Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Drennan, William

DRENNAN, WILLIAM (1754–1820), Irish poet, son of the Rev. Thomas Drennan, presbyterian minister at Belfast, was born in that city on 23 May 1754. He was educated at the university of Glasgow, where he took the degree of M.A. in 1771, and he then proceeded to Edinburgh to study medicine. At Edinburgh he was noted as one of the most distinguished students of his period, not only in medicine, but in philosophy; he became a favourite pupil and intimate friend of Dugald Stewart, and after seven years of study took his M.D. degree in 1778. After practising his profession for two or three years in his native city, he moved to Newry, where he settled down, and where he first began to take an interest in politics and literature. In the great political movement in Ireland of 1784, Drennan, like all the other Ulstermen who had felt the influence of Dugald Stewart, took a keen interest. His letters to the press, signed ‘Orellana, the Irish Helot,’ attracted universal attention. In 1789 he moved to Dublin, where he soon got into good practice, and became a conspicuous figure in the social life of the Irish capital. Drennan was a member of the jovial club of the ‘Monks of the Screw,’ a friend of Lysaght and Curran, and well known for his poetical powers. In politics he continued to take a still deeper interest; he was a member of the political club founded in 1790 by T. A. Emmett and Peter Burrowes, and in June 1791 he wrote the original prospectus of the famous society of the United Irishmen. Of this society he was one of the leaders; he was several times its chairman in 1792 and 1793, and as an eloquent writer was chosen to draw up most of its early addresses and proclamations (for a list of these, see Madden, Lives of the United Irishmen, 2nd series, p. 267). He was tried for sedition and acquitted on 26 June 1794, after an eloquent defence by Curran, but after that date he seems to have withdrawn from the more active projects of his friends and from complicity in their plots, and he was not again molested by the authorities. But his beautiful lyrics, published first in the ‘Press’ and in the ‘Harp of Erin,’ show how deeply he sympathised with his old associates, and they were soon famous throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. In 1791 he published his poem, ‘To the Memory of William Orr,’ sometimes called the ‘Wake of William Orr,’ which was followed in 1795 by ‘When Erin first rose,’ and in 1798 by ‘The Wail of the Women after the Battle’ and ‘Glendalough.’ These are the most famous of Drennan's lyrics, and on them his fame chiefly rests. He is also claimed as the first Irish poet who ever called Ireland by the name of the Emerald Isle. The troubles of 1798 brought his political career to a close, and on 3 Feb. 1800 he married an English lady of some wealth, and in 1807 left Dublin altogether. He settled in Belfast, but gave up practice and devoted himself solely to literary pursuits. He founded the Belfast Academical Institution, and started the ‘Belfast Magazine,’ to which he largely contributed. In 1815 he published his famous lyrics in a volume as ‘Fugitive Pieces,’ and in 1817 a translation of the ‘Electra’ of Sophocles. After a quiet middle age, he died at Belfast on 5 Feb. 1820, and was buried in that city, being carried to the grave by six protestants and six catholics. Drennan was possessed of real poetical genius, but his fame was overshadowed by that of Moore, to whom many of Drennan's best poems have been frequently attributed.

[Madden's Lives of the United Irishmen, 2nd ser. 2nd ed. pp. 262–70; Madden's History of Irish Periodical Literature; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; Glendalloch and other poems, with a life of the author by his sons, J. S. and W. Drennan.]

H. M. S.