The passing of the Irish Church Bill in 1869 ended the connection between the Church and the State in this country, and, so far as my memory serves me, questions and controversies arising out of that monopolised the chief attention until the 'sixties came to an end and the 'seventies commenced, and even for many years afterwards. There was not only the political effect of the measure to be discussed, but the practical results of it. The supporters of the Establishment clung to the hope that the Lords, with Lord Cairns, an Ulsterman, as Lord Chancellor, at their head, would throw out the Bill. But they did not, and the complaints of its members were deep and loud and long. The Lords were accused of treachery, and even the Crown did not escape. Most of the language used was strong and violent, and not a little of it by ministers of the Establishment, and ministers of Belfast, too. But it was reserved for one, happily not in Belfast, to bring discredit on the Church and his cloth by declaring that he would kick the Queen's Crown into the Boyne. This was a Rev. Mr. Flannigan, from the borders of Ulster. His foolish phrase about "kicking the Queen's Crown into the Boyne" was for years dished up in Nationalist journals and in Nationalist speeches as if it represented the feelings and spirit of the Church. But it only represented a few extremists, and the phrase was as much regretted and condemned by his brethren of the Church as it was by all loyal men in the country.
There is this, however, to be said for those that took the extreme "Church" view. It was maintained by the supporters of the Establishment, and I have no doubt it was technically true, that the Disestablishment of the Church was a breach of the Act of Union, and a betrayal not only of the Church, but of the Protestantism of the country. It was alleged that if the Union was broken on one point it could be broken in all, and we nave since had evidence that a complete breach became a question of practical politics, and that a complete breach, except in so far as an out-flow of British gold is concerned, is the popular demand and desire of the day.
The controversy and feeling created by the passing of the Church Act was for a period as strong and bitter as the agitation about the passing of Home Rule. At public meetings, in the pulpit, and in the Press the passing of the Act, the treachery and disloyalty to Irish Protestantism which it was regarded as representing, were subjects of discussion and denunciation not for weeks and months, but for years. And Belfast even more than Dublin was the centre of the controversy. The fact that the vast majority of Protestants then, as now, resided in Ulster, and that Belfast was the capital of Ulster in general, and of Irish Protestantism in particular, kept the fires of controversy burning here almost day and night, on the Sabbath as well as on the weekday.
The robbery of the Church was the burden of many a song and many a sermon, many a speech and many a leading article. Home Rulers have told the British that as the agitation over the Disestablishment of the Church passed over in time so would the agitation against Home Rule. It is quite true that agitation passed away by the healing influence of time and the loyalty and liberality of the Protestant denominations affected. But while the agitation against the Bill was in some respects as strong as the earlier stages against Home Rule, there was and is this difference. While with the friends of the Establishment there was bitterness as well as disappointment, and a strong feeling of principle as well, the measure did not affect or rouse Presbyterians to the same extent that the Home Rule agitation has done. With many of them there was the feeling and the hope that out of their temporary suffering and sacrifice there would come relief to the country from agitation and grievance-mongering; that the loss or sacrifice to them and the Sister Church would be a gain to the State, and with characteristic patriotism the ministers of the day threw the funds provided into the treasury of the Church, and the people added their share, too, not to the extent they should have done, but yet to a moderately satisfying extent for the time.
The vast majority of the Presbyterians of that generation who lived through the stages of the Home Rule controversy, and who survive to day, and accepted patriotically and philosophically the Irish Church Act, were and are the strongest opponents of Home Rule; and among the strongest of its opponents were, so long as they lived, supporters of the policy that led to Disestablishment. Presbyterians and all others to-day will understand what I mean when I say that the late Right Honourable Thomas Sinclair was as staunch a supporter of Mr. Gladstone in his Disestablishment policy as the Right Hon. John. Young was an opponent. Yet Mr. Sinclair was no less enthusiastic an opponent of Home Rule than Mr. Young – more enthusiastic no man could have been – and to the last hour of his active life devoted himself to the cause of the Union with an ability, zeal, and energy as unequalled as it was brilliant and effective.
As one who passed through that period of stress and strain, and saw and heard much of what went on in our midst during the time, I am prepared to say that however strong the feeling and however strong the sense of justice or of British ingratitude, the feeling that lay beneath even the strongest opponents of the Gladstonian policy was not within measurable distance of the feeling of deep-rooted and determined antagonism as that created by Home Rule.
Whatever may have been the breach in the Act of Union, the Irish Church Act did not mean even to the opponents of Disestablishment what Home Rule means. It is true, it was recognised by the old Liberals of the time as a concession to Romanist demands and a surrender of Protestant interests, but they were content to ignore these in the hope that, as a result, we would have an Ireland of activity rather than agitation, of prosperity instead of poverty; of union not only with England, but within the country. And then we had the British Government and the British Parliament to take charge of the country. There was no thought then and no dread of the state of things that has since arisen. The Protestants of that time took the declarations of Roman Catholics at their lip value, and believed that the removal of this great and undoubted grievance, this removal of a religious inequality or disability, would bring about reconcilement and contentment. The Roman Catholics clamoured for equality and got it, so far as the State was concerned. They did not then realise the force of what Mr. Disraeli had said a decade or two before, that the Church, while clamouring for equality, was demanding supremacy – and would not be content without it.
As one who was in the midst of this conflict, and from official position and circumstances had full opportunity of understanding the feeling and spirit that prevailed, I can testify that such a possibility as the demands now made and such a possibility as the demands now conceded never entered their minds. What did enter their minds was the hope, with many amounting to a conviction, that the measure then passed would soothe and satisfy Roman Catholic feeling. The Liberal spirit of the time was expressed by the Rev. John Macnaughtan, who defending himself against the charge of working with Roman Catholics, justified his action on the principle of fair policy, equality, and statesmanship, said if it ever came to be a question between Protestantism and Romanism be would be found with his back to the cathedral wall. And he was a Liberal of Liberals, a voluntary in religion as opposed to the principle of Establishment, which he carried so far that when he came to this country he refused to accept the Regium Donum.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 15th September 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.