Historian Mary McNeill says of Jemmy Hope; “He represented the almost inarticulate aspirations of the strongly revolutionary element among the Presbyterian labourers both rural and urban: he was indeed the most radical of the United Irishmen – in some respects the greatest of them all.”
Jemmy Hope is a name unfamiliar to many Irish people today, and yet he remains one of the most radical voices in Irish history. Described as being to 1798 what James Connolly was to 1916, Hope was a leading voice in the United Irishmen movement. He was active in Emmet’s Rebellion in 1803 and fought at the Battle of Antrim in June 1798 alongside Henry Joy McCracken, and in 1803 was influential in organising support for Robert Emmet’s rebellion.
James Hope was born in Templepatrick, County 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 and Hope’s revolutionary slogans.
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 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 and 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 County 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.”
Hope’s organisation survived and he went on to organise five thousand workers in the Liberties in Dublin to be ready to rise with Robert Emmet in 1803. Emmet made a tactical error by asking Hope to leave this power-base amongst the Dublin weavers to help raise the Ulster Presbyterians. Hope was a brave and fearless soldier. He had marched to the battle of Antrim in 1798 singing the Marseillaise and a merry Irish tune. He was never captured, he never surrendered and he lived until 1847. In the last paragraph of his autobiography, which he narrated to RR Madden when he was eighty-one years old, he paid a tribute to four of his former leaders who were also his friends: Samuel Neilson, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell and Robert Emmet.
Hope told Madden: “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 and issue between the rulers and the people.”
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.”