Jemmy Hope is a name unfamiliar to many Irish people today, and yet he remains one of the most radical voices in Irish history. Described by veteran republican socialist George Gilmore in 1964 as being to 1798 what James Connolly was to 1916, Hope was a leading voice in the United Irishmen movement. He survived that first republican insurrection, and was active in Emmet’s Rebellion in 1803. Hope fought at the Battle of Antrim in June 1798 alongside Henry Joy McCracken, and in 1803 was influential in organising support for Emmet’s failed rebellion, primarily among the working class in Dublin.
Jemmy Hope was born in Templepatrick, Co.Antrim. Self-educated, he was of Presbyterian stock. As Sean Cronin wrote in his brief biography of Hope:
The Dissenters laboured under religious and political disabilities, though nothing on the scale of the penal laws against the Catholics. They had strong anti-authoritarian views. When their grandfathers slammed the gates of Derry on the troops of King James II they acted in the name of liberty and in defiance of the theory that kings ruled by “Divine Right.”
Hope, like many other northern Pyresbyterians, was drawn to the politics of republicanism, and as Cronin has noted a young Hope “saw the rise of the United Irishmen as a revolt against the tyranny of privilege and foreign rule.” The United Irishmen had been established in the winter of 1791, when a group of Protestant Irish nationalists which included Theobald Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and Thomas Russell met in Belfast. Initially quite in line with the thinking of Henry Grattan and other moderates, this society in time drifted towards radical republicanism.
Hope’s political beliefs were much to the left of even many of the United Irishmen. He believed that:
By force the poor were subdued and dispossessed of their interest in the soul; by fiction the titles of the spoilers were established; and by fraud on the productive industry of future generations, the usurpation continued.
In the spring of 1796, Hope was sent to Dublin. A weaver by trade, he settled in the Liberties, near to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. At first though, Hope had resided in Balbriggan. He notes in his autobiography that:
I took up my residence at Balbriggan, in the character of a silk weaver from Scotland, and used to come backwards and forwards, between Dublin and that town, without exciting suspicion for some time.
The man with whom I worked in Balbriggan was a bitter Orangeman. and at length I became an object of suspicion to him, on learning which I returned to Dublin, and succeeded in obtaining my freedom to work in the Liberty, which enabled me to promote the objects of my mission.
Sean Cronin has noted that the purpose of sending Hope to Dublin was “to introduce the Union (United Irishmen) among the workers in the capital.” Hope had been “promised money which did not arrive and given contacts which proved unreliable”. Hope had arrived in a city described by Cronin as “perpetually simmering with revolt”, and in which “the weavers constituted the most militant element.”
Hope’s organising work continued in Leitrim, Roscommon, Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Armagh. When the United Irishmen rose in 1798, Hope in Antrim found that “everything had become disorganised- the fearful and half-hearted had deserted, many of the zealous knew not where to go or whom to follow.” Henry Joe McCracken was to lead an assault in Antrim on 7 June 1798 however, with Hope alongside him. The United movement, singing the Marsellois and Irish songs, marched on Antrim town, unfurling a green banner there. On 7 July, McCracken faced his death when hanged for his role in the insurrection, but Hope remained on the run. In the period following the 1798 rebellion, he would once more settle in the inner-city of Dublin. Hope returned to the Coombe.
After the battle of Antrim, I remained in the north, till the month of November, 1798, when I was compelled to quit that part of the country to avoid being arrested. I proceeded to Dublin, where I was joined by my wife and child, in the summer of 1799, and worked there at cotton weaving
Later, with the assistance of a man named Charles H. Teeling who Hope had worked for, he would open “a small haberdasher’s store, at No.8, on the Coombe, and I remained there till the month of June 1803.”
Hope came into contact with Robert Emmet in Dublin, who informed him that “some of the first men of the land” wished to renew the struggle for independence. Hope believed that “the fire of 1798 was not quite extinguished- it smouldered and was ready to break out anew.” Hope was, in Cronin’s belief, “in effect Emmet’s quartermaster and chief organiser.”
Hope notes in his autobiography that he was visited in the Coombe n the spring of 1803, and that:
The place I lived in, on the Coombe, was directly opposite a temporary barrack, where a company of soldiers was stationed. In the spring of 1803, James McGucken, the attorney of Belfast, called upon me for information, which I refused to give him.
Hope had done particularly well in organising the workers of Dublin, in a city where anger ran high in the wake of the Act of Union. Yet as Sean Cronin has noted, “one of the tragedies of the Emmet Rising was that the preparations were so thorough and the results so poor.” Hope was sent North by Emmet, but ultimately Emmet’s rebellion was consigned to the south inner-city of Dublin. Indeed, as Mike Cronin has noted: “Rather than creating a well organised assault on British rule, the whole thing descended into a general riot of the population in Dublin.” With the head of Robert Emmet held high like a trophy by a hangman on Thomas Street who boasted that “this is the head of a traitor”, the United Irish story had come to an end.
Hope remained in the Liberties of Dublin until January 1806, before returning north. Hope believed that the failures of the movement rested in his belief that “there could be no solid foundation for liberty” which wasn’t grounded in the issue of class. He would write years after the insurrections that:
It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty, till measures were adopted that went to the root of the evil, and were specially directed to the restoration of the natural right of the people, the right of deriving a subsistence from the soil on which their labour was expended.
Hope died in 1847, a veteran of two attempted revolutions. The grave of the former Liberties weaver is found in his native Antrim, and notes:
Erected to the memory of James Hope
One of nature’s noblest works – an honest man.
In the best era of his country’s history
A soldier in her cause.
And in the worst of times still faithful to it.
The autobiography of Hope is available to read in full here.