‘May Tyrants Tremble’: The Life of William Drennan, 1754–1820


Fergus Whelan

March 2020

First biography of William Drennan, founder and leader of the Society of United Irishmen.



Despite the rich sources available, Society of United Irishmen founder and leader William Drennan is long overdue a comprehensive biography. ‘May Tyrants Tremble’ fills that gap with significant new research to demolish the historical consensus that, after being acquitted at his 1794 trial for sedition, Drennan withdrew from the United Irish movement. In fact, as Fergus Whelan demonstrates using new archival material, Drennan remained a leading voice of Presbyterian radicalism until his death in 1820 and his ideals, along with those of Wolfe Tone and other pivotal United Irishmen, formed the basis of Ireland’s republic.

From the outset, Drennan had produced United Irish literary propaganda and Whelan offers new evidence that Drennan was ‘Marcus’, author of the most seditious material published in Dublin in 1797 and 1798. The prevailing view that Ulster Presbyterian Drennan was an anti-Catholic bigot is also shown to be baseless; on the contrary, throughout his life Drennan championed Catholic Emancipation. Whelan also shines a light on one of the great mysteries of Irish history: what happened to Presbyterian republicanism after 1798?

‘May Tyrants Tremble’ repositions Drennan firmly as the father of Irish democracy, whose vision for a republic has shaped the very soul of modern Ireland.

Table of Contents

  1. Son of the Manse
  2. Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism
  3. Drennan’s Religious Outlook
  4. The Volunteers
  5. If you Sleep you Die
  6. Of Pigs and Papists
  7. Amongst the Dublin Dissenters
  8. A Benevolent Conspiracy
  9. The Faithful Wounds of a Friend
  10. Edmund Burke
  11. The Hounding of Priestley and Paine
  12. Drennan, Burke and the Penal Laws
  13. Belfast: A Nest of Republicans
  14. Citizen Soldiers to Arms
  15. The Merits of Personal Courage
  16. The Secret Committee
  17. There Never Was a Belfast Mob
  18. Earthquake in the Mercantile World
  19. Love and Matters of Honour
  20. A Heart as Dangerous as his Pen
  21. Spies, Entrapment and Gaol Break
  22. The End of the Dublin Society
  23. My Heart Does Not Tremble
  24. Cruel and Ignoble Calumnies
  25. Death in the Highlands
  26. The Smell of a Great Gaol
  27. Frigid Neutralist
  28. Remember Orr!
  29. Martial Law
  30. Man of Letters
  31. A Personal Union with England
  32. Let Irishmen Remain Sulky
  33. The Emmet Family Tragedy
  34. Letter to Charles Fox
  35. The Natural Leaders
  36. Belfast Monthly Magazine
  37. Last Letters and Death

About the Author

Fergus Whelan is the author of Dissent into Treason: Unitarians King-killers and the Society of United Irishmen (2010) and God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowan (2015). He has contributed to History Ireland magazine, An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times and the Irish Humanist and Look Left magazines. May Tyrants Tremble is his third book.

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Publication Date


Hardback ISBN



350 pp