Before I pass from Belfast journalism or reveal too many secrets of the prison house, I should like to refer to the attempt to start a rival paper to the “News-Letter,” which, in the early ’seventies, had, to some extent, lost touch with the Johnstonite party, or a section of it. At any rate, what was called the Protestant Working Men’s Association of the time — it was chiefly members of that association, who received and utilised the money Mr. M'Clure subscribed to assist Mr. Johnston’s expenses fund — did not look kindly upon it. The strongest financial force of that party, strong both in finance and feeling, was the late Mr. John Clarke, then of the firm of Messrs. Clarke & M'Mullan, and who after his separation from the late Mr. Thos, M'Mullan founded the firm of John Clarke & Co., Corporation Street. Mr. Clarke was a man of strong individuality and determination, and of an enterprising nature. It was mainly through him, but with the assistance of others, that the “Belfast Times” was founded and published by the late Mr. David Allen in Arthur Square. At that time in nothing but the ability of its head did the Arthur Square establishment afford a foretaste of the subsequent extensions to Corporation Street, to Harrow, and to London, and I may say over the world.
Mr. Allen, as it was understood, was a shareholder and also the printer, and in due course the paper appeared. It did not live many months; but it was said at the time that this was not so much the fault of the “Times” as the circumstances. The paper, however, made one memorable “hit,” which gave it a fillip. The late Judge Keogh, himself a Roman Catholic, in the course of a trial, made a most virulent and vehement attack on a priest, which created a tremendous sensation. By one of those happy accidents — and I do not think it was more – the “Belfast Times” on that morning gave a report nearly a column long, which, as telegraphing went in those days, was a matter of enterprise, while the other papers had only a brief and general account. The importance of the speech was not so much in a summary as in an exact reproduction of the language, which was tremendous in its vituperative forcefulness. It formed the subject of attention in Parliament and the country for many days. The report was a journalistic hit, but it failed to secure the permanency of the paper. And the special publication did not make a hit. Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor in a sense. Nicholas Flood Davin was a brilliant writer, no doubt; but he was erratic in his manner and his method, his comings and his goings. Some of his articles were brilliant, and some of them supremely silly; and it was stated that on one occasion, to make amends for his own neglect, he boldly cut an article out of an English provincial paper and gave it all the glory of leaded type and all the appearance of originality.
But if Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor, he was no less so in his staff, some of whom, though clever, were often querulous or unavailable, “tempery” as well as temporary. I remember that on one occasion — it was during a debate on the instrumental music question in the General Assembly — there was a feud among the staff, and I was asked to go over for a few nights to assist in quelling the trouble and getting through the work, which I did. I saw that confusion was confounded indeed; but I did my best, working up to late hours in the morning to help to get the reporting part of the paper turned out. But from that time I feared for the fate of the paper, which, I will say, had the promise, though not the potency of success. I forget for how long the “Times” ran, but I know attempts were made to keep it alive, and I think it was as much from the difficulty of organisation as from the difficulty of money that led to its stoppage. There were reports of internal difficulties or differences among the proprietors that hastened the collapse of the paper.
I said Mr. Clarke was unfortunate in his editor. It was at the time of the break-up of the paper, or at any rate after Mr. Davin’s departure, he wrote and issued, but I think only for private circulation, a poetic satire on both Mr. Clarke and Mr. Allen, which, if it had the merit of cleverness, had the demerit of scurrility. Mr. Davin afterwards emigrated to Canada, and earned distinction on the Canadian Press.
I may here, though. I am anticipating the period in point of time, refer to the “Daily Post,” which was founded by the M'Mordie family, Mr. Hans M'Mordie being the literary adviser, while his brother, the doctor, kept a close eye on all the rest. The late Lord Mayor, Mr. R. J. M'Mordie, was a younger brother; but he also took an interest, a junior interest, in it. With Hans M'Mordie, who was geniality personified, anyone could have got on, but the doctor was not cast in the same mould. I always could get on well with him, but his staff did not get on well with him, and on more than one occasion his sub-editor deserted him or he disposed of his sub-editor summarily; and as a friend I was asked to go over to Callender Street and help them to get the paper out, which I did several times — and for several nights at a time.
Mr. M'Mordie was a strong Liberal and land refomer, whose bete noir was Lord Dufferin, just as he was the god of the idolatry of Mr. MacKnight, of the “Whig.” I cannot say whether Mr. M'Mordie started the paper for the purpose of flagellating that nobleman, but he went for him without scruple or mercy. Lord Dufferin’s ideas and practices in the matter of tenant-right did not harmonise with the ideas of Mr. M'Mordie, and, I will admit, of many other Liberals. The “Post” ran a course for many months, and contained many slashing articles from the pen of Mr. M'Mordie and others. I could not honestly say that it did not deserve to succeed; but it did not succeed. There may have been financial reasons for this; but I think much of it was owing to friction among the staff. Mr. Sam Abernethy, previously of the “Morning News,” and afterwards of the Belvue Hotel, Newcastle, was the business manager, and if personal popularity and business capacity could alone have made a paper succeed they should have done so in his case.
There is one incident in connection with one of my visitations that will interest some old Queen’s College men at all events. Jas. Clarence Newsome, for some time, if, indeed, not for all, forged much of the thunder for the “Post.” He was a man of phenomenal memory, of great classical knowledge, and at one time gained one of the highest Government positions in India or China in open competition against the graduates of all the universities of the kingdom. He did not, however, satisfy the doctors as to his health or habits as fitting him for Oriental life. But he could have lived, and for a time did live, by passing examinations and gaining scholarships at Trinity College and other institutions, for he could have passed examinations on any subject in which memory was an asset. His memory was, as I have said, phenomenal, but his judgment was as faulty as his memory was prodigious. It was said of him that he committed to memory a whole page either of the “Times” or “Whig,” and afterwards repeated it with scarcely an error. I remember chatting with him on one occasion when a General Election was coming. He had an opinion on the prospect of the election, and so had I. To support his judgment he started off, and from John o’ Groats to Land’s End he repeated off hand the names of all the counties and boroughs, the political complexion of the members, and the size of the majority in each. But when it came to draw conclusions and to form an opinion on the trend of politics at the time he was at sea, and if his return had been dependent on the accuracy of his prognostications he never would have returned to land.
On another occasion, during the bombardment of Alexandria, when many places and names familiar in Scripture and in secular history were cropping up daily, I said in effect to him, “Newsome, you have a fine chance now. The history of all the places mentioned must be familiar to you. Why not from day to day trace out the principal features of interest, and point out the changes that time has brought about?” He jumped at the idea at once, and said he would do it. On the following or the succeeding night he presented me with pride with proofs of at least six columns of matter. I read it with amazement at any man being able to produce so much historical matter in the time. But from start to finish there was not a reference to the modem history or association of any place or to the bombardment. Herodotus might have written it so far as its relation to modern life was concerned. That was James Clarence Newsome. Peace to his ashes!
While dealing with the rise and fall of local newspapers during the period under review, I may refer to others that have risen and fallen, and to one that has risen and is stiff flourishing. The “Morning News,” an old tri-weekly under Roman Catholic ownership, but neutral politics, had enjoyed a considerable success until the cheapening of news and the strength of views drove tri-weeklies rather out of the field. The “Morning News” had some good writers in its time, the most noted in my recollection being R. A. Wilson, who, as “Barney Maglone” brightened its columns with his quaint Irish humour in poetry and prose. Wilson was quaint in his style, in person as well as in his prose and poetry. His soft hat, his sharp dark features, and his martial cloak rendered him a unique figure, as genial as he was interesting, and as Bohemian as her was brilliant.
In the early 'eighties, when Parnellism raised its horrid head in Ulster, the late Mr. H D. Gray, of the “Freeman,” conceived the idea of purchasing the “Morning News,” and turning it into a daily in the interest of the new leader and the new cause. Happening to be in Dublin about the time rumour was busy in this matter, I had many conversations with Mr. Gray and his then manager, and warned them against the folly of the proceeding from the financial point of view. I had heard before this that the Gray family were laying pat treasures for the purpose of rebuilding the “Freeman” premises, which were then badly in need of repair; and on account of old associations I did not like to hear of the money that would have provided decent accommodation for the friends I had left behind wasted in a foolish, though fond endeavour to preach Parnellism in Ulster.
I remember pointing out to them that if the Hendersons, of the “News-Letter,” proposed to start a paper in Cork and gave the value of the London “Times” for a penny, that there would be a dead set against it, and that success, financial or otherwise, would be impossible. Their proposition was to publish the “Morning News” daily. I told them that if they did that and maintained the old position of the “Morning News” they might get readers, but if they developed Parnellite Home Rule — Parnellism and crime was a later development — they would meet with ruin.
But the powers and men, whether financial or political, willed it otherwise. The “Morning News” was started as a daily, with much booming of the special wire which at that time wad supposed to be a miraculous news gatherer as well as a rapid mechanical provider. And with it came “Doctor” Byrne as its Editor. He was always called Doctor, though I am not sure that he ever took a degree, either medical or otherwise. But he was a fine and vigorous writer, and after a meteoric career in Belfast returned to the “Freeman,” for which he wrote till his death many years afterwards. I remember meeting him many years afterwards in Dublin, where he told me that our people in the North were the greatest fools in existence. “Don’t you know,” he said, “that our people would be always fighting among themselves, and you Northerners could come in and take control of the Parliamentary machine and run the whole show.” I told him that was very likely but that even for that prospect I did not think our people would go in for Home Rule; and at any rate I thought it was a strange argument for Home Rule that those who clamoured for it and in whose interest it would be given, if given, would be eternally fighting among themselves. I do not think I am giving even the memory of my old friend away in stating this, for it was the common talk of many of the Nationalists I knew at that time, and I believe it is as true to-day as then, for the elements of national strife are greater and stronger.
To return. Mr. Cray came, and “Dr.” Byrne with him, but they did not conquer. The paper had only been started a short time when the Phoenix Park murders occurred, and in his leader on the subject Byrne introduced the old and suggestive reference to the Roman cutting off the head of the tallest poppy — it will be remembered that the old Under Secretary and the new Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, were struck down at the same time. Such a reference was not calculated to commend the new paper and the new development, but it went on languishing for some years, when it disappeared, becoming merged in the present “Irish News.”
I remember some years afterwards meeting Mr. Gray in Gatti’s coffee-house in the Strand, in London, when the process of winding up the unfortunate concern was in progress. I reminded him of my “neutral” suggestion, but he candidly confessed that he was more concerned at the time with politics than property, and he took his risk. “I have today,” he said, “signed a cheque making a total of £17,000 up till the present, and I do not yet know how many more it will cost me.” Rumour had it that it cost him seven or eight, if not ten, thousand more. Such was the cost of the first effort to establish Parnellism in Ulster.
It was before this period, in fact during the Franco-Prussian war, that Messrs. W. & G. Baird started the “Belfast Evening Telegraph.” This firm, as I said formerly, printed the Belfast election circular for the Lanyon-Mulholland party in 1868, and had therefore a stock of newspaper type — the brothers were enterprising job printers at the time. Whether the idea of an evening paper had been in their mind before or not I cannot say, but I remember one morning the hoardings of the town were covered with a bold line “New Evening Paper.” Beyond a doubt these bills were issued by the late Mr. S. E. M'Cormick, proprietor of the old “Banner.” On the next or second day on the same hoardings, and in a large line below “New Evening Paper” appeared the line “Belfast Evening Telegraph,” and in a day or two afterwards the first issue of that paper, a perfect infant in evening journalistic form, appeared, thus forestalling the “Evening Press,” which was Mr. M'Cormick’s title, and which paper appeared for some weeks or months, and then bade Belfast farewell. The “Evening Telegraph” has grown and prospered since under the able and enterprising guidance of Mr. R. H. H. Baird, J.P., the son of Mr. William Baird, the senior partner and founder of the original firm and of the newspaper. The business had been transferred to Royal Avenue before Mr. Baird’s death; but its proportions and those of the paper were small compared to what they are now under the energetic and enterprising control of Mr. R. H. H. Baird and his brother, Major Wm. Baird, who, however, has for years devoted his principal attention to the service of his country, and who in connection with the artillery at Kilroot has earned the respect of the military authorities and of all the soldiers and civilians with whom he has been brought into contact.
The rise of “The Ulster Echo,” and its, I hope, temporary demise, is too delicate a subject for me to refer to. I may share with the Kaiser the responsibility for its pause; but I will claim this for it at least, that during its existence its one aim and object was to uphold and defend the interests and honour of Belfast and Ulster, and to support the cause of the Ulster Volunteers, who did so much at home to save the Union, and who afterwards, as this Ulster Division, have done, and are doing, so much, and at such sacrifice of life, to defend the honour and the interests of Great Britain and the Empire in Flanders and in France. The fact that this article is now appearing in its columns is an evidence that its elder brother, “The Witness,” is still alive and flourishing and labouring for the same causes, with special attention to the Presbyterian Church, with whose interests it is so indissolubly bound up.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 20th October 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.