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Samuel Neilson (1762 - 1803):
United Irishman and newspaper editor

The leading United Irishman, Samuel Neilson, was born in Ballyroney in County Down on 17 September 1762, to Reverend Alexander Neilson (the minister of the local Presbyterian church) and his wife Agnes Carson, a widow whom he married in 1751. Nine of the couple’s children survived childhood, and Samuel followed an older brother, John, to Belfast where the former had established a successful textile business, the Irish Woollen Warehouse, in Waring Street. After John Neilson’s death in July 1787, Samuel continued the business and became a wealthy merchant in his own right. A member of the Third Belfast Presbyterian congregation in Rosemary Lane, Neilson played an active role in his church. An officer in the Belfast First Volunteer Company, he became prominent in the campaign for a reform of the Irish parliament and was an advocate for the political rights of Catholics. Inspired by the events of the French Revolution, Neilson was one of a small group of Belfast Volunteers serving in a secret committee to promote the rights of man and the removal of sectarian distinctions as the means of achieving political reform. This group contained the majority of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen and Neilson deserves to be regarded as a leading figure in the genesis of the organisation, alongside Dr William Drennan and Theobald Wolfe Tone, who nicknamed Neilson “The Jacobin”, in deference to his advanced political views. Even before the formation of the United Irishmen, Neilson and other radicals in the town devised a plan to promote a second newspaper in Belfast to rival the Belfast News-Letter, which had been established by Francis Joy in 1737. While the News-Letter was a progressive newspaper in its own right, Neilson’s vision was for something more radical and, indeed, subversive. The first edition of the Northern Star appeared in January 1792, with Neilson as the leading shareholder and editor. The Star was a fierce critic of government policy and a satirical observer of the abuses of the Protestant Ascendancy. Contributors to its columns included Thomas Russell, William Sampson and Reverend James Porter.

After the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, the United Irishmen and the society’s popular organ, The Northern Star, became the focus of a government clampdown. The editor and shareholders of the newspaper were prosecuted on two separate occasions in 1794 and the premises in Wilson’s Court were attacked several times by the military. The Northern Star eventually ceased publication in May 1797 when its presses were destroyed by the Monaghan Militia. When Wolfe Tone was implicated in a conspiracy with the French agent Reverend William Jackson, Neilson was one of the Belfast United Irish leaders who were privy to the plan to seek French assistance for a United Irish rebellion. With Tone in France negotiating with the ruling Directory from early 1796, Neilson played a leading role in developing the United Irish conspiracy, overseeing the cultivation of links with the Catholic Defenders and turning the United Irishmen into an armed insurrectionary force.

Neilson’s activities brought him to the attention of the authorities and he was arrested in Belfast on 16 September 1796 and conveyed to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where he remained imprisoned without trial until February 1798, when he was released on grounds of ill health. After a period of recovery in Dublin, Neilson resumed his revolutionary activities, became part of the trusted entourage of the United Irishmen’s commander-in-chief, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and was active in organising the planned rebellion. Fitzgerald’s arrest on 19 May saw Neilson take the lead in co-ordinating the rebellion, just as the United Irish leaders in Dublin became divided over strategy. Neilson himself was arrested outside Newgate Gaol on 23 May as he was reconnoitring the area in an attempt to free Fitzgerald, who was, in fact dying from injuries sustained during his arrest and the infection which followed. The failure of Dublin to rise successfully meant that the rebellion was almost certain to fail. 

Neilson was again a prisoner as the rebellion raged during the summer of 1798. Once tranquillity had been restored, he was the architect of a deal between the United Irish State Prisoners and the government, whereby the leaders of the conspiracy would provide information about the United Irishmen without implicating any individual. Expecting to be granted free passage to the United States, Neilson and the other prisoners were instead transported to Fort George in Scotland in 1799, where he was joined for a time by his young son, William Bryson Neilson. The prisoners were detained until June 1802 when they were taken to the free city of Hamburg. Neilson returned secretly to Ireland and, after a brief reunion with his mother, wife and children, he departed for the United States. He planned to resume his business activities and be joined by his family, but fell ill and attempted to escape the yellow fever that was rampant New York by taking a boat along the Hudson River. He disembarked at Poughkeepsie and died there on 29 August 1803. His final resting place is in the Rural Cemetery on the outskirts of the town. 

Born: 17 September 1762
Died: 29 August 1803
Kenneth Dawson

KL Dawson: The Belfast Jacobin: Samuel Neilson and the United Irishmen (Newbridge, 2017); RR Madden, The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times Series 1-4 (London, 1842 and 1860), National Archives of Ireland, Dublin: Rebellion Papers 620; State Prisoners Petitions; Frazer MSS; National Archives, London: Home Office Papers (HO/100); University of Rhode Island: Samuel Neilson Collection Mss. Gr.72; The Northern Star 1792-97