Jemmy Hope – the most radical United Irishman

Historian Fergus Whelan outlines the story of United Irishman Jemmy Hope (1764–1847) and sees the radical Presbyterian’s belief in steadfast opposition to sectarianism being as important today as it was in the 18th century.

There are many people and groups in Ireland who claim for themselves the mantle of Irish Republicanism and the heritage of the United Irish Society of the late eighteenth century. From the morally bankrupt Fianna Fáil to the so called republican splinter groups, the United Irishmen are hailed as the initiators of an Irish nationalist and anti-British philosophy which has informed the so called national struggle for the last two centuries.

What the United Irish Society tried to initiate was a brotherhood of affection between Irishmen of all creeds. They combined the most advance democratic thought of their age with anti-sectarianism, social radicalism and what they called Universalist Republicanism but which a modern leftist would call internationalism.

Historian Mary McNeill says of the working class United Irish leader Jemmy Hope; “He represented the almost inarticulate aspirations of the strongly revolutionary element among the Presbyterian labourers both rural and urban: he was indeed the most radical of the United Irishmen – in some respects the greatest of them all.”

On Bastille Day 1792 the Belfast United Irishmen held a great march and rally to celebrate the third annivesary of the French Revolution. Their newspaper, the Northern Star, gave a full account of the day’s activities. Different corps formed into a brigade of three battalions and marched through High Street. They carried a portrait of Dr. Benjamin Franklin emblazoned with Algernon Sidney’s (the Protestant Whig martyr executed in 1683) motto ‘Where liberty is there is my country’. The town’s inhabitants cheered the 5,000 marchers some of whom carried banners with slogans, such as ‘Can the African Slave Trade, Though Morally Wrong Be Politically Right’. The American flag, ‘the Asylum of Liberty’, and the French republican tricolour hung from many windows.

James (Jemmy) Hope of Templepatrick carried one of the banners that day. He held a green flag with the inscription; “Our Gallic brother was born on the 14th July 1789 alas we are still in embryo Superstitious galaxy the Irish Bastille let us unite to destroy it.”

Templepatrick is a village just outside Belfast. The Rev. John Aberneathy, a leader of New Light Presbyterianism, had a congregation there when Hope was a child. However Hope’s father was a member of the more conservative Presbyterian congregation in the town. During his early years Hope was exposed to Calvinist sectarian and anti-Catholic preaching which he found distasteful. His Minister used to pray for ‘the purging of the blood that lay unpurged on the throne of Britain’ until the Royal Bounty was extended to Presbyterian ministers. The Minister then changed emphasis. He then prayed for the downfall of Popery and for the stoppage of the effusion of Protesant blood. Hope would pray only for ‘the stoppage of the effusion of human blood’. He remained deeply religious all his life but rejected the sectarianism to which he had been exposed in his youth and would latter put his thoughts on religion into verse;

“These are my thoughts, nor do I think I need
Perplex my mind with any other creed.
I wish to let my neighbour’s creed alone
And think it quite enough to mind my own.”

Hopes first political involvement was with the Roquefort Corps of the Irish Volunteers. Despite his working class roots the wealthy Volunteer leaders (and later United Irishmen) Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson were his close friends and regarded him as their equal.

Although self educated he was very well read and posessed of a keen intellegence. A weaver by trade Hope had great organising skills and the class politics of a proto-socialist. When the United Irishmen became an oath-bound society Hope argued that oath-taking was pointless because ‘an honest man is bound by his word but no oath can bind a knave’.

In the spring of 1796 Unitied Irishman leader Sam Neilson sent Hope along William Putnam McCabe, William Mines of Saintfield, and William Metcalfe of Antrim, to Dublin to help organise the workers in the capital. Neilson gave letters of introduction to Hope and Metcalfe recommending them to Edward Dunn, Henry Jackson’s foreman. Henry Jackson and his son-in-law Oliver Bond were wealthy Dublin based Presbyterian businessmen who were successfully recruiting their workers into their revolutionary committee based at Pill Lane (now Chancery Street) near the north bank of the river Liffey. The informer the Sham Squire had dubbed this group the King Killers of Pill Lane. Another informer told the authorites that the Pill Lane leader Oliver Bond ‘had great dominion of all the [black] smiths and other desperate fellows and would on the downfall of government have been at the head of everything’.

Neilson in sending Hope to Dublin in 1796, was sending his man best qualified to organise the working class. Hope recruited textile workers in Balbriggan where he lived for a time. He helped to develop a mass working class membership for the United Irishmen in Dublin under the direction of the Pill Lane group. He particularly targeted the illegal workers’ combinations (trade unions) which would account for the spread of their organisation south of the river into the Liberties and also for its significant Protestant artisan membership. Many of these weavers were Hope’s fellow Presbyterians. When the Dublin rising collapsed in confusion in 1798 many of these weavers quit the city to join the rebel standard in the countryside.

Hope’s organisation survived the 1798 rebeillion and he had organised five thousand workers in the Liberities to be ready to rise with Robert Emmet in 1803. Emmet made a tactical error by asking Hope to leave this power-base amongst the Dublin weavers to help raise the Ulster Presbyterians. Hope was a brave and fearless soldier. He had marched to the battle of Antrim in 1798 singing the Marseillaise and a merry Irish tune. He was never captured, he never surrendered and he lived until 1847. In the last paragraph of his autobiography, which he narrated to RR Madden when he was eighty-one years old, he paid a tribute to four of his former leaders who were also his friends: Samuel Neilson, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell and Robert Emmet. Hope told Madden: “None of our leaders seemed to me perfectly acquainted with the main cause of social derangement, if I except Neilson McCracken, Russell and Emmet. It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class was the fundamental question and issue between the rulers and the people.”

Historian John Newsinger has summed up the life of Hope after the defeat of the United Irishmen as follows: “He lived out the rest of his life as a working man remaining both a Protestant and a republican, committed to social equality and social justice and the interests of working people both Catholic and Protestant.”

Fergus Whelan is the Author of Dissent into Treason