One of the founder members of the United Irishmen in Belfast
Samuel Neilson was born at Ballyrooney, Co Down, in September 1761, the son of a Presbyterian minister. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to his older brother, a woollen-draper in Belfast. Aged 24 and just married, he then established his own business, the Irish Woollen Warehouse.
By 1790, Neilson had made a fortune of £8000 through his venture, and decided to abandon business for politics. He had been active in the Volunteer movement, and in 1791 became one of the founders of the United Irishmen in Belfast. Neilson belonged to a more radical group surrounding Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell. In 1792, he established the Northern Star, the mouthpiece of the United Irishmen in the north, and became its editor. He was prosecuted for libel on several occasions, before being arrested in September 1796. The Northern Star continued publication until May 1797.
Neilson was imprisoned first in Newgate and then in Kilmainham. In February 1798, he was released due to bad health. He immediately joined Edward Fitzgerald in preparing for a rising. After Fitzgerald’s capture, Neilson attempted to organise a rescue operation during which he was badly wounded and arrested. He was indicted for high treason and in 1799 was moved to Fort George in Scotland. Neilson was allowed to educate his oldest son in the fort and also kept up a regular correspondence with his wife. Although he suffered hardship and his property was ruined, he insisted that he never regretted fighting for liberty.
In 1802, he was deported to the Netherlands. After paying a secret visit to Dublin and Belfast, Neilson made his way to America in December 1802. He intended to bring his family over and launch an evening paper, but died suddenly of apoplexy at Poughkeepsie, New York, on August 29, 1803. His wife, Anne Neilson, remained in Belfast and ran a business.