The reign of the Lord Mayors of Belfast has been the reign of law and also of gospel, the gospel of progress and prosperity, the gospel of social and material improvement and development. I do not suggest or imply that we had not a good deal of this before, or that all the credit of it rests with the generation that produced it. Much planning and preparing had taken place. The seed had been sown, and all that this generation had to do was to reap the harvest. And it has reaped it in abundance, Belfast was not extended and developed into a city by a stroke of a pen or the flash of a magician’s wand. It became a city because it had grown into a city, and all that authority did was to give it the Order of Merit as it is given to a successful statesman or soldier. And if Belfast has progressed as a city it has not been in despite of, not on account of external and even internal efforts, to depress, discredit it, and destroy it. It may not have been the object of the British Radicals and the Government in Ireland that it set up to mar its prosperity; but everything they proposed and planned tended in that direction. Its interests and its feelings were disregarded and outraged. Its prosperity was denied, and its Unionist and pro-British association and ambitions decried. A campaign of slander and insult, of deprecation and depreciation was carried out, not only by Nationalist leaders, in Ireland, but by their representatives in the British Cabinet and in Dublin Castle. Then, as now, Mr, Joseph Devlin used all his resource of ingenuity and daring devilishness to belabour and belittle it, and he found support and encouragement in high places. He is carrying on that same campaign still, as we have evidence of late; but with all his faults Mr. Duke is not as Mr. Birrell, and has blessed where Mr. Birrell would have cursed. Mr. Duke nailed Mr. Devlin’s lies to the counter, whereas Mr. Birrell would, in all probability. if not in all certainty, have upheld them, if not with oaths and curses, at least with flippant jests and insolent sneers.
It was in 1888, under the Mayoralty of Sir James Haslett, that the charier constituting the city was granted; but if was not till 1892, and the May of that year, that the dignity of Lord Mayor was conferred. On the 1st of May Mr. Daniel Dixon presided as simple Mayor — only simple, however, in a titular sense — and on the 1st of June he presided as Lord Mayor, and received the congratulations of his brother members and the thanks of the citizens on his new dignity, which, however, was later overshadowed by that of the Right Hon. Sir Daniel Dixon, Bart. I must say, however, they seem to have taken matters quietly in those days, for the congratulations only come in incidentally and in connection with the report of the Law Committee, mildly announcing the new dignity; and I could not help noting that Mr. Robert Wilson, Ormeau Road, joined in the congratulations as a junior member of the Board. Mr. Wilson is still with us in good health and spirits; but he is no longer a junior member; he is very senior and respected at that, on the Water Board, of which he was chairman.
I have said that before this period the fathers of the city had not been idle in the way of development. Within the period under review up till tin it time we had the Gasworks purchased, at a cost of £386,000, and the horse tram system introduced by an English company. We had Ormeau and Royal Avenue opened, the Queen’s Bridge widened, the collapsed Albert Bridge reconstructed, the extensive main drainage works, with the improved sanitation resulting, in great part carried out, the Free Library in Royal Avenue opened. These were all great works and valuable, even if costly; but we forget the cost in appreciation of the satisfactory results in convenience, comfort, health, and educational improvement that have resulted. An honour, say I, to the men, the Mayors, and the Councillors who were concerned in the promotion and development of these, among other, local improvements; and while in this column as from 1892 I welcome the coming Lord Mayors, I would speed the parting Mayors with hearty acknowledgments of their work and worth.
Sir Daniel Dixon, the first Lord Mayor, was a unique personality, a man of sound common sense and shrewdness, without show or pretence, a worker who never wasted his time and breath in idle talk, an industrious and enterprising business man, to whom success seemed to come as naturally as his breath, and who carried into municipal and public life the same qualities of initiation and organisation, of energy and foresight that characterised him in business. His word was his bond. He was no time-server or popularity hunter. He was slow at promising, but prompt in performance. If he could grant a request, he would say so off hand. If he promised to grant it whatever was asked was done, without show or parade, and as if it was a duty and not a service he was performing. He occupied the Lord Mayor's chair for six years, in itself a tribute as rare as it was merited, a tribute honourable alike to him and the men who chose him.
To him succeeded Mr. Wm. M'Cammond, who filled the chair for two years in succession, and was honoured with a knighthood in the second. Sir William was a man of the people, who carved his own way to the leading position he occupied in the building world and in the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and carved it as honourably as successfully. He was eminently practical and clear-sighted, shrewd, sagacious, and enterprising; as modest as he was prudent and forceful, and as kindly and good-natured a gentleman as ever lived.
Then came a gentleman who has been as much in the public eye as any citizen of his day and generation. This was Mr. W. J. Pirrie, now, Lord Pirrie, peer of the realm, and one of the greatest, if not the greatest, magnates in the shipbuilding and shipping industries of the world. If Sir Edward Harland laid deep and strong the foundation of the Queen's Island Shipbuilding and Engineering Works, Lord Pirrie has erected a superstructure that stands four-square and defiant to all the winds that blow and to all the storms that beat. He had done much and travelled far at the time he entered upon the Lord Mayoralty; but his doings since and his travels on the road of fame since have so completely overshadowed his earlier achievements that one finds it difficult to realise that one man has done and travelled so much in the path of industry and honour, and is doing and travelling still to even greater fame, if possible.
His occupancy of the Lord Mayoralty was, a revelation of good work, noble deeds, generous hospitality, and civic dignity. He was unsparing of his time, his talents, and of his purse in his efforts to sustain the dignity and fulfil the duty of his high office; and he succeeded beyond all precedent and all criticism. His mansion at Ormiston was a centre of hospitality as tasteful as it was extensive, while his attention to all the official requirements of his office was the subject of general praise. The city was justly proud of him, not only as Lord Mayor, but as a great captain of industry, and felt itself honoured by his life work and service in its midst. It was proud of his Ulster association, Ulster characteristics, and of what he had done to sustain the prestige of Belfast and Ulster all the world over. He was not only kindly and courteous, but efficient and energetic. He thought rapidly, and acted promptly. He did not wait upon the order of doing, but did at once. He had no patience with slowness or sloth. He sometimes got impatient with the slowness of public Boards. He told me once that it worried him to have to spend hours or days in considering matters no more important than he had to dispose of in every fifteen minutes of his life, and if he could not do that he could do no business at all.
But no notice of Lord Pirrie as Lord Mayor, or, indeed, as anything else, would be complete without a reference to Lady Pirrie, If ever there was a case in which husband and wife were one in excelsis it and was, in the case of Lord and Lady Pirrie. Before she became Lady Mayoress Lady Pirrie was known as a lady of grace and charm in all her social relations. After that she became known not only as a lady of charm, but as a lady of eloquence, tact, and gifts for public life before these qualities had become vitalised, and in some cases vulgarised. The first occasion on which I heard her in her new role was at a dinner in Ormiston, when she responded for the ladies with a fluency and grace that put all the male orators in the shade. As I was taking leave of her later in the evening she expressed the hope that I had enjoyed myself. I saw her countenance change as I told her I was very sorry I had been there. What has happened? she asked. Well, I replied that up till that evening I had been content with her husband’s oratory as representing the city, but after I had heard her I was afraid I would not be able to listen to him patiently again. Her sweet smile I that followed is my last remembrance of the occasion.
One other personal incident with regard to her ladyship. It was during Mr. Pirrie’s Lord Mayoralty that the Institute of Journalists visited the city for the first, and up till the present the last time. Those of us connected with the local body were anxious that they should receive a good reception, and were sure, that the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress would do their part. Personally I feared – I hope the word will not be misunderstood – that the Lord Mayor would give a dinner, and in those days ladies were not so much invited to dinners as in later years. We thought of the ladies and I thought of the Lady Mayoress, and delicately conveyed a hint to her that the Lord Mayor and the men could look after themselves, if she would look after the ladies. I had no more in my mind than a garden party at the time, and no one was more astonished than myself when I received an invitation from her ladyship for a ball in the Ulster Hall. That ball came off in due course, and to say that it was magnificent would be to describe it feebly — it reached perfection’s graceful heights. All I will say of it is that, as we were taking our departure at a very late, or early, hour two or three of the Institute leaders from London called me over and told me that they had all come to the conclusion that that was the most magnificent entertainment they had received, except, perhaps, at the Guildhall, London; but that that of the Lady Mayoress had surpassed the London one in the personal attentions paid the guests and in the happy Irish manner in which they were all made to feel at home. I have had occasion to thank Lady Pirrie for almost unbounded courtesies and kindness during my life; but her graceful and generous action in this matter remains as a crown. All we journalists felt her action as a compliment to ourselves as well as a gracious and generous development of civic hospitality.
I hope Lord Pirrie, if he ever reads this, will pardon me if, despite his own personal kindnesses which have been unceasing, the warmest corner in my heart and memory is for Lady Pirrie. I need not dwell upon her great work in connection with the Royal Victoria Hospital, of which she may be truly said to have been the creator, or to her other acts of generosity in connection with the city. In common with almost every citizen with whom I came in contact I regret that circumstances have separated Lord and Lady Pirrie from the residential, social, and philanthropic life of the city. Though their visits now are almost as rare as those of angels, we are always glad to see them and to hear of them. We have the evidence from time to time that we are not forgotten by them. And we have had only recently strong proof that Lord Pirrie is extending and developing the business interests of his great firm in the city on an extensive and enterprising scale; and I for one am satisfied that his heart and that of her ladyship is still with the city in which they both grew up in life and love and in personal and public association.
The name of Sir Robert M'Connell must ever occupy a prominent position not only for his services in the capacity of Lord Mayor, but for the part he displayed in the development of the city before that time, and the part he has played since. He was not only the recipient of civic honours, but of regal honours. It was his fortune to be Lord Mayor during the visit of the late Queen to Dublin. In connection with that visit there was a certain amount of local feeling because her Majesty did not include Belfast in her Irish Royal tour. No doubt her Majesty received a right royal reception in the capital, and a loyal one, too, inasmuch as thousands of Loyalists from Ulster and other parts of the country went up to Dublin to add their voice to that of the Irish capital, which then, as now, was not so loyal as some other parts of the country. But if her Majesty did not visit Belfast, she did not forget it, and on one memorable night the Lord Mayor was visited by a special courier from Dublin, armed with the official mandate creating him a baronet of the United Kingdom. The honour was welcomed and accepted bv the Lord Mayor and the citizens as a compliment in Royal recognition and position of the prestige of the city.
Sir Robert made an excellent, efficient, and an hospitable lord Mayor, and retired with the respect of the citizens, which he still enjoys. But, to my mind, Sir Robert’s work as a developer of the city overshadowed even his work as Lord Mayor. His success in the city was as rapid as it was beneficial, not only to himself, but to the city. I remember him a young and energetic clerk in a rent agent’s office, and in common with my compeers I watched his progress until he became the most prominent rent and estate agent and the most inspiring and enterprising factor in the development of the city. His position in the Council gave him special opportunities for promoting schemes of development; and as he had initiative, foresight, and enterprise, he was able to carry them out. He bought land here and there through the city in large plots, and multiplied new houses and new streets, and new villa districts, until places that were little more than wildernesses or desert blossomed into roses, rents, and rates for the advantage of the promoter as well as the city. In fact, for years there was a regular boom in such property, until the enterprise of himself and others, of course, overleaped itself, and there was a reaction. We had too many houses, with the natural result of a temporary set back. But it is for the prophets to look ahead; and Sir Robert was a prophet. Where would we have been now for house accommodation but for his enterprise and the spirit of enterprise he encouraged or developed? The cry now is that we have not houses enough, and the consequence is that in many cases we see advertisements of premiums offered to secure them. So that, in my humble opinion, Sir Robert M'Connell has done a great work for the city, and in conjunction with his son, Mr. Joseph M'Connell, is doing a great work still, and that despite the fact that his physical sight has diminished almost to vanishing point. But his mental strength is still as strong and clear as ever; and long may it remain.
Sir Otto Jaffe, whom the terrible changes of war have, I hope only temporarily, personally divorced from the commercial and public life of the city, of which he was long a great part, filled the office of Lord Mayor for two years, and discharged the duties with conscientiousness and efficiency. In race and religion he was not of the people, but his father established a fine business here, to which he, in conjunction with his brothers, now dead, succeeded, and which under his careful hands, grew and prospered. Though a German by race, and a Jew by religion, Sir Otto Jaffe identified himself with all our local interests, and as I came a good deal into personal contact with him I am satisfied that the interests and prosperity of the city and country were dear to his heart. He has large interests in the city and in its trade; and in his absence his son, Mr. Wm. Jaffe, who is personally respected by all who know him, represents his interest. But he is entitled to respect for what he did as Lord Mayor and for the interest, he took in the material and philanthropic developments of his time.
When Sir Daniel Dixon in his second period of office laid aside his cloak of office Mr. Robert J. M'Mordie put it on, and worthily wore it for several years till his death occurred so sadly and so suddenly when he was at the zenith of his popularity and potency. His name and work are still so fresh in the memory of my readers that it would be needless for me to dwell on it. But I can at least say this, that no man could have devoted himself more assiduously, with greater singleness of purpose, and more whole-hearted devotion to maintain the dignity of the office and the improvement and development of the city and the citizens than he. He was able and tactful, sound in judgment, and endowed with great common sense and practical sagacity. His success in the chair, in the management of the Council, and in the affairs of the city was a surprise as well as a delight to those who had known him as I did. It was not that we did not know his ability and thoroughness, his knowledge of men and affairs. But he had shown in his earlier years such force of individual character and such independence of judgment and action, such disregard of popular opinion, such resolution in maintaining what was right and scorning compromise that I for one never believed that he could work in harness with so many and such conflicting elements. But no man could have displayed more of the qualities that go to concentration and harmonising, and in promoting unity and concentration in the great work and duty of head of the civic government than he. And the honours showered on him in his life and the tributes paid at his death were no more than the joint recognition of brilliant service honestly and honourably rendered. A notice of him would be incomplete without a reference to Lady M'Mordie, who is still with us, who was his stimulator and supporter in all his social and philanthropic and hospitable work, and who, though not Ulster born, has become more Ulster than the most of the Ulster born in her interest in and enthusiasm for everything connected with the life and progress, and especially the health and social well-being, of the community.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 29th December 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.