Hope, James (‘Jemmy’) (1764–1847), United Irishman, was born 25 August 1764 in Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, second among three sons of John Hope, a linen weaver who was the son of a Covenanting Scottish immigrant, and Sarah Hope (née Speers). He received little formal schooling, and in his early teens worked as a farm labourer, later serving his apprenticeship as a linen weaver. Encouraged by his employers, he managed to educate himself, particularly through reading the Bible, and became an enthusiastic member of a book club at Mallusk, Co. Antrim. The American struggle for independence aroused his interest in politics and he joined the Roughfort Volunteers. In 1795 he joined the United Irish society in Mallusk despite his reservations at the society's oath-bound conspiratorial character, observing that ‘oaths would never bind rogues’ (Madden, 229). Elected to the baronial committee for upper Belfast and the Antrim county committee, he became firm friends with United Irish leaders Samuel Neilson (qv), Henry Joy McCracken (qv), and Thomas Russell (qv). Hope's honesty and reliability soon won the confidence of the Belfast leadership, who dubbed him ‘the Spartan’, and he was appointed to the United Irish general committee.
He became one of the society's main emissaries and recruiters from 1796 to 1798. In 1796 he and William Metcalfe were sent to Dublin to promote the United Irishmen, and Hope settled at Balbriggan, posing as a Scottish silk-weaver. Coming under suspicion from local Orangemen, he moved to Dublin's Liberties, where he had great success in recruiting fellow working men. There are accounts of him promoting the United movement in counties Monaghan, Cavan, Armagh, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Roscommon, Kildare, and Wicklow, often accompanied by that other indefatigable agent, William Putnam McCabe (qv). In Roscommon he disguised himself as an army recruiting sergeant and rescued a suspected United Irishman from a courtroom on the pretext of enlisting him. He showed great courage and elusiveness and was never arrested, although he had many close shaves.
Frustrated by the caution of northern leaders after the outbreak of rebellion on 23 May 1798, he pressed strongly for action. At the battle of Antrim (7 June 1798) he was McCracken's main lieutenant and marched in the front rank with the Roughfort Volunteers singing the Marseillaise. Although the United army was routed, the Roughforts distinguished themselves by their courage and discipline in covering the retreat. Hope went into hiding with McCracken and others at Slemish mountain and in the hills around Belfast, but unlike McCracken he managed to evade capture. Refusing to accept the government's offer of pardon, he stayed in hiding until November 1798 and then attempted to revive the United Irishmen in Antrim, Down, and Dublin in winter 1798–9. For the next few years he moved around to avoid detection: he was in Dublin to June 1799, and later worked as a cotton weaver for Charles Teeling (qv) at Naul, Co. Meath, until 1802, when he was discovered and fled to the Liberties. Here, with Teeling's help, he set up a small haberdasherery at 8 The Coombe. When Neilson covertly returned to Belfast in 1802, he entrusted Hope with the arrangements for his journey. Contacted by Robert Emmet (qv) late in 1802, Hope became one of his chief organisers and in spring 1803 moved to Emmet's base at Butterfield Lane, Rathfarnham, to assist him with preparations for insurrection, including liaising with Michael Dwyer (qv). Sent to assess the north's willingness to rise in May 1803, he reported favourably. He did not participate in the Dublin rebellion (much to the disappointment of local United Irishmen), but was assigned to raise Ulster with Russell, who regarded Hope as his ‘right arm’. In July 1803 they travelled throughout Antrim and Down, attempting to foment a rising, but received little support. Hope again escaped capture but Russell and four others were arrested and hanged. He moved to Drogheda, where he worked until 12 July 1804, later moving to Westmeath. He returned to the north in 1806, settling in Belfast, where he worked as a weaver for the McCrackens and later, having learned to keep accounts, as a clerk for Joseph Smyth, publisher of the Belfast Almanac.
In later life he was deeply critical of the United Irishmen's middle-class leadership, denouncing them as ‘foreign-aid men’ who were unwilling to risk their property in a popular uprising and who undermined the movement by their over-reliance on a French invasion. His distrust of middle-class radicals was, he believed, the main reason why he had never been arrested, but his ability to merge into the working classes and his determination never to be taken alive probably also contributed. He claimed that the neglect of fundamental social issues by most of the United Irish leadership greatly weakened the movement, and that there could be no solid basis for liberty until radical measures were taken to alleviate poverty. He foretold the fall of the landed classes, claiming that their monopoly of land ownership was immoral and untenable. Believing that God had given the land to all rather than to a privileged few, and that those who worked it had a right to its benefits, he denounced limited agrarian reforms such as fixity of tenure as ‘a fixity forever in famine’ (Madden, 290). Instead he proposed a thorough reorganisation of society through the abolition of hierarchical structures and the establishment of small self-governing cooperative communities, akin to those advocated by Robert Owen, which would share out wealth according to need. He was critical of the piecemeal reforms and laissez-faire liberalism of Daniel O'Connell (qv), but by the 1840s he had joined the Repeal Association and believed that independence could be achieved by moral force. With the onset of the famine, he lamented the absence of men such as McCracken, Neilson, Russell, and Emmet, who could have given leadership to popular disaffection, and he maintained that the economic depression of the mid 1840s heralded the collapse of capitalism.
Hope's political outlook was based on strongly held Christian principles. In his youth he worshipped with a presbyterian seceding congregation in Templepatrick, but was troubled by the anti-catholic prejudices of the minister, the Rev. Isaac Patten, and was later refused communion by that congregation. Religious animosity appalled Hope, and he denounced the clergy's role in fomenting sectarian divisions. He regarded all Christians as members of one church, and had his children baptised in Dublin by a catholic priest.
R. R. Madden (qv) met Hope in 1843 when he was 80 and encouraged him to write his memoirs, which form an invaluable record of the career and perspectives of a working-class United Irishman. Madden described him as of medium height, ‘his frame slight but compact, his features remarkable for the tranquillity and simplicity of their expression . . . he is always in good humour, gay without levity . . . strictly moral, utterly fearless, inflexible and incorruptible’ (Madden, 220). Hope wrote some verse, later published by Madden, and also had an interest in the Irish language, owning several books in Irish. After suffering poor health for some years, he died 10 February 1847 at his son Henry's home, 1 Lancaster St., Belfast. He was buried at Mallusk graveyard, Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim; the grave is marked by a large limestone memorial. His portrait by William Charles Nixon (1813–78) is in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, and he features strongly in several novels on 1798, notably Northern iron (1907) by George Birmingham (qv), and in the play Northern Star (1984) by Stewart Parker (qv).
The best-known United Irish working man, Hope has become an icon to left-wing republicans because of his anti-sectarian and radical social ideals. His awareness of class antagonisms within the United movement has particularly attracted the interest of Marxists, but he was essentially a plebeian radical with a strong sense of social injustice, rather than a pioneering socialist. His criticisms of United Irish social failings were filtered through the Owenite socialism of his later years, and his main contribution to the United movement was as an activist rather than a theorist.
He was predeceased by his wife Rose Mullan (b. 3 December 1770; d. 25 May 1830), daughter of a master weaver and sister of Luke Mullan, a United Irishman. She often assisted Hope, carrying messages and arms for the United Irishmen. He described her as a ‘gifted’ woman ‘with every advantage of mind and person, she was everything in this world to me, and when I lost her my happiness went to the grave with her’ (Madden, 226). They had three surviving children: Luke Mullan Hope (1794–1827), editor of the Rushlight, Henry Joy McCracken Hope (1809–72), who wrote some religious verse, and Robert Emmet Hope (1812–64).