This afternoon, RNU held a march from the New Lodge/Antrim Road Junction to Clifton Street Cemetary in North Belfast. Where a commmemoration was held for United Irishmen; Henry-Joy McCracken & William Drennan both of who are interred in the Graveyard.
A couple of hundred participants attended and listened to local Historian and Author; Joe Graham and RNU Chairperson; Carl Reilly. A number of wreaths were also laid from Political Prisoners in Maghaberry & Portlaoise and from RNU.
TEXT OF THE MAIN ORATION GIVEN BY RNU NATIONAL CHAIRPERSON: CARL REILLY
Today RNU holds the first, of what we hope to make, an annual commemoration for Henry Joy McCracken, and William Drennan. Each year Belfast men and women join with others from across Ireland and journey to Bodenstown to honor the legacy of Wolfe Tone. It is right that we do so. However we must never overlook the proud legacy of other cherished patriots, like these two men from Belfast, who set about, to break British colonial rule by breaking the sectarian system entrenched within it, who were inspirational leaders of the Society of United Irishmen, one who dedicated years of his life, and one who gave his life, to win for us the freedom, the Rights of Man, the Republican principles and the justice which Belfast and the six counties still await.
In order to truly honor these men, it is important to consider the times in which they lived. Then as today the real power rested in London, with the British crown and Westminster, then ruling all Ireland in the service of British interests rather than Irish interests, much as the British rule six counties today.
Then British rule was directly overseen in Ireland by a colonial secretary and lord lieutenant. Today we have Owen Patterson.
Then the British permitted a subordinate local parliament, once lauded as a stepping-stone to real justice and eventual independence. Then it was a 32 county Dublin parliament, the much heralded “Grattan Parliament”, which in 1782 had loosened some of the shackles, held by Westminster over Irish powers of self-government. Ballads proclaimed “Hurrah tis done-our freedom’s won” or…”The chain is broke- the Saxon yoke- From off our neck is taken”. Surely this new dispensation, it was thought in their time, would inevitably lead Ireland to justice, economic progress and an end of all penal laws.
Those ballads and hopes, like some of the car cavalcades of more recent times, would within a decade prove empty and hollow. Tone would come to dismiss that Parliament as” no National Government” but rule”by Englishmen and the servants of Englishmen.”
Then as today, the British had designed and solidified a sectarian system to fortify their hold on Ireland. Then the most favored status and privilege was the exclusive domain of members of the Established Church. They alone could sit in parliament or hold positions of rank in the military or judiciary.
Other denominations were second class. Commerce, trade and manufacturing might be open to them but penal laws closed them off from parliament and many professions. Catholics as presumptive nationalists were held at the bottom rung by force.
The British would dramatically restructure this sectarian system in the aftermath of 1798, to deal with the challenges posed by the United Irishmen, much the same as we can see the latest redesign of the British rule and its sectarian system around us.
DR WILLIAM DRENNAN
That was the context of Belfast in their time. Dr. William Drennan was a physician, the son of a Presbyterian Minister.
Few men are so often quoted and rarely credited, whether for calling Ireland the “Emerald isle” or for his ground-breaking political writings. In his early writings and involvement in the Volunteer Movement he called for radical constitutional reform, Catholic emancipation and the rights of man, which he hoped could be gained through the Dublin Parliament or through the Whig reform party. He came to recognize that such rights and reforms were unattainable within British rule.
In his letters and correspondence, he pioneered a new strategy to end British rule by uniting the people against Britain’s sectarian system. Its aim would be an independent Ireland that could secure civil rights or “the rights of man” for all, and governance that no longer depended upon foreign military might and sectarian ascendancy.
Drennan envisioned this new strategy to be, in his own words:
“A benevolent conspiracy---a plot for the people---no Whig
club---no party title----the Brotherhood its name---the rights of man and the greatest happiness of the greatest number its end---its general end real independence to Ireland and Republicanism its particular purpose---its business every means to accomplish these ends as speedily as the prejudices and bigotry of the land we live in will permit”
His ideas fired the imagination of other patriots and came to life in the Society of United Irishmen, which Dr.Drennan co-founded, he authored its first manifesto and became a leading figure in Dublin. He wrote many of the pamphlets which were used to spread word of the United Irishmen across the country.
Deemed a threat to the crown, Drennan was charged with seditious libel and only acquitted when his solicitor proved that the crown’s main witness committed perjury.
Dr. Drennan also warned against the barrister Leonard McNally, who was trusted within the inner circle of the United Irishmen and chosen to represent many of those charged by the crown. McNally was exposed after his death as a paid informer, who not only touted the Society’s plans and activities to the crown, but also shopped the legal defenses of his clients to crown prosecutors.
Drennan wrote the “Wake of William Orr” lamenting a county Antrim farmer, hung for administering the oath of the United Irishmen. While he played no part in the Rising, Drennan continued to chronicle events in his letters and correspondence which provided crucial historical details about the fate of Wolfe Tone among other events. He strongly opposed the union steamrolled through the Dublin parliament.
William Drennan returned to Belfast, edited the radical BELFAST MONTHLY MAGAZINE, and devoted himself to attacking the sectarian system through education. At his funeral, as a final token of commitment to the ideals of the United Irishmen, William Drennan requested that he be carried to this spot by three Catholics and three Protestants. He died as the old ballad puts it, “his friends unavenged and his country unfree.”
HENRY JOY MCCRACKEN
Henry Joy McCracken was born into two prominent Presbyterian families, connected with industry and the ownership of the BELFAST NEWS-LETTER.A friend of Tone, Thomas Russell, and Samuel Neilson, McCracken dedicated himself to achieving liberty, the rights of man and social justice. A founder of the United Irishmen in Belfast, he was one of those who vowed on Cave Hill, “never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence”.
McCracken was assigned to reorganize the United Irishmen along military lines and to ally it with the Defenders. The crown proscribed the United Irishmen and issued a warrant for his arrest. McCracken would be captured and jailed in Kilmainham for more than a year. He would become ill due to conditions there. His brother was also imprisoned.
Upon his release, McCracken argued for an immediate Rising instead of waiting for a French invasion that might never come while the British under General Lake were imposing a reign of terror to weaken any potential for resistance.
When the call for the rising came, several of the leaders stood down, citing the lack of artillery and muskets as excuses. As his companion Jemmy Hope would say, “When all our leaders deserted us, Henry Joy McCracken stood alone, faithful to the last”.
He took over as commander for Ulster and planned an attack on Antrim, to be coordinated with other attacks in counties Antrim and Down. Nearly successful, they were defeated by the arrival of British reinforcements.
McCracken would be captured after a month on the run. He was offered his life by the British if he would agree to turn informer but refused. He was court-martialed and hanged the same day outside the Market House on High Street. He was so feared even in death that the crown agreed to release his body only on condition that the families bury him before nightfall without a proper burial.
The British of course responded to the challenge of these men and to the ideals of the United Irishmen by remodeling British rule and its sectarian system. They binned their Parliament in Dublin. Its members were bribed and bullied into a token vote rubber-stamping their own dissolution. Such Irish representation as the crown would allow was moved to Westminster where it could be better controlled and overwhelmed by numbers.
Sectarian privilege was broadened to take in all Protestant denominations. The newly formed Orange Order would be exploited. It would be the start of the “Orange State”, used by the crown more than a century later as its excuse for partition and as the centerpiece of their rule at Stormont for more than the half century following. So successful were the British in instilling this system that today we witness triumphal parades, which are thought incomplete without some dimension of making the croppies lie down and submit to their bottom rung status under British rule.
We today must deal with the latest remodel of British rule and its sectarian system. Decades ago the British concluded in response to widespread resistance, and opposition that its rule in Ireland was no longer best served by one party unionist rule. Sunningdale was but one failed attempt at a redesign.
The aim was to cement sectarian divisions while doling out in meager measure such positions, patronage, trappings of office, the power and money deemed appropriate to keep nationalists on board. The British tried to accomplish this with the SDLP.
However Stormont has given the crown opportunities to consolidate their hold on us that, that once seemed impossible.
Now the British have added Republican faces to the front benches of British rule and deploy these front men to reassure nationalists and blunt Republican opposition to British policies. Sinn Fein and the SDLP attends constabulary board and partnership meetings, and then the crown constabulary intensifies repression, even stooping to victimize our children,and as we seen this week with Ciaran Cunningham even elderly parents aren’t immune from the grasps of this un-reformed and well mannered force.
Sinn Fein tells us they are not tokens but have real power as partners in British rule. They tell us they stand against internment by license, plastic bullets, Diplock Courts and the naked brutality deliberately meted to Republican political prisoners. Yet Marian Price and Martin Corey and Gerry McGeough remain in Maghaberry.WHY? Plastic bullets are still fired. Republican prisoners are still brutalized. The presence of Sinn Fein inside a British administration that inflicts these injustices says to us that the party is either not serious about stopping such wrongs or powerless to halt them.
Today there are some who would claim it a great victory to see a member of Sinn Fein switch chairs with Peter Robinson as first among British ministers upholding British rule. Martin McGuinness, whatever place he holds will be patted on the head as a statesman when he condemns Republicans, and slapped down when he has the termesity to criticize crown policies.
No wonder the British think they have succeeded. No wonder David Cameron whenever he speaks of Ireland at all, talks of us in 25 year plans, smugly thinking we are settled for his time as British Prime Minister and perhaps for all time.
These men that we commemorate today had the courage, vision, and honesty to recognize the reality, when the 32 county version of the Stormont of their day proved hollow. These men had doors to wealth and prominence within British rule open to them. Yet they were patriots who pledged themselves to end British rule rather than promoting their own interests within it.
Henry Joy McCracken and William Drennan started with a strategy of building unity at a time when they were confronted by sectarian and class divisions which make anything which divides Republicans today seem very small.
We have all been given a lesson in unity by Brendan Lillis or more accurately by Roisin Lynch. RNU wishes to applaud and congratulate them both! BL was quoted as saying that Roisin “could move mountains” and indeed she moved the British government which at times in Irish history seems a more difficult feat.
Her devotion, her simple eloquence and honest emotion touched and united Republicans in a way that has been missing for a long time. All Republicans cooperated and worked together behind Roisin and her committee. All of us fought to bring BL home from dying at Maghaberry, it wasn't what the DUP wished for and David Ford and the British would have preferred thankfully. Prominent independents joined. Eventually nationalist political parties came forward in an outcry that could not be ignored.
We have just commemorated the 10 Hunger Strike martyrs of 30 years ago. The levels of support for the H-Block Blanketmen and Armagh Women could not have been achieved without building unity. Not only did the divisions and mistrust between the IRA and INLA have to be surmounted but also the divisions between strong-minded independents or groups like Peoples Democracy who joined the campaign. Republicans were able to construct an agreed formula of cooperation that overcame those divisions.
Can Republicans unite or at least agree formal ground rules of cooperation behind the Republican prisoners at Maghaberry?
No unity initiative can succeed if it is seen as the property of one group. RNU believes that ALL groups affiliated with Republican prisoners at Maghaberry want to see the naked brutality of the strip-searches halted, want to unite behind these prisoners and have taken on board the example that the campaigns for Brendan Lillis and the campaigns for the Hunger Strikers set for us. We pledge to attend, join in and invite confidential meetings to see if we can agree ground rules for unity behind Republican political prisoners. We believe we together with other Republican groups can achieve this structure of unity that is crucial to beating Britain’s latest try at criminalization.
Today we commemorate the legacy of two Belfast patriots. William Drennan pledged himself to real independence for Ireland. Henry Joy McCracken vowed on Cave Hill never to stop until this real independence Dr. Drennan sought had been won. That vow was kept until he died on English gallows and he keeps it still, because the legacy of Henry Joy McCracken, like the legacy of William Drennan, lives on and inspires us today and will continue to inspire Republicans until the day we walk into this cemetery and celebrate that at long last the freedom and independence they strove to win for us has come to Belfast at last.