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In the Dublin of the 1790s, the air was electric as events elsewhere shaped how Dubliners understood society, and the possibility for change.
On Bastille Day 1791, uniformed men from the nationalist Volunteers paraded through the streets of the city to St Stephen’s Green, behind a banner that proclaimed that they stood for “The Rights of Man”.
The title of Thomas Paine’s magnificent defence of the French Revolution, written as a rebuttal to Dubliner Edmund Burke, it made quite the impression on young Irish minds.
Theobald Wolfe Tone would famously proclaim Paine’s book to be “the Koran of Belfast”, but here in Dublin it made a similar impact.
Much of this was owing to Patrick Byrne, owner of an influential bookshop at the bottom of Grafton Street, who did perhaps as much as any political propagandist to introduce new, enlightened ideas into the minds of Dubliners.
Stocking Irish editions of controversial works by political dissidents like Paine, and printing many of the first editions of Scottish Enlightenment texts in Ireland, Byrne’s bookshop was a centre of intellectual radicalism that greatly troubled Dublin Castle authorities.
Number 108 Grafton Street, not far from both the then deeply conservative Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Parliament, was perhaps not the ideal location for sedition.
But Byrne, a Catholic, was a passionate supporter of progressive causes in late eighteenth-century Dublin, including the Catholic Committee and the United Irishmen.
With the relaxation of the sectarian Penal Laws, which greatly restricted the rights of Catholics and Presbyterians in business and public life, he had been the first Catholic admitted into the guild of Dublin booksellers, who tightly controlled the industry.
He set himself apart from other booksellers in the city by specialising in legal, political, and philosophical publications.
The printed word was perhaps the spark for the revolutions in both the United States and France. And historian Marianne Elliott has noted that, as in France, revolutionary thought in Ireland was in no small part influenced by “the Grub Street sub-culture of pamphlets and hand-bills”.
Cheap editions of the important texts of the day made their way into the hands of the working classes in cities like Dublin, Cork and Belfast, and street readings of Paine’s angry text were common too.
Central to spreading Paine’s gospel were the United Irishmen, who had begun life in 1791 as an open organisation that sought parliamentary reform, before moving towards French-style republicanism, leading to its suppression.
Its leading light in Dublin was Theobald Wolfe Tone, and Byrne published Wolfe Tone’s earliest political pamphlets.
When Byrne found himself before a court, being questioned about his publication of the trial of United Irishman Archibald Hamilton Rowan, he insisted that his “one principle in trade is to make money of it, and that if there were two publications giving different features to the trial I would publish both”.
In reality, a cursory glance at what Byrne did print would suggest otherwise. His greatest seller was Paine’s work. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to define The Rights of Man as the most important political text in Irish history, such was its impact.
Wolfe Tone had met Paine in Paris while seeking to drum up French support for the United Irish movement, and was moved to write in his diary that, “He is vain beyond all belief, but he has reason to be vain, and for my part I forgive him. He has done wonders for the cause of liberty, both in America and Europe.”
Unsurprisingly, a bookshop that sold seditious political literature attracted the attention of Dublin Castle authorities and the British secret service operating in the Irish capital.
Infiltrating organisations like the United Irishmen was central to weakening their political abilities; in 1798, the brothers John and Henry Sheares, two well-known and significant members of the United Irish conspiracy, were introduced to Captain John Warneford Armstrong in the shop by Byrne.
Mistakenly believing Armstrong to be a United Irish supporter (he was, in fact, an informer), Byrne allowed him access to the rear of the premises, where political radicals often met in private.
Information gathered by Armstrong was central to the imprisonment and execution of the Sheares brothers, and at their trial the shop was described as little more than “a convenient medium to bring together men of a certain description … it is a shop where a certain description of modern publication are sold, which captivate but too much many men whose time and talents would be more beneficially employed to society”.
Used against them at trial, a draft “Proclamation” of the United Irishmen written by John Sheares had boldly begun by proclaiming “Your country is free, and you are about to be avenged”. Unlike its 1916 equivalent, it was never publicly read, but it contained within many of the enlightened ideas of the pamphlets sold by Byrne.
Perhaps what frightened the authorities most about the United Irishmen was their class composition. While their message resonated with the working classes of Belfast (in particular, its Presbyterian population) and Dublin, many of its guiding lights came from the upper echelons of society.
In spreading the message down to the lower orders, the printing press was the single most important weapon at their disposal.
When the great suppression of the United Irishmen came, Patrick Byrne could never hope to escape the clutches of the authorities. Imprisoned for a period, in the aftermath of his release he left Ireland for Philadelphia, re-establishing himself in the printing trade there.
Until the very end, he believed in the power of the printed word. In the words of Thomas Paine, “the mind once enlightened cannot again become dark”.