William Drennan

A founder member of the United Irishmen

William Drennan was born on May 23, 1754, at the manse of the First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast, where his father was minister. A doctor by profession, he became one of the pioneers of inoculation against smallpox.

Drennan became one of the founder members of the United Irishmen, and upon moving to Dublin in 1789 was appointed its chairman. He was also the author of many publications and founded and edited the Belfast Magazine. He is credited with coining the phrase, ‘The Emerald Isle,’ in his 1795 poem, 'When Erin First Rose.'

After he was tried and acquitted of sedition in 1794, Drennan withdrew from the movement and emigrated to Scotland. He remained, however, committed to radical politics and published ‘The Wake of William Orr’ anonymously in January 1798 as a tribute to the United Irish martyr William Orr.

Drennan married Sarah Swanwick in 1800, and they had four sons and a daughter. Moving back to Belfast, he became a co-founder of the non-denominational Belfast Academical Institution in 1807. William Drennan died on February 5, 1820, and is buried in Clifton Street Graveyard.

Further reading:
The Drennan-McTier Letters 1776-1820, 3 vols (1999) edited by Jean Agnew; The Trial of William Drennan on a Trial for Sedition (1991) edited by John Francis Larkin. The Drennan papers are also held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.