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The Man of No Property


Jemmy Hope (1764–1847)


JEMMY HOPE was an activist and organiser in the Society of United Irishmen. This was not all that unusual in those revolutionary times, especially among his fellow-Presbyterians in the North, who, as Hope later wrote, were imbued with “the republican spirit, inherent in the principles of the Presbyterian community,” which “kept resistance to arbitrary power alive.” What made him unique, and what makes the study of his life and opinions still interesting for us two hundred years later, is the fact that Jemmy Hope was a working-class United Irishman who was able to see and understand the social and economic basis of the 1798 struggle with a clarity and directness that many others were—and still are—unable or unwilling to do.
     James Hope was born in Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, on 25 August 1764. His father, a linen-weaver, was a native of Templepatrick. His grandfather, “a Covenanter, a Highlander,” had left Scotland to avoid persecution, as had many in the Templepatrick area. The sectarianism of many of the settlers led to the Catholics of the area being driven off. Hope wrote that he could remember men boasting of “the snug bits of land their friends got when the papists fled to Connaught.”
     Though Hope was raised in a fairly bloodthirsty anti-Catholic environment, he was—though deeply religious—completely non-sectarian. As he said in a little poem written in later years,
These are my thoughts, nor do I think I need
Perplex my mind with any other creed.
I wish to let my neighbour’s creed alone,
And think it quite enough to mind my own.
     He was largely self-taught. “By the time I was 10 years of age I had been fifteen weeks at school, and this was all the day school learning I ever received.” He worked from a young age for various farmers in the parish, picking up bits and pieces of history and the rudiments of reading and writing, before being apprenticed to a linen-weaver, when he had the opportunity to attend night school during the winters.
     Influenced by the events in America, he joined the Volunteer movement. As he later said, “the Volunteers of 1782 were the means of breaking the first link of the penal chain that bound Ireland.” Jemmy marched with the Belfast Battalion of the Volunteers when they celebrated the taking of the Bastille on 14 July. These stalwart Protestants marched through the streets of Belfast with green cockades in their hats, under a green flag with the slogans Our Gallic brother was born July 14, 1789—Alas! we are still in embryo and Superstitious galaxy—The Irish Bastille: let us unite to destroy it. Both mottoes were the product of Hope’s revolutionary enthusiasm.
     After the demise of the Volunteers, Hope was quick to join the growing United Irish movement. His natural ability was recognised and he quickly became a delegate to the Belfast committee, as well as acting, in his own words, as “an emissary, going from place to place throughout the country, organising people.” He was in close friendly contact with and received his orders from the United leaders Samuel Neilson, Thomas Russell, and Henry Joy McCracken.
     From early on, Hope saw clearly into the class basis and socio-economic causes and functioning of the struggle. He noted that economic conditions were “the real basis of the persecution in the County Armagh, religious profession being only a pretext to banish a Roman Catholic from his snug little cottage, or spot of land, and get possessed of it.” Writing some forty years after the event, he said:
There are circumstances which should be kept always before one connected with the events of 1798, to which their production is mainly attributed. As a people, we are excluded from any share in framing the laws by which we are governed. The higher ranks usurped the exclusive exercise of that privilege, as well as many other rights, by force, fraud, and fiction. By force the poor were subdued, and dispossessed of their interests in the soil; by fiction the titles of the spoilers were established; and by fraud on the productive industry of future generations the usurpation was continued.
     Hope was also fully aware of the class struggle within the Society of United Irishmen itself. Reminiscing on some of his former allies, the “hucksters, merchants, and bankers,” he commented that
when the fitness and capability of Ireland for independence were discussed, the above classes were always with the government. I remember being present at one of these discussions. Mr. Henry Joy McCracken was the only man present who supposed self dependence possible. His arguments had little effect on the company. One—the chief difficulty with those who opposed his opinion—was in reference to naval protection. I said that Ireland was the eye of Europe—it required no naval protection; it was the connecting link in the chain of the commerce of the two hemispheres.
     When we parted, McCracken blamed my rashness, and bade me never use such language while Ireland remained as she then was; “for,” said he, “there are many mercantile men, and some of them were in that very company, who are efficient members of our society, and who, rather than see their shipping interests or commercial establishments, on the east and north-east of this Island, lessened in value, by the increased traffic on the western coast, would see the whole island, and every vestige of our liberty, sunk into the sea.”
     “Well,” said I, “Harry, these are men that will put the rope on your neck and mine, if ever they get us into their power.”
     “Are you afraid of being hanged, Jemmy?” said he.
     “It would ill become one who has pledged his life for his country to shrink from death in any shape,” I replied; “but I confess, I have no desire for that distinction.”
     “For my part,” said he, “I do not desire to die of sickness.”
     In 1796 Hope went to Dublin as a delegate of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen, one of two men sent there “to disseminate our views among the working classes.” The two were promised funds (which they never received) and willing contacts (who, when met, actively discouraged them). Nevertheless Jemmy soon settled in the Liberties, to live and work at his trade as linen-weaver and, more importantly, to organise and agitate for the cause of the United Irishmen.
     Hope was able to form connections with Counties Meath and Kildare, which soon extended to other counties. With his help, a national organisation was soon formed. He reported back to Belfast and was again sent to Dublin to organise the workers. Under his direction, societies were formed throughout the city and in the Liberties. During this period he also travelled throughout Counties Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, and Leitrim, organising local societies and distributing the constitution of the United Irishmen.
     With Hope back in Co. Antrim, the rising of the United Irishmen in 1798 was hindered by the conscious inaction or misunderstandings of their then commander, who resigned at the height of the revolution. This line was also followed by many of the officers, especially “those who were called colonels,” the great majority of whom had been recruited from among relatively recent middle and upper-class members. As Hope later wrote,
the appearance of a French fleet in Bantry Bay brought the rich farmers and shop keepers into the societies, and with them, all the corruption essential to the objects of the British Ministry . . . the new adherents alleged, as a reason for their former reserve, that they thought the societies only a combination of the poor to get the property of the rich.
     According to Hope, these officers later gave information to the enemy or neutralised the exertions of those who, like himself, were working to raise the United Irishmen in Co. Antrim. In the end, he says, only McCracken was able and willing to move things along and to raise and ready the United men for the Battle of Antrim. Hope himself played an important part in that battle and wrote a fascinating account of it for R. R. Madden’s book The United Irishmen: Their Lives and Times.
     After “the people’s cause was finally lost (at least in that struggle),” as he later wrote, he refused to surrender under Cornwallis’s terms, which he felt involved “not only a recantation of one’s principles, but a tacit acquiescence in the justice of the punishment which had been inflicted on thousands of my unfortunate associates.” He remained in the North until November 1798; he then went to Dublin with his family and in the summer of 1799 was employed by a former comrade, Charles Teeling, “who was then establishing a bleach green at the Nawl, in the County Meath.”
     Hope was now living in the Coombe, Dublin. In 1803 a former friend renewed their past acquaintance and attempted to convince him to quit his connection with the United Irishmen. Hope answered: “If you have fulfilled your obligation to their society, you can quit when you choose; but it does not seem to me that I have fulfilled mine yet.” His “friend” returned the next day with the Liberties Yeomen, but Hope had wisely paid his rent and fled the night before with his wife and children.
     For a number of years he was on the run, living variously in Counties Westmeath, Dublin, and Meath, always wary of the enemy but always forced to work at his trade in order to support his family with his meagre wages.
From the period of the failure of this last effort, nothing remained for me, but to baffle the designs of the enemy against myself. I went about armed, for three years, determined never to be taken alive, avoiding all connection (with a few exceptions) with men above my own rank, still working for my bread, or on a journey, in search of work, or to see my family, who were then in Dublin. I went with a brace of loaded pistols in my breast, but I never discharged them, during all that time, at any human creature, although I had repeated opportunities to have cut off Major Sirr and many other enemies, singly, with the greatest safety to myself. I never felt myself justified in shedding blood, except in cases of attack, which it was my good fortune to evade.
     He then returned to the North but could find no employment with any of his former comrades, who were, however, generous in their promises. He was finally able to find employment with an English “friend of liberty,” who was not, however, a member of the United Irishmen.
     Jemmy Hope saw the downfall of the United Irishmen in the reliance on France and on the influx of rich farmers, shopkeepers and aristocrats that occurred after this became evident and from whom leaders were subsequently chosen:
The seeds of corruption, it was evident to me, were sown in our own society, but I was unable to convince my acquaintances; my observation was only useful to myself, and prepared me for the worst, which realized my dreariest forebodings, without, however, sinking my spirits in the least, or making me regret any step I had taken. Although I executed the part assigned me in every moment cheerfully, I was always prepared for defeat, for none of our leaders seemed to me perfectly acquainted with the main cause of social derangement, if I except Neilson, McCracken, Russell, and Emmet. It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty, till measures were adopted that went to the root of the evil, and were specially directed to the restoration of the natural right of the people, the right of deriving a subsistence from the soil on which their labour was expended.
     In the very thick of the organisational and military battles, Jemmy Hope realised that what he called “the foundation of Ireland’s freedom” lay in the people’s right to work. He locates the struggle for work physically in the soil, as it were, showing the social struggle within the context of and as part of the struggle for liberty, the national struggle. Hope’s class analysis of the causes of the ’98 revolt prefigure James Connolly’s analysis of this inextricable interweaving of the social and national struggles in Ireland.
     Reflecting, shortly before his death in 1847, on the momentous times that he had experienced and had helped to shape, Jemmy Hope, the working-class revolutionary of 1798, wrote what could fittingly have been his epitaph, words that, after more than 150 years, still ring true and still inspire:
The power that has, through life, preserved me, is doing the work, to which my poor efforts were directed. It is farther in advance than I expected to live to see it. It is past the power of human resistance, to frustrate it. Its progress is employing every intelligent Irish mind. Every step throws fresh light on the subject, that engages it, whether of success or defeat. The mind of the nation lives and grows in vigour. Its object is still before it; and as one of its promoters sinks into the grave, another is still forthcoming. Even self-interest, that was so strong against the nation’s interest, is coming round to the latter. Hope for success, under all circumstances—have your heart. You may live to see Ireland what she ought to be; but, whether or not, let us die in this faith.

[MQ]

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