The other evening at a quiet social meeting, where conversation rather than cards was the staple, a lady, at a moment of lull, asked a reverend friend, who is a most excellent raconteur, if he would tell a good story. The rev. gentleman, seldom at a loss when anecdotes are flowing, was for the moment found wanting. He candidly declared that hd could not think of anything till the anecdotal hall was set a-rolling; and when it afterwards did, no one rolled, it more merrily or happily than he.
I am at the moment of taking up my pencil — I have long ceased to be able to use a pen, unless to sign my name, and that I do very inartistically — in the condition of my friend. It is not that my memory has failed me, but because in the jumble of memories I do not know what to bring out of the bag. I have not exhausted the individualities or incidents worth recalling, but I cannot for the moment make up my mind where to begin, or what line of memory to follow, and I am trying to trifle in the hope that something may come.
It is true I might fall back upon books or upon newspaper files, but I am afraid. If I did I would only be writing history and not memories, and the writing of history is not my forte. I did once or twice turn up newspaper files to verify some incidents, and the result of this was to me dulness, whatever it may have been to the reader. As I read one thing after another crowded upon my eye and my memory, and I got lost in hopeless mazes. I remember reading or hearing that Macaulay once said he had read five volumes to provide one with one sentence. Now, in my case one small volume, or one small newspaper, even an “Ulster Echo” file, would suggest to me material not for one sentence, but for a score of sentences, till I would get lost, and so, I fear, would my readers. But, then, and I make the admission with becoming modesty, I am not a great reader or a great writer like Macaulay. He read and condensed the results of his reading into unforgettable sentences. I cannot condense, as, I fear, my readers know too well. Macaulay’s sentences are like the fine cream that pure milk produces after a period of settling. My sentences are like what the same milk would produce if diluted with water — they are very thin and not very nourishing. Macaulay, though he was a great master of words, would never use five hundred words where fifty would serve his purpose. I am afraid I am something like De Morgan, artist and novelist, recently deceased, of whom a critic wrote that he would never use fifty words when he could find five hundred.
It is this weakness that makes me dread looking up books or files. If I did I fear my words would be endless, and the results a weariness to the reader as well as to myself. I have not yet got a clue, and so I will fall back on my old friend Macaulay. It has been said of him, and, I think, with truth, that he wrote his history to glorify the Whigs. This method of writing history, or even of writing newspaper leaders, is not uncommon. The writers prepossessions and sympathies may tincture all he writes, and while he may be thinking he is impartial he is only partisan. If Macaulay wrote history to glorify the Whigs, Froude wrote it to glorify the Tories. And I think even the great Br. Johnson was not immune from this weakness of political writers, for he tells us that while he was merely reporting the speeches in the House of Commons he “took care not to let the Whig dogs have the best of it.”
Now, I have an impression that I am the most detached and impartial of writers or recorders, and that I am a perfect Gallio in regard to much of our mundane politics; and yet I dare say there are people who would accuse me of partisanship and even of prejudices, and would say that in the old days I showed more sympathy with and appreciation of the Liberals than the Conservatives, and that in modern days I express more appreciation of the Unionists than the Radicals, and that I have a prejudiced mind in regard to Irish Nationalists and that most strange of all birds, the Protestant Home Rulers. This is only another illustration of how the fairest and most impartial men may be misunderstood and their writings misconstrued.
I wonder have I recovered my wandering thoughts yet. Let me see. I think the last subject to which I referred was the election of 1880, both in Belfast and Ulster. Now, I know I headed these memories as of Belfast, and Belfast alone. But Belfast no more than man can live alone, however much it may want to do so. There is nothing Belfast has been hankering after more during the last half-century than to be let alone. It would have been content to have been allowed to go on in its own industrial and energetic way, with no man outside to trouble it or make it afraid. Yet it has had little but troubles and threatenings for the last half-century, and I am not sure that it is free from them yet, and chiefly from the outside. Now one statesman or faddist and now another comes along, sometimes from Westminster, sometimes from Dublin Castle, sometimes from the slums, sometimes from Berry Street or the little garret in Rosemary Street, to trouble or perturb it under the guise of reforming it. This has largely arisen from the fact that it is in Ireland, that it is prosperous more than any other part of Ireland, and that it seeks to find salvation in concentrated industry rather than in disintegrating agitation. It may not have the best local or Imperial government in the world, but it is quite satisfied with its government, and with the living and thriving it does under it. But every Radical quack in the country thinks he knows better, professes to believe that it is really living under British tyranny, and that if it would only be content to shake that off and submit to the tyranny of an Irish Parliament, as foreshadowed by the Land League, the United Irish League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Dublin Corporation, its happiness and prosperity would be complete.
Now, this is where my difficulty lies in dealing with my memories of Belfast. On the one hand, they are concerned with the quiet flow of industrial energy and development, the noiseless river-like flow of its industry, and the increasing flood of its loyalty. On the other hand, they are concerned with legislation and agitation, with controversy and contention, with crimes and outrages, with threatenings and slaughter not so much within or directly affecting Belfast’s own borders, but as part of the penalty it has to pay for being proud and satisfied to remain in what the late King of Sweden described as “the British part of Ireland, or rather that part of it which is in sympathy with Britain.”
It is true we have had riots in Belfast; indeed, we have got rather a reputation in that respect. I remember once looking over a dictionary of dates to find out something about Belfast. I looked up Belfast in the index, and all I found was, “Belfast: Bee Riots.” And I saw. We had riots in ’64, we had riots in ’72, we had riots in 86, and we have had, more or less, large adventures of the same kind at other times. Some, no doubt, were disgracefully bad, and some only very mild; but it became that the newspapers outside Belfast described every street disturbance as a riot. I remember on one occasion witnessing a small stone-throwing shindy in York Street on the occasion of the return of some Island excursionists from Larne or Portrush — it was not a Sunday-school excursion such as might be expected to give special offence to nationalists. I had witnessed it without a scar, or without much excitement, and left for London that night. The damage done was infinitesimal. In the English papers the next morning I found a huge headline about “Rioting in Belfast,” and after I had entered my name, with Belfast as my last place of residence, the people in the hotel gathered round me like bees, making most anxious inquiries, as if I had been one who had escaped from a besieged or beleaguered city. I laughed, and go did they when they learned on what a small foundation a great newspaper headline had been built up.
Yet nearly all these riots arose out of questions and issues that Belfast did not want to have thrust upon it. They arose out of the importation into Belfast of the spirit of disloyalty and rebellion, the spirit of repeal and separatism, the spirit of rebellion that was developing from the cabbage garden in Limerick to the Easter Day rebellion in Dublin — which, I admit, was more serious than the cabbage-garden episode. It was the return of the Belfast repealers from the inauguration of the O’Connell Statue in Dublin that brought about the ’64 riots. I cannot recall the particular incident that brought about the ’72 riots. It was Mr. Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill and the premature jubilations of the Nationalists on the anticipated subjugation of Belfast that led to the ’86 riots. It was ever and always because of these questions, with which Belfast wanted to have no concern, that we had riots or any other troubles of the kind, and why Belfast had its peace more disturbed than Leeds or Manchester or Birmingham, which cities it was trying to emulate in their peaceful path of industrial development and progress.
Heaven forbid that I should excuse those Protestants who threw stones at Nationalists or imitated the Nationalists in their rowdyism. But it is given to few men, save an occasional United States President, to be too proud to fight. It might have been better to have let the Nationalists at all times have the field to themselves, better let the Nationalists overrun them, as President Wilson appears to think it would have been better for the Belgians to have let the Germans overrun Belgium. It might have been better for them to have let the Nationalists always have the honour of victory, and run away on all occasions of insult or assault, individual or urban. This would have pleased pacific souls like President Wilson, and saved the city from the danger and the reputation of riot and bloodshed. But, unfortunately, the Protestants of Belfast were not high-minded, high-souled, aloof philosophers, like the President, and preferred flinging stones and bricks rather than Notes at the disturbers of their peace. It might have pleased men of the calibre of the President if at every step and stage the Protestants, instead of resisting, had declined the challenge thrown down from the days of Repeal to the present time; to have thrown down their arms and put up their hands and surrendered in turn to O’Connell, to Parnell, to Redmond and Devlin. But they did not do so.
It has been the refusal to do that, the unreasonable resistance, as these Radical-Nationalist pacifists would have it, to the tender rule of Rome, via an Irish leader and an Irish Parliament, that has been the cause of all these local troubles and conflicts, discords and divisions, all the riotings in and the rhetorical raidings of the city. All Belfast asked was peace with loyalty, and because of that they have had nothing but war, and a fight against disloyalty foe generations. And it is going on still even amidst this world-war, so far at least as the disloyalists are concerned. The loyalists now are preserving a wondrous calm despite all the trickeries and threatenings directed against them. They have carried this calm so far that their very quietness is being used to their detriment, and it is held that because they are not fighting they have lost all zeal for fight. This is the greatest mistake of all. But, then, mistakes and misunderstandings of Belfast have become second nature to simpering Radicals or sinister Separatists. While little of the events of the year succeeding the 1880 elections directly arose in or were directly concerned with Belfast, Belfast was compelled to think of them and note them continually, as the local objective of the dark days of the ’eighties and of all the murders from Phoenix Park to Maamtrasna was the subjugation of Belfast and Ulster, as involved in the subjugation of the British Parliament and the British people, leaving as much of the British Crown as would serve as a cover for the tyrannies that an Irish Parliament would inflict on the Protestants of Ireland.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 26th January 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.