixed intention that his first born should become a lawyer. So, at the age of 17, Tone rebelliously entered Trinity College, Dublin, having already given every possible indication that what he really desired was a military career. While still at College, he eloped with Matilda Witherington, "not yet 16, and as lovely as an angel" and after a few days of married bliss at Maynooth, the pair returned to Dublin, "were forgiven on all sides, and settled in lodgings near my wife’s grandfather." (16) After various vicissitudes Tone set off to pursue his studies at the Middle Temple, leaving his wife and baby daughter with his father, who had recently sustained considerable financial losses. In spite of this sobering situation the brilliant and attractive Theobald found humdrum study in London, or elsewhere, eminently distasteful, and, "as I foresaw by this time that I should never be Lord Chancellor", he and some companions devoted a great deal of time to devising a scheme for colonising "one of Cook’s recently discovered islands in the South Seas on a military plan, for all my ideas ran on that track." (17) They embodied their scheme in a memorial to Mr Pitt which Tone delivered with his own hands to "the Porter in Downing Street," but Mr Pitt took "not the smallest notice of it" and, writes Tone, "in my anger I made something like a vow that if ever I had an opportunity I would make Mr Pitt sorry, and perhaps fortune may yet enable me to fulfil that resolution." (18) To say that Tone was in fact the stuff of which the professional revolutionary is made is not to minimise the earnestness with which he later carried out his schemes, but it accounts for an early lack of a sense of responsibility.
After two years in London, this restless young man returned to Dublin, collected his wife and child, commenced once more the study of law, and was called to the Irish Bar in the fateful year of 1789. Try as he might, and there is evidence that at this time he did put his mind to his work, Tone could not settle to a barrister’s routine. Instead he haunted the gallery of the Irish House of Commons, and for the first time became interested in Irish politics, with the result that he shortly produced a pamphlet entitled A Review of the last Session of Parliament, a defence, in effect, of the recently established Whig Clubs. When the pamphlet reached Belfast it was hailed with delight by the northern club, who "reprinted and distributed a large impression at their own expense, with an introduction highly complimentary to the author, whom at that time, they did not even know"; and this was followed "by a very handsome letter signed by their secretary Henry Joy jun of Belfast." (19) At this stage Tone seriously considered standing for Parliament. Something more fateful, however than pamphlets resulted from his frequent visits to College Green, for during one of them he met, in the gallery of the House of Commons, a young officer of the British Army named Thomas Russell. From that meeting there sprang a friendship of quite unusual sincerity and affection, and there came into Tone’s life an influence that from now onwards directed the brilliance, and to some extent overcame the irresponsibility. Writing his Autobiography in Paris six years later Tone speaks of this friendship thus:
About this time it was that I formed an acquaintance with my invaluable friend Russell, a circumstance which I look upon as one of the most fortunate of my life . . . I think the better of myself for being the object of the esteem of such a man as Russell . . . If I am ever inclined to murmur at the difficulties wherewith I have so long struggled, I think on the inestimable treasure I possess in the affection of my wife and the friendship of Russell, and I acknowledge that all my labours and sufferings are overpaid . . . When I think I have acted well, and that I am likely to succeed in the important business wherein I am engaged, I say often to myself, My dearest love and my friend Russell will be glad of this. (20)
And then follows the incomparable description of the blissful summer on the shores of Dublin Bay:
My wife’s health continuing still delicate, she was ordered by her physician to bathe in the saltwater. I hired, in consequence, a little box of a house on the sea side at Irishtown, where we spent the summer of 1790. Russell and I were inseparable, and, as our discussions were mostly political, and our sentiments agreed exactly, we extended our views, and fortified each other in the opinions, to the propagation and establishment of which we have ever since been devoted. I recall with transport the happy days we spent during that period; the delicious dinners, in the preparation of which my wife, Russell, and myself, were all engaged; the afternoon walks, the discussions we had as we lay stretched on the grass. Sometimes Russell’s venerable father, a veteran of near 70, with the courage of a hero, the serenity of a philosopher, and the piety of a saint, used to visit our little mansion, and that day was a fête. My wife doted on the old man, and he loved her like one of his children. I will not attempt, because I am unable, to express the veneration and regard I had for him, and I am sure that, next to his own sons, and scarcely below them, he loved and esteemed me. (21)
Russell’s brother John and Tone’s two brothers also visited the "little box" and added to the general gaiety or to the seriousness of the conversation.
These were delicious days [he continues]. The rich and great, who sit down every day to the monotony of a splendid entertainment, can form no idea of the happiness of our frugal meal, nor of the infinite pleasure we found in taking each his part in the preparation and attendance. My wife was the centre and the soul of all. I scarcely know which of us loved her best; her courteous manners, her goodness of heart, her incomparable humour, her never failing cheerfulness, her affection for me and for our children, rendered her the object of our common admiration and delight. (22)
The "delicious" summer sped past, Mrs Tone’s health was restored, but before she and Theobald returned to Dublin, where their eldest son was shortly born, Russell got word of his appointment to "the 64th Regiment of Foot quartered in the town of Belfast." He came to say good-bye arrayed in a splendid suit of regimentals – "all clinquant, all in gold", but in spite of his lace and his finery he was set to cook part of the dinner, and eventually amidst laughter and tears the last farewells were said.
Thomas Russell, several years younger than Wolfe Tone, was born in County Cork in November 1767. (23) His father, Captain John Russell, was a distinguished soldier, having been personally commended by George II at the Battle of Dettingen, and, after further notable service, was appointed to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, where he died. Thomas, like his father before him, was originally intended for the church, but at the age of 15 he went to India in the regiment of his elder brother, Captain Ambrose Russell, an officer who in his turn earned the gratitude of George III for gallantry in the war with America. After five years’ service in India Thomas returned home, still intent on entering the church, but again he took a military appointment, and it was while staying with his father at Kilmainham, an ensign on half-pay, that he met Tone.
This was the gay, yet withal serious, young man who arrived in Belfast in 1790 to take up his military duties. His interest in politics would insure a welcome in this home of liberal thought, and he "found the people so much to his taste and in return rendered himself so agreeable to them . . ." that he was speedily admitted to their confidence and became a member of several of their clubs. (24) The Whig Club received him enthusiastically as the friend of Mr Tone, author of that admirable pamphlet, and, no doubt, the best port being produced, there was much convivial entertainment. Russell was passionately fond of music, and very soon he met Edward Bunting, now a fashionable young man, much sought after as an accomplished musician. Bunting brought him to the McCrackens, thus initiating a friendship that was to become historic; they, in turn, took him to the home of their friends the Templetons, now living at Orange Grove, where John Templeton was already occupied with his studies of the natural sciences. In the following years Russell and the McCrackens must many times have walked the few miles from Belfast to the lovely house at Malone, hidden in the trees of its extensive grounds where, in days gone by, William of Orange had halted on his march to the Boyne, and letters survive which show the wide range of interests held in common by Russell and Templeton:
Every walk I take [wrote Templeton to Russell in prison] in the pursuit of the beauties of nature, brings to my recollection similar excursions in your company – every rare fossil that I meet with, and curious plant that I observe, causes me to find the want of my friend. Often does my imagination dwell with pleasure on the picturesque scenery of Glenave, (c) and the still more sublime rocks of Rathlin, neither can I go into my garden and view the little healthy bank you so often admired, without remembering the pleasure I received from your praises of my ingenuity in forming it. (25)
The following description of Russell’s personal appearance is of particular interest, it is said to have been written many years later from the treasured recollections of Mary Ann McCracken:
A model of manly beauty, he was one of those favoured individuals whom one cannot pass in the street without being guilty of the rudeness of staring in the face while passing, and turning round to look at the receding figure. Though more than six feet high, his majestic stature was scarcely observed owing to the exquisite symmetry of his form. Martial in his gait and demeanour, his appearance was not altogether that of a soldier. His dark and steady eye, compressed lip, and somewhat haughty bearing, were occasionally strongly indicative of the camp; but in general, the classic contour of his finely formed head, the expression of almost infantine sweetness which characterised his smile, and the benevolence that beamed in his fine countenance, seemed to mark him out as one, who was destined to be the ornament, grace and blessing of private life. His voice was deep-toned and melodious . . . His manners were those of the finished gentleman, combined with that native grace, which nothing but superiority of intellect can give. There was a reserved, and somewhat haughty, stateliness in his mien, which, to those who did not know him, had, at first, the appearance of pride; but as it gave way before the warmth and benevolence of his disposition, it soon became evident that the defect, if it were one, was caused by the too sensitive delicacy of a noble soul; and those who knew him, loved him the more for his reserve, and thought they saw something attractive in the very repulsiveness of his manner. (26)
So reflected Mary Ann, recapturing, no doubt, the sight of Harry and Thomas as they sauntered about the town, or set out for Orange Grove, or for long tramps into the country; full of high spirits; tall, well built and devastatingly handsome; the raven black hair of the one a perfect foil for the golden locks of the other, -- it not yet being fashionable to crop one’s hair as evidence of one’s revolutionary sympathies. But, lest Mary be accused of partiality, we turn to Mrs McTier. Describing one of the innumerable scuffles in the streets with drunken soldiers she writes to her brother that, on hearing the to-do, "Russell went up close to them, did not speak one word, but it seems, surveyed them with such a countenance that [they] demanded the reason for the look of insolence." Words were bandied, swords were drawn and a first class fight seemed inevitable. However, the affair was adjourned till the next day, when the officers, after a little reflection, "sought out Russell and apologised to him in the fullest manner". Mrs McTier felt obliged to add that her husband, who had been with Russell on the evening in question, had the uncomfortable feeling that Russell himself was the first, if unconscious, offender, "by a look which even at moonlight, was it seems, worse than a sentence." (27)
Mary Ann was exactly 20 years old when she and Thomas met. There is no doubt at all that she found him overwhelmingly attractive, for his "manly beauty", as well as for the strength and goodness of his character, but there is not the slightest hint that her feelings for him were in any degree reciprocated. Russell, for his part, during these early days in Belfast, met and loved another – the beautiful Bess Goddard, but before he could take steps to secure her hand, a tragic incident occurred which blasted all those hopes.
Meanwhile, to the dashing young officer, all was gay and happy and brimful of interest. These people in Belfast were so alive, so advanced in their political thought, their talk and their clubs – whether literary or political – were so invigorating, he had never met anything quite like it. (d) Soon, with Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson, he was a moving spirit in a group of young enthusiasts which included Robert Simms and William Sincliar. Exasperated by the everlasting delays and deceptions of the government, and recalling the achievements of the Volunteers ten years earlier, they had become impatient with Whig Clubs and the compromises of orthodox reformers and were already perfecting their schemes for uniting Irishmen of all creeds and classes in societies pledged to more drastic action. This, Russell well knew, would appeal enormously to Tone – he must come to Belfast and meet these friends. And so it was that in October 1791 Wolfe Tone made his first journey to the North, bringing with him something of the gaiety and high spirits of the "little box" at Irishtown. After one of the many long controversies that occupied his visit he made this record in his diary:
Joy paid my fees to the Northern Whig Club, and signed the declaration . . . Dinner at McTier’s; Waddell Cunningham, Holmes, Dr Bruce, (e) etc. A furious battle, which lasted two hours, on the Catholic question; as usual, neither party convinced. Teized with the liberality of people agreeing in principle, but doubting as to the expediency. Bruce an intolerant high priest; argued sometimes strongly, sometimes unfairly; embarrassed the question by distinctions, and mixing things in their nature separate. We brought him, at last, to state his definite objections to the immediate emancipation of the Roman Catholics. His ideas are,
Many other wild notions which he afterwards gave up, but these three he repeated again and again as his creed. Almost all the company of his opinion, except PP, (f) who made desperate battle, McTier, Getty and me; against us, Bruce, Holmes, Bunting, H Joy . . . all protesting their liberality and good wishes to the Roman Catholics. Damned stuff. Bruce declared that 39 out of 40 Protestants would be found, whenever the question came forward, to be adverse to the liberation of Roman Catholics . . . It may be he was right, but God is above all. Sad nonsense about scavengers becoming members of Parliament, and great asperity against the new fangled doctrine of the Rights of Man. Broke up rather ill-disposed towards each other. More and more convinced of the absurdity of arguing over wine. Went to the United Irish Club. Balloted in five men, amongst whom were Maclaine and Getty; rejected one. Went to the coterie. Jordan pleasant as usual. Home at two. Bed. (28)
- Danger to true religion, inasmuch as the Roman Catholics would, if emancipated, establish an inquisition.
- Danger to property by reviving the Court of Claims, and admitting any evidence to substantiate Catholic titles.
- Danger, generally, of throwing the power into their hands, which would make this a Catholic government, incapable of enjoying or extending liberty.
It was in truth a bewildering time. There were many more discussions and, at any rate, one practical achievement, for it was during Tone’s visit that the plans for the Societies of United Irishmen were finally completed. (29) With another great preoccupation of liberal Belfast ringing in their ears, the founders decided that the badge of this new movement should be a harp, over the motto: "It is re-strung and shall be heard." Dr Madden states definitely, and all his information in this connection was derived many years later from Mary Ann, that Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilson and Wolfe Tone together established the first Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791, and that Harry, though his name did not appear in early records was in the confidence of the executive committee from the outset. (30) It is easy to imagine the innumerable family discussions to which brothers and sisters alike contributed, and to which the brilliant young officer from the infantry barracks was constantly welcomed. Tone, too, must have been with him many times; he records that he was taken to see "the factory for sail-duck", obviously Captain McCracken’s, (31) and on another occasion they walked out to see Francis McCracken’s new ship, the Hibernia. "Hibernia [he was quick to notice] has got an English crown on her shield. We all roar at him." (32)
Two days after the dinner party at Mr McTier’s, Tone returned to Dublin. He was accompanied for four miles of the way by Dr James McDonnell, a foremost physician in the town. They had seen a great deal of each other during the last few days, for McDonnell was, if not a member of the new society, entirely in the confidence of its founders. Whether or not he agreed with all their plans it is impossible to say – perhaps he seized this opportunity to warn Tone against a too extreme programme with regard to the Catholics, perhaps on the other hand, he was completely sympathetic. So, unlike his friend Henry Joy, jun, it was never easy to know just where James McDonnell, stood politically. Be that as it may, and in spite of the political stir, of the Doctor’s growing practice and the already manifold responsibilities of the editor, we find these two plotting together for something far removed from controversy; for, in fact, a gathering of Irish Harpists and a Festival of Irish Music on a grand scale, to be held in Belfast in the following year.
But one word more about Russell. There had turned up in Belfast an accomplished individual from America of the name of Thomas Digges, a doctor of medicine. Already he had been working in England as American agent for the exchange of prisoners of war, and on account of his nationality and seeming intelligence he was received with open arms by all shades of liberal opinion in Belfast, no one stopping to wonder how this middle-aged gentleman of portly form contrived to pay his way. Suddenly the respectable citizens were thunder-struck by the news of his arrest, the immediate cause of legal proceedings being the inability of Samuel Neilson to retrieve a pair of silver spurs which the visitor had borrowed. Thomas Russell refused to join in the general condemnation, and was induced to go bail for Digges for a debt of £200. Nothing daunted, Digges attached himself to a party of ladies and gentlemen going to Glasgow for a holiday, and during a shopping expedition there, when the ladies were busy with silks and satins, contrived to carry off some articles for which no payment was made. This resulted in a further call from the agents of the law, and the party subsequently returned to Belfast without him. But Russell was more deeply implicated. The bond became due and, in order to meet it, the commission in the 64th Regiment of Foot had to be sold, and Thomas, now a poor man, for he had no private means, went off to Dungannon in December 1791, where, through the influence of Col Knoxe, an acquaintance from Indian Army days, he was appointed to the lucrative post of Seneschal of the Manor Court which carried with it a seat on the magistrate’s bench. (33) However, for reasons which will be unfolded later, Russell never regained financial security, he became more and more implicated in the revolutionary movement and Bess Goddard made another choice.
It is said that 6,000 Hugenots came to Ireland. A large proportion settled in and near Lisburn, Co Antrim.
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Templeton and Russell had been on a walking tour of the Antrim Coast.
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Belfast at this time was frequently alluded to as the Athens of the North.
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Minister of the 1st Presbyterian congregation.
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Tone’s nick-name [Parish Priest] for Russell.
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