I was born in the Parish of Templepatrick, in the County Antrim, the 25th of August, 1764. My father was a native of the parish of Templepatrick, he was a Highlander, a refugee, one of the Covenanters. He followed the linen weaving business, and brought me up to it. My parents died at Templepatrick, and were buried at Mallusk. They were simple honest people, Presbyterians, and their children were brought up in that religion, chiefly under the ministry of the Rev. Isaac Patten, near Lyles Hill. I had two brothers who grew up to manhood, one of whom is still alive. By the time I was 10 years of age I had been fifteen weeks at school, and this was all the day school learning I ever received.
The first three years I earned my bread was with William Bell, of Templepatrick, who took every opportunity of improving my mind, that my years would admit. In winter he made me get forward my work, and sit with him while he read in the histories of Greece and Rome, and also Ireland, Scotland, and England; besides his reading and comments on the news of the day, turned my attention early to the nature of the relations between the different classes of society, and passing events rather left impressions on my mind for future examinations, than established any particular opinions.
After some time I was taken from Bell, and hired to a farmer named John Gibson, in the same parish. His father, a small farmer, was still alive, and from this venerable old man I received a great deal of good instruction, which confirmed my first impressions of a religious nature. I had learned to spell, and he set me to read and write, but he died before I had made much progress. I served half a year with another farmer, named
John Ritchy, who gave me a little and afterwards returning to my former master, he assisted me in reading, until I could read a little in the Bible, though very imperfectly.
At length I was apprenticed to a linen weaver, and I served my full time to him without reproof. On leaving my old master I entered into an engagement with a small farmer who had a loom in his house, at which I wrought, for eight years and a half, during which time I improved in reading and writing by attending a night school during the winter sessions. I subsequently worked as a journeyman weaver with a man of the name of Mullen, and married the daughter of my employer, Rose Mullen, a young women gifted with noble qualities, with every advantage of mind and person. She was everything in this world to me, and when I lost her, my happiness went to the grave with her. She died in 1831. I had four children who grew up, two of whom are now living.
From early age my mind was directed to public affairs. more help in writing; I attended public worship with the members of a seceding congregation in the parish of Templepatrick, in the County of Antrim, in which there were two congregations, one in the village where the Rev. John Abernethy was minister, and the other near Lyles Hill, taught by the Rev. Isaac Patten, where I was baptized. One day I heard Mr. Patten explaining the 83rd Psalm, and praying for the downfall of Turk and Anti-Christ, and for the purging of the blood that lay unpurged on the throne of Britain, and also for the downfall of Pope and Popery, which latter prayer composed part of his devotions every Sabbath. But when the Royal Bounty was extended to our ministers, then the destruction of Pope and Popery became the principle supplication of the poor northern sinners to the throne of divine grace; the throne of Britain, according to the fanatical notions of those times, was purged and purified in the smoke of the blood then beginning to be shed in the woods of America, and in fairs and markets in Ireland, particularly in the County Armagh; then Mr. Patten began praying for the stoppage of the effusion of Protestant blood, but from the impression of his former instructions on my mind, I used to think of the stoppage of the effusion of human blood when attempting to join him in prayer.
These thoughts began to expand when I saw the regiments of fine looking fellows, driving off to be slaughtered in America, and heard the ‘Break-of-Day Boys’ boasting of the indulgence they got from magistrates for wrecking and beating the papists, as they called their neighbours, and the snug bits of land that their friends got when the papists fled to Connaught, and the fun they had, when committing depredations, for which warrants lay out against them, of which they had always notice, in time to escape. Our parish was inhabited by settlers from Scotland, some of whom had fled from persecution in their own country, of which my grandfather was one.
When King William landed, they joined his interest, and dreaded the natives, of course, who had all left our parish but two families of the name of Neill and Tolan, who were servants in Castle Upton during the siege of Derry, and respected by the Upton Family for many years for their fidelity during that war.
The parish of Templepatrick was thus cleared of all the natives who were Catholics, and was very thinly inhabited, even within my own memory, to what it is now. The republican spirit, inherent in the principles of the Presbyterian community, kept resistance to arbitrary power still alive, though selfishness prevented its proper direction, and indeed men to do to “others what they would resist if done to themselves.”
The American struggle taught people that industry had its rights as well as aristocracy, that one required a guarantee as well as the other; which gave extension to the forward view of the Irish leaders. The war commenced between the claims of the plough and the sword, fiction became arrayed against reality, the interests of capital against those of labour, and the rich lost sight of their dependence on the poor. Society was disjointed, and there was no guarantee for the preservation of the rights of industry. The claims founded on fiction, however, predominated, and ranks arose in such disproportion that mankind seemed divided into different species, each preying on the other; from necessity, with the exception of a few enlightened men, in every rank, who deprecated those evils, and looked forward to a better state of things.
Until the commencement of the contest with the United States, foreign war had encouraged industry at home, but the difficulty of recruiting for our armies in America suggested an unnatural expedient. “Discourage the linen trade,” said the then Lord Hillsborough, “and you will have soldiers.” The plan succeeded and the linen weavers suffered. Every other branch in Ulster felt the depression, and until machinery was introduced, trade continued low. The cotton manufacture, however, succeeded the linen one, and many of the hands that it had employed joined the former.
The Volunteers of 1782 were the means of breaking the first link of the penal chain that bound Ireland. They were replaced by the ‘Break-of-Day’ robbers, the wreckers, and murderers, who were supported by an indemnified magistracy; and the system which grew out of these combinations, comprehends the political history of Ireland from 1782 down to a later period in the history of Orangeism.
The blood of Ireland has been abundantly shed during that period, at home and abroad. Those who profited by this system, and were privy to it, are not guiltless of murder—and who were they? Every man of mature age during that period, who did not use all his rational powers to prevent that mischief, who connived at it, who encouraged, or permitted it to be encouraged, who shared in the temporary plunder, or adopted the policy of sowing dissensions, with the view of reaping temporary or supposed advantages to the governing powers.
My connection with politics began in the ranks of the Volunteers; I was a member of the Roughford corps. Of the first founders of the United Societies only two were intimately known to me—Mr. Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken. I lived in the country when I joined the society, and was delegated to a committee in Belfast, where I met them. Some time after I met Thomas Russell. There was a rule, then in the societies, that required seven to constitute a society; and, when constituted, every additional member was proposed and balloted for at one meeting, and admitted at the next. Mr. Russell told me that he took the test from James Agnew O’Farrell, of Lame, when he was admitted to the society. June 26th, 1795, 1 was met by a neighbour, who told me that a political society was being formed; that the members were chosen by ballot; that I had been approved of, if I was willing to join; that there was a declaration to be made, and a test or, oath, to be taken, of which, if I did not approve, I was told I might decline to take it, on condition that I would not divulge anything concerning the society. We talked on the subject for some time, during which I lamented that we should shrink from an open declaration of our views, into conspiracy; that oaths would never bind rogues, that I would rather act openly, in which way of proceeding there was but one danger. I was told that my neighbours would not go with me in this view of matters, and it was necessary to know, would I go with them. “I will not desert my neighbours,” said I, “though I do not like the road; I’ll travel it, however as clean as I can.” By the direction of the man referred to, I attended the next meeting; the declaration I felt to be true; I voluntarily conformed to the rules of the society, and joined it with heart and hand. A deputation from Belfast formed the Mallusk society, of which I became a member, the Hightown society having been that in which I was initiated, and composed of men I had first joined in arms as a Volunteer.
I was delegated to a committee in Belfast, and when the baronial committee was formed, I was appointed a delegate to the upper half barony of Belfast; there was a committee in every half barony. I was not qualified for public speaking; my mind was like Swift’s church, the more that was inside, the slower the mass came out; my comrades called me the Spartan. My motives for joining the United Irishmen were to carry out the United Irishman objects of the Volunteers; my first views were not beyond theirs; they became more extensive. The person who induced me to join the society is still living. I was employed in 1796, 1797, and the spring of 1798, and again in 1 803, as an emissary, going from place to place throughout the country, organizing the people. I received my orders generally from Russell, Wilson, and McCracken, and communicated with certain persons I was sworn never to name; also with John McCann, and Edward Dunn, foreman in Jackson’s foundry, who had a very close acquaintance with the views of the Directory. In my own society, in the north, I held the office of delegate to the county committee. I was in the confidence of the Ulster Director, and some of the principal members of the Leinster one. I took the oath of an United Irishman by being sworn on the Bible; the Covenanters were sworn by lifting up the right hand; the Catholics on their own prayer book.
Manufacture and commerce sprung up rapidly, and corrupt and interested views increased in variety and complication. The manufacturer had two strings to his bow, while the mere cultivator of the soil had but one, and that one only during the landlord’s pleasure. The younger branches of his family either learned some trade, or became day-labourers. Such as were prudent and industrious, rented cottages from the farmers, and were able to offer a higher rent to the landlord, at the end of the farmer’s tenure, which completely destroyed good will between them. This was the real source of the persecution in the County Armagh, religious profession being only a pretext to banish a Roman Catholic from his snug little cottage, or spot of land, and get possessed of it. The sufferers were forced into associations, in defence of life and property, directed by a committee, which they agreed to obey. This association was for a time confined to those professing the Roman Catholic religion, but the members joined eventually the cause of their Protestant fellow-countrymen, and became sworn brothers. This plan of union was projected by Neilson, assisted by Luke Teeling of Lisburn, and his family and connection, being a linen merchant of the first rank, and a Roman Catholic, who never came under any oath or obligation to the society, but that of conscientious approval.
While Tone and Neilson were endeavouring to establish the United Irish Societies in Belfast, young Charles Teeling was labouring in the meantime to unite the Defenders and Catholics of the smaller towns of Ulster; and even the ‘Break-of-Day’ men and Defenders were made friends, and joining in sworn brotherhood, became United Irishmen. At a later period, Henry Joy McCracken advised and assisted in the special organization of a body of seven thousand men, originally of the Defenders, to act as a forlorn hope, in case of necessity, out of the twenty-one thousand that were returned fighting men in the county of Antrim; they were directed by a committee, by whom their chief was chosen, who communicated with the committee by a deputy.
In Ulster, the population holding on by small patches of soil, the influence of agricultural wealth, had the greater number of roots, and that influence ran through every channel of rural society, and likewise through the commercial and manufacturing classes; the pulpit and the bench there were under aristocratic influence. Nor was the jury-box exempted from it, so that the men who
attempted to stern the torrent of corruption in Ulster, had still the heaviest task. The southern mass, consisting of landlords, tenants, church lords, and labourers, had but four interests, diverging from that which was general; while in Ulster, manufacture and commerce, fictitious capital, fictitious credit, fictitious titles to consideration, presented the numberless interests of the few, in opposition to the one interest of the many. Such were the difficulties with which the men of Ulster had to contend, besides that perplexity arising from a pensioned clergy, puzzling its followers with speculations above human comprehension, and instigating them to hate each other, for conscience sake, under the mask of religion.
So complete was the concentration of aristocratic monetary influence, that nothing but its own corruption could destroy it. I remember when power was law, and physical force settled every question. The destruction of the Northern Star silenced moral force for a time, and physical force was then resorted to, by the people, for the preservation of life and liberty.
In the battle of the press, Neilson, in the hour of danger, stood alone, as McCracken did in the field, at the close of the struggle; all their former auxiliaries having abandoned them in the time of peril. Mr. Neilson’s partners in the Northern Star establishment retired from it when the capital of the concern was consumed by legal tyranny; he continued the struggle of moral force at his own expense; while a prisoner in Kilmainham, the unlawful destruction of his property, by a military mob, took place. Let posterity observe the providential turn of affairs, how the sword that was drawn to put down moral force, now rusts in the scabbard by the operation of other powers, admonishing mankind to ascribe the retribution of evil to the true cause, as in the case of Herod who was consumed by worms, for rottenness itself became the proper punishment of that man’s exalted wickedness. Moral force, in its operation, resembles that of Herod’ s visitation; it ultimately works on the opponents of truth like a consuming worm.
The Northern Star represented the moral force of Ulster, sowed the seeds of truth over the land, and the opposition of the enemy only caused its roots to strike deeper in the soil, and they are now springing up in all directions.
Physical force may prevail for a time as we have seen it recently did in China and Afghanistan; but there is music in the sound of moral force which will be heard like the sound of the cuckoo, The bird lays its eggs, and leaves them for a time; but it will come again and hatch them in due course, and the song will return with the season.