God-Provoking Democrat: Archibald Hamilton Rowan


God Provoking CoverGuest Post: Fergus Whelan

This is the address given by Fergus Whelan at the launch of his new book, God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowanpublished by New Island Press. The launch was held at The Church, Dublin – originally St Mary’s Church of Ireland, where Hamilton Rowan is buried.

My subject Archibald Hamilton Rowan the United Irishman was conceived in Ireland but was born and grew up in England in wealth and privilege. His mother contrived to keep him out of Ireland. She feared that her son would develop passions there which might lead to his ruin. Her fears came close to being realised in the great tumult in Ireland at the close of the eighteenth century.

In early manhood Rowan lived a charmed life. He travelled in Europe and America and lived for a time in France. Marie Antoinette was so taken by his looks that she sent him a ring. He lost a lot of money at the gaming table, became involved in duels, and ‘had scrapes with married women’. He married Sarah Dawson in France and thereby gained the lifelong love of a steadfast comrade.

Fergus Whelan at Killyleagh Castle (c) Irish Philosophy (CC BY )
Fergus Whelan at Killyleagh Castle
(c) Irish Philosophy (CC BY )

From 1784 the Rowans lived in Ireland. Archibald fought an unforgiving ruling-class in the pursuit of justice for the poor. He championed the cause of Mary Neal, a child who was raped by the Earl of Carhampton. Rowan denounced the military for the shooting dead of tradesmen in Dublin who were engaged in bull-baiting. He was ever ready to fight a duel to preserve his honour or that of his friends.

In 1794 having been jailed for sedition he was implicated in a plot initiated by the Committee of Public Safety in Paris to bring a French revolutionary army into Ireland, Rowan escaped from Newgate. Had he not he would almost certainly have been hanged. He sailed to Roscoff in a small fishing craft.

Evading the British Channel Fleet Rowan landed on the French coast in the run-up to the naval slaughter that became known to history as the ‘Glorious First of June’. He was immediately imprisoned as a suspected English spy. From his cell window he watched many men with their hands pinioned carted to the guillotine. At the height of the Terror he was fortunate to escape the guillotine himself. Within days of his release his boots were stained with the blood of revolutionaries guillotined by their erstwhile comrades.

Rowan’s revolutionary activities, treasonable plots with spies, prison escape, and the efforts of the authorities to entrap and hang him, are such that this story is an adventure. However it is much more. Rowan’s world view was influenced by a liberal religious and intellectual tradition of the New Light Presbyterians.

Archibald Hamilton Rowan Wikimedia, Public Domain
Archibald Hamilton Rowan
Wikimedia, Public Domain

This work contains new information on the evolution of Presbyterian radicalism in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1798. Rowan led an active, public and intellectual life almost until his death in 1832. The work reveals the post rebellion trauma within Presbyterianism and describes Rowan’s dramatic defiant stand in defence of New Light principles. The concluding chapters trace the evolution of radical Presbyterian opinion as they pondered their defeat in ‘98 and sought new ways of pursuing the old goals of religious freedom and political democracy.

Rowan was pardoned in 1806 and returned to Ireland and to live the last thirty years of his life enjoying great personal wealth. He continued to the end of his life to advocate the causes dear to his heart, rational religion, democratic reform, Catholic emancipation, and the abolition of slavery. Unusually for a man of his class Rowan was also a strong supporter of trade unions which were illegal combinations in those days. Rowan made petitions on behalf of weavers and silk weavers and supported workers in times of strikes and distress.

Rowan had joined the newly formed United Irish Society in 1791. He took an oath which called for the building of a brotherhood of affection between Irishmen of all creeds. The Society lamented the fact that distinctions of rank, property and religious persuasion had erected brazen walls of separation among the inhabitants of Ireland.

In the book I give an account of Lord Castlereagh’s effort to ferment a split within Irish Presbyterianism. The fault lines within Irish Presbyterianism following the rebellion were essentially democrats against loyalists, and differing attitudes to the rebels of ninety eight, were they heroes or traitors? And who was for or against Catholic emancipation? Many years after Castlereagh cut his own throat the schism he had connived at for so long occurred.

In 1827 Rowan and his fellow Unitarians were ejected from the Presbyterian Synod. They had not been asked about their attitude to Catholic Emancipation or ‘98. Nor were they asked if they favoured the abolition of slavery. Rather they were asked if they accepted the deity Jesus Christ. When they refused to answer in the affirmative many of the Presbyterian laity who had followed the United Irish Unitarians into a disastrous rebellion found they were not now prepared to follow these heretics to eternal damnation.

Rowan stood up in the meeting house at Killyleagh and challenged Henry Cooke, leader of the inquisition of intolerance. For his pains Rowan was abandoned by the congregation on Cook’s instructions. The events at Killyleagh reflected the growth of evangelical conservative religion amongst Irish Presbyterians and the declining influence of the Unitarians.

The Church, formerly St Mary's Church of Ireland Wikimedia, Public Domain
The Church, formerly St Mary’s Church of Ireland Wikimedia, Public Domain

Archibald Hamilton Rowan passed away on 1st November 1834 in Dublin. The congregation of Great Strand Street brought Rowan’s body here to the vault in Saint Mary’s.

Rowan devoted the best years of his life to building a bond of affection amongst Irish people of every creed in pursuit of democracy, social justice and religious equality. His best efforts failed and we are living with the consequences of that failure to this very day. The brazen walls of separation stands no longer as just a well-honed metaphor in a political manifesto. They have a grave physical reality in the ugly peace line that still defaces Belfast and divides that city’s poorest communities. Uglier still is fact that in our so-called free republic a woman was forced to die in agony when she was refused treatment that could have saved her life because, she was told she was now in a Catholic country.

Rowan’s radicalism, his democratic non-sectarian outlook had British and Irish roots. Archibald Hamilton Rowan was principled, brave and charismatic. He was also reckless, naive and impulsive. He lived in interesting times which makes it a pleasure and a privilege for me to be able to tell his story.

Killyleagh Castle, family home of Archibald Hamilton Rowan (c) Irish Philosophy, CC BY.
Killyleagh Castle, family home of Archibald Hamilton Rowan (c) Irish Philosophy, CC BY.


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