Hughes, John (d. 1840s?), bookseller, United Irishman, and informer, was the son of James Hughes, who seems to have been a farmer in the hinterland of Belfast. Through his mother, whose maiden name was also Hughes, he was related to Samuel Neilson (qv), one of the most important of the United Irishmen in Ulster, being the editor of the Northern Star and a medium between the organisations in Ulster and Leinster. According to R. R. Madden (qv), Mrs Hughes's brother Matthew was married to an aunt of Neilson; moreover a woman member of the extended Hughes family married a man named Carson, a maternal uncle of Neilson. Mrs Hughes parted from her husband, moved to Belfast with her son John and set up a dram-shop. She had John educated and bound apprentice to Henry Joy (qv), editor and proprietor of the Belfast Newsletter. After completing his apprenticeship John Hughes set up as a stationer and bookseller. In the mid 1780s (whether before or after his apprenticeship is uncertain) he spent some time at sea and in 1785 was off Jamaica. In February 1792, when he advertised Paine's Rights of man, part II (1792) in the Northern Star, his address was given as 12 Bridge St., Belfast.
In 1793 he was admitted to the first Belfast Society of United Irishmen, which, however, he later stated, soon ‘fell into disuse’. About July 1796 he was sworn into a ‘regenerated’ society by Robert Orr. Soon afterwards Hughes formed another society, of which he was secretary. Within a few months the United Irish movement in Ulster was at the peak of strength. In November 1796, Bartholomew Teeling (qv), then of Dundalk, met Hughes in Belfast and got him to spend two or three weeks in Dublin to promote and extend the United Irish societies there. Probably he met Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv). Later it was stated by James Hope (qv) that ‘early in 1797’ Hughes was ‘one of Lord Edward's confidential acquaintances, which confidence continued until the very day of Lord Edward's arrest’. In June 1797 Hughes was in Dublin again and met Teeling, Alexander Lowry (qv), Samuel Turner (qv), Patrick Byrne (qv) and William James MacNeven (qv). Hughes left Dublin on or before 14 June 1797 and attended meetings of United Irish military leaders at Randalstown and Belfast. He was to have attended a meeting of Down and Antrim leaders at Ballynahinch but fearing arrest they fled. Hughes went home. In the same month he got into financial difficulty. He attended no more United Irish meetings, ‘civil or military’, for the next nine months. Hughes was arrested at Newry and brought to Belfast on 20 October 1797 on a charge of high treason but the same evening freed on bail and, if Madden is to be relied upon, lodged under surveillance at Dublin Castle. In March and April 1798, by now suborned by the government, he paid two visits to Dublin, where he met FitzGerald and other United Irish leaders. About 28 April he accompanied Neilson on a visit to Henry Grattan (qv) at Tinnehinch and later claimed that Grattan had then taken the United Irish oath.
On the outbreak of rebellion in Ulster he was rearrested (7 June 1798) and incarcerated with other United Irish prisoners. After the rebellion's suppression he gave evidence to a secret committee of the Irish house of lords (3 August). The sum of £200 was paid to him for informing on his fellow conspirators. Eventually he emigrated to America. In the early months of 1802 he was in South Carolina, from where he addressed two letters to Thomas Jefferson. By then he had come under the influence of Richard Brothers (1757–1824), an English millenarian. In 1804 Hughes visited Liverpool and in 1812 was briefly in Dublin. Writing in the mid 1850s, Madden stated that John Hughes ‘bought slave property in the southern states and died there a few years ago’.