Home History Fourth of July, 1805

Fourth of July, 1805


William James MacNeven was born in Ballynahowna, Co. Galway, Ireland on March 21, 1763. Historically, the MacNeven family were wealthy Ulster landowners, but like many other Catholic families under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the MacNevens were forced to relocate to Connacht, the Western Province of Ireland. They owned a small estate in Galway, and there they had retained some wealth as compared to their fellow Catholic neighbors.

As a Catholic growing up in the 18th century, MacNeven was subjected to the Penal Laws that were imposed by the British government. Under the Penal Laws, Catholics were not allowed to be educated, vote, sit in Parliament, bear arms, or work in certain professions, among other restrictions on basic human rights. Gradually some of the most extreme penal laws were being relaxed, but many still existed at the time MacNeven was born. At this time, the British government was systematically destroying the Irish language, of which MacNeven was a native speaker. In time, he became an accomplished linguist, fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and German.

“In those days, Catholics received their early education at illegal “underground” schools, which were usually held in the open air and were appropriately called “hedge” schools.”Desmond Reilly

Being denied the right to go to school in his own country, MacNeven was sent to Prague when he was eleven years old to be educated. His uncle, William O’Kelly MacNeven, lived in Prague where he worked as a physician, administering to Austrian aristocrats. When it was time to progress in his studies, MacNeven next went to the Medical University of Vienna, where he obtained an interest in chemistry, and graduated in 1783. Having graduated the same year the American Revolution ended, one would imagine many classroom discussions centered on the topic of republicanism.

In 1784 MacNeven returned to Dublin to practice medicine. He became involved in public affairs upon his return to Ireland; he became a member of the Catholic Committee, which agitated for a repeal of the Penal Laws. Being a member of the Catholic Committee, he came in contact with other forward-thinking men such as Theobald Wole Tone, James Napper Tandy, and Thomas Addis Emmet. This connection was to be providential, as these men were to come together with others in 1791 to form the Society of United Irishmen. Initially advocating for constitutional reforms, the group became a revolutionary organization devoted to “breaking the connection” with England, and “substituting the terms of Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, for the common name of Irish man.” Of the original members of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, MacNeven was one of just two Catholics.

In March of 1798, many leaders of the United Irishmen, including MacNeven, were arrested by British authorities. The British government had riddled the organization with spies and with their leaders in custody, Wolfe Tone’s plans for rebellion were severely stunted. MacNeven was imprisoned with his comrades, and then sent to Fort George in Scotland, where the most prominent of the United Irishmen due to the refusal of the Adams administration to permit their exile to the United States. Following the signing of a treaty between Britain and France, in 1802 MacNeven and the remaining prisoners were released on condition that they not return to Ireland. 

Like his friend Thomas Addis Emmet, MacNeven initially went to France, where he worked as a Surgeon-Captain in Napoleon’s Irish Brigade. After doing some travelling through Europe, he set sail for the United States, permitted by the Jefferson administration. Emmet noted that he arrived in the United States on the appropriate date of July 4, 1805. MacNeven and Emmet were particularly imbued with the American revolutionary spirit and hoped to see the same effected for their homeland. During his testimony before the House of Commons, MacNeven was asked if the Established Protestant Church was overthrown, what system would replace it? He replied by professing a belief in liberty and classical republican principles, “That which they do in America. Let each man profess the religion of his conscience, and pay his own pastor.” (Aug. 7, 1798)

Dr. MacNeven’s life in America was no less notable. He married into the Dutch settler Riker family, and established himself as a reputable doctor in his new city. He published several works, including “Rambles through Switzerland” (1803), “Pieces of Irish History” (1807), and “Exposition of the Atomic Theory” (1820). MacNeven’s extensive scientific research earned him the title “Father of American Chemistry.” MacNeven’s scientifical ability was therefore at last appreciated, but it was unfortunate discriminatory conditions in his homeland did not allow for equal educational treatment there. He taught the next generation of doctors in the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Rutgers Medical School, and spent his free time helping new Irish immigrants get on their feet through various organizations that assisted with settling in the west, naturalization, and obtaining employment. 

At the age of 78 William James MacNeven died on July 12, 1841, at the home of his son in law, Thomas Addis Emmet, Jr. He is buried in the Riker-Lent Family Cemetery in Astoria, Queens. An obelisk was erected in honor of Dr. MacNeven in St. Paul’s Churchyard, New York, alongside monuments to fellow Irishmen Thomas Addis Emmet and General Richard Montgomery (Continental Army). 

By James McGlashin. James is from Brooklyn and is an alumnus of Iona College and NUI Galway. 

Sources Consulted: “William James MacNeven” Catholic Encyclopedia (1913); “An Irish-American Chemist, William James MacNeven, 1763-1841by Desmond Reilly; “Pieces of Irish History” by W.J. MacNeven; feniangraves.net

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