Ruán O'Donnell pays tribute to the life of working-class United Irishman James Hope who survived both the 1798 and 1803 rebellions in Ireland
ANTRIM WEAVER James Hope was one of relatively few United Irishmen to emerge from two Rebellions (1798 and 1803) with his liberty and reputation intact. Furthermore, a variety of circumstantial and chance factors ensured that his well-deserved status as a revolutionary of the highest calibre was documented by historians of the period in which his lived.
Much of what is known about Hope stems from his interviews and correspondence with nationalist historian RR Madden, who reproduced segments of the northerner's autobiography in his own multi-volumed The United Irishmen, their lives and times as well as in Antrim and Down in ë98 in the 1840s and 1860s.
Snippets in Miles Byrne's generally reliable Memoirs and glimpses of Hope as a fugitive are to be found in the archives of Dublin Castle and the Home Office. Extant sources reveal Hope to be one of the most active organisers of the pluralist and progressive Society of United Irishmen and a proto-socialist.
James Hope was born into the Presbyterian weaving community of Templepatrick, Antrim, on 25 August 1765. His father was a Scottish Covenanter and exile who trained him in the finer points of weaving and permitted him to attend fifteen weeks of school.
Hope's informal education continued, however, and he was semi-literate before being apprenticed to a journeyman weaver named Mullen. He married Rose Mullen, the daughter of his employer.
Hope's political awakening stemmed from the American revolutionary war which was notable for the high level of Irish involvement on the part of the insurgents and in the army sent to maintain the colonists as subjects of King George III.
The war 'taught' Hope's community 'that industry had its rights as well as aristocracy' and that 'the interests of capital' were typically arrayed 'against those of labour'. A form of base republicanism rooted in the dissenting tradition of north eastern Ulster in the late 1770s and early 1780s preceded the tumults of the French Revolution.
The practical repercussions of the war included a further body blow to the failing linen industry and the increased disaffection of northern Presbyterians.
Hope joined the Roughfort corps of the Volunteers, a civilian militia raised to defend Ireland from an opportunist French attack during the American War. The organisation came under the influence of Irish 'patriots' who were attuned to the grievances of the Americans and sought similar redress in their own country.
The French Revolution of 1789 elicited further Irish calls for the democratisation of the elite ascendancy parliament which was composed entirely of members of the established Church of Ireland. Calls for 'the rights of man' became increasingly strident in 1790-91.
The United Irishmen were jointly founded in Belfast and Dublin in October/November 1791 to achieve this goal through propaganda, persuasion and popular demonstration but were too bourgeois and moderate to attract Hope's interest.
This changed in 1795 when the ruthless suppression of political dissidents and 'dragooning' of sections of the population deemed to be subversives transformed Irish society.
On 10 May 1795 the proscribed United Irishmen, driven underground on the pretext of their receptiveness to French military assistance, adopted a model constitution designed to effect revolution. Hope joined in June 1795 and, due to natural ability and charisma, came quickly to the attention of the key Belfast leaders, not least Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken.
Hope's conspiratorial acumen resulted in his being one of a small group of full time activists charged with bringing the sprawling and violent Defender movement under the auspices of the more tightly structured and politically coherent United Irishmen. This experience, and his considerable success in the role, laid the basis of his sterling reputation amongst the most committed and influential republicans.
When, in mid-1796, it became desirable to accelerate the growth of the Society in the Dublin area, Hope and a colleague were selected to liaise with the nascent southern leadership. He well understood the concerns of the manufacturing workers of the south city and assisted in binding them to the United Irishmenís cellular system.
Coercion, the invasion scare at Bantry Bay in December 1796 and the brutal counter-insurgency which ensued in the spring of 1797 pitched the country towards whole scale upheaval and disposed the United Irish leadership to redouble their preparations. Hope, William Putnam McCabe, Richard Dry, Bartholomew Teeling and a small group of highly experienced operators travelled the length and breadth of the country to agitate and organise. They used disguises, false pretexts and the extensive web of freemasonry during the recruitment drive.
Hope distributed radical printed propaganda, the radical writings of Paine and William Godwin, as well as copies of Neilson's Northern Star newspaper, a title revived by British Chartists.
Alone or with McCabe, Hope visited counties Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Armagh in late 1796 and over the winter of 1796-7 either rode or walked through Roscommon, Westmeath, Wicklow, Wexford, Kildare, Meath and Dublin. Well over 1,000 miles were traversed and scores of meetings convened for which the punishment was transportation, and, from late 1797, death. Risk also emanated from his 'own side'; Hope narrowly avoided being executed in Dublin when mistaken for an infiltrator.
The big push into the eastern province of Leinster in the spring of 1797 created the first, massed based revolutionary organisation in the islands of Ireland and Britain. While the pioneering Defenders might lay claim to the distinction, the more sophisticated United Irishmen were a truly national, democratic, armed and oath-bound anti-government body.
As is well known, the rebellion of 1798 broke out prematurely in late May of that year owing to a series of reverses sustained by the leadership and membership of the United Irishmen. The uprising was not the irresistible and popular revolt backed by professional French soldiers and war material but an ad hoc and disparate effort that could not be co-ordinated by the rebels.
Nevertheless, it was far more formidable that was politic to admit in the newspapers of Dublin and London. Hope rallied with his friends in his home place and fought at the Battle of Antrim on 7 June 1798. The 'spartan band' were distinguished for their fighting ability yet could not prevail in a province where the United Irishmen were numerically strong on paper but not at the moment of truth.
From 13 June insurgents like Hope were obliged to accept terms of surrender, attempt to return home without authorisation or go on the run. Hope deemed it impossible to swear the oath of allegiance on the grounds that it was tantamount to 'a recantation of one's principles' and 'could not join in any written or verbal acknowledgement of guilt'. An enduring lesson of the rebellion for Hope was his distrust of commanders who possessed neither the motivation nor the ability to lead rebels.
Hope began to move once more in the remnants of the United Irish movement and, when forced to leave Antrim in November, took work with Edward Finn in the south city Liberties of Dublin. In June 1799 Hope sought employment with the Teeling family at the Naul on the Meath/Dublin border, once again availing of political contacts to stay ahead of the authorities. This chapter closed in mid-1802 when the undue attention of a distrusted workmate resulted in Hope's relocation to Dublin.
With Teeling's assistance, he opened a haberdashery at No 8, The Coombe and lived quietly in a community in which he had once agitated. He was so engaged when contacted by the agents of Robert Emmet who, in the spring of 1803, began to prepare the ground for another French-backed revolt to which Tallyrand and Napoleon had given undertakings.
Hope assessed Emmet's plans, developed with the assistance of Thomas Russell, William MacNeven, Thomas Addis Emmet and others whom he had encountered and respected in 1796-8, and joined the conspiracy. Within a short period Hope was confident that 5,000 men of the Liberties would assist in the uprising intended when the garrison of Dublin was called away to confront French invaders.
He negotiated with the Wicklow rebels under Michael Dwyer, who had hitherto demurred, and supplied them with high quality weapons as a sign of good faith. Miles Byrne, leader of Wexford men living in the city, was highly impressed with Hope's skills.
Attempts by government agents to discern what was afoot brought the distrusted Belfast lawyer James McGucken to Hope's door in June 1803. Hope realised that his position was precarious and moved with his family to Emmet's secret headquarters in Rathfarnham, south Co. Dublin.
An accidental explosion in the Patrick Street arms depot obliged the Emmet coterie to advance the rising to 23 July and Hope was sent to east Ulster with Russell to take command of those who had promised to participate. They found that men who were willing to fight alongside the French, or even unaided if properly supplied with firearms, would not confront the muskets, cannon and cavalry of the crown forces with pikes alone as they had in 1798.
The Ulster segment of the rising was a fiasco and Hope's absence from south Dublin had a negative effect on its levels of mobilisation. For all intents and purposes, Emmet cancelled the rising and headed for the hills, leaving a group of south city militants to vent their frustration in an attack on the Coombe barracks.
By July 1803 Hope was only-too-well versed in the furtive existence of a revolutionary and his experience ensured that he was one of very few high level activists to survive the massive crackdown. Whereas Emmet, Russell, Felix Rourke and almost thirty others went to the gallows and up to 3,000 to prison, Hope remained at large and in employment. Abandoning, yet again, their worldly possessions, the Hopes lived incognito for a year in Drogheda and then shifted to Westmeath. Matters improved in March 1806 when the Whig government of Charles James Fox and Lord Grenville came to power and rescinded martial law. With habeas corpus unsuspended and a more liberal political environment, the vengeful severity of the early 1800s abated.
All remaining political prisoners were released and Hope's wife Rose wrote to the Duke of Bedford to ascertain whether the government intended prosecuting her husband. It transpired that Hope's name was not associated with any capital charges and the family were consequently able to live openly for the first time in a decade. Remarkably, Hope's comrades who made terms with the government after arrest divulged very little of his leading role in the Emmet conspiracy.
Hope maintained a life long interest in the conditions of the working classes and set down his strong views on land tenure for publication by Madden. It was his firm belief that those who worked the land should derive the profits that accrued and that 'an honest livelihood will then be within the reach of every industrious man of an adult age, leaving sufficient for all who may be old or helpless'.
His second career as a clerk commenced on his return to Belfast where he spent many years working for Joseph Smyth, publisher of the Belfast Almanac. He died in Mallusk, Antrim, predeceased by his wife in 1831.
* A new edition of United Irishman, the autobiography of James Hope, edited and introduced by John Newsinger is published by Merlin Press £14.95 pbk
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2001 Ruán O'Donnell