May Tyrants Tremble: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820


Fergus Whelan

March 2020

First biography of William Drennan, founder and leader of the Society of United Irishmen.


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William Drennan, founder and leader of the Society of United Irishmen, is long overdue a comprehensive biography. May Tyrants Tremble fills that gap and obliterates the historical consensus that, after being acquitted at his 1794 trial for sedition, Drennan withdrew from the United Irish movement. In fact, Fergus Whelan proves that Drennan remained a leading voice of Presbyterian radicalism until his death in 1820, and his ideals, along with those of Wolfe Tone and other pivotal United Irishmen, formed the basis of Ireland’s republic.

By 1784, Drennan had already established a national reputation as a leading writer in the radical cause. He composed the United Irish Test and he was the Society’s most prolific literary propagandist. Here, Whelan offers new evidence that Drennan was ‘Marcus’, author of the most seditious material published in Dublin in 1797–8, and he also establishes that Ulster Presbyterian Drennan did in fact champion Catholic Emancipation throughout his life.

May Tyrants Tremble repositions William Drennan as the father of Irish democracy. The brazen walls of separation he so eloquently lamented are with us still, but his story shines a light on one of the great mysteries of Irish history: what happened to Presbyterian republicanism after 1798?

Table of Contents

  1. Son of the Manse
  2. Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism
  3. Drennan’s Religious Outlook
  4. The Volunteers
  5. If you Sleep you Die
  6. Of Pigs and Papists
  7. Amongst the Dublin Dissenters
  8. A Benevolent Conspiracy
  9. The Faithful Wounds of a Friend
  10. Edmund Burke
  11. The Hounding of Priestley and Paine
  12. Drennan, Burke and the Penal Laws
  13. Belfast: A Nest of Republicans
  14. Citizen Soldiers to Arms
  15. The Merits of Personal Courage
  16. The Secret Committee
  17. There Never Was a Belfast Mob
  18. Earthquake in the Mercantile World
  19. Love and Matters of Honour
  20. A Heart as Dangerous as his Pen
  21. Spies, Entrapment and Gaol Break
  22. The End of the Dublin Society
  23. My Heart Does Not Tremble
  24. Cruel and Ignoble Calumnies
  25. Death in the Highlands
  26. The Smell of a Great Gaol
  27. Frigid Neutralist
  28. Remember Orr!
  29. Martial Law
  30. Man of Letters
  31. A Personal Union with England
  32. Let Irishmen Remain Sulky
  33. The Emmet Family Tragedy
  34. Letter to Charles Fox
  35. The Natural Leaders
  36. Belfast Monthly Magazine
  37. Last Letters and Death

About the Author

Fergus Whelan is the author of Dissent into Treason: Unitarians King-killers and the Society of United Irishmen (2010) and God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowan (2015). He has contributed to History Ireland magazine, An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times and the Irish Humanist and Look Left magazines. May Tyrants Tremble is his third book.

Praise for May Tyrants Tremble

May Tyrants Tremble is an incredibly human narrative. It is as much about Drennan’s inner struggles, and his family, as it is about high politics and rebellion. It is tightly written and referenced, but with bite-sized chapters and a pacy story. Any contextual digressions are worth it. ‘
Claire Mitchell, The Irish Times

May Tyrants Tremble is an honest assessment of one of the more underappreciated figures in Irish history… an insightful account of the origins of the republican movement in Ireland.’
Cian Ó Dúill, Irish Independent

‘This is a worthy biography of someone who was a key figure in late-eighteenth-century Ireland and whose legacy has been overshadowed by that of some of his contemporaries and disputes over aspects of his politics. Whelan has done a good job in restoring Drennan to his rightful place as a prime mover in the United Irishmen and establishing republicanism in Ireland. He also, however, paints a full portrait of the man and draws attention to his other achievements.’
Tony Canavan, Books Ireland

‘Whelan’s engaging account analyses Drennan’s intellectual influence and political agency and is a timely addition to our understanding of the United Irishmen.’
Kenneth L. Dawson, Belfast Telegraph

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