Archibald Hamilton Rowan, a distinguished United Irishman, was born in London, 12th May 1757; his father, Gawen Hamilton of Killyleagh, was a gentleman of large landed property in Ireland, whose ancestors came over in James I.’s reign. Educated at Westminster and Cambridge, he formed aristocratic acquaintances, travelled on the Continent, and when his means ran short, mortgaged his expectations. After his matriculation he visited the United States as private secretary to Lord Charles Montague, Governor of South Carolina.
On his return ‘after a very rough passage, I landed at Portsmouth — my racoon dead, my bear washed overboard, and my opossum lost in the cable tier — and I returned to Cambridge.’ About 1780 he was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel in the Portuguese army, but on reaching Lisbon found that the Marquis of Pombal, through whose influence the English officers had been appointed, had fallen, and the whole party returned. In 1781 while residing with his mother in France, he married. Three years afterwards he returned to Ireland, settled in a small cottage near Naas, and afterwards purchased the estate of Rathcoffy in the County of Kildare.
He was active in the Volunteer movement, was a member of the Whig club, and in 1792 joined the United Irishmen, who then sought merely a reform in Parliament. In October of the same year the Hon. Simon Butler was imprisoned for complicity in the movement. After his release, Rowan was the bearer of a hostile message from him to the Lord-Chancellor, for language used in passing sentence. Mr. Butler then accompanied him to Edinburgh to challenge the Lord-Advocate for expressions regarding some of Rowan’s political writings. Both judges refused to fight on account of their official position. On 16th December 1792, Rowan and Napper Tandy were present at a meeting of the Volunteers, in uniform and with side arms, held in Dublin to protest against a government proclamation tending to their dissolution. For distributing at this meeting an address headed ‘Citizen soldiers, to arms!’ informations were filed against Rowan, and he was brought to trial in January 1794, at the old Four Courts, near Christ Church. Curran was his advocate, and in the course of his defence delivered the memorable speech in which he made reference to ‘the irresistible genius of universal emancipation.’ Rowan was sentenced to be fined £500, imprisoned for two years, and to find security for his good behaviour.
In Newgate he was permitted to receive addresses from the United Irishmen; his meals were supplied from his own house, and his wife and children and friends were allowed to visit him at pleasure. Two months after his incarceration, the Rev. William Jackson and his friend Cockayne went to see him. On hearing of Jackson’s arrest in April, he knew that there was sufficient evidence in the hands of Government to hang him, and immediately decided on attempting to escape. On the 1st of May he bribed one of his jailers with £100 to permit him to visit his wife in Dominick-street. Mrs. Rowan had disguises and all preparations made. He descended into the back-yard by a rope, mounted a horse, and rode to a friend’s house at Rogerstown, near Lusk, where he lay in concealment for three days, until arrangements were made with two brothers named Sheridan to convey him to France.
Shortly before they sailed, one of these men pulled out of his pocket a printed notice offering £1,000 reward for Rowan’s apprehension, and asked: ‘Is it Mr. Hamilton Rowan we are to take to France?’ ‘Yes,’ replied his friend Mr. Sweetman, who furnished the boat for the voyage, ‘and here he is.” “Never mind it,’ rejoined the elder Sheridan; “by —, we’ll land him safe.” They sailed on the 4th of May, and after various adventures, landed at Roscoff, near Morlaix. The Sheridans when returning were taken by a French privateer, but were liberated through Rowan’s intervention, obtained government employment in France, and were ultimately enabled to return to Ireland.
Rowan remained more than a year in France, where he became acquainted with Mary Wollstonecraft and other notabilities. In June 1795 he removed to the United States, and there passed five years, living on £300 a year sent him by his wife out of his Irish estates. His correspondence with her shows that the horrors of the French Revolution had considerably modified his political views; yet he met Tone during his short residence in America, and entered into his plans. To keep himself occupied, he tried more than one business. He bore the strongest testimony against slavery, and refused to have anything to do with it. Writing to his wife, he says: “I will go to the woods, but I will not kill Indians or keep slaves.” The union of Great Britain and Ireland had his heartiest concurrence. He believed the Irish Parliament so hopelessly corrupt that any change must be for the better.
In July 1800 he sailed for Hamburg, and on the passage had to throw overboard a trunk containing valuable correspondence, with Franklin and others, lest the discovery of such papers might cause delay from English cruisers. At Hamburg he met his wife and children, and spent three years there and at Altona. In July 1802 he petitioned the British government for permission to return home, stating himself to be “impressed with the most unfeigned attachment to your Majesty’s government,” and “conscious of the excellence of the British constitution, in which your petitioner sees with heartfelt satisfaction his native country participating under the late happy Union.”
There is little cause for wonder that this appeal was successful. The remainder of his life was passed on his estate at Killyleagh, in the County of Down, and in Dublin — where he was a prominent character, generally appearing in the streets followed by a couple of large Danish deerhounds. He earnestly devoted himself to the amelioration of the social condition of his countrymen, and kept up constant correspondence with his friends abroad. When Shelley came to Ireland in 1812, with the intention of devoting his talents to the regeneration of the country, it was to Rowan he addressed his first letters; but they met no response. He was the strenuous and consistent advocate of Catholic Emancipation and other liberal measures. In 1825 he went over to London to challenge Mr. Peel and another gentleman, who had spoken of him in Parliament as an attainted traitor.
He never recovered the death of his wife in February 1834, and followed her to the grave on the 1st of the following November, aged 77. He was buried in the vaults of St. Mary’s Church, Dublin. Mr. Rowan was a member of Strand-street Unitarian congregation. His biographer, Dr. Drummond, says: “Mr. Rowan had a tall and commanding person, in which agility, strength, and grace were combined. .. He was a man of a generous, manly, chivalrous disposition, of high principles, and a strong sense of the obligations of truth, justice, and humanity. He loved liberty, and hated oppression. He was steadfast, intrepid, and incorruptible in his public career, a brave and a good Irishman, in the fullest sense of the term, persevering and consistent in his patriotism, the same in youth and age, in the worst of times, as in the better days of his country.”
Image | © Belfast Harbour Commissioners | Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation