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Robert Burns Lives!
Seceders and Satire: Ulster Poetry of the Romantic Period by Dr. Jennifer Orr.


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Jennifer Orr received her PhD from Glasgow University after completing undergraduate work at Oxford University. She recently accepted a position to lecture at Newcastle University in northeast England in the School of Literature, Language and Linguistics. I met Jennifer, then a student at the University of Glasgow, at a Burns conference hosted by Ross Roy and the University of South Carolina in 2009 where she was one of the guest speakers. She is author of The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816), a magical book that has many pages on Robert Burns. (See Chapter 138 of Robert Burns Lives! for a review of Dr. Orr’s book.)  

Jennifer recently completed a trip to Georgia and South Carolina where she spoke at the Burns Club of Atlanta, the University of Georgia’s Cobb House, Georgia Southern University where she taught a class, and to the Irish Heritage Association of Sun City in Bluffton, South Carolina. Her trip was made possible by the Atlanta Irish Counsel Paul Gleeson and the Burns Club of Atlanta.  I tip my hat to them for sending this rising star in the field of Irish and Scottish academics to us. Their money was well spent!  

Jennie, as she is called by family and friends, enjoyed her whirlwind trip and will write a summary of her visit to be posted on Robert Burns Lives! in the near future. There is an old Scottish saying that we offer to this talented Irish lass: “Haste ye back”, Jennie.

(FRS: 9.19.13)

Seceders and Satire: Ulster Poetry of the Romantic Period


Dr. Jennifer Orr and Woody Woodruff, Vice President, Burns Club of Atlanta
(Photo courtesy of Burns Club member Keith Dunn)

Burns Club of Atlanta, Weds 4 September


Dr. Orr addressing members of the Burns Club of Atlanta
(Photo courtesy of Burns Club member Keith Dunn)

[1 – Title page]

By the time Robert Burns achieved national celebrity in the early 1790s, he was writing in the context of social optimism throughout Britain and Ireland. Revolutionary radicals across Europe had aspirations to create a more equal and fair society, inspired by the American and the French Revolutions. At this time the poetry of Robert Burns was immensely popular in Ulster. Not only did he write in the same Scots tongue that the rural people in the north of Ireland spoke, he captured their Presbyterian customs and his exposure of religious hypocrisy chimed with many of them who chaffed against the grain of their particular congregation. Burns’s popular lines captured a general mood: ‘It’s comin’ yet for a’ that / when man to man, the warld o’er. / Shall brithers be for a’ that’.[1]

[2 – Crambo Cave]

Ireland is famous for its poets and it is no coincidence that many of them also held strong political views. The desire among some Irishmen for political change in the 1790s was central to the formation and development of the most important group of poets that Ulster has ever known, the circle of Samuel Thomson of  Carngranny, near Templepatrick in County Antrim. This place might have looked like a cluster of cottages under the eye of a friendly landlord, but Templepatrick was a hotbed of United Irish radicalism. This group desired to end the political and economic influence of England over Ireland as well as the introduction of reform that would remove the Established Church of England from its powerful position. It was hoped this would discrimination against the Roman Catholic majority, on the one hand, and the minority of Dissenting Protestants, mostly Presbyterians who made up a sizeable population of the north of Ireland, A young schoolmaster poet, Samuel Thomson, inspired by his love of literature and admiration for Robert Burns, started a brotherhood of poets who met in his cottage at Crambo Cave group were Scots-descended Presbyterian and United Irish patriots. For years these guys were known as the Rhyming Weavers because many of them were labourers or handloom weavers by day and talented poets in their spare time. They often wrote in the native language that their grandparents had brought from Scotland. But in 1992 the scholars discovered that many of these poets had been United Irishmen and had contributed scores of poetry to the republican movement’s Belfast newspaper, The Northern Star.

[3. Hope, McCracken and Orr]

Much of what we know about the Thomson circle has been reconstructed from the poet’s correspondence held in Trinity College Dublin, an edition of which I produced recently. This has been one of the most enjoyable projects that I have ever undertaken, piecing together eighteenth century letters and all of the  connections between the poets. It all starts to make sense.  The rural poets were intimately connected through radical Belfast, most of them being associated with the Reform movement through various activities. Samuel Thomson, a school master, tutored many of the most intelligent young men in the county. His best friend Luke Mullan had a very famous republican brother-in-law, James Hope (known as Jemmy).The influence of Hope, an Antrim weaver, likely encouraged many of these men to join the United Irishmen. He was one of relatively few United Irishmen to emerge from two Rebellions (1798 and 1803) with his liberty and reputation intact. His well-deserved status as a revolutionary of the highest calibre was documented by historians of his own lifetime. One fellow rebel wrote of him, ‘there was no man did more for the United Irish cause than he did, travelling north, south, east, and west across the island undercover, taking messages between the various republican societies.’

 Hope likely introduced his comrade James Orr of Ballycarry into the Thomson network.  Like the others Orr was a poet and was exiled for a time to America as a “Fifty Pounder” – this referred to the reward that was offered to anyone who gave information leading to his capture. Orr spent time in Philadelphia where he published in local newspapers and was enabled to come back under a general amnesty in 1799, and offered himself to be a yeoman (part of the loyalist militia) but his landlord would not admit him. Orr is lauded as the most remarkable poet of the Thomson circle, composing many humanitarian poems and challenging the social prejudices of his day.

These account for the most radical poets. Others, like Samuel Thomson, the ‘father’ of the poetic circle, and his correspondent the Reverend James Glass perceived their roles to be that of patriot poets rather than armed revolutionaries. They published verse in the poetry corner of local newspapers, inspiring others with radical sentiments and contributing to a general promotion of Irish culture, giving a voice to the Irish sense of place as Burns had done for Scotland.

So what inspired them? As Presbyterian religious Dissenters, they too shared in the discrimination leveled against the Roman Catholic majority.  But Presbyterians held a powerful position  in Ulster –  there were many of them and they were superbly well educated because of the importance of being able to read the Bible. The desire for radical reform among these men was formed from a mixture of religious commitment (which privileged the authority of the Bible alone over the nation or even the king) and Enlightenment philosophical values of the right to individual judgment, that all men are created equal and of brotherhood. In their differing courses of action, the poets present us with a complex and rarely studied combination of radical values and sensitivities that cover the spectrum of eighteenth-century Presbyterian identity.

[4 – Irish Volunteers]

The Thomson correspondence begins in 1791 amid an explosion of political and cultural activity.  Ireland still had an independent parliament at this stage and was trying to reassert herself against the growing British influence. Britain maintained effective control of the Irish parliament by packing it full of landowning Anglo-Irish MPs, who were expected to vote with the British Government. But the rise of the Patriot Party (led by Henry Grattan) attempted to raise support for greater control for the Irish over their own affairs. This included the setting up of the Irish Volunteer movement. Drawn from the general public, this was a network of associations that were formed at the time of the American Revolutionary War to meet the need for defensive troops while the British army was deployed in the colonies.

[5 – Northern Star]

While the Volunteers were inspired by the American Revolution, the events of the French Revolution gave the reform movement a boost of momentum from 1789-1791. The Society of United Irishmen developed directly out of this context. The spirit of reform in Belfast attracted a number of celebrity international visitors including, from their own ranks in Dublin, the great patriot Wolfe Tone (who argued for Catholic emancipation) and the former slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Books sold by their thousands. Shortly after the French Revolution, a member of the United Irishmen, Samuel Neilson, founded the Northern Star newspaper which was aligned with the Society’s political and cultural aims. The profile of the Northern Star was designed to extend far beyond radical Belfast into the rural regions, converting the lower classes to the aims of the United Irish organization.[2]

The newspaper advertised the United Irishmen’s agenda of cultural improvement which included the promotion of traditional native Irish music, as in the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. Many of Thomson’s circle offered original poetry and song to United Irish publications - The Northern Star newspaper and United Irish song books like Paddy’s Resource . The Northern Star did not just promote the work of the individual poet, it connected poets to one another. As the leading poet of the coterie, Samuel Thomson corresponded with other publishing poets through the Star offices, the newspaper publicised his poems and volumes and he mixed in the company of prominent Belfast radicals who worked for the paper.

[6- Epistle to burns]

The establishment of a new publication went beyond the political - in creating the opportunity for up-and-coming poets to capture a new audience. Between 1792 and 1797 the newspaper published over twenty-five of Thomson’s items, earning himself the accolade of ‘poet laureate of the newspaper.’ It was here that he came into contact with Scottish poet Alex Kemp who had also met Burns in the early 1790s. The two men set about introducing new verses that they received from Burns into the Belfast News-Letter. Burns passed a manuscript of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ to Kemp which he tried to get published in the Belfast press in 1797 but was told it was ‘not fit for publication’. Thomson travelled to see Burns in 1794, being received in the poet’s Dumfries parlour and presented with a present of Robert Fergusson’s poems and several manuscripts of Burns’s poems to Clarinda, or the Edinburgh lady Agnes McLehose. Inspired by Burns’s willing collaboration, Sam Thomson and Luke Mullan advertised their intention to produce a joint publication Poems Upon Different Subjects, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, advertised in the Star intentionally on the same day as the second volume of Burns’s poems.[3]  Thomson also sent a copy of his ‘Epistle to Mr Robert Burns’ (1791) to the Northern Star. By claiming the endorsement of a celebrity poet like Burns, Thomson really had ‘arrived’ on the Belfast poetic scene.[4] 

But Burns is only part of the poets’ story. An exciting recent discovery that I made in Dublin was to find a number of unpublished poems that were seized by the Government after the Northern Star press was ransacked by the army. One is by Luke Mullan, the brother-in-law of United Irish leader Jemmy Hope. His poem ‘The Linnet, a Tale’ (1792) was published in the Northern Star next to excerpts from The Rights of Man (1792) by Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and a translation of the French Revolutionary song ‘Ça Ira’.[5] Mullan’s poem derives from a long radical tradition of bird imagery in which the caged bird expresses its desire to roam freely in the landscape:

Why shou’d we rest, tho’ ourselves are free
While e’er a friend in slavery be found?
Ah! Think what sorrow waits sheer hopeless days
That’s in the cruel tyrant’s bastille pent,
While o’er their trembling hearts despotism preys,
‘Tis there enthron’d reigns ruthless Discontent!

The original manuscript of ‘The Linnet’ was preserved alongside a particularly radical poem by Samuel Thomson called ‘The Thoughtful Bard’ (1792) which is a vernacular Scots tirade against corrupt political representation:

Ah patriots!  Up and tak her part,
L—d! can ye see it, wi  untouc’d hearts
Her harp unstrung – flung i’the dirt  
‘Tis like to melt her
I will up and mak the villains smart,
                           Wha thus insult her.[6] 

Thomson’s image of ‘the harp unstrung’ clearly plays on the United Irish emblem of the harp and its motto, ‘It is new strung and shall be heard,’ a common feature of Irish nationalist poetry that was first used here by the United Irishmen and would echo down the centuries.[7]

[7 –Transatlantic radicals]

It is hardly surprising that Mullan and Thomson’s poems ended up in Government hands. The Government tried for years to shut down the Northern Star attempting to arrest and prosecute the proprietors. When that failed, John Rabb, the printer of the newspaper, was brought to trial in 1795 for printing seditious material. Rabb knew he was being made a sacrificial scapegoat in the cause of free speech. He broke bail and fled, boarding a ship to South Carolina where he settled and appears to have established himself with considerable success in the Charleston and Columbia public print trade.  He kept in contact with the Northern Star circle through its typesetter Aeneas Lamont.  Several of Lamont’s poems can be found in the pages of the Columbia Herald in 1795-6 at the time that the Jay Treaty was debated with fervour. Lamont himself is a more rare example of a radical import to Ulster, rather than exporting radicalism as an exile.  He came to Belfast from America sometime between 1787 and 1791, having worked with the publisher Francis Childs on the American price-current, later the New York Price Current. Lamont’s subsequent reputation in Belfast was bolstered by his public print activities in 1780s Mount Vernon, New York and, later, Baltimore where he corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

As these characters move around the transnational stage, they absorbed its cultural and political influences, allowing it to inform their writing and patriotic activities. It is my hope that it will be possible to begin charting the connections between the Ulster circle and the American publications to which they contributed.

[8 – Bard’s Farewell]

Emigration was both a prospect and a reality that faced many of the poets of Thomson’s circle. America as the epitome of liberty features frequently in a number of emigration poems:

   May gales propitious waft thee o’er the wave,
Safe to Columbia’s blissful happy shore,
   Where thou, unaw’d, erect – no more slave,
Shall glad associate with fair freedom’s corps.[8]

Revolutionary America was held by many as the event that sparked Ulster Presbyterian political radicalism. Jemmy Hope recalled in his memoirs that the sight of young Irish men forced by economic necessity to fight on the side of the British had encouraged many to take the side of the colonists.[9]  The speaker of Thomson’s most outspokenly radical poem ‘The Bard’s Farewell!’ (1793) vows never to return to Ireland until her hills are ‘wreath’d in Shamrock’ (l. 53) and rural Industry is left ‘unmolested’ (l. 51).  The poem refers to crippling import taxes applied in England to Irish linen which were destroying the livelihoods of handloom weavers among Thomson’s own circle.[10] Here, Thomson’s rhetoric reflects the position of the Patriot party within the Irish Parliament who believed that Britain exercised its legislative veto at Westminster to advance its own commercial interests at the expense of Ireland’s economy.

As early as 1793, Thomson was using his poetic platform to urge a non-violent means of remedying the oppression of Ireland. He urges the working class of Ireland to cheat the ‘vile Ascendancy’ by mass emigration to America’s shores of ‘peace and liberty’ (l. 38). He exhorts them not to remain ‘in voluntary fetters’ (l. 40), much like Robert Burns’s lines, ‘the coward slave we pass him by / We dare be poor for a’ that’.[11] In calling for proactive emigration Thomson articulates the common people’s right to resist the state – it was an act of secession - something integral to Thomson’s  own Presbyterian religion. The Seceder Presbyterians  took their authority from Christ alone—not from the State—and rejected any kind of unbiblical creed, oath, or statement of faith devised by men.

Ye freeborn souls, who feel –and feel aright!
Come, cross with me, the wide, Atlantic main,
With Heaven’s aid we’ll to the land of light,
And leave these ravagers th’ unpeopl’d plain.                    (ll. 33-6)

[9 Battle of antrim]

So Thomson’s radicalism was essentially non-violent.  He did not want to see a bloody revolution and, unlike his friends Orr and Hope, he probably did not take up arms in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Many of the United Irish poets had to weigh up their Christian belief in mercy and the commandment that ‘thou shalt not kill’ against the righteous resistance of tyranny. In the confessional poem ‘A Prayer’ (1804), James Orr draws on the tradition of the psalm, a staple of Presbyterian worship, to express the afflicting contrary responsibilities that he felt as a rebel:

How dare I ask thy bolts to throw?
Whose mandate’s “Do not kill.”
But while as man I have to fight,
As man, O may I feel!            (ll. 17-20)[12]

Orr’s duty as a moral citizen required him to fight for the rights of countrymen, while his Christian compassion required that he show mercy to his fellow man. Even those who were against violence had to hope that the British state was in any position to reform itself from within.

Be BRITAIN still to BRITAIN true,
Amang oursels united;
For never but by British hands
Must British wrongs be righted.

                                       (‘Dumfries Volunteers’, ll. 13-16)

So wrote Robert Burns in his song ‘Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat’ known popularly as ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’ (1795).  The song caused outrage among the United Irishmen who took exception to its apparent retreat from a radical position. According to his Irish audience, Burns the one-time radical was now working happily as a British customs officer, snuggling up to the British government in return for a handsome salary. After all, the subscribers to Thomson’s poetry included leading United Irishmen.[13]

Thomson’s parody ‘O Scotia’s Bard, my Muse, alas!’ (1795) was an ‘impressive riposte’[14] to what he perceived as Burns’s abandonment of radical principles. He even accuses him of buddying up with William Pitt’s Secretary of War Henry Dundas (1748-1811):[15]

O Scotia’s Bard! My Muse alas!
For you in private blusters!
You’ve dip’t I’ th’ dish wi’ slee D[unda]s
An’ pric’d the loaves and Fishes!      (ll. 1-4)

Thomson’s reference to the biblical ‘loaves and Fishes’ suggests that Burns has a capitalist motivation to keep in with his Customs buddies. It is typical of the exaggerated ‘nettling’ that would characterise his many satires. 

[10 – Does haughty Gaul ]

Thomson parodies Burns almost word for word. Burns writes:

Who will not sing God Save the King,
Shall hang as high as the steeple,
But while we sing God Save the king,
We’ll ne’er forget THE PEOPLE!

Thomson replies:

So now I sing God Save the King,
And the Queen to keep him warm sir:
But may he high as Haman hing,
Who dares oppose REFORM Sir.

While challenging Burns, Thomson reveals also the extent of his familiarity with the Scottish poet’s earlier work; the stanza alludes to Burns’s sexual deflation of the British monarchy in ‘A Dream’ (1786) where the poet refers to George III’s second son the Duke of York, who was a naval captain with a reputation for love affairs. Burns satirises the duke using many sexually-suggestive nautical images, describing how he has 'lately come athwart her [...] large upon her quarter.'[16]  Likewise, Thomson satirises the King and Queen, pointing out their common humanity, relegating the king to a shivering elderly man and the Queen as his hot water bottle.

 Particularly where the parody is poetically superior to Burns’s original, it seems that ‘O Scotia’s Bard’ is testimony to Thomson’s growing confidence to challenge the work of even his greatest poetic inspirations.

[11 – Epigram to a Rank Aristocrat]

By the mid-1790s Thomson had discovered both the potency of radical rhetoric and his own ability to shift easily in and out of a number of poetic voices. ‘Epigram to a Rank Aristocrat’ (1797)[17] demonstrates his ability to adopt the voice of cannibalistic Jacobin in order to satirise extremist views. This vicious satire on a landed gentleman, describes him as ‘pork’ to be cooked ‘hissing with eggs in a pan; / Eat up by some red hot Republican clown / And go to form parts of the MAN!’ (ll. 10-12). The speaker implies that the gentleman ‘from a haughty Aristocrat knave / [might] Be made a good Citizen True!’ (ll. 15-16) suggesting that the only way to make a deserving patriot of a landowner is for him to be eaten and ingested by a true citizen.

I suggest that Thomson may be setting his own speaker up here. In allowing the speaker of poem free reign, he reveals his own violence and corrupt nature, much like Burns in ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ (1785). This poem is clearly a response to the French Terror of the mid-1790s where the government leader Robespierre had ascended to power at the top of the Committee for Public Safety and was responsible for the largescale guillotining of so-called political enemies. Within days of executing two French bishops, The Northern Star reported that Robespierre had ordered the arrests of fellow government ministers Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) and Georges Danton (1759-1794). The editor was clearly incredulous, attempting an evasive explanation, ‘So ignorant have we, in these countries been, and so little do we know of the actual situation of France’.[18]

[12 – Tom Paine]

Events in France were becoming harder to justify.  For the Presbyterian members of the United Irishmen, there was another disturbing development in France and that was the gradual erosion of the Christian religion.  Many, at first, welcomed the downfall of the Catholic church’s special status, but it soon appeared that Christianity in general was to be replaced by the ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’ – a form of Deism that many considered as bad as atheism. Republican France was going too far.  While living in France, Thomas Paine released his second major work the Age of Reason. In contrast to his ecstatically-received Rights of Man, the Age of Reason was received with horror by many Christian writers, especially the Presbyterians of the United Irishmen. They believed that God was central to their republican spirit and were offended by what they interpreted as a dangerous drift toward atheism in Thomas Paine’s latest work.

Only 5 years previously, Paine’s first work  the Rights of Man’ (1792) was received with delight:[19]

With bolder notes, with patriotic joy,
Now halls of Man, the universal friend,
Covinc’d that soon, no Tyrants shall annoy,
When humbled Kings to Freedoms Laws must bend.

Yes, Paine, immortal as thy deathless Name,
Shall freedom all the universe control,
And ev’ry Bard, with her’s proclaim thy Fame;
From shore to shore, “from Indus to the Pole.”                   (ll. 9-16)

This poem, by James Glass, could not be more different to Samuel Thomson’s ‘Answer to Paine’s  Age of Reason’ written in the late 1790s after the publication of Paine’s controversial second text:

But what could provoke you to write such a babble,
And print it, to poison the minds of the rabble? [...]
Contemptible trifle – O had it in wind
Pass’d from your republican section behind,
Or e’en like a bull-frog kept croaking within,
‘Twou’d have sav’d your poor soul from a world of sin.[20] 

Thomson accused Paine of setting ‘morals at odds’, causing men to Bawl out “Revolution, and down with the Gods!” (ll. 29-30) and ‘exciting cross parties to blows’ (ll. 36). How things had changed since the days of youthful optimism in the beginning of the French Revolution. As Wordsworth had put it, ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive!’  Thomson’s speaker in his poem is so angry that he loses himself in abusive language, ‘Tis likely, perhaps, you esteem it a farce, / That there’s any such thing as a hole in your a---,’ but eventually he calms down and pities Thomas Paine now in exile in America:

 Poor wasp of commotion, the football of fate,
A fugitive driven from state unto state,
 Still panting to join the political fray,
With horrible wars, guilt and gibbets to stay […]

Thomson ends on a note of overwhelming sympathy for Paine as a fellow misled radical; the Revolutionary settlement had not produced the achievements expected and had failed to liberate Ireland.

As tensions with France heightened, the state of alert in Britain as a whole is unmistakable. A French invasion was expected imminently. Even the rural poets found that their activities were being watched by the Government. Alexander Kemp wrote to Thomson when he discovered that while he was in Dublin during 1798, Government agents had questioned his neighbours about the content of his writings and political opinions.  Aeneas Lamont’s constant updates to Thomson sent news of the arrest and trial of his Northern Star colleagues in Belfast on the eve of the 1798 rebellion. He was to meet them when they were released. In order to be trusted with the business of the prisoners, Lamont was obviously involved to a great extent in United Irish circles. In 1796 Thomson’s friend Jemmy Hope was given the task of carrying messages to ‘the Kilmainham prisoners […]’ in Dublin ‘[including] five young men of Belfast’[21] This group included the Northern Star editor Samuel Neilson and a number of the poet’s friends. The fact that Hope was so closely involved in the mission is perhaps the reason that Lamont wrote to Thomson to inform him of the delay. You may remember that Thomson’s best friend Luke Mullan was Hope’s brother-in-law, and Thomson appears to have been charged with carrying Mullan’s news from the British Navy to his family in Ulster. Having spent time in Scotland as a ploughman and, possibly, as an actor in a traveling play, Mullan was very much reluctant to serve in the Navy, referring to the ship as ‘prison’.[22]

[13- Alloway]

Mullan's entry into the navy is shrouded in strange circumstances; it follows a literary pilgrimage to Scotland in 1794 where he met with Robert Burns.

From here, Mullan travelled to Edinburgh. A two-year gap in the correspondence then occurs during which time Mullan seems to have fled Scotland in a hurry and had most of his possessions carried off or seized. He reappears in Thomson’s correspondence in 1796, at which point he has taken a position, rather inexplicably, as a purser onboard a British naval ship. Writing from Spithead and Gosport while in port onboard HMS Queen Charlotte, he wrote many emotional fraternal letters to Samuel Thomson. The subsequent coded discussion of politics and the careful references to the progress of the United Irish revolutionary campaign with France reveal a man whose sympathies lay anywhere but with the British navy in which he was serving:

My wishes in respect to my country, I assure you my dear friend, are as ardent for peace as any of you; if peace is most to the general advantage – but you know that there are circumstances when the most cruel war is not more abhorable than an inglorious state of peaceable slavery

[13- Picture of mess]

Mullan was, at best, a reluctant British serviceman. It has even been suggested that he may have been a United Irish infiltrator within the navy. His journey through Scotland, apparently under the false name of ‘Beattie’,[23] occurred during the time as the United Irish Society actively sought to cultivate a sister organisation in Scotland. At the height of his activity in the navy, Mullan’s brother-in-law Jemmy Hope was a leading Belfast United Irish man, preparing with Henry Joy McCracken at that very moment for a revolutionary uprising.

Furthermore, Mullan was at the centre of the greatest naval mutiny that the British Navy has ever seen – the Spithead Mutiny of 1797—in which several United Irish naval infiltrators helped to disable the British fleet for a number of weeks. He mentions this cautiously in his letters to Thomson. The Royal Navy was the bastion of British global power and its infiltration by British and Irish insurgents was the singlemost terrifying revolutionary event for the English in the 1790s. That Mullan may have been in the employment of the United Irishmen, possibly passing news back to his brother-in-law Jemmy Hope in Ireland, is an interesting point of speculation.[24]

[16 & 17 – Circle 1790s]

Thomson’s correspondence mentions nothing of the rebellion itself, and the lengthy silence of his pen and the gap in his correspondence is ominous.  You can see how the circle becomes depleted by 1799 and the poets who remain tend to be less radical and more middle class. Thomson was forced to watch his circle disintegrate as the United Irish members Orr and Hope fled into exile. We know that Luke Mullan survived  to tell the tale of his adventures with Burns– he returned home at some point prior to 1800. He was lucky -  the naval ship he had served on in the 1790s blew up in the Mediterranean, killing all 637 men onboard.[25] Nothing is known of the fate of James Glass other than that he was in poor health and planned to emigrate to America in 1797.[26] And Alexander Kemp was preparing to leave Ireland for London in 1798 in the hope of making his poetic career there.[27] Whether the poets fought and were exiled, or stayed at home and hid from the consequences of the rebellion, they were equally traumatised by their experiences.

[18 – House burning]

Historical records demonstrate the particularly devastating consequences of insurrection for Thomson’s home town of Templepatrick. It also refers to the harbouring of rebel fugitives in his neighbourhood of Lyle Hill.  The repercussions of the failed rebellion changed the political landscape of Templepatrick entirely. The army burned Thomson’s village to the ground in retaliation for their rebel activities. One historian claimed that

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs record that ‘They received such a warning, in the deaths of many of the inhabitants and in the burning of their village, that they have not since meddled in politics.’[28]  

A worse fate befell the Reverend James Porter, to whom Thomson had dedicated a poem in 1797. Porter was a gifted astronomy lecturer and Thomson paid tribute to his  ‘Scientific eye, exploring space,/ Pursuing far the philosophic race, / From Mercury’s disk to utmost Saturn’s ring’ He had also authored a satire Billy Bluff and the Squire (1796) which lampooned his landlord Lord Londonderry. Londonderry got his revenge in 1798 making Porter one of highest profile United Irish martyrs in the north of Ireland,. He was hanged in front of his own Presbyterian meeting house on 14 June 1798.

            While the defeat of the Irish rebels at Antrim by no means quelled the movement altogether, the poets were not silenced. Hope regrouped with the Dublin United Irishmen, working towards a second rebellion,. This was Robert Emmet’s  ill-fated Rebellion of 1803 in which the leaders were executed. Once again, Hope amazingly survived to tell the tale.  Others condemned their former radicalism, having become utterly disillusioned. Others were angered by the failure of the French to do as they promised and come to Ireland’s aid.

By 1799, many moderates were convinced that a French invasion would have done more harm than good, as one wrote in the Belfast News Letter:

When the French Revolution commenced in 1789, there were few honest men that did not wish it success [...] HOW HAVE OUR HOPES BEEN REALIZED? – RELIGION is laughed at […]we see more printing presses put down in a week, than were silenced in England or Ireland for one hundred years. […] Wherever they [the French] go you find them confounding the true principles of freedom with the false, exciting the poor against the rich, and ruining both [...] by the never-failing consequences that fall to every country they enter […]’[29]

The following week, ‘Palemon’ of Antrim contributed a poem  in honour of Lord Bridport, commander of the British fleet, quoting Burns’s ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’ in a purely loyalist context: ‘Rejoice Britannia, if the fleets engage, / Then haughty Gaul will feel great Bridport’s rage.’[30]

[19 – Napoelon and Pitt]

Even in the most resistant county of Ulster, the general mood appeared now in favour of the defence of Britain and Ireland against a common French enemy.  Even Thomson’s disgust with Napoleon’s imperialism is evident from his poem ‘Lilt to a Frog’ (1799).The frog had evidently come to represent the aggressive Frenchman in the British popular press. The poem compares the French people’s relationship with the Bourbon monarchy with the biblical Israel’s demands for a king:[31]

Thy fathers, like the Jews,

Poor ideots, did refuse

Without a king to dwell

When Jupiter, they say,

Sent one, which in a day

Or less, they wish’d in hell!

The poet’s counsel, ‘Go to hell and seek redress, / Or live just as you are’ implies that French republicans, who deposed one king only to gain an Emperor in Napoleon, have got exactly what they deserve. Invoking the biblical history of the Israelites, the fable is further evidence that Thomson’s political radicalism lies much deeper in his Dissenting Presbyterian republicanism than  in his contact with French Enlightenment thought, but it demonstrates also that he retains a measure of ambivalence toward the British state. Condemning monarchy had obvious implications for the monarchical government of Britain. Thomson obviously agreed with the Americans – it is better to live without a king altogether.

During the Union period, there was plenty of opportunity for formrs radicals to prove their loyalty to the crown by joining the voices calling for a parliamentary Union between Ireland and Britain – as Lord Byron called it “the union of the shark with his prey.” Instead, Thomson a number of Belfast reformists who published in Belfast’s nineteenth century anti-Union journals. Thomson felt that the rebellion of 1798 had handed the British Government exactly what it wanted – the excuse to force the union. Yet as a United Irish brother bard, he could not condemn the armed activity of his brother bards like James Orr.  Orr himself was highly critical of his own rebel army at the Battle of antrim, describing in his poem ‘Donegore Hill’ the mass desertion that took place. He points to the oath sworn by the United Irishmen, that ‘ilk loun will swear to, never swithrin’,[32] but reflects that a man’s honour, if hastily sworn, is tested and found wanting in the face of battle.

Thomson came to a discovery similar to that of Wordsworth’s disillusioned radical; that is, the recognition that much of human destiny relies on the actions of a single person, such as a Robespierre who distorted liberty into terror, or a Napoleon who transformed that terror into tyranny. To accept the Romantic idea of the individual destiny would, in Thomson’s case, be expressed in explicitly Christian terms, rather than the humanist, egoistic terms of Wordsworth:

Would individuals but REFORM THEMSELVES,
And represent them, each the virtuous man
REFORM of parliaments would come of will
And vile dissension from the land would fly.
Ye powers, that order from confusion bring,
Give health and peace to meditate my song;                                
Preserve my friends – and thro’ the Summer months,
I’ll sing exulting from the brow of Life.


Jennifer Orr and the "renowned Burns Cottage cup" that is presented to each speaker
(Photo courtesy of Burns Club member Keith Dunn)


[1] ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ (1795) in Poems and Songs,

[2] Myrtle Hill, ‘Millennial Expectancy in Late 18th-Century Ulster’, in Protestant millennialism, evangelicalism and Irish society, 1790-2005, eds. Gribben and Holmes, eds., (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; hereafter Protestant millennialism), 39.

[3] NS, 26-29 June 1793.

[4] ‘The author of the following poem, sent a copy of it to Mr Burns some time ago, who was not only pleased with the compliments it contains, but expressed his admiration of his talents and genius, and requested Mr Thomson to accept a present of Books as a token of esteem from his Scotch friend.’ (NS, 18-21 April 1792.)

[5] ‘L[uke] M[ullan], Craigarogan, ‘The Linnet, a Tale’, NS 4-7 Apr. 1792.

[6] S. Thomson, ‘The Thoughtful Bard’, Rebellion Papers 620/19/77. I am grateful to Professor Colin Walker for drawing my attention to the existence of this poem.

[7] Thuente, Harp Re-Strung,  3.

[8] ‘Lyle’ [Samuel Thomson], ‘Lines addressed to Mr. William McNeil, on his embarkation with his Family to America’, NS, 28 Sep. – 1 Oct., 1795.

[9] Myrtle Hill, ‘Millenial Expectancy in Late 18th-Century Ulster’, 39.

[10]‘Irish trade in the eighteenth century can be viewed as the main branch of Irish foreign trade or as the most indispensable factor in the country’s economic development’, (L. M. Cullen, Anglo-Irish Trade 1600-1800, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), 205.

[11] ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ (1795), in Poems and Songs, 602-3.

[12] Orr, ‘A Prayer written on the unfortunate eve of 7th June 1798’, Poems, 26.

[13] They included Henry Joy McCracken, John Hughes, Samuel Neilson, James Orr, John Rabb, William Simms, Thomas Storey, Bartholomew Teeling and William Tennent, (Thomson, Poems, 9-19).

[14] Gray, ‘Burns and his Visitors from Ulster’, 331. 

[15] Dundas was a much maligned figure in radical circles, being Pitt’s chief advisor in respect of the war with Revolutionary France and a key opponent of the abolition of the Slave Trade. He was also responsible for the arrest of United Irishman Thomas Muir, (Hugh Thomas, The slave trade : the history of the Atlantic slave trade, 1440-1870, (London: Phoenix, 2006), 549.)

[16] Burns, ‘A Dream’ (1786), in Poems and Songs, 212-216, (215), (ll. 109-117).

[17] NS, 15 May 1797.

[18] NS, 10-14 Apr., 1794.

[19] NS, 15-18 Feb., 1792, p. 4.

[20] ‘Answer to Paine’s Age of Reason’ (1799), Thomson, New Poems, pp. 164-165, (ll. 7-16).

[21] R.R Madden, The United Irishmen, 246.

[22] Mullan-Thomson, 4 Feb. 1797 in Correspondence, 57.

[23] J.Creighton-‘Thomas Beatty’[Luke Mullan], 26 Sep. 1794, in Correspondence, 49.

[24] Mullan wrote to Thomson on 15 May 1797 to inform him in vague language that the mutiny ‘was all happily settled.’ (Correspondence, 71)

[25] 140 men and officers of the HMS Queen Charlotte survived, all of whom were on shore, (BNL, 8 April 1800.)

[26] James Glass-Samuel Thomson, 20 Dec. 1796, in Correspondence, 101.

[27] Kemp-Thomson, 17 Dec. 1797, Correspondence, 114. Thomson dedicated a sequence of sonnets to Kemp in his New Poems (1799), describing him as ‘a particular friend of the poet, now in London’, (New Poems, 234).

[28] ibid

[29] Belfast News-Letter, 7 May 1799.

[30] BNL, 21 May 1799 (my emphasis).

[31] 1 Sam. 8.

[32] Orr, ‘Donegore Hill’ (1804), in Collected Works, 33-37, (ll. 95-96).


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