MacNeven, William James (DNB00)
|←MacNeill, John Benjamin||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 35
MacNeven, William James
MACNEVEN or MACNEVIN, WILLIAM JAMES, M.D. (1763–1841), United Irishman, eldest son of James and Rosa (born Dolphin) MacNeven, was born on 21 March 1763 at JBallynahowna, near Aughrim, in co. Galway, a small estate allotted to an 'innocent papist' ancestor of his during the Cromwellian settlement, in lieu of certain lands possessed by him in the north of Ireland. He was educated in the neighbourhood, at Ballinasloe, and Archreagh, till about the age of ten, when he was placed under the care of his paternal uncle, Baron MacNeven, who resided at Prague in Bohemia, and held an honourable position at the Austrian court as one of the physicians of the Empress Maria Theresa. After receiving a good classical education, and passing through the medical college at Prague, MacNeven proceeded to the university of Vienna, where he graduated in 1783. He returned to Ireland in the following year, and established himself in practice in Dublin. He took a keen interest in public affairs, especially in the catholic emancipation movement, and became an active member of the catholic committee as the representative of Navan. He supported John Keogh (1740-1817) [q. v.] in his opposition to the timid policy of Lord Kenmare, and in the catholic convention of 1792, commonly called the Back Lane parliament, he advocated the extension of the forty-shilling freehold franchise to the Roman catholics. He was induced by Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Arthur O'Connor to join the United Irish brotherhood, and in January 1797 he took the oath from Miss Moore of Thomas Street, to whom he was strongly attached. He was one of the ablest members of the United Irish executive, and on 27 June 1797, when there was some danger of a premature rebellion, he left Ireland for the purpose of supporting Edward Lewins [q.v.], the United Irish plenipotentiary at Pans, in urging the immediate intervention of France. On his arrival at Hamburg, where he passed under the name of Williams, he drew up an elaborate memorial on the state of affairs in Ireland and the best means of effecting an invasion. This memorial he was anxious to deliver himself, but some difficulty being made about giving him a passport to Paris, and his presence being required in Ireland, it was placed in the hands of Reinhard, the French minister at Hamburg, to be translated and transmitted to the Directory. By the agency, probably, of Samuel Turner [q. v.], a copv of this document, printed in the 'Castlereagh Correspondence,' i. 296-301 with some interesting omissions (Lecky, Hist. of Engl. vii. 386), was communicated to the English government.
MacNeven returned to Ireland in October, and on 12 March 1798 he was arrested with the chief leaders of the movement and confined in Kilmainham gaol. He was profoundly affected by the severity with which government suppressed the rebellion, and, in order to allay the public panic, he, with others of his fellow-prisoners, yielded to the suggestion of Francis Dobbs [q. v.] to make a full disclosure of the conspiracy, and to submit to banishment for life to any country at amity with England. By the advice of Lord Clare their offer was on 29 July accepted, and on 4 Aug. MacNeven, Emmet, and O'Connor presented a detailed statement of the origin and progress of the United Irish movement to government. The document (MacNeven, Pieces of Irish History, pp. 174-93; Castlereagh Correspondence, i. 363-72), which was an able defence of the United Irishmen, was regarded as unsatisfactory by government, and accordingly suppressed. On 7 and 8 Aug. MacNeven was examined before secret committees of the lords and commons. He com- plained that his examination was garbled, and subsequently published an authentic version of it. The United States had at first been chosen as the place of his banishment, but, owing to the difficulties raised by Rufus King, United States minister at London, whom MacNeven never forgave for his interference (MacNeven, Pieces of Irish Hist., Introduction), he and his fellow-prisoners were, in March 1799, removed to Fort George in Scotland. During his detention he was treated with consideration by the governor, and amused himself by teaching French to his friend Emmet's children.
He was liberated at the treaty of Amiens in 1802, and on 4 July landed at Ouxhaven, at the mouth of the Elbe. He spent the summer and autumn in making a tour on foot through Switzerland, and after visiting his relations in Bohemia proceeded in the following year to Paris. In 1803 or 1804 he entered the French army as captain in the Irish brigade, but being disappointed in his expectation of an invasion of Ireland, and feeling no inclination for a military life, he resigned his commission, and, sailing from Bordeaux, landed at New York on 4 July 1805. He immediately resumed the practice of his profession, and in 1808 was appointed professor of midwifery in the College of rhvsicians and Surgeons. He exchanged this chair for that of chemistry in 1811, and in 1812 he was appointed resident physician. To chemistry he added materia medica from 1816 to 1820. In 1826 he resigned his professorship to assist in the establishment of the Duane Street school, where he lectured on materia medica till the school was discontinued in 1830. He was appointed hospital inspector during the cholera epidemic in 1832, and in 1840 was reappointed resident physician. Meanwhile he took a warm interest in Irish affairs, and as the founder in 1816 of a free labour office in Nassau Street for Irish emigrants, and the president in 1828-9 of the 'Friends of Ireland' society, he laboured to promote the welfare of his countrymen in America. He belonged to the democratic party, and in 1834 he was grossly abused by his partisans in the public press for denouncing President Jackson's removal of the deposits from the United States Bank as 'unwise and unstatesmanlike.' The last time he addressed a public meeting was on St. Patrick's day 1837, when he drew an interesting comparison between the constitutional agitation of O'Connell and the tactics of the United Irishmen. He had a severe illness in 1838, and in April 1839 he retired from practice. He died, as he had lived, a sincere Roman catholic, on 12 July 1841, at the residence of his son-in-law, Thomas Addis Emmet [q. v.], and after an imposing funeral service in St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, was buried at Bowery Bay, Long Island, in the burial-ground of the flicker family.
MacNeven married, on 15 June 1810, Mrs. Jane Margaret Tom, widow of John Tom, merchant, of New York, and daughter of Samuel Kicker of New Town, Long Island, by whom he had several children. MacNeven was a good classical scholar and a proficient in modern languages. An engraved portrait, from a drawing by Herbert (United Irishmen, 2nd series), represents him as handsome and intelligent.
In addition to numerous contributions to the public press MacNeven published: 1. 'A Translation of A. F. von Geissau's Essay on the Construction of a Mine Auger,' London, 1788. 2. 'A Ramble through Switzerland in . . . 1802,' Dublin, 1802. 3. 'Pieces of Irish History,' New York, 1807. 4. 'An Exposition of the Atomic Theory,' New York, 1820. He also edited W. T. Brande's 'Manual of Chemistry,' New York, 1829.
[Madden's United Irishmen, 2nd ser. vol. ii. (memoir by MacNeven's daughter); Castlereagh and Cornwallis Corresp.; Wolfe Tone's Journal; Fitzpatrick's Secret Service under Pitt; Miles Byrne's Memoirs; Lecky's Hist. of Engl.]