Portrait of William Drennan

doctor, poet, political reformer, and one of the early supporters
of the Society of United Irishmen

The North of Ireland rarely sets people at ease. There is a passionate bluntness that does not always land well. This defined William Drennan’s experience of radical Ireland 200 years ago. And it remains achingly relatable to today.
          Drennan was a United Irishman. A Unitarian by faith, a doctor by profession and a political reformer. He was a writer not a fighter. At once central to the United Irishmen movement, yet slightly removed.
          Whelan’s book interrogates the accepted historical consensus that Drennan wasn’t a radical enough radical. That he erred towards anti-Catholicism. On these charges, Whelan acquits Drennan well. Instead, a portrait of a sincere, intellectually passionate, guarded and slightly spiky human being emerges. Fully radical. Just not in the conventional way.


One of the problems with Drennan’s reputation is that he was not really an Irish nationalist. He loved the English radical tradition as much as the Irish and eventually married an English Dissenter. Drennan initially believed that Ireland could only reform if it was independent from Britain, but later came to believe that reform could be achieved in the union.
          He opposed all hierarchies and wanted democratic rights by any means necessary. Although a man of faith, Drennan is best understood as a secular republican, an internationalist. To judge him unsolid on the national question is to misunderstand his own terms of reference.
          Whelan paints Drennan as a cautious person. While his politics were revolutionary – he was fond of the guillotine for monarchal tyrants – he was also concerned with self-preservation. Sometimes he would publish provocative letters to powerful dignitaries under his own name. Other times he used pseudonyms. He went to some rallies, but not others. He visited comrades in jail, but not too often. He covered his tracks.
          Despite being highly active in the United Irishmen movement, Drennan spent just 24 hours in prison for sedition in 1794, and was not arrested in 1798. Whelan demonstrates Drennan’s consistent political involvement and the many risks he took for friends. But Drennan was not tempted by battle itself. And his propensity to lie low probably created the impression that he was not fully in.
          The most disturbing charge against Drennan is that he was a bigot. Whelan lays out the evidence without sugarcoating. Drennan’s rant to a friend that Newry was full of “pigs and papists” is a low point. He hated what he saw as many Catholics’ subservience to church hierarchy. To be fair, he railed against Orangeism and Anglicanism for similar reasons. But it was his stiff relationship with Catholicism that caught scrutiny.
          Whelan shows how, after a slow start, Drennan became a long-standing advocate for Catholic rights – not just to vote, but also to bear arms. He made consistent alliances with Catholic radicals, to the point of alienating some former friends in the North.
          Overall, Whelan convinces that allegations of bigotry are harsh. But there is a revealing story about a dinner party Drennan threw in later life. He invited Catholic guests, but was shocked when it turned out to be a faux pas because of Holy Thursday. And so a certain awkwardness is left hanging.
          Belfast plays a starring role in Whelan’s book. Beautiful, seditious Belfast. A plain-speaking tinderbox, in contrast with the smooth urbanity of Dublin. By the 1790s, Whelan portrays Belfast radicals as edgier than their Dublin counterparts. And Drennan as frustrated by the slower pragmatism of southern Catholic reformers.
          At a pivotal point in the French Revolution, Whelan describes how every window in Belfast was lit up with illuminations bearing slogans such as “Vive la République”, “Church and State separated” and “Union amongst Irishmen”. Support in Dublin was patchy.
          All who love Belfast know it is a cursed town. You can’t live with it and you can’t live without it. While Drennan loved the excitement of Dublin life, he was not quite at ease. There was never enough uptake of his medical services, and he couldn’t afford to keep up with his friends. So he returned to Belfast in 1807, where he quickly took up with a radical coterie, establishing new publications and even a school. He thrived in Belfast and finally, it seems, found peace with himself.
          May Tyrants Tremble is an incredibly human narrative. It is as much about Drennan’s inner struggles, and his family, as it is about high politics and rebellion. It is tightly written and referenced, but with bite-sized chapters and a pacy story. Any contextual digressions are worth it.
          The candid letters between Drennan and his sister Martha are a joy. Warm, human, not nipped in by social expectations or speechifying. Martha spurred her brother on, criticised where needed and held him to account. Letters to Sam McTier – Drennan’s brother-in-law and confidant – add further depth, offering a blunt insider account of radical politics in late 18th-century Ireland.
          It is clear that Whelan likes Drennan. When a doctor rival in Newry gives Drennan the cold shoulder, he is dismissed as “This Templeton”. You can hear the disdain. In fact, Whelan’s writing displays many of the qualities that he admires in Drennan – straightforward, sincere, loyal. This makes for a compelling read.
          I closed this book with many layered feelings about Drennan. Does he pass a traditional Irish nationalist purity test? He does not. Did he break bread with the Catholics and “common man” he wrote about? Probably not as often as he could have. Was he true to his own dissent? He was.
          The book ends with Drennan’s coffin being carried by six Protestants and six Catholics. His son underlines that people from all social classes attended. Is this radical by the standards of the time? Most definitely. And it is for this enduring progressive spirit, in all its northern awkwardness, that Drennan deserves a warm place in the history of the United Irishmen.

Reviewed by Claire Mitchell