Patriot and Radical
William Drennan was born in the manse of First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary St., Belfast, where his father was minister. He studied medicine in Glasgow and Edinburgh and briefly practised as a gynaecologist in Belfast and Newry. He is credited with having been one of the earliest advocates of inoculation against smallpox, and of hand washing to prevent the spread of infection.
In 1789 he moved to Dublin where, in accord with his nationalist views, he wrote a number of political pamphlets and became a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen. In 1794 he was tried for sedition, but was acquitted, whereupon he withdrew from the Society but without giving up his interest in radical politics, particularly the question of Catholic emancipation.
In 1800 he married a wealthy Englishwoman, Sarah Swanwick, gave up medicine and established himself at Cabin Hill, east of Belfast (later the preparatory department of Campbell College). In 1807, believing that education should be non-denominational, he and two others – John Templeton and John Hancock – set up the Belfast Academical Institution (it acquired the further title of Royal in the 1830’s).
Drennan was also a literary man. He founded and edited the Belfast Magazine, and wrote a good deal of poetry, which today is largely forgotten, with the exception of one telling phrase, “the Emerald Isle,” coined in a poem entitled When Erin First Rose.
He died in 1820, and his instructions for his funeral well illustrate his liberal views. His cortege, on the way to Clifton Street graveyard, stopped for a few minutes outside the school he had founded, and “let six poor Protestants and six poor Catholics get a guinea apiece for carriage of me, and a priest and a dissenting clergyman with any friends that chuse.”
Location of plaque: At the site of the birth house, Rosemary Street, Belfast, beside First Presbyterian Church.
Date Unveiled: 24 June 2002
See Also: Report of Plaque unveiling