The first half decade of the half century that closes this year was a period of storm and stress and difficulty all over Ireland, just as it is to-day. Irish questions then, as now, occupied the chief attention of the country, just, as they do, with this difference, that there was no war in which England was involved to absorb or overweigh it. Fenianism had then raised its head, and disturbed and perturbed the country with the same aims and object as the Sinn Feiners of to-day. But as there was some form of government at the time, Fenianism did not carry on its machinations so openly as the Sinn Feiners do, and its attempt at a rising was farcical compared with that of the Sinn Feiners. There was little loss of life and little loss of property; indeed, the practical sufferers were the Fenians themselves, except in the case of some shootings of landlords or agents over the country, which, however, was not an exceptional circumstance. Belfast then, as now, felt an interest in all that affected the character and welfare of the country, and was greatly concerned over this Fenian movement, which, though it produced no developments in the North, had many sympathisers in it.
There were many arrests of Fenians in the city during this period; but, while they produced excitement at the time, they did not suggest any serious developments locally. I well remember the case of two brothers named Harbison who were arrested during that time. The cases were sent for trial to the Assizes, following the magisterial committal; but the wily Fenians engaged Mr. John Rea to defend them. He made such an attack and created such a scene that the cases were adjourned till the following Assizes. On that occasion the Attorney-General, Mr. Chatterton, afterwards Vice-Chancellor, came down to conduct the prosecution; and Mr. Rea, then in the prime of his powers as an advocate, and an obstructive, again appeared for the defence. After the arraignment of the prisoners, Mr. Rea got up and delivered such a harangue denunciatory of the Government and its chief, law officer as I have never heard surpassed at once for its marvellous combination of law, irrelevance, and vituperation.
He spoke for a couple of hours with such vehemence and fury that at the last he was frothing at the mouth. All attempts to stop him were futile. It would have been an easy to stop an avalanche in full flow. The Attorney-General was raging and writhing, but neither he nor the Judge – whose' name I forget – could stop the furious orator. When he came to an end, I think only from exhaustion, the Attorney-General did what I never heard done before or since. He threatened the newspapers with dire punishment if they reported Mr. Rea's allegations, charges, and epithets; and these were all in abundance. He refused to go on with the cases, and they I were adjourned. And the Courts knew them and the prisoners no more. I think the prosecution was abandoned, and the prisoners got off scot free, which they, no doubt, owed to their choice of an advocate.
I may say that during this period and for many years afterwards this same John Rea was one of the most prominent personages in the community, whether as lawyer or politician, so far as he could be seriously associated with either. While he was a sound criminal lawyer – said to have been amongst the best of his time -- he was far from a sound politician, and he frequently took advantage of his position as a lawyer to wander into attacks on ever man or party that came in his way; and his hand was against every man and every party. He described himself once as an Orange-Cromwellian-Republican, and in his actions and speech he represented every variety that these would suggest. He was physically strong and intellectually quick. In fact, he may be said to have been gifted with a genius that was allied to madness, and great intellectual powers marred by eccentricity. He made long speeches in court, in one case speaking for over a week, and wore out the patience, if not the life, of the Judge (Baron Hayes). He was dragged out of courts time after time, and once out of the Committee-room of the House of Commons. When, he offered resistance it required three or four police to remove him, so strong and resourceful he was. In his earlier years this proceeding was the result of pure eccentricity, but in later years it was often of deliberation. At frequent intervals he committed contempt of Court, and generally got a sentence of fourteen days, to which he submitted like a philosopher. He told me himself more than once that when he felt himself getting overstrung he deliberately committed contempt of court, and got the usual fourteen days, the rest of which, he said, made him all right again. He kept himself strong and healthy on hot and afterwards cold baths, and beefsteak, of both of which he was particularly fond.
His readiness of repartee was wonderful. On one occasion, when the father of the present Mr. W. H. Lyons, Mr. W. T. B. Lyons, a retired barrister, who often occupied the Magisterial Bench, told him in the course of a harangue that what he was saying went in at one ear and out at the other, Rea replied, "I can well understand that, your worship; there is nothing between to stop it." On another occasion, when Mr. A. J. M'Kenna, a brilliant journalist, and he met in the old Howard Street Police Court, in which one was plaintiff and the other defendant – it arose out of a planned technical assault to give them the opportunity of meeting and slogging each other – Rea used the word honour in the course of his remarks. "You should not use the word honour," said M'Kenna. "You don't even know how to spell the word." "Oh, yes, I do," was the ready retort; "according to the modern practice I leave 'u' (you) out."
I met him on hundreds of occasions in public and private. He was the greatest master of vituperative and in many cases irrelevant rhetoric that I have ever heard. His words flowed like a torrent, and interruptions, instead of embarrassing only assisted him. If his abilities had not been tainted by eccentricity and his life tinctured and soured by venomous personal feelings, he would have been one of the greatest men of the century, instead of a lamentable failure. The last conversation I had with him was on the occasion of the late Lord Russell of Killowen speaking in Belfast in the early eighties explaining Mr. Gladstones Land Bill. It was not an oration, but a mere legal exposition. Rea asked me what I thought of him, and I told him that it was only a legal exposition and not an oration he had delivered, so that I could not judge of his oratory. "Just think of it," he said, "I drove that man out of the Belfast Police Court, and there he is, making £16,000 a year, and look at me." It was an outburst of sanity mingled with sadness; a realisation of the failure of his life. The statement, however, was literally true; for Lord Russell commenced his career as a solicitor in the Belfast Police Courts, and was carrying all before him when Rea appeared and outstripped, outtalked, and ousted him. Russell was mild and gentle; Rea was forceful, vehement, and reckless. I never spoke to him again. Within a few months he took his own life.
The years on which I am dwelling were exciting years locally; but the excitement did not arise from local and public issues. Then, as now, Belfast attended to its business, and had no burning questions of its own to trouble it. But publicly the interest was ever burning, and Belfast felt the force of the flames. The state of Ireland, the Irish Church, and the Ulster land question, sometimes separately and sometimes combined, kept the people at fever heat. The affairs of Parliament affected the citizens then, as now; and what this statesman said or that statesman did was the chief topic from day to day. And it was mainly questions arising out of these that led to any controversies we had.
The prevailing politics of the town was Conservative, tinctured with Orange. This reminds me of a story current at the time. A burly North of England man obtained some appointment under the Corporation. While undergoing a preliminary test he was asked what his politics were. "What are the prevailing politics here?" he cautiously asked – I believe he came from Yorkshire. He was told. "I am delighted to hear that be so, for I am a Conservative; and I would feel among my own people, if I came here." He came, and for years was what in the United States would be called "boss" of the local politics, municipal and Parliamentary – at least so far as municipalisation was concerned. The Liberals of the day had a very poor show in the town, though in their ranks were included some of the most prominent merchants of the time – Sinclair, Charters, Duffin, Dunville, M'Clure, Finlay, M'Cance, Barbour, Musgrave, Riddell, Coey, Kennedy, Allen, Crawford, Ritchie, and many others; and of some of these families there were more than one representative. When Sir Hugh Cairns, who had represented Belfast for many years in conjunction with Mr. S. G. Getty, was appointed Lord Chancellor, an attempt was made by the Liberals to run Lord John Hay, but he met with rather a rough reception, and was left in a minority at the poll by Mr. Charles Lanyon, afterwards Sir Charles Lanyon.
With the change in the franchise introduced by Mr. Disraeli in 1867 came a great change not in the tone, but in the class of Conservatism. The working man Conservative came into being, or at least into potency. A Protestant Working-men's Association was the outcome of that new development, which attacked the very citadel itself. I well remember the commotion that was created in the ranks of the old Conservative school at that time when Isaac Hall, Wm. M'Cormick, Chas. H. Ward, Robert Maxwell, and others became sponsors of the new association. Mr. Tom Henry, of Pottinger's Entry, was at once printer and poet for the new party. The leaders were denounced as Radicals and recalcitrants in all the moods and tenses by the old leaders and their organ.
This reached its height in 1868 on the eve of the General Election that followed on the defeat of the Conservative Government when Mr. Gladstone, by a majority of 65, had carried a resolution in favour of the Disestablishment of the Irish Church.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 4th August 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.