A prominent United Irishman from Ulster and the organization's most important publicist, Samuel Neilson (1761–1803) was born at Ballyroney, Co. Down, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He followed an older brother into the woolen trade in Belfast and had built up a prosperous business by the late 1780s. Sympathetic to the cause of Catholic relief, he joined the first Whig Club in Belfast in 1790, worked on Robert Stewart's election campaign in County Down later that year, and in 1791 was among the founders of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen and of the Northern Star, a radical newspaper which was forcibly closed by the government in September 1797. Neilson was a principal figure behind the Ulster United movement, which was more radical and more secretive than the corresponding society in Dublin. Neilson was in Dublin in the spring of 1798, and the arrests there left him as the only member of the Leinster Executive who was in a position to lead the rebellion when the moment to strike came. He himself was arrested as the rebel mobilization was in its early stages, however (his drinking problem may have contributed to this), and he spent the duration of the rising in Newgate prison. He was among the leaders who escaped execution thanks to British General Charles Cornwallis's clemency and their own promise to divulge the details of the conspiracy. He was sent to Fort George in Scotland in March 1799. Released in March 1802, he traveled secretly to Ireland, where he spent the next six months; he then sailed for the United States in December. He died suddenly of apoplexy on 29 August 1803 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he was attempting to start a newspaper.
SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803; Primary Documents: United Irish Parliamentary Reform Plan (March 1794); Grievances of the United Irishmen of Ballynahinch, Co. Down (1795); Speech Delivered at a United Irish Meeting in Ballyclare, Co. Antrim (1795); The United Irish Organization (1797); Statement of Three Imprisoned United Irish Leaders (4 August 1798)
Curtin, Nancy. The United Irishmen: Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791–1798. 1994.
Madden, R. R. The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times. 1842–1846.