Thomas Drennan was born in Belfast on 25th December 1696. Though he appears in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, nothing of any philosophical work he did survives: his sermons were never published. A later biography describes him as “an elegant scholar, a man of fine taste, overflowing benevolence and delicate sensibility”1 His major importance is of a source for the many philosophical friends he had though the preservation of his correspondence by his family, and as a link between the philosophy of the 1720s and the United Irishmen of the 1790s.
Drennan was a friend of James Arbuckle from his childhood2. Like the younger Arbuckle he attended Glasgow University, entering in the penultimate year of study and taught by Gershom Carmichael. He graduated MA in 1716 and then studied divinity under John Simson. His attendance overlapped with Francis Hutcheson, the printer John Smith and James Arbuckle.
He was licensed for the Presbyterian Ministry in 1726, but assuming he had the same six years course of divinity as Hutcheson3 this leaves a gap to be accounted for. It’s probable he started to teach in Dublin before being licensed. In any case, he was certainly present in 1731 when the academy was wound up. His son William Drennan records in a letter that Thomas Drennan lived in the school building on the corner of Dominic St and Drumcondra Lane (now Lr Dominic St and Dorset St Upper). The teasing Francis Hutcheson gave Drennan in 1741 on the news of Drennan’s marriage suggests he was active intellectually and socially in Dublin while he was there 4:
stay at the Walshe’s Head till 2 in the morning: saunter in Jack’s shop all day, among books, dine abroad and then to the Walshe’s Head again…
Drennan seems to have been amenable to teasing. In 1740 James Duchal chaffed him about refusing a call to Wood St in Dublin, “even jesting about Drennan’s appeal to conscience”. In response, Drennan recommended Duchal to Wood St, which Duchal accepted5
Drennan was part of the non-subscribing wing of Irish Presbyterianism, that refused subscription to the Westminister Confession. He became a minister in Holywood, Co. Down in 1731, also teaching there. In 1736 he moved to the First Presbyterian Church in Belfast, first as colleague to, and then in the place of, Samuel Haliday. Throughout his life he maintained regular correspondence with Hutcheson, Arbuckle, William Bruce and James Duchal. In 1741 he married Anne Lennox. Of their eleven children born in the manse on Rosemary St only three survived: William, Martha (1742–1837), and Anne (1745–1825). Thomas Drennan remained in Belfast as minister until his death on 14th February 17686.
The influence of Drennan was outlined by William Drennan in 1794. He linked Thomas Drennan to John Abernathy, William Bruce, James Duchal and Francis Hutcheson, the philosophers who shared William Drennan’s ideas. The tribute also highlighted Thomas’ benevolence and his commitment to everyone’s right to judge for themselves in matters of religion (see here for the full text). William Drennan made other tributes in later poetry, remembering his father as his first teacher and recording how he saw his father in his son (also Thomas)7:
I saw my father pictur’d in my son
His life, I hop’d, would glide as smooth away
Placid, benign, contemplative and pure,
Such was my father, such wert thou, my child!
Featured Image: Interior of First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary St, Belfast. This church dates from 1783, replacing the church in which Thomas Drennan was minister for 46 years. Courtesy Dematerialise on Twitter.
Portrait of The Reverend Thomas Drennan of Belfast (1696–1768) from ArtUK.org.
- Herbert McLachlan (195) Essays and addresses, Manchester University Press, p. 173, quoting The Christian Moderator (1827), i, p. 429. ↩
- Richard Holmes (2016) James Arbuckle Bucknell University Press, p. xv, xxxiv n2 and n5. ↩
- James Moore (2004) ‘Hutcheson, Francis (1 694–1746)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ↩
- William Robert Scott (1900) Francis Hutcheson : his life, teaching and position in the history of philosophy, pp. 132-3 ↩
- Linde Lunney (2005) “James Duchal” in The Dictionary of Irish Biography. ↩
- M. A. Stewart (2004) “Drennan, Thomas (1696-1768)” in Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, p 101. I. R. McBride, ‘Drennan, William (1754–1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ↩
- William Drennan and John Swanwick Drennan (1859) Glendalloch, and other poems, pp 63-4, pp 69-70 (google books) ↩