Samuel Neilson was a very successful Belfast businessman and an active member of the Charitable Society. He was an uncompromising social reformer who wished to improve Irish society for all. He was also an abolitionist and provided the freed slave Equaino with lodgings during his time in Belfast and invited Equaino to speak at the Poor House. Neilson was arguably one of the most radical and influential of the United Irishmen who supported the use of arms to achieve its goals. By 1791 he was so occupied with his political activism that he resigned as the Charitable Society’s treasurer.
He was the outspoken editor of the radical ‘Northern Star’ newspaper and associated closely with Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell and Henry Joy McCracken. He fell foul of the authorities many times in the following years.
In March 1799, after his second arrest, he was transported, along with 19 other seditious rebels, to the remote Scottish outpost of Fort George. This vast fortress sits on a headland on the coastline north of Inverness, far away from any populations or possibility of escape. The prisoners spent three years living in spacious quarters with many of the luxuries to which the prosperous merchant class were accustomed – good food, ale, newspapers and even long-term visits from family members. After his release in 1802 Nielson was banished to the US. His poor health resulted in his death in 1803 and he was buried at Poughkeepsie, New York.
Fort George is still in beautiful condition and makes a spectacular visitor attraction for those who travel to the far north. A portrait of Samuel Neilson now hangs in the boardroom of Clifton House.
Contributed by Mark Doherty, Clifton House White Badge Volunteer