Blue Plaque Unveiling – William Drennan

Very Rev Nigel Playfair, welcoming guests to the event at the First Presbyterian Church Rosemary St Belfast, called William Drennan a man of peace, speaking his message to us still as citizens of Belfast and Ireland. Theologically liberal, to him all people were equally children of the one Creator and throughout his life he had remained true to these beliefs.

Belfast Lord Mayor Cllr. Alex Maskey congratulated the Ulster History Circle and all those associated with the event. The City Council was supportive of its work and he promised its continued co-operation. He said that William Drennan was an inspiration to to us all, in his work for medicine, education and political thinking.

Lady Quigley, unveiling the plaque, (erected on the site of the old manse where Drennan was born), described Drennan as a man of many parts, neatly encapsulated by the Ulster History Circle’s characterisation of “Patriot and Radical”. He came from and was influenced by an enlightened family and community, themselves much affected by the revolutionary events sweeping Europe and the Americas. Drennan graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in Edinburgh and while there began the forty year long correspondence with his elder sister Martha McTier. Recently published in three volumes, these letters provide a unique insight into the social and political conditions of those turbulent times, written by people intimately involved in many of the events which changed the history of the period.

In common with all doctors at the time, Drennan treated symptoms since the causes of disease were unknown. He was not apparently a very successful doctor, financially, probably because of his known political views, which made him dangerous to be associated with. Yet his enquiring mind made him an early advocate of hygiene in the prevention of disease. He had suggested to the Belfast Charitable Institution that it offer smallpox vaccination (then using the dangerous practice of using contact with infected people, which nevertheless seemed to work in many cases) to the poor. When Dr Jenner suggested the use of the milder cowpox he accepted this with alacrity and used it successfully on his youngest son in 1802.

Turning to the political events that shaped Drennan’s views, Lady Quigley described the ferment of an England at war with the American Colonies where some forty thousand colonists from the north of Ireland maintained close links with home and whose description of their sufferings matched those in Ulster. The war with France changed many attitudes and many, including Drennan, joined the Volunteer movement. This involvement increased his radicalism and he was involved in the increasing demands for Parliamentary reform and for Catholic Emancipation. The French Revolution in 1789 had a significant impact on political thinking and Drennan advocated a ‘benevolent conspiracy’ uniting all the people of Ireland. He called for ‘publication, declaration and communication’ – a major feature of the revolutionary movement. Change should be through argument, debate and appeals to reason. In 1791, with Wolfe Tone and others he helped set up the Society of United Irishmen whose aims were to unite Catholics, Protestants and Dissented in common cause.

In 1793 the war with France started again and the Government, alarmed by the radicalism of the Volunteer movement, suppressed it. Drennan was arrested and prosecuted. He was acquitted. As his acquittal was due mainly to a technicality, he realised that to continue in the United Irish movement would be suicidal and thereafter he maintained a back seat as the men of action replaced the men of reason. Drennan did not change his views. He opposed the Act of Union and mounted a series of strong protests against it, continuing his demands for Parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation.

In 1807 he returned to Belfast from Dublin. His advocacy of Catholic Emancipation remaine strong but Daniel O’Connell’s references to a ‘Catholic Ireland’ offended his principles of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In 1814 he helped establish the Belfast Academical Institution with strong emphasis on the teaching of Irish and Irish culture. This approach led to the withdrawal of government support in 1816 when at a St Patrick’s Day dinner Governors and teachers drank a toast to the American and French revolutions.

In conclusion, Lady Quigley painted a picture of a socially shy, insecure man, with little sense of humour and quick to take offence at imagined slights. These characteristics demonstrated his humanity and helped to provide a rounded picture of a great man of his times.