This image above is of the Ulster Volunteer Force drilling at Killyleagh Castle. It was taken in 1913 the year before the Larne Gun running. These men carry no weapons. It is possible that many of those pictured here saw action as the 36th Rifle Division and some of them may have died at the Somme. This was not the first time a volunteer militia of Protestant Ulstermen had paraded in the courtyard of Killyleagh Castle. In the 1780s the then owner of the castle, Gawin Hamilton and his son Archibald Hamilton Rowan drilled the Killyleagh volunteers in the castle courtyard. It is likely that a few years later these Killyleagh volunteers fought in the ranks of the army of the United Irishmen at Saintfield and Ballynahinch in 1798.
In January 1785, when travelling from Dublin to Killyleagh, Archibald Hamilton Rowan stopped off at Newry to be collected by his father’s coach. Dr William Drennan, who was at this time practicing medicine at Newry, sent him a note asking for an interview. Drennan had recently established his reputation as an eloquent writer in the radical cause. He was the son of Rev Thomas Drennan (1696-1768) and was born in the manse of the First Presbyterian Rosemary Street, Belfast, in 1754 where his father was then Minister.
His father’s dearest friend Francis Hutcheson had died in 1746, nine years before William Drennan was born, but the great philosopher’s liberal, progressive and anti-slavery philosophy was to have a significant influence on William Drennan and Hamilton Rowan.
Francis Hutcheson and his cousin William Bruce had left Killyleagh Academy together and entered the University of Glasgow in 1711. The Killyleagh Academy had been established in the early 17th century by James Hamilton, an ancestor of Hamilton Rowan who had himself lived at Killyleagh Castle.
After graduating from Glasgow, Hutcheson, Bruce and Drennan senior established a presbyterian academy in Dublin in 1719 which attempted to emulate the school at Killyleagh. Hutcheson’s Dublin school prepared young men for entry to Glasgow and ultimately for the Presbyterian ministry. Hutcheson, Bruce and Rev. Drennan collaborated in forming a study circle which, between 1720 and 1730, published radical material including Hutcheson’s own works and controversial republican writers such as Edmund Ludlow the Cromwellian soldier, Algernon Sidney who was executed for an alleged plot to assassinate the Duke of York the future James II and John Toland.
Toland, a native Gaelic speaker from Donegal, was a notorious heretic whose book Christianity not Mysterious had been burnt by the public hangman in Dublin in 1797. It took courage for Hutcheson and Bruce to attempt to popularise such radical authors. One reason why they got away was it was that Ludlow, Sydney and Toland were enemies of the Stuart kings Charles I and his two sons Charles II and James II. During Hutcheson's Dublin years Hanoverian George 1st was on the throne and the Stuarts were regarded as the Jacobite threat by most Protestants on these islands.
It should be remembered that Hutcheson republican circle revered the memory of William III and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They were also strong supporters of the Hanoverian succession which had prevented another restoration of the hated Stuart dynasty.
Bruce and Hutcheson published tracts in favour of religious toleration, non-sectarian education and even state payment for Roman Catholic clergy. The members of the group were almost all from Ulster. However the congregation they associated with in Dublin, based at Wood Street, was of Cromwellian republican origin.
Dr Caroline Robbins of Harvard tells us that Hutcheson’s and Bruce's Dublin circle helped, ‘to hand to a second generation a patriotic spirit that included all Irishmen in its loyalties, and diffused a liberal philosophy throughout more than one city and country’. Hutcheson held that:-
Governments should be created by popular elected assemblies
Elections should be by ballot and be held regularly that people had a right to resist public and private tyranny and bad government
He supported the idea of a citizens army
He held that public office should not be inherited but should be awarded on merit
He was opposed to the slave trade.
All of these principles were repeated verbatim in the pages of the Northern Star the paper of the Belfast United Irishmen, sixty years after Hutcheson first outlined them.
Although Rev Drennan died when his son William was just 14, his father and his circle of friends had had the most profound influence on the young man. When on trial for his life in Dublin in 1794 Drennan wrote:
"I am the son of an honest man a Minister of that gospel which breathes peace and goodwill amongst men a Protestant dissenting Minister in the town of Belfast. He was a friend and associate of the good and may I say great men. Of Abernethy, of Bruce, of Ducal, and Hutcheson."
By the time William Drennan had his first interview with Hamilton Rowan at Newry he was already a committed republican. He had published a pamphlet, voicing his views on the need for constitutional reform and Catholic emancipation.
Drennan was fast coming to the conclusion that a secret republican society based on the practices of Freemasonry should be formed by the radicals within the Volunteers. He may even have discussed this possibility with Hamilton Rowan at their first meeting, because the impression he formed of Rowan was that he was, ‘a clever fellow just the thing for constitutional conspirator’. Drennan instantly liked Rowan and observed that he had Cromwellian qualities about him, when he said, ‘he has something of the Long parliament in his countenance, some of the republican ferocity’. In temperament and physical appearances and many other ways the contrast between the two men was very great indeed. Drummond writes, ‘the one being of herculean size, warm impetuous but highly polished and courteous withal; the other low in stature cold in manner, slow deliberative but lodging in his breast the elements of a lofty and noble spirit.
Rowan was a larger-than-life man of action and Drennan was a small, rather timid figure, yet they had much in common. Both were Unitarians and shared the outlook that the penal laws directed at Roman Catholics and dissenters were a denial of liberty. In Dublin, both were active committee members of the Great Strand Street Presbyterian congregation which was the descendant of Wood Street where Bruce, Hutcheson and Drennan senior had been active.
From their first short interview at Newry, Drennan had great admiration for Rowan and there began an attachment and a political co-operation between them.
Back in May 1786 Rowan had been unanimously chosen to the command of the Killyleagh Volunteers. He wrote a letter of thanks in which he told his men that ‘the torpid state of the Volunteers of Ireland distresses me’. He went on to ask them:
"Are the volunteers to be contented to meet annually in silent mock parade? Are they with the arms of peace in their hands to permit that constitution, which the blood of our ancestors will shed in establishing against open force to be mouldered down to the corrupt practises of a few? Or are they to stand forth the guardians of the rights of mankind, and the determined opposers of every kind of tyranny."
The Killyleagh Volunteers or mainly, if not exclusively, Presbyterians and Hamilton Rowan’s reference to ‘the blood of our ancestors’ was obviously intended to be understood as referring to those who fought at the Boyne and elsewhere with King William’s forces against James II.
A few years later Drennan and Hamilton Rowan founded the Society of United Irishmen and later still would stand trial for their lives. With more luck than some of their comrades, both escaped the gallows and in the great tumult of 1798 and 1803. The friends Oliver Bond, Henry Joy McCracken, Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell and young Robert Emmet were not so fortunate. How Drennan and Rowan survived is a great story for another day.
For now it is enough to know that both men did survive. They never repudiated their opinions, their actions or their dead friends. On the contrary both were ever ready to defend the reputations of their fallen comrades. Both retained their radical democratic politics until the end of their days. They were both strong supporters (eventually) of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. Rowan was for the union from the beginning but Reynolds took a few years to become reconciled. Rowan saw the Union as a victory over feudalism because it abolished one of the most corrupt parliaments that ever existed. Drennan and Rowan's republicanism is not to be confused with or conflated into modern Irish Nationalism. They were patriots who loved their country but their Universalist republicanism owes much to Francis Hutcheson.
This address by Fergus Whelan was delivered on the occasion of the unveiling of a plaque to Francis Hutcheson in Dublin on 1st December 2012.