He begins in characteristic style. There are no sonorous phrases, no judicious summing up of work done so far, no staking of claims. Instead we have a picture: on an April day in 1778, as the dawn breaks over the Copeland Islands off the Co Down coast, an American sloop of war, commanded by John Paul Jones, threatens the defenceless coasts of Ulster. This is always taken, rightly, as the event which sparked off the formation of Volunteer companies in Ireland; but Dr Stewart reminds us that earlier excursions by the French in the Seven Years' War, and the lack of a police force, prepared the way for the creation of these citizen volunteers. Everything in history happens earlier than is usually supposed.
And so it was with the origins of the radical ideas that excited Ireland, and especially the north, in the time of the American Revolution. The story of how these ideas were taken up by the Presbyterians of Ulster is well known. But Dr Stewart has other, more original, points to make. His thesis is that the radical, levelling spirit that informed Irish politics in the last two decades of the 18th century had older, and more surprising, origins: that its intellectual antecedents were the republicans, anti-monarchists and Whigs of 17th century England. It was the English Commonwealthmen who carried the seeds of United Irish radicalism.
Instead of a treatise on political thought, Dr Stewart traces the evolution of Irish republicanism through a kind of extended biography of William Drennan, medical student, surgeon and radical Presbyterian. I say extended because he looks for the inspiration behind Drennan's thinking in his family background, his Scottish education, and above all the Presbyterian intellectual background in which Drennan's ideas were grounded. There is always something of the Sherlock Holmes about Dr Stewart. His study of the Ulster gun-running of 1914 brought out the best in his writing. Now he finds himself with another task appropriate to his talents: he must track down, collate and reconcile scattered fragments of evidence, and then reveal all with a flourish.
And so the game is afoot. Dr Stewart uncovers what he regards as the key organisation in the construction of the United Irishmen's politics: Freemasonry. This tradition, with its idea of the brotherhood of man, its deep but widespread appeal, its discreet and secret ways, was the perfect vehicle for a political conspiracy. Moreover, it was one of the few societies where Catholic and Protestant could meet as equals. The ideas of the French Revolution were easily assimilable by Freemasons, or at least by enough of them to make a radical, and then a revolutionary conspiracy possible. Dr Stewart is modest, but he is prepared to claim that if this thesis is accepted, then 'much of the history of Ireland in this period needs to be rewritten'.
This claim will remain unproven until more research is done. But it seems to encounter certain difficulties. Henry Grattan and the Earl of Charlemont, patriots both, were Freemasons but drew the line at the more challenging radicalism represented by William Drennan and his like. Dr Stewart needs to marshal much more evidence if Freemasonry is to shoulder its way to the centre of the stage of Irish history; yet such evidence, by the very nature of the subject, is hard to come by. Still, any Irish historian who can trace at least some strands in the intellectual lineage of Irish republicanism back to Oliver Cromwell deserves praise for academic diversity. Dr Stewart's next book should surely be a complete life of Drennan, whose poems and writings he very much enjoys, and with whose ideas he has perhaps a deeper sympathy than some would allow.Reuse content