William James Mac Neven, M.D.

By Samuel J. Maguire


William James MacNeven was born at Ballynahowna, near Aughrim, Co. Galway on 21st March, 1763. His ancestors were driven by Cromwell from the north of Ireland, where they held a great amount of property, to Connacht. The family of MacNeven possessed in fee-simple a small landed estate about a mile south from Aughrim and Kilcommodan Hill. His mother Rosa was a daughter of a neighbouring landowner named Dolphin. William James was the eldest of four sons. Until the age of ten he attended the nearest schools, at Ballinasloe and Archreagh, where there were good English and Latin teachers and where he acquired the rudiments of English and Latin grammar.

He was then sent to his uncle Baron MacNeven at Prague, for further education - a custom very general in Catholic families, and necessary at the time owing to the incidence of the penal laws. This Baron MacNeven was William O'Kelly MacNeven, an Irish exile physician, who for his medical skill in her service had been created an Austrian noble by the Empress Marie Theresa. He lived in good style, occupying a handsome residence in Prague during the winter months, and during the summer at an old castle on the river Sazva or Seva, about sixty miles from the city. Young MacNeven made his collegiate studies at Prague, his medical studies at Vienna, where he was a favourite pupil of the distinguished Professor Pestel, and took his degree in 1784. The same year, with his brother Hugh, he returned to Dublin to practise.

The Catholic Committee, originally organised by Wyse, O'Connor and Dr. Curry, still held its meetings in Dublin, and numbered among its members almost all the influential Catholics of Ireland. MacNeven was in constant attendance at these meetings. A division arose on the subject of a remonstrance to be offered to the Government, which the merchants and citizens - the democratic party - opposed as too submissive and slavish in its tone; and the other party, including most of rank and fortune, upheld as discreet and loyal. The aristocratic Catholics to the number of sixty-eight presented their address to Government. The succession of Lord Kenmare and his party from the Catholic Committee took place owing to Tone's actions as secretary. In 1792 a great convention of Catholics was called and representatives were chosen from the different town and cities, and MacNeven was elected by the Catholics of Galway (and those of) Navan. As a member of the convention he (first) distinguished himself as an advocate of the claims of the great majority of his countrymen.

The convention concurred with their Ulster Protestant supporters in adopting resolutions asking for the complete repeal of the penal code, and it resolved an address to the King of London. The committee appointed their own delegates and Tone, a Protestant, accompanied them as secretary. The British ministers, instead of giving a rebuff, as Dublin Castle wished, showed them favour, and the King himself received them graciously. Plowden in his History vol. III records that the Catholic Committee on the return of the deputation, voted 2000 for a statue to the King; 1500, with a gold medal value thirty guineas, to Wolfe Tone; 1500 to W. Todd Jones; 500 to Simon Butler for his Digest; and a piece of plate, value one hundred guineas, to the Catholic delegates, who had refused to accept their expenses.

In his Pieces of Irish History, MacNeven states that an offer was sent from the French Convention, directed "to the popular leaders in Ireland," stating that they would deposit in any bank in Europe the pay of 40,000 men for six months, on the condition that the Irish would declare an absolute independence of England. The agent, however, appears to have met with no encouragement. MacNeven dates the occurrence as "the summer of 1793."

In the same year the Old Ascendancy junta at the Castle obtained from a secret committee of the Lords a report against armed volunteers, conventions, and Catholic committeemen, whom it tried to mix up with agrarian rioters. The Convention Act was passed to stifle all organised expression of popular desires, and by gagging grievances, it converted reformers into conspirators. The wrongs committed, particularly in the north, by orders of the Castle, caused the Catholic peasantry to band themselves by all means, lawful or not, under the name of Defenders. The Defenders were exclusively Catholic and were professedly, as their name implies, a purely defensive body. It ultimately merged into the United Irishmen. In MacNeven's and Emmet's Essay Towards the History of Ireland it is stated:

"The Defenders likewise, in 1794, began to entertain an idea that possibly the French might visit Ireland, and that from thence benefits would result to them and their country; for in some places it was made a part of the oath, and in others well understood that they should join the French in case of an invasion. There is not, however, any reason to believe that this expectation arose from any communication with France, but only from the strength and ardency of their own wishes."

Lecky states that it was not until the December of 1795 that an invasion of Ireland appears to have been seriously contemplated in Paris.

MacNevin and the United Irishmen

It was not until the Autumn of 1796 that MacNevin, a firm friend of Tone, first formally joined the United Irishmen. About this time the society began to show leanings towards a military organisation. This military slant was grafted on the civil one, and it was fully elaborated at the close of 1796 and in the beginning of 1797.

About the middle of 1796 a meeting of the executive of the Society took place, more important in its discussions and its consequences than any that had preceded it. "On this solemn and important occasion a serious review was taken of the Irish nation at public mind." A resolution in favour of parliamentary reform had indeed been passed in 1795 by the House of Commons, but after several successive adjournments all hopes of its attainment vanished. The friends of reform everywhere were proscribed, the Volunteers were put down and all power of meeting by delegation for any political purpose was taken away at the same time. The provocations of the year 1794, the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam, and the resumption of coercive measures that followed it, were strongly dwelt on. Nothing, it was contended, could more justly excite the spirit of resistance and determine men to appeal to arms than the Insurrection Act.

"There had sprung up in our own time a mighty republic (France) which, by offers of assistance to break the chains of slavery, had drawn, on itself a war with the enemies of our freedom, and now particularly tendered us its aid."

These arguments prevailed, and it was resolved to accept the assistance offered.

The year that MacNevin joined the Society of United Irishmen saw the passage of the Insurrection Act, inflicting crushing penalties on the taking of seditious oaths, authorising the search for arms, and empowering Justices of the Peace to send men to the British Navy without trial. In December a French fleet sailed into Bantry Bay; but Munster was far from Dublin, and its loyalty had not been affected. In March, 1797, General Lake, by order of the Viceroy, issued a proclamation which came near to a declaration of martial law in Ulster; and the search for arms led to terrible outrages by the yeomanry.

A final attempt at reconciliation was made by Grattan, who proposed a far-reaching Reform Bill, admitting Catholics to Parliament and the great offices of state, and introducing household franchise. Only thirty members however supported him. Inside and outside the House of Commons his influence was gone. Together with George Ponsonby, Curran, and a few other reformers, he retired from Parliament. Grattan disapproved both the conduct of the United Irishmen and that of the Government, and refused to encourage one by attacking the other. Sir Ralph Abercromby, appointed Commander in Chief in December, 1797, strongly disapproved of the system of repression, and condemned the licence of the troops. His proclamation was a direct censure of the Government and he was compelled to resign.

In June, 1797, MacNevin was sent as a second agent with the necessary credentials to the French Minister at Hamburg urging the necessity for assistance in men and arms from the French Directory, and instructing him to negotiate, if possible, a loan of half a million, or at least 300,000. The force asked for was not to exceed 10,000 men, nor less than 5,000 with 40,000 stand of arms, and the assistance of such Irish officers as were then in the French service. The identical memorial presented by MacNevin to the French Minister, and a copy of which exists in the French Foreign Office, was shown by Lord Clare to MacNevin on his examination before the Committee of Secrecy of the House of Lords. From Hamburg, MacNevin went to Paris where he conferred with Tone.

Disappointed of French co-operation the Directors of the Society of United Irishmen resolved to defy the whole power of the Government. Thomas Reynolds was induced, in March, 1797, to reveal all he knew of the designs of his associates to Government. The consequence was the arrest of four members of the Directory: Dr. MacNevin, Arthur O'Connor, Oliver Bond and Thomas Addis Emmet. Speaking of Reynolds, MacNevin said:

"That villain did all he could to get evidence from me to convict me, but I distrusted him, knowing him to be given to falsehood and inclined to gluttony. I never knew one who was a sensualist who was good for anything in public business. I knew the mother of this man Reynolds well - she was a Geraldine - a shrewd, intelligent old lady. I was her physician, attended her in her last illness, and believed she did not die a natural death."

MacNevin, with other state prisoners in Kilmainham, to stop further bloodshed, and especially to save the life of Oliver Bond then under sentence of death, entered into an agreement with Government to reveal the plans and organisation of the United Irishmen without, however, disclosing the names of those implicated in the conspiracy. Of the views and movements of the Society details appear in the statements of MacNevin, Thomas Addis Emmet and O'Connor, in August, 1798. Further information was supplied by the examination of MacNevin before the select Committee of the Houses of Lords and Commons in the same year. He declared, inter alia:

"That the minimum force asked for from the French Government was 5,000 men, the maximum 10,000 men. With this number, and a large quantity of arms and ammunition, we knew that an Irish army could be formed and disciplined. This aided by the universal wish of the people to shake off the yoke, we had no doubt would succeed, and we were always solicitous that no foreign force should be able to dictate to our county. Liberty and national independence being our object, we never meant to engage in a struggle for a change of masters. It was a measure we were forced into, inasmuch as I am now, and always have been of the opinion, that if we were an independent republic, and Britain ceased to be formidable to us, our interest would require an intimate connection with her... I have not, I own, any idea of sacrificing the interests of Ireland to those of any other country; nor why we should not, in that and in every respect, be as free as the English themselves. If once Ireland were her own mistress she would be invincible against English and French together."

Stating that he was averse to beginning the rebellion before the arrival of French aid. Such action would tend to make the revolution less bloody by determining many to join it early, who, while the balance of success was doubtful, would either retain an injurious neutrality, or even perhaps oppose it... The extent of the organisation was less perhaps in Connacht than in other places. It got later into Connacht, but great numbers had taken the test. From the misery of the poor people, and the oppressiveness of landlords in many parts of the province, he had no doubt but if the French ever landed in force there, they will be joined by thousands, probably by the whole of the population. (Professor Hayes in his Last Invasion of Ireland contradicts MacNevin in his reference to the strength of the United Irishmen in Connacht. Editor).

Castlereagh writing to Wickham under date 30th July, 1798, stated:

"In going over Dr. MacNevin's Memorial with Mr. CooKe, I doubt not I shall be able to render it sufficiently correct; indeed, I am not without hopes that in the course of this day, we shall receive the best possible assistance for this purpose - Dr. MacNevin himself being now employed in preparing a statement of his foreign communications for the information of Government. It may reasonably be hoped that the report of the Committee of Secrecy may contain ever circumstance at all material for the public information, without in the least compromising the secret intelligence, which is so great an object to use as sparingly as possible. The few lines I had the honour of addressing to you by Saturday's mail will have in some measure explained the communication we are about to receive from Dr. MacNevin and the other state prisoners. I acceded to the interviews requested by Mr. O'Connor, Mr. Emmet, and the Doctor; and the Chancellor was kind enough to be present. They expressed an anxious desire to save Mr. Bond's life, as also to rescue the country from the Rebellion, which it was evident must be destructive to all parties. They admitted that they had intended everything we knew they did, but most positively denied they were ever prepared to accept French assistance to an extent which might enable them to interfere as conquerors instead of allies."

In his Account of the Treaty between the United Irishmen and the Anglo-Irish Government in 1798, MacNevin states:

"That the confidential friends of the British Government were known to boast of having plunged the nation into this scene of horrors (the Rebellion). Nor was the executive committee of the Union unacquainted with the intention of reducing Ireland to depend on the will of a foreign power, and that power an ambitious rival."

So little was the policy of the British on the subject a secret even out of Ireland that the Director, Carnot, told MacNevin in August, 1797, that a Union was MR. Pitt's object in his vexatious treatment of Ireland, and that it behoved the United Irishmen to be aware of his schemes.

Imprisonment of MacNevin

Eighty-nine prisoners in Kilmainham were affected by the Treaty with Government, but they were not all released. Twenty of the leading men including MacNevin were sent to Fort George in Scotland where they were confined until the Peace of Amiens. Books were the doctor's greatest resource during his imprisonment. Besides being a good classical scholar he was proficient in German, French and Italian. He committed to writing observations on the various books he read, devoted much time to the writings of Ossian, and translated many books from the original Irish - a language with which he was quite familiar. Incidentally he was one of the few leading Irish reformers interested in Gaelic culture. Through conversations with the Scottish soldiers and staff of the Fort he collected many traditions of Scotland. MacNevin also taught French to the children of Thomas Addis Emmet, who had come with their mother to the Fort, and compiled a French grammar for their use. After an internment of three years and three months he and other state prisoners were put aboard a frigate, sailing from Fort George on 30th June, 1803, and were landed at Cruxhaven on 4th July.

On his arrival in Germany MacNevin visited his relatives in that country and then travelled through Switzerland on foot. He wrote an account of his tour under the title A Ramble Through Switzerland.

MacNevin in New York

In 1803 MacNevin went to Paris where he entered the French Army as a surgeon-captain in the Irish Brigade. Resigning his commission he sailed from Bordeaux for New York in June, 1805. Five years after he married Mrs. Jane Margaret, widow of John Tom, merchant of New York and daughter of Samuel Riker, Long Island, a descendant of the early Dutch settlers. In 1807, MacNevin delivered a course of lectures on clinical medicine in the recently established College of Physicians and Surgeons. Here he received in 1808 the appointment of Professor of Midwifery. At the reorganisation of the school in 1810 he became Professor of Chemistry, and in 1816 he received the additional appointment of Professor of Materia Medica. With six of his colleagues he resigned because of a misunderstanding with the New York Board of Regents, and accepted the Chair of Materia Medica in Rutgers Medical College. This school was a branch of the New Jersey institution of that name, established in New York in opposition to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. After four years it was closed by legislative enactment on account of interstate difficulties. The attempt to create a school independent of the Regents resulted in the reorganisation of the University of the State of New York.

MacNevin was a member of nearly every society formed in New York having for its object the interests of his countrymen. In 1816 he was chairman of a committee of distinguished Irishmen for the settlement of Irish farmers and farm labourers on American lands, but this effort failed. In the same year he was instrumental in opening an office for the purpose of obtaining employment for Irish emigrants, who were arriving in New York in large numbers. In 1827 he opened a free registry office for the benefit of Irish domestic servants. This service also included directions for naturalisation. He held his interests in Irish affairs until his death at the home of his son in law, Thomas Addis Emmet, Junior, on 12th July, 1841 at the age of 78.

The striking feature in MacNevin's character was his extraordinary coolness and self-possession combined with the most remarkable simplicity of mind and singleness of purpose. There was a kind of stoic attachment to his fidelity to his principles. His patriotism was the widely extended benevolence of a Catholic philanthropy.

He published works are:-
An Argument for Independence in Opposition to a Union.
A Ramble through Switzerland.
Pieces of Irish History.
Brande's chemistry.
Exposition of the Atomic Theory.
Nature and Functions of an Army Staff.


The genealogy of the MacNevins is given in O'Donovan's Tribes and Customs of Hy-Many:

"MacCnaimhin, now anglicised MacNevin and among the peasantry shortened to Neavin and Nevin. This family were originally settled at Crannog Meg Cnaimhin, now Frannagh MacNevin, in the south east extremity of the parish of Tynagh, Barony of Leitrim and County of Galway and the name is still numerous in that and the adjoining Barony of Loughrea. The first notice of this family to be found in Irish history occurs in the Annals of the Four Masters at the year 1159, where it is recorded that Athius the son of MacCnaimhine (MacNevin) was slain at Ardee in the now County of Louth, in a battle fought between Muircheartach MacLoughlin, senior to the Northern Hy-Niall, the legitimate heir to the throne of Ireland and Roderic O'Connor, King of Connaught. The head of the name in the reign of Queen Elizabeth was Hugh MacKnavin: he was hanged on the 4th June 1602, as appears from an inquisition taken at Galway on the 10th October 1605: Quod Hugo MacKnavin, alias dictus MacKellie, intravit in actionem Rebellionis et captus et suspensus fuit, 4 Junii, 1602; et fuit seisitus in Ballilie, Cranach MacKnavin, etc. In a grant to the Earl of Clanricarde, dated 19th July 1610, mention is made, among various other lands granted to him of parts of the land of Cranach MacKnavin, parcel of the estate of Hugh MacKnavin otherwise O'Kelly (an error for MacKelly), of Cranagh MacKnavin, executed in rebellion."

Memoirs and Correspondce of Viscount Castlereagh.
Cornwallis Correspondence.
Landreth, Pursuit of Robert Emmet
Fitzpatrick. The Sham Squire
Madden. United Irishmen.
McDowell, Irish Public Opinion 1750-1800
Gilbert. Documents Relating to Ireland 1795-1804.
Lecky. History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century.
. Recollections.