Drennan, William (1754–1820), physician, patriot, and minor poet, was born 23 May 1754 at his father's manse in Rosemary St., Belfast, third surviving child and only son of the Rev. Thomas Drennan and his wife Anne (née Lennox). Thomas Drennan (1696–1768) was born 25 December 1696 in Belfast. He graduated from Glasgow University in 1716, and moved to Dublin after 1720, teaching at an academy for protestant dissenters run by his friend, the philosopher Francis Hutcheson (qv). Drennan was a member of the circle of young presbyterian whigs associated with the New Light controversy of the 1720s. Licensed to preach by the general synod of Ulster (1726), he was called to the congregation at Holywood, Co. Down (1731) and in 1736 became assistant to Rev. Samuel Haliday (qv) of Belfast First Presbyterian congregation (1736–68), which was affiliated to the non-subscribing presbytery of Armagh. After Haliday's death in 1739 he became minister to the congregation until his own death in 1768. An eloquent preacher and an accomplished scholar, Thomas Drennan was friendly with many leading non-subscribing intellectuals, including Rev. John Abernethy (qv) and the poet and philosopher James Arbuckle (qv). He passed some of his classical learning on to his son, who always remembered him with great affection and aspired in adult life to live up to his virtuous example. Thomas Drennan's liberal opinions and outlook were a pre-eminent influence in shaping his son's politics. He died 14 February 1768. In 1741 he married Anne Lennox (1719–1806); they had eleven children, only three of whom survived.
William Drennan's earliest education was in a little school conducted in Belfast by the Rev. Matthew Garnet, a Church of Ireland vicar, but at fifteen he entered the University of Glasgow, where he took the degree of MA (1771), intending to become a presbyterian minister. In 1773, however, perhaps on the advice of Dr Alexander Haliday (qv), a family friend, he enrolled in the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. He graduated MD (1778), and after a few years at home in Belfast he set up in practice in 1782 at Newry as an accoucheur, or, in his own words, a ‘man-midwife’. Keenly interested in public affairs, he became bored with life in a provincial town where he had too few patients, and he moved to Dublin in 1790.
During his years as a student in Edinburgh Drennan had begun an extensive correspondence with his family in Belfast, for the most part an exchange of letters between Drennan and his elder sister Martha. She had married Samuel McTier (qv), a veteran Belfast presbyterian radical and a leading member of the Belfast Blue Company of Volunteers, which Drennan briefly joined. Martha McTier (qv), an intensely public-spirited woman, shared to the full the radical opinions of her husband and brother. The correspondence, consisting of more than 1,500 letters, written over a period of forty years, was preserved in the family and is now in the care of the PRONI. It gives a vivid and detailed picture of political and social life in Ireland in this period. After he had finished his medical studies, Drennan took a keen interest in the late 1770s in the growth of the Volunteers, independent military companies raised to defend Ireland from invasion during the American war, and supported their agitation for ‘free trade’ and legislative independence for Ireland. Arguing that an independent Irish parliament counted for little unless it became more representative, he was a leading spokesman for the Volunteers in favour of catholic relief and parliamentary reform. After the granting of legislative independence in 1782, he believed that the opportunity for further reforms such as a widening of the franchise was fumbled, and for the rest of his life lamented the lack of resolution shown by Volunteer leaders such as Lord Charlemont (qv) and Henry Flood (qv). In 1785 Drennan came to public attention as the author of Orellana, or The letters of an Irish helot, a stirringly patriotic call to the Volunteers to free their country from English control and unite catholic and protestant in this common cause.
Drennan's hopes for the reform of parliament languished from the mid-1780s, but were rekindled by the outbreak of the French revolution and the subsequent revival of the Irish Volunteer movement in a more militant form. Drennan moved to Dublin in 1789 and became involved in radical politics, joining a short-lived club that included Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) and Thomas Addis Emmet (qv). In 1784 and 1785 Drennan had outlined a scheme for the creation of a secret society that would direct the politics of the Volunteer movement and on 21 May 1791 he wrote to his brother-in-law with a plan for the formation of a secret inner circle of dedicated radicals within the wider organisation. It was to be ‘a plot for the People’, its general aim the real independence of Ireland and its particular purpose republicanism. The more extreme of the Belfast presbyterian radicals set up a club on these principles and invited Wolfe Tone to come to Belfast in October 1791 to help frame its constitution. A second society was formed in Dublin the following month under a new name suggested by Tone – the Society of United Irishmen; Drennan became its first president.
From 1791 until 1794 Drennan's letters give an almost day-to-day account of the affairs of the United Irishmen and are of considerable historical importance. He was one of the leading members of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, framed the society's test, and served as president on several occasions. At times he was suspicious of catholic intentions, particularly their commitment to parliamentary reform, and often believed himself to be kept in the dark by pro-catholic United men such as Tone and Thomas Russell (qv). He wrote many of the Dublin society's publications and was arrested on 13 May 1794 on a charge of seditious libel for having published An address to the Volunteers, which the government regarded as a call to an armed rising. His trial opened on 25 June and he was acquitted on all counts, thanks to the brilliant advocacy of his counsel John Philpot Curran (qv). Drennan was considerably chastened by his brief experience of prison, where (as he told his mother) he had slept with his father's Bible as his pillow, and from this point on he gradually withdrew from active participation in the United Irish movement. However, he continued to write occasional ballads that were clearly sympathetic to the national cause. By 1798, when the United Irish rebellion broke out, Drennan and his sister were describing events as observers, though by no means detached ones, and still under government suspicion. In May 1798 Drennan travelled to England to give evidence on behalf of Arthur O'Connor (qv), who was tried for treason at Maidstone but found not guilty. In 1799 Drennan published two pamphlets against the union proposed between Great Britain and Ireland, and a third in 1800 on the same subject. He regarded Robert Emmet's (qv) rebellion in 1803 as madness, and by this time had become disillusioned with the outcome of the French revolution.
Drennan gave up his practice in Dublin in 1807 and returned to Belfast, where he devoted himself largely to literary and philanthropic pursuits. His Fugitive pieces in verse and prose was published in 1815. The best remembered of his poems are ‘The wake of William Orr’, a lament for the presbyterian martyr executed in 1797, and ‘Erin’, in which Ireland is described for the first time as ‘the emerald isle’. Drennan was one of the founders of the Belfast Academical Institution (‘Inst.’) in 1810 and he edited the Belfast Monthly Magazine (1808–13) which continued to reflect the somewhat subdued radical opinion of the North. He remained an ardent supporter of the cause of catholic emancipation until his death. Drennan died 5 February 1820 in Belfast and was buried in the New Burying Ground there.
He married (1800) Sarah Swanwick of Wem, Shropshire, England, ‘a singularly amiable woman who seems to have won the affections of all her relations’. They had four sons – Thomas Hamilton (1801–11), who died while still a child; William (b. 1802; graduate of TCD 1824; called to the Irish bar 1826); John Swanwick (graduate of TCD: BA 1831, MB 1838, MD 1854); and Lennox – and a daughter, Sarah (1807–1902), who married John Andrews of Comber.