Neilson, Samuel (DNB00)
NEILSON, SAMUEL (1761–1803), United Irishman, the son of Alexander Neilson, a presbyterian minister, was born at Ballyroney, co. Down, in September 1761. He was educated partly by his father, partly at a neighbouring school, and displayed considerable aptitude for mathematics. About the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to his elder brother John, a woollendraper in Belfast. He married in September 1785 Miss Bryson, the daughter of a highly respectable and wealthy merchant of that town, and, starting in business for himself, established one of the largest woollen warehouses in Belfast. But, becoming absorbed in politics, his business gradually declined to such an extent that it was eventually abandoned. In 1790 he was particularly active in promoting the candidature as M.P. for the county Down of Robert Stuart, afterwards Viscount Castlereagh [q. v.], in opposition to Lord Hillsborough, in the tory interest. In 1791 he suggested to Henry Joy McCracken [q. v.] the idea of a society of Irishmen of every persuasion for the promotion of a reform of parliament, and he may therefore be regarded as the founder of the United Irish Society, though the real organiser of it was Theobald Wolfe Tone [q. v.], with whom he in this year became acquainted, and with whose republican views, involving a complete separation of Ireland from England, he cordially concurred. In order to propagate the principles of the society a bi-weekly newspaper, the ‘Northern Star,’ was started under Neilson's editorship, the first number of which appeared on 4 Jan. 1792. At first only a shareholder, with a salary of 100l. per annum as editor, he eventually in 1794 became sole proprietor. Without possessing the literary qualities of its successor, the ‘Press,’ the ‘Northern Star’ soon became a very popular and influential paper in the north of Ireland, and at the time of its suppression in 1797 had attained a circulation of 4,200 copies of each issue. According to Tone, its object was ‘to give a fair statement of all that passed in France, whither every one turned their eyes; to inculcate the necessity of union among Irishmen of all religious persuasions; to support the emancipation of the catholics; and finally, as the necessary, though not avowed, consequence of all this, to erect Ireland into a republic independent of England.’ With such aims the paper naturally became an object of suspicion to government. In 1792 the printer and proprietor were prosecuted and acquitted. In January 1793 six injunctions were filed against them for seditious libels, and in November 1794 they were prosecuted for publishing the address of the United Irishmen to the volunteers. After this Neilson became sole proprietor. In September 1796 the offices of the ‘Northern Star’ were ransacked by the military and Neilson arrested. A full account of the affair appeared in the next issue of the paper on 16 Sept. He was at first placed in solitary confinement in Newgate, Dublin; but, being shortly afterwards removed to Kilmainham, the rigour of his punishment was relaxed. During his imprisonment his neighbours displayed great kindness to his wife and family. After his arrest the ‘Northern Star’ was at first edited by Thomas Corbett, and afterwards by the Rev. Mr. Porter, author of the highly treasonable articles ‘Billy Bluff and the Squire,’ but was finally suppressed with great violence in May 1797.
After seventeen months' confinement, which told seriously on his health, Neilson was, on 22 Feb. 1798, three weeks before the arrest of the Leinster Directory at Oliver Bond's, released on his own recognisances and those of his friend John Sweetman, on condition that he would for the future abstain from treasonable conspiracy. After his release he was, according to the younger Grattan (Life of Henry Grattan, iv. 368), ‘sent for and closeted with Mr. Pelham, on an inquiry by the secretary as to the probability of conciliating the north of Ireland by granting reform, and at the period of his release he was in habits of intercourse with the people of the castle. They sought him in order to obtain intelligence, as he was an open-mouthed person.’ Neilson was probably more astute than either Grattan or Pelham fancied. Mr. Lecky, who has no high opinion of him, suggests (England in the Eighteenth Century, viii. 44 n.) that in communicating with government he only did so in order to betray them. It is certain that he did not long adhere to the conditions of his release. This he admitted in his examination before the secret committee, but pleaded in extenuation that he took no part in politics till he found that government had broken faith with him, and that he had reason to know that it was intended to arrest him again. Anyhow he soon entered into communication with Lord Edward Fitzgerald [q. v.], and was very active in filling up the vacancies in the Directory caused by the arrests at Bond's on 12 March. His intimacy with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, by whom he was greatly esteemed, and his extraordinary behaviour on the evening of that unfortunate nobleman's capture, led to a widespread but unfounded belief that it was he who betrayed him (Thomas Moore, Life of Lord E. Fitzgerald). On 22 May a reward of 300l. was offered for his apprehension, and on the evening of the following day he was captured, after a desperate resistance, in which ‘he was cut and scarred in upwards of fifty places, and was only saved by the number of his assailants,’ while reconnoitring Newgate, with a view to the rescue of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. When placed in the dock on 12 July he vehemently protested against the indignity of being loaded with fetters, which the turnkey excused on the ground of his extraordinary strength and ferocity. He declined to name counsel, ‘lest he might in any degree give his concurrence to the transactions of a court which he looked upon as a sanguinary tribunal for conviction and death, and not for trial.’
According to Roger O'Connor, who claimed to have special knowledge of the transaction, it was Neilson who, in order to save his own life, set on foot those negotiations which resulted in the famous compact of 29 July 1798 between government and the political prisoners, whereby the latter, in order to stay further executions, consented to disclose the plans and objects of the United Irish Society, and to submit to banishment to any country in amity with Great Britain. Taken by itself, Roger O'Connor's statement would carry little weight; for, as Secretary Marsden said, whatever the equality of his guilt might have been, he stood very low in the estimation of his companions; but it receives some confirmation from a passage in a letter from Henry Alexander to Pelham (Lecky, Hist. of England, viii. 196 n.) The truth is that, though satisfied beyond a doubt of Neilson's guilt and fully prepared to hang him for it, the government felt uncertain of securing a conviction, owing to the escape of McCormick, upon whom they depended for evidence of direct communication with Edward John Lewins [q. v.], and the unwillingness of their principal witness to come forward in open court, and consequently were fain to make a virtue of necessity, and include him in the compact (Cornwallis, Correspondence, ii. 370). He was examined before the committees of the lords and commons on 9 Aug. 1798, and wrote a letter strongly protesting against the statements contained in the preamble to the Act of Banishment (38 Geo. III, c. 78), which he was with difficulty restrained from publishing.
After ten months' imprisonment in Dublin he was on 19 March 1799, although confined to bed with a high fever, removed with the other prisoners on board ship, and transported to Fort George, in Scotland, where, after a tedious voyage, during the greater part of which he was quite delirious, he arrived on 14 April. During his detention at Fort George he was treated with great consideration by the governor. Like Tone, he was a hard drinker, but his weakness in this respect has probably been exaggerated. Certainly he was able, in order to procure the necessary means to obtain permission for his son, whose education he wished to superintend, to live with him, to deny himself the customary allowance of wine. On 21 July 1799 he wrote a remarkable letter to his wife, in approbation of the scheme of the union, which Madden (United Irishmen, 2nd ser. i. 247) improbably suggests did not represent his real opinion. On 4 July 1802 he was landed at Cuxhaven, and restored to liberty. But a rumour, originating probably with Roger O'Connor, having reached him reflecting on his conduct in regard to the compact of 29 July 1798, he formed the immediate resolution of revisiting Ireland. He succeeded in eluding the vigilance of the authorities—though the captain of the ship in which he sailed was arrested and imprisoned—and about the end of July 1802 landed at Drogheda, whence he made his way safely to Dublin. He lay concealed for some time in the house of Bernard Coile, at 16 Lurgan Street, and then, with the assistance of James Hope (1764–1846?) [q. v.], proceeded to Belfast, where he remained for three or four days, being visited in secret by his friends and relatives. He returned to Dublin, and was sheltered by Charles O'Hara at Irishtown for some weeks, till the American vessel in which his passage was taken sailed. He landed at New York apparently early in December 1802, and was contemplating starting an evening paper when he died suddenly of apoplexy on 29 Aug. 1803, at Poughkeepie, a small town on the Hudson, whither he had gone in the autumn to avoid the plague in New York. His remains were interred in the burial-place of a gentleman of his name, though no relation of his, and a small marble slab was subsequently erected to his memory.
An engraved portrait of Neilson, from a miniature by Byrne, is prefixed to the memoir of him by Madden (ib. 2nd ser. i. 73). He was a man of pleasing appearance, tall, well built, of extraordinary strength, boldness, and determination. In politics he aimed at the absolute separation of Ireland from England; but, like the Belfast leaders generally, he relied more on native exertions than on foreign intervention. His widow embarked in business in Belfast, and her five children attained respectable positions in life. She died in November 1811, and was buried at Newtown, Breda. Neilson's only son, William Bryson, died in Jamaica of yellow fever on 7 Feb. 1817, aged 22.[A short sketch of Neilson's life by Bernard Dornin was published in New York in 1804, and was reprinted under the signature ‘Hibernus’ in the Irish Magazine of September 1811, edited by Walter Cox, to whom it was attributed. Another sketch appeared in the Dublin Morning Register of 29 Nov. 1831, by some one who possessed an intimate knowledge of his early life. Both these sources have since been superseded by the very full, but in some respects partial, memoir in Madden's United Irishmen, 2nd ser. vol. i. (1842–1846). For special information the following may be consulted with advantage: Teeling's Personal Narrative of the Irish Rebellion; Madden's Hist. of Irish Periodical Literature, 1867; Tone's Autobiography; Grattan's Life of Henry Grattan, iv. 368–71; Fitzpatrick's Secret Service under Pitt; Curran's Life of Curran, ii. 134; the published Correspondence of John Beresford, ii. 179, and of Lords Cornwallis, Castlereagh, and Auckland; Froude's English in Ireland; Lecky's Hist. of England in the Eighteenth Century; Pelham's Correspondence in Addit. MSS. Brit. Mus., particularly 33119*; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography.]