William Drennan’s poetic output included some powerful and moving pieces. He is chiefly remembered today for “Erin” written in 1800, in which he penned the first reference in print to Ireland as “The Emerald Isle”:
“Nor one feeling of vengeance presume to defile
The cause, or the men, of the Emerald Isle.”
Drennan came to national attention with the publication in 1784 and 1785 of his Letters of Orellana, an Irish Helot, the earliest expressions of his support for radical constitutional reform, Catholic emancipation and civil rights. By 1785 Drennan began to voice plans for an organisation of radicals dedicated to far-reaching political reform. His plan took concrete form in 1791 when he devised the manifesto of what became the Society of United Irishmen.
In May 1794 Drennan was arrested on a charge of seditious libel, the charge related to an address he had written for the Dublin Society of United Irishmen. He prepared his own defence for the trial, but his lawyer wisely prevented its delivery. Although Drennan was charged with publishing his address, rather than writing it, against all the odds his lawyer managed to secure his acquittal by exposing the false testimony of the prosecution’s main witness.
The United Irishmen eventually moved away from Drennan’s program of reform and closer to violence and rebellion. Although his poem, ‘Wake of William Orr’, written after the hanging of a Co Antrim farmer for administering the oath of the United Irishmen in 1797, had encouraged the rebels, he withdrew his support and played no part in the doomed uprising of 1798. While deploring the violence to which his countrymen and co-religionists resorted, he remained a consistent opponent of the union with Great Britain, brought about in 1801.
Some of its most famous lines went of the poem “The Wake of William Orr” went:
“Here our murdered brother lies,
Wake him not with women’s cries;
Mourn the way that manhood ought,
Sit in silent trance of thought…”
Drennan died on 5 February 1820 and was buried in Clifton Street burial-ground in Belfast. With deliberate symbolism his coffin was borne to the grave by three Catholics and three Protestants.
Photo: The Grave of William Drennan, Chief Architect of the United Irishmen